Solve your way through Sonoma County escape rooms

Rumpelstiltskin has gone missing and is presumed dead. Your mission is to solve an array of puzzles that will lead you to his hidden loot and to your safe escape from his lair.

That’s the preamble players hear as they enter one of the escape rooms at First Empire Party House, located in Santa Rosa Plaza.

Players step into a medieval-themed room. A large ornate dining table rests in the center. Paintings adorn the walls. Witches’ hats, magic potion bottles and chalices are among the decor — some would lead players to hidden clues while some would be red herrings.

“Welcome to Rumpelstiltskin’s Castle,” Kent Harding, co-owner of First Empire Party House and Escape Rooms, said to the group with a mischievous grin.

As the players quickly examined the room, trying to figure out what was in store, a large gate — the room’s main entrance and exit — suddenly closed behind the group. They were now off to unravel the room’s mysteries. But would they do so in time?

Rumpelstiltskin’s Castle is one of six escape rooms inside the 6,500-square-foot space on the mall’s second floor. The interactive experiences attract people of all backgrounds — teachers, teenagers, scientists, journalists, grandparents — and it’s not just about solving clues; it’s about expanding your mind and connecting with others.

“It’s like reading a book. You use your imagination, analyze and engage with characters,” said Michael Calvet, co-owner of the business. “Instead of being told what to think, you get to figure out what to think for yourself.”

Escape rooms, which evolved out of the video gaming experience, are quests in which a group works to find clues and solve puzzles to “escape” a room before time runs out.

First Empire initially opened as a themed party space in 2021. But after the owners were invited to experience Napa’s The Grape Escape, they were intrigued. The team began designing and testing multiple ideas for escape rooms and added them to the space the same year.

The Mystery of Rumpelstiltskin’s Castle — the only escape room in the North Bay that holds up to 32 people — features areas with clues and nearly 70 hidden puzzles.

It’s known as a cumulative or “meta puzzle” escape room in which each team’s found puzzles are brought together to solve a bigger puzzle in the end, he said.

“You’re in a constant state of discovery,” Calvet said.

First Empire’s most challenging room is “The Asylum Hill Project,” in which players walk through an eerie asylum that’s built on a cemetery. In its easiest offering, “Mission Impossible: Lights Out,” players follow clues that a secret agent named Kojak has left behind to solve a mystery.

A group of two to six people is ideal for the smaller rooms, Calvet said. If you lose your way, all hope’s not lost: the rooms include a “game master” that will share hints.

Adults are the escape rooms’ typical audience on weekdays for team-building events, Calvet said. During the weekend, it’s mostly kids, teens and couples.

Anthony Doiron, 41, of Santa Rosa, surprised his fiance, Amber Rose, with a try at escaping the “Mission: Impossible” room instead of seeing a movie at the theater. Rose enjoyed it so much the couple returned four days later to experience the asylum-themed escape room.

“It felt like a virtual reality game, you take on a character and play out a mission. I wouldn’t have been able to solve it alone,” Doiron said with a laugh. “It was a real bonding experience.”

Dave Fellows, who experienced his first escape room at Rohnert Park’s Reed Between The Lines, considers himself an escape room enthusiast. It’s an activity that’s always on his to-do list when he travels, he said.

“It’s nice to throw yourself into a different reality for some time,” said Fellows, 35, of Sonoma. “I sorta have a geeky personality and just love puzzles.”

In 2007, a company called SCRAP in Kyoto, Japan, opened the world’s first escape room. The phenomenon slowly permeated the US around 2012.

“It’s different from watching a movie where you’re simply entertained,” Calvet said. “You’re participating in life and engaged in the world around you.”

Calvet said he loves the activity for how it stimulates new ways of thinking.

At Petaluma’s Code Zone, players translate codes, unscramble puzzles and board a pirate ship to search for a queen’s stolen crown.

“Escape rooms are a throwback to when families engaged without phones and played games together at home,” said Dennis Davis, Code Zone’s co-owner.

The family-owned escape room has played host to events like bridal showers, gender reveal parties and senior resident outings.

“Come in with an open mind,” said Sara Davis, co-owner of Code Zone. “Expect the unexpected.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at [email protected] @searchingformya on Twitter.

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