FARMINGTON – Joe Musumeci gets a lot of questions about what an escape room actually is.
“I describe it differently every time,” the Farmington resident said.
His go-to phrases include terms like “team building,” “group activity,” and “problem solving” but it’s hard to fully describe what Farmington Underground is using words alone.
While it would of course be easiest for someone to understand an escape room by actually going and doing it (reservations can be made by clicking here) Joe gave the Daily Bulldog the opportunity to explain better by hosting a group of escapists.
The experience began immediately with a walk through a dark downtown alleyway to a lit door with the old-timey Farmington Underground sign swaying overhead. A set of stairs led us down to a series of rooms and hallways, into a waiting area for Farmington’s newest attraction. Joe’s escape room is only a year old and has already secured its place as one of the area’s best things to do on a Friday night.
Or a Sunday night, like in our case. Our group consists of 6 women- two farmers, a comedian, an artist, an educator and a journalist. It’s a good crew, and as we would find out in a mere 50 minutes, a smart crew.
Joe introduces himself and talks a little bit about escape rooms in general. There are only a handful of the live-action game rooms in the state. Joe never expected he would open his own.
“When I moved here I realized there wasn’t one, so I just thought I’d try it. I just took the leap,” he said.
When he’s not at Farmington Underground, Joe works in education. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono with a masters degree in the field, and said he is always trying to find ways to incorporate escape room mentality into the classroom. Doing the opposite- incorporating education into the escape room- is a given.
In order to settle into the escape room mentality our group is handed a locked, plain wooden box while still in the waiting room. A riddle on top leads us to the inside, which contains yet another locked box and finally a padlocked cassette tape. The riddles are primers- using symbols, numbers, letters, secret codes and hidden combinations to get the group to the main event, in our case, “Dragon’s Descent.”
Each room is themed to a different story. Joe said he invents the stories himself, with the help of his wife, along with all of the riddles, puzzles and problems the rooms contain.
Our group is given last minute bathroom access before being led into the room and locked in. While some escape rooms hype up the horror of being locked inside a room, Joe likes to keep it family friendly. The story line of a dragon tormenting a medieval village is only emphasized with occasional sounds affects to put the pressure on, but is otherwise relatively PG.
“The first one I ever did was a scary one in South Portland. It was called “Escape Your Fears” and involved a killer clown,” Joe said. “It felt like I was in a live action movie. I liked it.”
Being a player in a live-action mystery movie is a great way to describe an escape room. Our group enthusiastically falls for the bait- excitedly hollering to each other from across the tiny room whenever we find a clue- of which there are many hidden throughout the room. As we grow accustomed to the escape room vibe we start to notice more and more clues. Blades of grass painted on the wall that look like they might be arranged into letters. An ear of plastic corn that might open and contain the hidden key we’re looking for. An oddly placed lightbulb that might be concealing a clue. We gather our clues, all of which lead to another riddle until finally our solved riddles unlock another door, leading us into yet another room.
When you reserve the escape room at Farmington Underground, you actually get two escape rooms for the price of one. We’re halfway through the story, halfway to saving our village from the ravenous dragon, but the next room contains puzzles that are possibly even more complexing- contraptions and props and even more archaic symbols painted on the walls.
But of course our team is made up of problem-solving professionals and we piece the clues together like medieval heroines- swords and shields in tow. As we inch closer and closer to solving the big picture I find myself hoping that the riddles won’t end. Just as I’m getting into the rhythm of picking up clues and piecing them together to find an answer, we’ve solved the big puzzle and Joe happily lets us out of the room.
50 minutes. 10 minutes short of the allotted time, and we didn’t get eaten by the dragon.
Luckily, for me, Joe is already crafting his next escape room for the public to solve.
Or to at least try.