How an Out-of-Town Idea Became a Local Effort

Recently, some friends and I went to One Way Out, an “escape room” on Lakeside Drive in Lynchburg. If you’ve never heard of an escape room, it’s an activity where a group of people work together, solving puzzles and unlocking clues, sometimes literally.

Each escape room has a different theme, and after being locked inside—not literally, for the claustrophobics out there—you have an hour to solve every mystery and escape.

One Way Out’s escape rooms are aimed at people ages 8 and older and there are no physical restrictions. In other words, no climbing or tunneling your way out of the room. As manager Ryan Petrey puts it, an escape room is “a finesse game for the mind.”

The business was launched last year by husband-and-wife team Gerald and Lauren Cox. The local couple had visited escape rooms in other cities and, enjoying the experiences, decided to open one in their hometown.

There are currently four escapes at One Way Out: “Trapped in the 1980s,” “Escape Detention,” “The Shuttered Room,” and the most-recent addition, “The Lost Professor,” which is set in a Mayan tomb.

While escape room supplies can be purchased online, One Way Out offers unique experiences, created in Lynchburg.

“Our rooms are designed and built in-house by staff and family,” Gerald said, adding that the “objective in designing a room is to create an experience that gets everyone engaged [and] requires them to work together and, in many cases, think outside the box to succeed.

“Doing this requires some careful planning and testing. We flow chart the designs and try to imagine the player experience as they progress through the rooms, from their point of view.”

While “a few off-the-shelf items, like locks, props and electronic components” are used to build the escape rooms, Gerald said, “the large majority of items that require fabrication have been created by us.”

For things they couldn’t make, they turned to local businesses Against the Grain and Vector Space.
Before attempting my escape, I assembled a team. It isn’t necessary to have a team, however. You can sign up as a single and be grouped with other players. Depending on which escape you do, that might be as many as nine other people.

My team consisted of my husband, John, a budget manager and administrator; marketing professional Brittany Griffith; and Elaine Jackson, a Canadian college student. With myself, a freelance writer who enjoys playing “The Puzzler” with the folks on National Public Radio, I figured we had lots of skills covered.

I also talked with a friend, Krista Johnson, who visited One Way Out for a team-building retreat with coworkers. “It was just really cool,” she said, adding that although people split into groups of two or three to solve multiple puzzles simultaneously and save time, it was “very interactive.”

“It works on opening communication, trusting your teammates to do what they’re working on, and definitely working together toward one common goal: trying to get out,” she said.

My next step was picking a room.
One Way Out’s escape rooms are rated for difficulty. “Trapped in the 1980s” and “Escape Detention” are the easiest. “The Shuttered Room” and “The Lost Professor” are ranked most difficult.

Considering us four people of reasonable intelligence, I told Ryan we’d try “The Shuttered Room,” the most difficult of all. Ryan, however, was quick to suggest we try a more entry-level escape.

Having lived through the 1980s, and not anxious to return, I picked “Escape Detention.”

On a Thursday night in mid-April, the team met up at One Way Out.

Ryan gave us our back story—escape detention before the bus leaves for the big concert—along with some basic instructions.

Among other things, he said, don’t remove anything that’s nailed down or affixed to the wall, floor or ceiling. Apparently, local engineers on team-building retreats at One Way Out had necessitated this instruction. Leave the multi-tool at home, he said. You won’t need it.
Of the four of us, Elaine was the only one who’d ever been to an escape room, albeit back in Canada.

There, she said, her team escaped in a record-setting time of 20 minutes. With Elaine’s confidence and experience to buoy us, we entered detention.

Without spoiling anything, the room looked like a classroom, full of the kinds of things you’d expect to find there. The most notable feature, however, was a big digital clock mounted above the door. It started ticking immediately.

The initial problem we faced was deciding what to do first.

What items were important?
Did this thing go with that thing? Where the heck did we start? Luckily, we eventually got into a groove and started solving some puzzles, but with a half-hour to go we were stuck.

Before entering the room, Ryan gave us a walkie-talkie, saying we could ask for hints. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to need hints, he said, especially on their first escape.

At the time, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t need help, but after the first 30 minutes passed in a flash, we started to panic. Someone called Ryan for a hint and we made some progress, but with three minutes to go, the general consensus was we were doomed.

With two puzzles left, we were out of ideas. Our Canuck ringer, Elaine, said something about feeling stupid. John looked at Brittany and said, matter-of-factly, “We gonna lose.” As time ran out, I was disappointed we didn’t escape, but also surprised at how much fun it had been.

Watching via a video linkup, Ryan told us to keep trying, that we were almost there. Three minutes later, when the door opened with a loud “click,” there was audible rejoicing.

Later, Elaine admitted One Way Out’s escape room had been “more challenging” than her previous experience. An English major, she also wondered if it was because some of the puzzles involved math.

Asked if she’d had fun, however, and Elaine was certain. “Yes, so much fun!” she said.

By Suzanne Ramsey