Of late, my daughter has developed a fondness for mysteries and puzzles and clues, twisty tales that need unwinding. (May she recommend The Westing Game and The Mysterious Benedict Society for your next bedtime read-alouds?) She’s also a budding thespian, with a flair for the dramatic.
So when planning this year’s edition of her birthday party, I racked my brains for something that would combine the two, and hit on the idea of a kid-friendly escape room.
For the uninitiated, escape rooms are themed, locked rooms in which teams need to solve a series of interlocking puzzles/clues to track down the key and get out before time is up. (Not to worry cleithrophobics, staffers will let you out after an hour goes by, whether or not you’ve managed to solve the puzzle.)
A little googling led me to Portland Escape Rooms, located in a completely unprepossessing office park on the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. It looks like it should house only dental offices and mortgage brokers; instead, there are six different rooms, with themes ranging from “Steampunk Airship” to “Madame Neptune’s Voodoo Curse.”
Two of the rooms are rated as kid-appropriate: An American Revolution themed room (great fare for Hamilton fans and best for ages 10 and up), and the one we chose, the Arcade parlor, which is pitched at ages 8 and up.
Pro tip: Gather as many people as you can (up to 10 can be in the room at once) to help solve the puzzle. The two attendants, who were decked out in retro early 1980s garb, told us that only 40 percent of players managed to locate the key and get out of the room within the time limit. We had seven kids and three adults, and at first, we all ran about like the ghosts who chase Pac-Man, unsure of where to look. The room is decorated with throwback games, including foosball, a Legends of Zelda-inspired map, and homages to Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.
Pretty soon, we noticed several strategically placed locks, and deduced that some of them could only be opened by keys, while others required specific combinations of numbers. A series of puzzles revealed itself, and we were on our way. I won’t give it away, except to say that it’s helpful to have children with you who are intimately familiar with the different flavors of Jelly-Bellys, that iconic 1980s candy. (Cryptic, I know.)
Every so often, we’d get a video reminder of the ticking clock (and the “bomb” that was set to go off should we fail to make our way out), courtesy of a demonic-sounding disembodied voice piped into the room, ostensibly the voice of the arcade’s crazed owner. The kids seemed amused, if a little creeped out.
The three grown-ups, meanwhile, became increasingly and hilariously desperate as it became clear that despite the “get-a-hint!” cards that the kids were finding around the room, we were running out of time to find the key that would get us out of there. The two staffers whispered occasional extra tips to the kids, but were mostly hands-off throughout, which was a little frustrating — at a birthday party with a bunch of 8-year-olds, an extra thumb or two on the scale would have been nice.
About that key: Due to the fact that we were with so many kids, the door was left ever so slightly ajar the whole time, allowing for bathroom breaks as needed, and probably tamping down anxiety levels. And when the time ran out and we hadn’t solved the puzzle, we broke out the birthday cake and goody bags for the kids, and, when they were all occupied, the adults got back to work, eventually finding our way to the last clue and the final key. My tip if you want to
try: Everything in the room is there for a reason. Look once, and then look again. And bring birthday cake, because that can only help.
Room to Spare: Other escape room choices around PDX
Escape Games PDX in NW Portland has four rooms, including a “Portlandia” themed one, and allows anyone under age 18, so long as an adult is present with them. They’re located right down the road from Portland Brewing Company, which offer discounts on post-escape room meals.
Hour to Midnight in outer NE Portland has three twisty-sounding rooms, including the Egyptian inflected “Pharoah’s Curse.” Again, kids are welcome but need to be accompanied by adults.