This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
The room, which looks like a rather shabby vice principal's office, is securely locked, an electronic key pad on the door the only hope of escape without crying for mercy. Inside the room, four students from the William H. Bowen School of Law of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — Lauren Kuhlmann, Joseph Hoke, Rachel Freeman and James Burris — frantically paw through papers, books and files, looking for the clue that will eventually lead them to a combination lock. Opening that lock will lead to other clues, which lead to other locks, and eventually, hopefully, to freedom. Unseen, the one who built the room looks on through one-way glass, smiling at his victims' confusion, periodically feeding them frustratingly vague hints via a handheld radio. On a shelf nearby, a digital clock with blood-red numbers, worthy of a movie about a comet on a collision course with Earth, counts down to zero. Every five minutes, the ominous drum of a rapid heartbeat is piped in through speakers, upping the tension. Will they escape in time?
While locked-room mystery games have been popular on smartphones for years, there's something surreal about watching flesh-and-blood people try to solve the real thing. At Central Arkansas Escape Rooms, located at 109 E. C Ave. on Park Hill in North Little Rock, that's exactly what patrons get: one thin hour to solve a mystery by following a winding series of puzzles and clues. We won't spoil the game by telling you specifics on what those puzzles and clues are, but they are clever and devious.
Though the escape room concept is big in Europe and on the east and west coasts of the U.S., the room on Park Hill is the area's introduction to the concept. Admission is $20 per person. The room can accommodate groups of up to eight, with groups of four or more recommended for the best chance to escape.
Jeremy Rhodes was the man behind the one-way glass the day we visited the rented storefront, which is next to a massage therapist's office. With six co-founders, Rhodes opened Central Arkansas Escape Rooms on Thanksgiving weekend 2015. They have since hosted around 70 groups for the facility's initial puzzle, which puts groups in the office of a fictional paranormal investigator who has disappeared while on the verge of blowing the lid off a dark conspiracy. Rhodes said the plan is to change the scenario every three months, with the next being a magic and science-themed puzzle called "The Alchemist's Laboratory," due to premiere in March.
Though there are turn-key escape room scenarios that you can buy, Rhodes said that when he and his co-founders started thinking about bringing the concept to Central Arkansas, it was important to them to do it all from scratch, from writing the script to building the puzzles to solve. Their room initially had too many props, Rhodes said, with extraneous knick-knacks quickly turning into red herrings that threw beta testers off the real trail.
"We learned a lot in the process," Rhodes said. "When we first started out, we put a lot into the room. We put way too much. Our beta testers were just grinding to a halt." With the miscellaneous items in the room thinned considerably, Rhodes said the current solve rate stands at about 50 percent, with half the teams making it out in an hour. The quickest a group has solved the room was a team of computer engineers, who strolled out with just over 22 minutes to spare. Regardless of success, Rhodes said players he's talked to overwhelmingly find the experience fun and rewarding.
"We've had all kinds of different groups," he said. "My favorites are the three-generational groups. You'll have the little kid, and he solves a big part of the puzzle. Then grandpa comes in, and he's got something. Everybody has a part that they play."
With escape rooms popular for intense team-building exercises, Rhodes said the owners plan to eventually move to a larger facility so they can do more scenarios simultaneously, along with hosting larger groups. He said they're in talks with the Arkansas Literary Festival to do a book-themed puzzle during the festival in spring, and hope to present intense, five-minute puzzles at local conventions.
As the clock ticked down on the four law school students inside the room, Rhodes got positively giddy when he saw they had lucked upon a clue that could have given them a shortcut to the way out and a spot on the leaderboard. Distractions arise, however, and Lady Luck's shot at glory is bypassed and ignored. With just four minutes and 21 seconds to spare, the group finally found the clue they needed and raced to the keypad, the four friends emerging seconds later, a little frazzled but all smiles. All reported having a great time, which they said was a way to blow off steam after finals.
Burris said he was skeptical about the idea but had a great time once he was in the moment. "It was the onslaught of everything," he said. "You'd get one clue, and you're starting to look at it, and then somebody would find something else. You'd get distracted, and then you'd think: Well, maybe my clue doesn't work until we get something else figured out. That was also part of the fun of it, too."
Central Arkansas Escape Rooms is open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. For more information or to book tickets, visit centralarescapes.com. Tickets are $20 a person.