It’s a door. From the outside, it causes anticipation, excitement, and nervousness. Once opened, a completely different realm awaits, as well as a flood of new emotions.
Perhaps it is a medieval laboratory, riddled with peculiar contraptions, bubbling potions and mysterious ingredients only an alchemist might conjure into use. Maybe it is a cozy 1940s-style room that disguises an intriguing secret behind its ladies’ hats, books and rotary phones.
Now that door has closed, with those inside trapped in these peculiar alternate realities. A few clues are given or even a helpful hint, but logic, problem solving and teamwork are the only ways to leave before time runs out.
In three months time, more than 250 guests have entered those doors and were able to escape within an hour, some in record time. Others were not able to break the code. Either way, residents and visitors to Jefferson City are making the state capital’s first escape room attraction, Break the Code Adventures, an increasingly popular activity fit for the whole family. The three sisters who own, operate and run each escape room game – Judy Cassmeyer, Joanne Thessen and Joyce Luebbering – are having as much fun as those solving their original mysteries.
Creativity was commonplace for Judy, Joanne, Joyce and their siblings while growing up in Taos.
“We have always done things with our imagination. We made houses, went on treasure hunts, made our own musical instruments out of cardboard,” said Judy, the oldest sister.
“And we were always playing board games,” Joyce added. Uno, card games and puzzles were and still are commonplace during family gatherings, and one of their favorites is Clue.
It only seemed fitting when the sisters went on their annual girls getaway with other female relatives last August to Hannibal they jumped at the chance to try their first escape room: a Clue board game inspired adventure at Mississippi Mind Trap.
“We set a record time of getting out, with about 17 minutes left. It was so much fun,” Joyce said.
In fact, they booked the attraction’s other room, Area 51, the next day. Feeling pretty confident going in, the group of about 12 relatives faced more challenges in their second attempt. However, they managed to escape with two minutes left.
“I think we scared the girl when we flew of out of the room and down the hallway,” Judy said with laughter. “You have your excited escapers and your calm ones; we are definitely excited ones.”
That enthusiasm prompted them to bring that same entertaining experience to others back in their native Jefferson City area. Forming their LLC in September, the sisters worked hard to formulate original escape rooms, gather the appropriate décor and important pieces used in each storyline, and the right location at 1515 High St. for their attraction. All the ideas they found and created are kept in Google Docs, with the sisters voting on their favorites they used when they opened Dec. 2.
“It is like telling a story and figuring out how the story works into an adventure,” Joyce said. “We had three rooms and now we have two because we needed the space for the game master. We found sitting behind a tall desk didn’t quite keep people from trying to talk to you or talk over you while someone is in the escape. You also don’t want them hearing what is happening in the rooms that could ruin their experience.”
Before the sisters became the game masters, they turned to the “garage sale” master, Judy’s husband, for getting many of the props they wanted to use. Finding the items and parts that make the most out of their escape room theme is one of their favorite parts of the business. They don’t want too much they need to reset for the next group, but enough “red herrings” and hands-on items to make the escape challenging and enjoyable.
“We have gotten some great compliments from people who have done our rooms on music choices, backgrounds and the overall experience,” Judy said. “That is always good to hear.”
Judy, Joanne and Joyce have seen a steady stream of visitors to Break the Code Adventures. Before they open the door to each group’s experience, they ask guests to reserve which room they want to try.
The Alchemist adventure traps its guests in a laboratory of an alchemist who died. He had left clues in his lab to create a special potion that the king wants and could possibly ensure their release. Next door, The Secret Room begins with its guests knowing a secret took place and must figure out what it is and what to do about it in order to escape.
Guests from as few as two people up to larger groups of 10-plus try their problem-solving skills in each of the Break the Code rooms. Before starting their experience, they watch a safety video and often laugh when it gets to the part about not needing extra strength or climbing on things to get anything.
“We have a graphic of a guy hanging off the top of a bookshelf and everybody laughs at that. They always name someone in their group, saying, ‘There you are. That’s you.’ So we know who to watch,” Judy said with a laugh.
Their adventurers also bring lots of questions, as many have never experienced an escape room before. “Is something going to jump out at me” is a common question asked among pre-teens or if they can bring their phones into the escape room (the latter answered with yes as long as they do not take photos).
For Judy, Joyce and Joanne, interacting with the guests before and after is a delight, but serving as the game master while they are in room is just as much fun and equally enlightening.
“We also get ideas from people who play the game because somebody will come up with a way that they think they are supposed to solve something that I hadn’t thought of or we hadn’t talked about and I will write that down. That is a great idea for a future game,” Judy said, noting they also give three clues or hints while they are in the room. “I tell my groups if you don’t want any hints tell me now.”
The sisters also enjoy watching the dynamics of the groups change, seeing who takes a leadership role while in the room, as well as funny moments in thinking the first clue is going to “break the code” and open the door.
“You have been in there 30 seconds,” Joyce said with laughter. “Seriously, we do adjustments as we go. If we find something that is overly difficult that every group is stumbling on, then we tweak that.”
With Judy’s work as a special education teacher in Taos and Joyce being the bureau chief for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Bureau of Vital Records, the pair often serves as the main game masters, cataloging these adventures every week. Joanne, a middle school library associate in Indianola, Iowa, does oversee games when she visits but also does bookkeeping and handles its social media and online presence. On Facebook, viewers can see who escaped and what time, as well as those who were “close” to mastering their adventure at Break the Code. The ladies keep track of their leader boards, the rate of escape, hints and other important information through a special computer program.
“The fastest times for both The Secret Room and The Alchemist are about 45 minutes, and we are running at about a 50 percent escape rate on both rooms,” Joanne said.
Judy, Joanne and Joyce are continuing the positive momentum and healthy competition among stranger escapers with plans to expand in the near future. By the end of the summer, the sisters will have acquired the building’s basement, allowing them to look at added amenities.
“The hope is to have a large double-room escape adventure, another individual escape room, a children’s themed escape room (for children ages five to 10) and an area to bring in a conference or party, as well as a possible viewing room,” Judy said.
“We want to provide more opportunities for people to come back. It is nice to come and do two rooms, but then you have to wait six months (average time they will switch out themes) to do something different. That way we have different options during that same time frame,” Joyce added.
Birthday parties, small business groups and organizations, and even a proposal have taken place at Break the Code Adventures. With offsite escape room possibilities also on their radar, Judy, Joanne and Joyce are eager to share their mystery mastery with others. Right now, they are learning, laughing and loving this successful game right along with the community.
“Sometimes having this many minds is difficult,” Judy said with a laugh, “but we need all of our minds to cover all the bases we have to cover. … You get lots of perspective, which is good. And we all have so much fun doing it.”
Location: 1515 E. High Street – North Suite
• Sunday – 1-3:15 p.m.
• Monday and Tuesday: Closed
• Wednesday: 6-7:30 p.m.
• Thursday: Closed
• Friday: 6-8:15 p.m.
• Saturday: 1-8:30 p.m.
Bookings are by appointment only; walk-ins not typically available.
Cost: $20 per person