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Destination: Cipher Escape

I can't share much about the 60 minutes I spent in a live escape room with my older daughter and some family friends, but we had an absolute blast.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
I can't share much about the 60 minutes I spent in a live escape room with my older daughter and some family friends at Cipher Escape in Morrisville a couple of weeks ago.

But I can tell you that when the door closed on that little room, the six of us rallied, getting to work to solve countless riddles and logic puzzles and (attempting) a little algebra to try and find our way out.

And we had an absolute blast. If your kids are 9 or 10 and up, this is something you want to put on your list. Seriously.

I know that description is vague. But I don't want to share too many details about the twists and turns. Owners Mike and Lynn Horan, a north Raleigh couple who opened Cipher Escape about six months ago, would prefer I didn't either for fear that I might ruin the surprises.

The two are long-time fans of games like Myst, an adventure puzzle video game where the player explores an interactive world. It was first released in the early 1990s. They eventually moved on to play similar games on apps.

Then they decided to live the experiences they were creating online. They've traveled around the country to try out live escape rooms for themselves.

We can thank the Japanese for this latest pastime. They are behind the movement to turn those video games into live experiences. They are now popping up around the world. And they are the subject of a new show on Discovery Science called "Race to Escape" where teams compete against each other. (A similar business called Raleigh Room Escape opened this summer).

After visiting more than a few of the rooms, the Horans tell me they turned to each other and wondered: "Why don't we do one?"

They got to work, collecting items, creating storylines and devising plans. A trial room in December was incredibly popular so they've continued on. Mike left his full-time job to run the business. Lynn continues to work full time as a real estate appraiser, but helps out when she's free. The couple have five children and five grandchildren.

Now there are three rooms and plans for more. In the N.C. Photo Hunt Room, which we did, between 2 to 6 players try to find a collection of photos. The Geek Escape, for 4 to 12 players, focuses on geeky and technology-related topics. And the Brewery Escape, for 2 to 6 players, has you on the hunt for a secret recipe.

The Horans are working to open a room for tweens, ages 9 to 13, where a group of tweens solve problems together while a parent supervises. They also have plans for a Halloween room this fall.

All of the rooms are G-rated, the Horans tell me. They are best for ages 10 and up (though an eight- or nine-year-old, depending on the child, might have a great time).

In our group, we had two moms, a dad, two 10-year-old girls and a 12-year-old boy. We all were thoroughly involved during the hour we were "locked" in the room, uncovering clues and solving riddles and puzzles. Video cameras in the room let the Horans watch our progress. Players have the chance to ask them three questions through a walkie talkie.

What's great about this experience is that we all needed to be working together - adults and kids - to even get close to solving the problems. The adults brought their knowledge and life experiences. The kids brought their energy and out-of-the-box thinking. Other reviewers on social media have said that the hour even got sullen teenagers excited to be working with mom and dad (and that's pretty priceless!).

That hour went by way too fast. For the record, we didn't make it out. Only about 26 percent of people solve the Photo Hunt and make it out before the time expires. It didn't dampen our excitement.

"I think this was an awesome, crazy, fun sort of puzzle," said my daughter's 10-year-old friend. "There were startling surprises. ... I want to come here for my birthday."

"I want to do it again!" said my 10-year-old.

I'll admit I had no clue what this was all about when I got there. I was a little worried that it might be scary. "Live escape" has a kind of sinister tone to it.

But this was all pure, genuine fun. Nothing scary ... well, there were some screams ... but they were happy, startled screams. Of course, I can't tell you about that!

So far, the Horans have been able to build their business mostly through word of mouth.

"It's so much fun," Lynn tells me. "It's agony and rewarding at the same time."

Cipher Escape on Dominion Drive in Morrisville is open Thursday through Sunday and anytime for private events. They are able to host birthday party groups, corporate team-building sessions and more. The cost is $25 per person. Cipher Escape's website has the details. (Thank you, Lynn and Mike, for having us out! And thank you to the Go Ask Mom reader who prompted me to check this place out!).
Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations.

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