Skeleton Key, an ‘adventure emporium’ in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, opened in July.
By Ted Glanzer, West Hartford Press
[Editor’s Note: This article appears with permission of TurleyCT Community Publications. To read more articles in the West Hartford Press, visit TurleyCT.com.]
The rise in popularity of escape rooms has inevitably reached West Hartford, first with Mission Escape Games on LaSalle Road, and now with Skeleton Key (and its accompanying restaurant Deadbolt), which opened in Blue Back Square on July 21.
Founder and Chairman Ray Weaver, who is also the co-owner of Muse Paintbar located a few doors down, says that his latest venture is doing “fantastic” even though only one of three games, “Starry Night,” is open.
“We’re basically sold out all the time,” Weaver said.
Escape rooms call for a person or group of people to be locked in a room and have to solve a series of puzzles to unlock the door. But Weaver doesn’t call Skeleton Key, the franchise’s second location (the first is in Lynnfield, MA), an escape room; he says it’s “an adventure emporium.”
For example, “Starry Night” is less an escape room than a “break in” room – two rooms, actually, and all of Skeleton Key’s games are two rooms. The game finds its puzzlers first outside London’s Tate Modern Gallery, with their job to break into the museum and steal Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting. (Yes, the real “Starry Night” is located in New York City, but there was some creative license taken.)
Among the props in the first room are a London taxicab, a classic British phone booth, marble lions. In the second room, puzzlers see replicas of priceless works of art and the challenge is to defeat the security system and unlock “Starry Night.”
Weaver says that what separates Skeleton Key from other escape room businesses is the attention to set design, challenging game play, as well as the overall experience.
“First we invested a lot in the production design,” Weaver said. “I’ve done about 40 escape rooms myself. We have invested a lot of money and energy in lighting, video and unusual ways of players interacting with the environment to make the experience more magical. And I think that pays off when people play the game. … It’s like being in a movie.
Second, the overall experience – I tried to make game itself an end-to-end experience, something special.”
Part of that experience is the decor, which includes a curiosity cabinet with a two-headed taxidermy duck, and visitors can communicate with Pneuman, labeled on its website as “a pneumatic tube conduit to the spirit world.”
“You can send a message to Pneuman, and it goes off into the ether and the spirit world and he will answer your question: Will the Yankees win tonight? What’s the weather like? What’s the meaning of life? You will also get some little tchotchke, like a mah jong tile, a monopoly piece. That’s just for showing up.”
To add to the overall experience, there’s Deadbolt, the sister restaurant next door, where people can order burgers and other small plates, or partake in beer, wine and other whimsical craft cocktails.
A lot of effort goes into the food and drinks; describing them merely as cocktails and small plates belies how delicious each serving really is.
Among the popular items on the menu are the street taco trio (choice of three of the following: southwest chicken, carnitas, barbacoa, shrimp tempura, black bean and vegetable), the poutine topped with barbecued pork, chicken wings (honey spice and gochujang), burgers (including a classic, a guac burger, barbecue bleu and NoLa burger) and a choice of gourmet dogs from $10 to $12.
“Basically it’s whimsical American fare,” Weaver said. “We have a full bar, and you can have a meal that’s fantastic. Most of the food is fun bites, small plates and apps with interesting drinks that are non-alcoholic and alcoholic. The food is awesome. We were at Taste of Blue Back Square [& The Center] and we had the longest line waiting to try our food.”
And while Deadbolt, according to Weaver, is good enough to stand on its own merits, the main attraction is still the Skeleton Key’s games.
Weaver said he comes up with the basic idea for the games while an employee, Michelle Frea, oversees the games’ development.
“She takes the basic idea and the concepts and turns them into real games,” he said. “She has to kind of corral the efforts of the scenic painters, the sculptors, the engineers, and the third-party tech company.”
The trick is finding the balance between making the games challenging enough for hardcore puzzlers while at the same time appealing to others who perhaps aren’t as adept at games.
Weaver said the baseline is challenging and gamers are monitored in a control room. Game hosts evaluate the data based on how much time is left the gamers’ progress to determine whether a clue or two is needed to help keep the group progressing.
“Some groups, like if you have 13-year-old kids, you help them along because they’re more interested in completing the mission,” Weaver said. “Sometimes you find a group that insists on not having any clues and they’d rather not complete the room than do it with a bunch of clues. That’s how we tailor it to different groups.”
In addition to “Starry Night,” the Skeleton Key will feature two more game experiences – Scarab and Virus – that will open in September and October, respectively.
Each game is an hour, which costs $25 to $33 per person, depending on the reservation’s time of day.
Skeleton Key is open Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m.
Deadbolt’s hours are listed as only as dinner Tuesday through Sunday, and lunch Saturdays and Sundays.
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