On the first day of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s 2016 Howl-O-Scream event, Zachary and I attended a media preview, where we were invited to explore the park’s two new “No Escape” escape rooms: The Case of Jack the Ripper and The Case of Mr. Karver. The former seemed to tie in well with the Terror-tory in Banbury Cross, while the latter appeared to be linked to the company-wide puppet theme. We were anxious to try both experiences.
tl;dr: Despite the serious technical and onsite operational problems the first weekend, Zachary and I both saw huge potential in the rooms, because of their excellent atmospherics and interesting mysteries. If the fixes they told us they put in place fully mitigate the problems we faced, then the new escape rooms are creepy and challenging experiences for people who like haunts and puzzles.
Asking about tickets we learned the prices vary by day of the week and time of day. Since we were doing two rooms, we elected to reserve spots for early Sunday afternoon. Because up to six people can play at a time, we were paired with other groups, which perhaps surprisingly did not hurt my experience. In fact, having different perspectives clearly helped us solve the puzzles, and everyone we worked with seemed friendly an cooperative. I say this as a fairly shy person.
I probably could have lived without the video screens on the outside of the building, however. Because I am not exhibitionist, live video streams of me searching a room and playing with props for random strangers’ entertainment made me uncomfortable. Honestly, if we didn’t want to do this article, the invasive cameras might have deterred me altogether. Furthermore, both Zachary and I question the utility of the screens. I suppose they market the experience better than static signs, but they also reduce the mystery and potentially give away clues to the voyeurs watching the people playing the game.
Sunday afternoon we started with the Ripper. We watched a short video explaining the “case,” and were escorted into the room. A British bobby welcomed us and provided some more background. We were told that we were in Jack the Ripper’s room and he could return at any time. Of the two puzzles this was the more straightforward. We had a clear goal and followed a fairly direct path of clues, which should have allowed us to escape, before Jack returned home and caught us.
As we solved puzzles, we explored a creepy and gory set. (It seems that the Ripper likes to put body parts on display.) The actor came and went, sometimes warning us that our 30 minutes were running out. And there were even a few HOS-style scares.
When one of the puzzles broke, our helpful bobby was also compelled to step in and give us a hint. And this is where my story nearly turned into a negative review.
We were following the fourth clue and were fairly certain we knew the answer, but the lock wouldn’t open. We took turns fiddling with it for ten minutes. Finally, the actor advised us that others had experienced similar problems opening it and to keep trying. Literally, as the Ripper burst into the room and announced that we had lost and quite probably would not live to warn others, Zachary managed to get it open. We looked at the final clue, and realized we would have solved it easily, as we had already seen the probable answer.
Frustrated, we let them take our picture and mentioned the problem to the staff. They seemed to be aware that the puzzle was not functioning properly, but didn’t seem overly concerned. We then learned that others had a similar experience the day before. Then Twitter heard about it. And then I ate some chocolate cookies from the shop in Reinfeld in irritation.
We mentally reset and moved on to the Karver room. We watched a similar video, but didn’t enter the room with the same sense that we understood our objective. We were told it would become more clear, once we started looking around. “More clear” was apparently a relative term. This room was evidently the more advanced of the two. Once we figured out what we needed to do to escape, we were able to appreciate just how sophisticated and creepy this second experience was. The room was cluttered with dolls and doll-making props. More importantly, Mr. Karver was in the room with us the entire time. He interacted with us for the entire 30 minutes, measuring our body parts for use in his puppets, muttering to himself, playing with props, and snatching things away from us. His behaviors were often the only real clues we had as we proceeded through the “Acts.” The actor was so good that two of the five of us left almost immediately, because they didn’t want to be trapped in a room with him.
Sadly, like his counterpart next door, Mr. Karver was forced to jump in and attempt to fix a problem, when the set essentially broke. As we were searching for the second clue, the fourth clue popped out. Mr. Karver shrieked and snatched it away from me. I kept wondering what we would do, when we actually needed that piece of the puzzle back. Regardless, since no one stepped in to stop the game we shrugged our collective shoulders and move forward. Eventually, we got to the point where we needed that clue. We looked and the timer said we had 10 minutes left. We tried to figure out how to get Mr. Karver to give it to us, but he seemed preoccupied with painting a doll. Just as I did something to trigger his returning it to us, the photographer burst in saying we had lost. What? The timer said we had five minutes left!
Once again, we had been defeated by a technical malfunction. We pointed out that the clock in the room said we had only used 25 minutes, and she tried to claim that it was just a prop. We insisted that she check and then she informed us that the timer had somehow gotten out of sync with the control room. Oh, you mean the control room that did NOTHING when the set broke halfway through? The control room that should have stopped and reset the game, rather than relying on poor Mr. Karver to fix everything on the fly? Yes, THAT control room.
Once again, we tried to convey our concerns to the staff outside, and were essentially ignored. Once again Twitter heard all about it. This time, however, so did Customer Relations. It is important that I highlight that I only ever leave compliments. In fact, even this time I made a point to tell them how amazing both the actors and the games were in general. That said, Zachary and I thought it was important to make sure the park knew that there were fatal flaws in their new up-charge HOS attraction. More importantly, we wanted to highlight that while technical difficulties are to be expected the first weekend of any event, we as customers also deserve a certain level of concern and action from the people running that experience.
At this point Zachary started crafting a signature BGWFans critique of the poor customer service we experienced at the escape rooms. Long-time readers can probably imagine the the creative sarcasm and disdain that would have dripped from his words. But then everything changed for the better.
We were at Kings Dominion waiting for Haunt to begin, when my phone rang. It was BGW, and they wanted to hear exactly what happened in the escape rooms. We told them how much we loved the concept and the puzzles; how much we adored the actors, especially the creepy Mr. Karver; and how disappointed we were in the way that the technical problems were addressed. And we found out that the park had tried to fix everything in the intervening week. They replaced the broken puzzles and put new timers in the rooms.
The result? Honestly since we can’t try the rooms again, having already solved both puzzles, we don’t really know if all of the operational problems are solved. Sadly, we must wait until next year to try to match wits with the park’s creepy murderers. We can say with confidence, however, that if they live up to their potential the new escape rooms are a great addition to HOS. They are interesting and add a completely new element to the event. They integrate stimulating puzzles with frightening atmospherics, and even some theater to create something we have never experienced at BGW before.