'Escape Room' phenomenon hits Wauwatosa

The concept is anything but new, says owner Matt Ames

Matt Ames, co-founder of Escape MKE, a new Wauwatosa immersion-experience venture, stands in the briefing room of the new business April 6.

Matt Ames, co-founder of Escape MKE, a new Wauwatosa immersion-experience venture, stands in the briefing room of the new business April 6. Photo By Rachel Minske

April 8, 2015

Wauwatosa— Matt Ames sat in a large briefing room playing with a handheld puzzle made of twisted metal. A folder labeled "Top Secret" sat on the table in front of him.

The metal puzzle clinking together, Ames talked about the launch of his new business — Escape MKE — a venture comprised of "clocks, locks and secret passages," he said.

"Four to 10 agents get locked in a fully-themed room and you have 60 minutes to find some hidden assets and escape," said Ames, a native of Minnesota.

Escape MKE, located at 3333 N. Mayfair Road in Wauwatosa, is part of a growing "escape room" game trend spreading across the world. Escape Chambers, an escape room game, opened in Milwaukee in March.

The Escape Room Directory lists 634 sites across 295 cities and 54 countries.

"It's crazy how popular these things are getting," said Ames who co-owns the business with Ryan Muhlbauer. "It's a puzzle, essentially. The concept isn't really that new. It's just being done in a new way."

Finding a passion

For the last 12 years, Ames has owned a paintball company in Minnesota's Twin Cities area. Feeling burned out and in search of inspiration, Ames left the company in the hands of his manager last year and spent the next two months surfing and skiing around the globe.

Ames traveled to Brazil, Europe, Indonesia and Asia, but it was during his stop in Athens, Greece, that Ames discovered a unique, immersion-entertainment experience — escape rooms.

"I started writing a business plan on the trip," he said. "By the time I got home, we were off and running."

Upon his return, Ames opened "Escape MSP," an escape room game in Minneapolis. The business was received so well that soon Ames was in search of a second city to open a location and he settled on Milwaukee, citing a largely educated population who may have interest in such a business, he said.

Escape MKE opened just one of its planned three mission rooms April 3, filling the weekend's available time slots, Ames said. The first room is called "Mr. Dupree's Room."

"We believe experiences create memories," Ames said. "We want to make you feel something. The best way to create a memory is through emotion. We hope we're giving good memories. We're trying to grow and expand, but one at a time."

The game

Groups of up to 10 people, called "agents," show up to Escape MKE with a predetermined mission booked during registration. They lock up cell phones, purses, car keys and any other belongings in lockers and take a seat in a large briefing room. "Mission producers" — or Escape MKE employees — explain the game and deliver a folder labeled "Top Secret" with details of the game.

The participants are then locked into a room and must solve a series of puzzles in order to escape within the 60-minute allotted time slot. There are cameras and speakers in the room in case a group gets stuck and needs help advancing to the next step. There's also a panic button participants can push to end the game early.

A group wins points based off the amount of evidence uncovered and how fast the mission is solved.

The escape room only has about a 22 percent success rate, said Ames, adding that if a mission gets completed, it's usually with two minutes left to spare. The fastest he's seen anyone solve a mission was at his Minneapolis location with 10 minutes left on the clock.

"I've seen some crazy stuff," he said. "Some people will flip over desks and rip apart a room trying to figure it out."

The entire experience takes about 90 minutes to complete.

Get involved

A second room, called "James Bomb" is scheduled to open this weekend.

Those interested in reserving a time must prepurchase tickets online at escapemke.com. Escape MKE is open Friday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., or by appointment. The cost is $30 per person and participants must be 10 years or older.

Commenting Policy

We welcome reader discussion but strive to keep things civil. Please see our discussion guidelines and terms of use for more information. If you see a comment that violates our guidelines, please flag it for review. If you have any other issues with our commenting system, please let us know.

Suburban News Roundup

E-mail Newsletter

Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.

Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter
Get the Newsletter!

Login or Register to manage all your newsletter preferences.


Local Crime Map



Latest Photo Galleries