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Last updateSun, 30 Aug 2015 2pm

Features

Mark Fruchtman is, in the most glorious sense of the word, a nerd.

He’s a gamer. He was an application developer before he opened a computer-repair business with his wife, Dominique. And now he and Dominique are the masterminds behind Escape Room Palm Springs.

For the uninitiated who don’t know what an escape room is: It’s a game. After being given a back-story, a group of two to 10 people is put in an elaborate room—and given 45 minutes to solve a series of complex riddles and puzzles using all of the elements of that room, with the goal of finding the key to escape before time’s up. A gamemaster watches and gives hints, if needed, from the control room throughout the game.

Escape Room Palm Springs currently has four rooms. The Saw Room is a large bathroom where a man, kidnapped and imprisoned by mysterious captors, left behind clues as he worked toward his escape—but he didn’t make it out in time. In the Dark Shadows Room, players help a man who was transformed into a vampire by an evil witch—and it turns out that vampire can’t open his coffin. The Mystery Room is a bright, quirky place with all sorts of symbols and shapes, while in the just-opened Titanic Room, players have 45 minutes before the ship sinks to find a lifeboat key hidden in the captain’s stateroom. (There are actually two identical Titanic Rooms, so teams can compete against each other to see who escapes first.) Play costs $30 for each player and is open to people age 12 and older.

It’s not easy to get out of these rooms. Mark said the target is for 10 to 15 percent of teams to escape. (He added that one simple change to one puzzle can make a big difference: In the Dark Shadows Room, for example, the escape rate went from 7 percent to 30 percent with just one tweak.)

All of the rooms were custom-designed by Mark and Dominque. They visited a lot of escape rooms themselves to get inspiration, but Mark emphasized they never copied any puzzles from the rooms they visited.

He said his background as a gamer and programmer gave him the skills needed to design the escape rooms.

“Between my knowledge of game theory and application development, this was actually a very easy adaptation,” Mark said as he stood next to an ornate secretary’s desk in the Dark Shadows Room. “As a matter of fact, the way the rooms are designed is through flow charts—the same way you’d design a computer program.”

Even after a room is developed, thoroughly tested and opened to the public, the design work is not over. Mark said the goal is to change an element of each room once a week or so, in an effort to keep the games fresh. That means someone could play a room, and then return several months later to play the room again without knowing all of the clues and answers.

While escape rooms have been popping up all over the world in recent years—escaperoomdirectory.com lists 20 in the Los Angeles area alone (with three in … Bakersfield?!)—the Coachella Valley did not have one as of last year. The Fruchtmans, who owned and operated tech-service company Desert Cow Computers, saw an opportunity—and Escape Room Palm Springs was born.

Dominique (who serves with me on the Desert Business Association board of directors) said she and Mark first got the idea for Escape Room Palm Springs after she received an email from Psycho Clan, a group that puts on a renowned haunted house every year in New York City, where the Fruchtmans used to live.

“They sent an email on June 24 (of last year)—I still have the day memorized—saying, ‘Look at what we’re doing with our venue the other 11 months of the year,’ meaning not October,” Dominique said. “They went on to establish and explain the concept of an escape room. I thought, ‘Wow. How clever is that?’”

That email catalyzed a speedy series of events leading up to what was supposed to be the fall opening of Escape Room Palm Springs. The Fruchtmans started visiting various escape rooms throughout Southern California and Nevada—in fact, Dominique said they visited 25 in July alone.

In August, they leased a building at 560 S. Williams Road, just off the intersection of Ramon Road and Gene Autry Trail. By October, Escape Room Palm Springs was hosting the Fruchtmans’ friends and professional acquaintances (myself included), and was ready to open to the public with two rooms on Oct. 28.

“It was going to be a big, cool Halloween opening,” Dominique said.

But that was not to be. On Oct. 24, Mark and Dominique were standing in the control room when all the sound and video equipment suddenly went dead. A power surge had hit the building—and the surge protector had failed. About $25,000 in equipment was fried.

Thankfully, the Fruchtmans are savvy businesspeople. They had insurance that covered the equipment, and enough in cash reserves to survive the delay. They decided to regroup, make repairs and upgrades, finish a third room, and start work on the fourth room.

Escape Room finally opened its doors to the public on Feb. 4—and has been receiving rave reviews ever since.

“It’s going great,” Dominque said. “We’re getting a lot of attention on social media.”

For more information, visit escapeps.com.

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