Chandler couple open city's first escape room - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler couple open city’s first escape room

April 16th, 2018 development
Chandler couple open city’s first escape room

By Paul Maryniak

Executive Editor

Turns out Lewis and Kate Obermiller do have a clue.

In fact, the Chandler couple have so many that they’re using them in the city’s first escape room, Chandler Escape.

Kate, who has put aside her accounting and finance career to run the new business fulltime, and Lewis, a microbiology and genetics professor at Arizona State University and Mesa Community College who also is keeping an active hand in the business, recently opened Chandler Escape at 312 N. Alma School Road.

The 13-year Chandler residents have long been fans of escape rooms, which challenge patrons to uncover clues and solve puzzles to find a way out of a locked room in 60 minutes.

What they didn’t like was driving far to get to them

“We are huge puzzle/clue/mystery fans, and we’re always looking for new things to do as a family,” Kate said. “We started doing escape rooms, and we loved trying all the other games in the Valley. We’re lucky to have some really terrific ones around because we got hooked. We got tired of driving so far from home, and thought it wasn’t right that Chandler didn’t have an escape room of its own, so we decided to do something about it.”

Added Lewis: “Our family went to a local escape room on a whim. We didn’t escape, but we had a blast! Over the next few weeks we did about a half-dozen different rooms. It didn’t take us long to get hooked, but we were frustrated with having to drive so far to go to one. We wished there was one closer to our home and were curious why there wasn’t one in Chandler.

“It is funny to recall, but Kate and I actually thought escape rooms might be outlawed by the City of Chandler,” he added.

The couple, who have a daughter who is a freshman at Hamilton and a son who is a third grader at Knox Gifted Academy, shunned buying a franchise in favor of an independent operation.

“We wanted the freedom to incorporate all of the things we liked about escape rooms and exclude the things we didn’t,” Lewis explained. “We wouldn’t have that same freedom with a franchise.”

Kate added, “We have played so many rooms across the Valley, and we see that sometimes themes are repeated. We wanted unique games not offered elsewhere in the Valley, and we wanted them to be as family-friendly as possible.”

Besides, younger kids “surprisingly told us that they want scarier themes,” she added.

So, they offer “E-rated” games for everyone as well as separate adventures for kids over 10 and teenagers.

“We will allow all ages in all games. We just ask parents to use discretion when booking,” Kate said.

Right now, Chandler Escape has one game open, an E-rated one called Pawn Shop.

“The general idea is that an Uber driver pawned a laptop he found left behind in his backseat, and the real owners came calling. They told him that there are $2 million in stolen diamonds hidden in that laptop, and players have 60 minutes to get it back … or else,”

To find out what “else” is, you’ll have to play the game.

They are currently building two more games – a 10+ rated one called Tony’s Bistro and a T-rated one named The Cabin – that will open in May and June, respectively.

“Tony’s Bistro and The Cabin have quite a few more electronic and specialty props so construction will take a little bit longer,” Lewis said.

But their imaginations are running wild.

“I am also working on the puzzles and lay out for a pirate-themed room – which will probably be called Blackbeard or Queen Anne’s Revenge – and a tomb raider room called ‘The Lost Incan City of Gold,’ which I plan on making very high tech,” he said, adding:

“That’s one thing we really love about this business. If you can dream it, you can probably make it happen. I saw a video of an $80,000 room that has a simulated corn field and tornado inside of it.”

In some ways, starting the business had all the challenges for the Obermillers as an escape room.

“We spent more time trying to find a location than any other step so far, but we had faith that we were on the right path, and that we would find what we needed when the timing was right,” Kate said.

That was partly because they had to find a landlord in Chandler “who knew what an escape room was all about and was willing to allow us to do what we’re doing,” Lewis said.

“A lot of times they asked what we wanted to do with the space and they would never call us back,” he added.

Once they found a spot, Kate said, they discovered that “we grossly underestimated the amount of physical work needed to get the room set up.

“The technology and props were way more complicated than we anticipated, but even that aspect of it pales in comparison to puzzle design,” she continued. “We have a lot of game/puzzle testing and have gotten some great feedback on our games and how to improve them to get our success rate right where we want it to be. We have had to make some parts easier, some parts more difficult … stuff like that.”

Lewis added, “We spent so much time making sure everything looked and felt like you were in an actual pawn shop. We put in all the flooring and set up the rooms all on our own. It was back-breaking work, but it also gave us a sense of accomplishment.”

Don’t expect the game to be a snap.

“The puzzles require a lot of mental and physical thought,” said Lewis.

On the other hand, he added, the couple conducted a lot of testing.

“Sometimes, puzzles are just too hard, or maybe they are too easy,” he said. “It takes a lot of tweaking to make sure everything is perfect.”

The Obermillers are getting into a craze that Kate thinks stems from people’s desire to connect with each other in real life.

“Escape rooms fill that need by providing an environment that rewards cooperation, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and requires you to put your phones down and truly have an immersive experience together for an hour,” she surmised. “Escape rooms can fill a need to compete, a need to engage, or even a need to laugh and forget about the outside world for a bit.”

Lewis added: “They are super fun, and not only that, it allows co-workers, friends, family, and even strangers to interact with one another on a whole other level in order to be successful at the game. There isn’t much else out there that does what escape rooms do.

“There is no doubt about it, to get out in time takes problem-solving skills and a lot of team work,” he said. It’s also a great topic of conversation.”

He does think the term is “off-putting,” noting most cities in the nation don’t even allow players to be locked in a room because of fire code concerns

“In reality, you don’t really have to escape,” he said. “It’s just the thought of it that makes it all the more exciting.”

Though they have a fair amount of competition in the Valley, the Obermillers think Chandler Escape will rise above the pack.

For one thing, they decided not to crowd a lot of rooms in one place. And they wanted to make sure their rooms are neither too big nor too small, settling on a size in which eight to 10 people can play comfortably.

Most of all, they said, they are aiming to make their venue family-friendly, though an adult must be in a room if anyone playing is under 16.

“Not all escape rooms in the Valley allow all ages,” Kate said. “We just ask customers to use their best judgment when booking with younger kiddos: they know their kids better than anyone else.”

“We are focusing our business on customer service and connecting with our customer,” she added. “We have intentionally designed our business to avoid some of the shortcomings of competitors. So, no time penalties for extra clues/nudges; you can ask for a clue whenever you want one. Someone is always dedicated to watching and listening to you during your game, and we have spacious rooms for people to spread out and work on puzzles.”

And naturally, they’re using their kids as test subjects – and for a good reason.

“When our kids aren’t with us, we do worse, it seems,” Kate said.

Added Lewis: “Our third grader has solved puzzles that a pair of electrical engineers from Intel couldn’t figure out. Sometimes the approach kids take to solving puzzles is simpler than adults, which is often the better way.”

Chandler Escape for now is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, although the Obermillers may adjust those hours as time goes on.

Cost is $28 per person, though discounts are announced on their Facebook page and website.

Currently, there’s a $5 discount through April patrons used the code 5OFFPAWNSHOP.

Discounts currently are available for students and teachers, first responders, and Scouts.

Check for details:,