By Matt Fernandez
Signal Staff Writer
Ten individuals are trapped in a 1920s manor, frantically solving puzzles and searching for the item that will lead to their salvation. Outside, a car screeches to a halt and a mob boss begins to pound on the door. A timer ticks ever closer toward zero, and as it hits 13 seconds, one last trunk is unlocked and opened to reveal the item inside.
The door bursts open and Gary Kassan, who isn’t a mobster, says, “Congratulations. You’ve finished the Mayfield Manor escape room!”
Kassan and Dave Kelfer have owned and operated Unlocked Escape Rooms in Newhall for the past two years. Both men own other businesses and felt the desire to start an escape room company after they visited one for Kassan’s birthday.
“I was looking for something to do for Gary’s birthday, so I bought an escape room gift certificate for us and our wives, but he had never done one before and didn’t even want to go,” Kelfer said.
“We finally went and we had a great time, then went to dinner and as soon as we sat down we said we had to get in on this.”
Escape rooms are often compared to real-life video games. Players enter puzzle-filled rooms and try to uncover clues until they reach their main goal. Unlocked has three different themed escape rooms, each designed to accommodate groups of different sizes: “Sheriff’s Office” for four to six players, “Professor’s Basement” for six to eight players and “Mayfield Manor” for nine to 14 players.
They plan on opening a new space-themed room that will fit eight to 10 players in three weeks.
While most escape room companies are located in the densely populated and tourist-laden areas of West L.A. and Hollywood, Kassan and Kelfer said that being located in Santa Clarita was always the plan.
“Our kids grew up here and there wasn’t really a lot to do, and having an escape room company out here is a really big boost to the entertainment value of Santa Clarita,” Kassan said. “At the time we founded the company, there was really nothing out here like it and it was an opportunity to bring something new to the valley.”
Kelsey Jirikils, a player who completed the “Mayfield” room, said that having local escape rooms is welcomed entertainment, especially for those having trouble accessing the entertainment options in Los Angeles.
“A lot of people say there’s not a lot to do here, which breaks my heart because I really like Santa Clarita,” Jirikils said. “Even though L.A. isn’t that far, travelling there for entertainment isn’t always feasible for everyone, so it’s really amazing to have some accessible local entertainment.”
Kassan said that starting the company was a “painful” experience and that neither of them realized how much time, money and work they would need to invest, especially while maintaining their existing businesses.
Part of the struggle with introducing people to escape rooms is that they assume it will be a scary experience or that they will be locked in a cramped space. Kelfer added that people who haven’t done an escape room often think that the company builds panic rooms for houses rather than provide an entertainment experience.
“A lot of people are panicky when they come in here and are worried that the experience will be claustrophobic,” Kelfer said. “But as soon as we tell them our themes aren’t scary and that they aren’t actually locked in, hence our name, they visibly start to relax and are able to have fun.”
Mariah Harrison, who also completed the “Mayfield” room, said that compared to other escape rooms she has played, the non-scary theme of the room and the quality of the puzzles removed any sense of defeat when struggling to solve any one puzzle and made her experience with Unlocked more enjoyable.
First-time escapist Jake Ren is one such player who had his expectations of escape rooms challenged by his experience with Unlocked.
“It was a lot different from what I expected, because I thought it would be scary and that we would have to actually escape from a locked room,” Ren said. “I didn’t really feel too pressured until the last two minutes, but that intensity was my favorite part, and I thought the puzzles were really interesting.”
Fellow participant Nicholas Guzman said that a good way to gauge one’s potential enjoyment of an escape room is to try doing riddles and puzzles, and that escape rooms are a good way to further bond with friends or make new ones.
The owners believe that what sets their company apart from other escape rooms is their personal attention to the guests. Kelfer said that while many companies have recorded introductions and orientations, Unlocked’s are live and ensure an interactive experience for the customer as soon as they open the door.
Furthermore, they try not to hold the customers’ hand and give too many clues while also not making the challenge too hard for its own sake. Kassan said that while many other companies also fill their rooms with excess props and red herrings to distract the players, Unlocked’s props are all related to the tasks, which allows for more puzzles and meaningful interaction.
“Gary and Dave really showed how much they care about their business,” said player Nathaniel Jimenez. “They weren’t just some shady businessmen trying to make a quick buck. They actually care about what they’re doing and you could tell how much effort went into crafting their escape rooms.”
Jirikils said that based on her safe and engaging experience at Unlocked, she would recommend that others give the activity a try.
“A lot of the more common forms of entertainment like movies, Netflix or even some board games are more passive,” Jirikils said. “They don’t provide as much excitement or different way of thinking as escape rooms.”
For more information about Unlocked Escape Rooms or to book a room, visit http://www.unlockedescaperooms.com.