Lee Wilson loves a good narrative. It’s one reason he studied Literature at Texas A&M, and why he hatched the idea of creating an escape room while doing college ministry at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
“It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in a story and an experience with people that you care about,” Wilson said. “You get to get lost.”
An escape room is a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles using clues, hints and strategy to break out of a space in a set amount of time.
"We say it's like going to a movie, except you get to be in [the movie]” said Cory Dickman, Co-Founder and Operations Manager of Waco Escape Rooms.
Recently, Wilson’s experience with building clues and solving riddles helped him puzzle professional trackers in the hit CBS reality series, Hunted. The show, which follows pairs of ordinary people seeking to evade capture from a team of investigators, gained Wilson national notoriety and introduced the concept of escape rooms to the masses.
“I am America’s top fugitive,” Wilson said. “For 28 days this past summer, I was on the run from FBI, CIA, NSA. All of the big boys were trying to chase me and my best friend, Hilmar Skagfield, down. And at the end of 28 days, we carried a quarter of a million dollars in cash onto a private plane in northern Georgia. It was amazing."
The commercial success of Wilson's escape room in Jackson, which he opened in 2015 with Jared Dauenhauer after a series of concept-proving "pop ups," led to a partnership with Cory Dickman. Dickman and Dauenhauer had met while studying at Baylor and Dickman had been looking for a reason to return to Texas from his hometown of Portland, Oregon.
"Our philosophy for expansion and adding new locations for our escape rooms is 'Right place, right time, right person,’” Wilson said. “All of those things came into alignment with Cory Dickman wanting to move back to Waco.”
Dickman, Wilson, and Dauenhauer opened Waco’s first escape room in October 2015 on Lake Air Drive. The venture’s immediate success led the partners to look for a larger space that was more centrally located.
“The hope was always to be downtown,” Dickman said. “As somebody who grew up in a bigger city, I wanted to be in the city… We knew that the future of Waco was going to be happening downtown.”
The triumvirate found their future home in early 2016 when developer Cory Duncan purchased a strip of buildings on the 700 block of Washington Avenue. Waco Escape Rooms continued its operations on Lake Air Drive during construction and fine-tuned their product in the process.
"It's easy to have a room that no one gets out of,” Dickman said. “You just put a hundred things in there and they would never win. So that's not the goal. It's coming up with a flow to it, making sure the group is either escaping on that very last puzzle with a minute left or, if they're failing, they're still getting to that last part and they're just not figuring it out."
The new Waco Escape Rooms at 711 Washington Avenue offers four rooms with a fifth to be unveiled this summer. Fans of the company’s first iteration will discover new reasons to dive into the narratives.
"We've been broadcasting this location for a year now, telling [customers] it's going to be night and day,” Dickman said. “Having them actually come and say, 'Oh you're right, this is completely different,' I think that's going to be really fun."
Waco Escape Rooms debuts to the public tonight in an open house at 6:30PM. Rooms not in use will be open for visitors to walk through and the founders will be available to answer any questions potential players may have.
"We know there is a lot of uncertainty with the concept,” Wilson said. “'You're locking me in a room for fun? I don't really know...' We're just inviting people to come downtown and see it for themselves.”
Waco Escape Rooms addresses the need for more entertainment options in the core of the city and does so in unique and interactive fashion. Citizens responded in “just a crazy way” to the first location, Wilson said, and he anticipates that excitement to continue.
"Waco really likes getting locked in rooms for fun,” he laughed. “It's made it possible for us to move from our meager beginnings on Lake Air Drive to where we are now in downtown, Washington Avenue, to be a part of the heart of the city of Waco and everything that his happening that is radiating out of downtown.”