Escape St. Pete: Going out to get locked in

A downtown escape room offers fun, thrills and mind games.

As Halloween — and let's face it, the real beginning of the winter party and event season — looms ever closer, you might find yourself looking for an alternative to the usual haunted houses and bar parties. Or something different to do before the usual haunted houses and bar parties. Or, you know, just something different to do.

How about an escape room?

Not exactly the most overtly Halloween-ified thing in the world, but CL graphic designer/IT support guy Joey Neill and I found some fun and thrills over the course of an hour at Escape St. Pete in the 'Burg's EDGE District. Open since late June, Escape St. Pete — a family affair locally run by Mary Ludovici, her brother Billy Wells and his wife, Jenna Davis Wells — features two "group" rooms that feature the same scenario: up to six players take on the roles of assistants locked in a lab by a rogue geneticist, and must uncover enough evidence to put the evil doc away AND figure out how to get out of the lab in under 60 minutes. (A more intimate room for couples with a literary murder-mystery theme is nearly ready to debut, as well.)

Last Saturday, after searching in vain for enough people who didn't have plans on a perfect weekend to actually fill out a group of six, Joey and I decided that we still had an hour to kill being made to feel like morons, so we met up with Ludovici and Davis Wells at ESP at 1041 Central Avenue. After a short list of largely common-sense rules (keep your phones silent and in your pocket, don't dismantle the furniture, no fires, etc.), we were locked a room set up to resemble a scientist's office-slash-laboratory. A large flatscreen TV on one wall told us what else we needed to know via an entertaining video, and we were off.

What can I tell you about the experience without giving anything away? That it's more exciting than you might imagine, and that 60 minutes in Escape Time compresses to what feels about like 15 minutes in normal time. Some of the thrills come from uncovering a particular clue by yourself or through teamwork (as the "Gamemaster," Ludovici monitors your progress via camera and transmits hints to the TV if you seem stuck or following a wrong assumption down a bad road), but some of it also comes from glancing up at the countdown clock and realizing a large chunk of your time went by while you were trying to dismantle the furniture. (Seriously, don't dismantle the furniture.) 

Oh, and look closely at everything. EVERYTHING. 

Joey and I found all the clues, solved the mystery and made it out with a very few minutes to spare, thanks to enough hints to make us feel more than a little dumb; Ludovici and Davis Wells told us small teams always require more help simply because we didn't have six people turning over everything in the room at the same time, and starting fires. (Seriously, don't start fires.)

While often touted as perfect for corporate team-building exercises, family outings and the like, we found Escape St. Pete more than fun enough to justify spending an hour or so and the cost of dinner and drinks at a mid-priced restaurant on — during the season of scares, or anytime.

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