While portraits of Josef Stalin, Edgar Allan Poe and Dr. Evil stare down at her, Niki Skeek-Wheeland handles Gold Rush-era tools.
This is Escape Game Alaska, a complex of rooms underneath SALT Alaska where reality is temporarily suspended. When it’s up and running, willing groups will be trapped in one of three themed rooms with an hour to escape. They’ll use all their problem-solving, code-breaking and teamwork abilities to survive.
Skeek-Wheeland, the owner, is standing in her Espionage Room, which is the only room that’s complete so far. Vintage books line the shelves while portraits of either evil or haunting figures stand among the books. There will also be a so-called Insanity Room, a two-person experience that begins in almost complete darkness.
She’ll have a Gold Rush room, which will be filled with authentic Gold Rush antiques that she’s accrued over years of collecting. On this Monday afternoon, she’s showing off some of the Gold Rush items, from a Wells Fargo spittoon to a prostitute’s token (“Good for one night,” it claims).
“You go into a museum and you can’t feel and touch and get into the experience of the stuff,” she says. “I want to be able to have stuff that people can feel and touch.”
This will be the first of its kind in Southeast Alaska, joining a quickly growing national trend. These escape rooms, which are immersive problem-solving and adventure experiences, have quickly risen in popularity the past few years. Anchorage has a handful, which have proved popular.
Now, Skeek-Wheeland is bringing one to Alaska’s capital. It’s been a trying process, as she and friends have had to clean out and rebuild a space that has been empty for quite some time. The space, which is accessible through an unmarked door between SALT Alaska and the Silverbow Inn, used to be a Filipino restaurant, Skeek-Wheeland said.
Escape rooms cater to groups of friends or businesses looking for team-building activities. Skeek-Wheeland said she hopes to be open by the end of the month, and when it opens, it will cost $35 per person with the time limit of an hour. She envisions the Gold Rush room looking as authentic as possible, filling it with antiques and even consulting historic photos to get the decor just right.
“Everything about it, I went into detail,” Skeek-Wheeland said. “I’ve seen really, really good ones, and I didn’t want to do a cheesy one in Juneau because it’s the first one in the area.”
Skeek-Wheeland, who used to be an analyst for the Department of Labor and is now an independent consultant, has been to escape rooms all over the country. She has picked up tips and designs and inspiration from many of them and has kept in touch with those who run them.
One in particular stands out to her, just outside of Bozeman, Montana. She still talks to the man who runs that one, because the experience there was unforgettable.
“He had me crawling under lasers and stepping in secret hiding spots,” Skeek-Wheeland remembered. “It was kind of like being in an Indiana Jones and, like, being a Goonie. I was in love.”
She hopes to bring that kind of excitement to Juneau, from children to adults. She hopes to get a bit of tourist traffic as well, and after getting established, she hopes to have events with partners in the community for escape dinners or events that take participants through downtown.
Owners of escape rooms can customize the experience and switch up where clues are, so a participant can do the same room multiple times with a different experience each time, Skeek-Wheeland said. Multiple friends of hers are already hoping to sign up as soon as Escape Game Alaska opens, and Skeek-Wheeland is confident that it will catch on with other Juneauites.
“If you’ve ever done one, you become an enthusiast,” Skeek-Wheeland said. “Unless you’re somebody that just gets frustrated really easy and doesn’t like fun, you’ll end up liking it.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.