Inside “The Laboratory,” nothing is as it seems.
You enter through an ordinary looking door, only to realize that you and your team have stumbled into the workspace of a scientist who has made a groundbreaking discovery gone horribly wrong. To make matters worse, the lab staff is missing, some unsettling (and potentially deadly) specimens have been left behind, and you’re locked inside while a clock ticks ominously down from 60 minutes to zero. Your escape depends upon your ability to decode a series of clues in the form of artifacts scattered throughout the room. Your goal? Unravel the mystery, and find the exit before time runs out.
Of course, this is not real. But darned if it doesn’t feel that way when you’re inside. And that’s just what Think Escape Games co-owners and creators Greg Kormendi and Shannon Best want.
“We’ve created movies you participate in,” Best explains. “You’re immersing yourself into the whole plot, the whole story line. Instead of watching Tom Hanks open a cryptex, it’s actually you who gets to do it.”
If you’ve never been to an escape room, here’s the gist: rooms with themes from murder mystery to science fiction offer participants a chance to solve live-action complex puzzles in a race against the clock (and the lock).
Kormendi hails from Hungary, the country generally credited with launching the escape room phenomenon. The son of a garage inventor, he spent his childhood tinkering alongside his father. After launching his first escape room—Pompano Beach’s QQuest Escape Games—in 2012, Kormendi began to dream of new games he might create. “I wanted to take it to the next level,” he says.
So in 2013, Kormendi teamed up with Best, a renowned South African wakeboarder and kiteboarder who has a background in design, engineering and manufacturing. They had become friends through a local jiu-jitsu class, and shared a love of sport, a strong creative streak and a handyman’s sensibility. “I thought, ‘This guy is a world champion. He must have a good drive. I’d like to team up with a person like that,’” Kormendi recalls. It was an easy pitch. “I saw the spark in his eye, and Shannon said ‘I’m in,’” Kormendi says, laughing.
Now the duo runs South Florida’s leading escape room company, with locations in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach. In January, they launched “The Lounge” at Think Escape, their 15th built-from-scratch room. They’re currently at work creating their 16th room, known as “The Submarine,” which will launch in Fort Lauderdale later this year.
On weekends, Think Escape’s customers are couples and groups of friends who are tired of their usual night-out routines. But on weekdays, Kormendi and Best play host to members of corporate America, with companies like Citrix, Ritz-Carlton, Toyota, Royal Caribbean and American Express tapping into the team building opportunities that Think Escape provides.
“When people work together outside their workplaces to solve a puzzle, they end up bonding and forming a stronger team dynamic,” Kormendi explains. “We specialize in team-building experiences, but with a thrill that invigorates people and gets their creative problem-solving skills flowing.”
Think Escape offers something critically absent from other forms of entertainment: total engagement. “If you go to Disney, to Universal, to a movie theater—it’s all the same,” Best says. “It’s ‘Sit down. Be quiet. Enjoy the ride.’ Here, it’s the opposite of all that. Here, you’re encouraged to pick things up and explore.”
If this sounds like your kind of fun, be forewarned: the success rate of solving one of Kormendi and Best’s escape rooms within the 60-minute time frame hovers around 10 percent. You can ask for help along the way via an intercom system, but it will cost you five minutes off the clock for each clue you receive.
However, groups are allowed to see the puzzle through to solution even if they fail to finish within the allotted time. “Sometimes people come out after an hour and a half, after we had to give them a bunch of clues, and they say, ‘Man, we feel so stupid,’” Kormendi says. “But they don’t realize how much they gained by doing the part of the game that they did solve. That’s a win by itself.”
“You definitely don’t leave this place dumber, I’ll tell you that,” Best says. “That’s what puts the ‘think’ in Think Escape.”