OTTUMWA — Escape rooms have grown in popularity over the past several years. Thomas Schwartz isn’t a big fan of the name, but he really likes the concept.
Schwartz calls what he’s bringing to Ottumwa a puzzle room. He thinks it better describes what the experience is, and it helps resolve one of the basic questions many people have. He explained with a wry sense of humor.
“They think of escape rooms where the doors are locked. The answer is no, you’re not. That’s called kidnapping and it’s against the law,” he said.
Right now, Schwartz’s puzzle room is a pop-up business. He’s setting up at Hotel Ottumwa, taking advantage of the fact the hotel has a restaurant and a bar already in place, as well as his family’s penchant for entrepreneurship.
Like many, Schwartz’s introduction to the concept of a puzzle room came with a group outing. In his case, it was a team building exercise for work, and he fell in love with the concept.
“I just thought it was a really unique experience and that it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Things worked out well for his venture. The hotel had a room that had been gutted, and something clicked as soon as Schwartz saw it. He had a vision of an apocalyptic situation. Not quite a zombie apocalypse, but a future in which that was a distinct possibility. There is a cure, but it was found by a scientist who hid away in a booby-trapped lab equipped with a cryogenic chamber.
Schwartz held a soft opening a week ago with three groups, and he spent much of Saturday preparing additional treats for those who would experience the room that evening.
The goal of figuring out the puzzles isn’t just present for teams. Schwartz wants people to solve the room as well. The trick is finding a balance where the puzzles are challenging enough to give people a real sense of accomplishment when they finish them, but not so hard that they frustrate people into giving up.
“I want you to get through the room,” he said. “I want you to have fun.”
But be warned. A bit of brushing up on science wouldn’t hurt. Neither would a willingness to suspend disbelief a bit. Details matter, and Schwartz is thinking about what comes next.
“We’re constantly working on developing the room and doing tweaks,” he said.