Can you escape the Panic Room?

Visitors find entertainment, team-building in locked room full of puzzles

On a given night, upwards of 40 people are trapped in a two-story office building north of downtown, trying to get out.

The Austin Panic Room, which opened in September 2014, bills itself as “the finest in escape room puzzles and entertainment.” At $20 a head, friends, families or co-workers can voluntarily confine themselves in a locked room with only a series of puzzles and 60 minutes to escape.

In a back room in the building, owner Robert Ma observes his customers on a flat-panel television screen. Ma is a University of Texas business school graduate. While on a trip to London, he visited an escape room with friends.

“We loved it,” Ma says. “We thought, ‘Man, why isn’t there anything like this in the States?’”

So Ma bought a house in East Austin and opened the Panic Room. The group quickly outgrew their original space and moved into a location on Rio Grande Street five months ago. Now, they meet every few months to devise new puzzles for the rooms.

There are three themed rooms currently running: the Museum Room, the Bomb Room and a new Abandoned Schoolhouse Room. They all have different challenges, and Ma makes sure to rotate them periodically so his customers don’t get bored.

He says the experience isn’t meant to be scary. It’s really more of a competitive game than a haunted house. But the place does have an ominous feel to it — a room marked with a sign that reads “torture chamber,” a winding staircase leading downstairs to a split-level basement and a room with one-way glass, where staff can see in but players can’t see out.

On a Thursday evening at the start of October, a tech company called Lightside booked Museum Room B.

Lightside migrated to Austin from Silicon Valley in March. They design Christian video games for smartphones, and their employees are spread throughout cities across the country. Many communicate only via Skype. Owner Brent Dusing decided to bring them together for a team-building exercise at the Panic Room.

Gathered in the lobby, they listen as the “operator,” a small-framed woman named Samantha Hsieh, presents the challenge before them: A Mr. X has kidnapped your entire family and is holding them hostage. As ransom, he requests you retrieve the most valuable item in the museum, which he stashed somewhere last night. You must find and escape with the item, before police respond to the scene.

Before the team enters the room, Hsieh passes a basket around and asks everyone to drop their cellphones inside.

“No Facebook, no Googling, no pictures,” she says.

With a walkie-talkie in hand, Ryan Nemanic, who does marketing for Lightside, plays around with the “out” button.

“I feel like special ops,” he says.

Nemanic is in charge of communication with the operator, in case the group needs any hints while inside or wants to call for time.

They have an hour to solve a series of puzzles, find hidden clues and open a variety of locks that span the length of the room — some have letter combinations, some 3-digit or 4-digit combinations, and others that take keys.

The remainder of what happens inside the room will remain confidential, for mystery’s sake.

But, at 30 minutes in, the lights go out. It appears to be coincidental since, after all, Ma says he’s not here to scare anyone.

With power restored, the clock winds down to a minute and a half. The Lightside team calls for their last clue. Five seconds remaining, they are one lock short of breaking free.

Hsieh enters the room and calls time. A roar of defeat echoes through the house, punctuated by laughter.

Back in the lobby, they gather to take final photos.

Tomorrow, Kara Boyce will fly back to Oregon and her friend Jenni Joseph to Kentucky. The women have worked together for two years. Their night at the Panic Room was their first time meeting face-to-face.

Joseph says that didn’t affect their ability to work together in the room; despite the distance, they know each other well.

“We finish each other’s sentences,” she says.

They might not have escaped the room — currently only 17 percent of visitors do — but Boyce says, “To see everyone together in one room fighting for a challenge is pretty cool.”

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