Living in a story: Escape games provide entertainment and education to the Frederick community


Photos courtesy of Surelocked In Escape Games and Escape This Frederick, graphic by Mia Lucas

A collage contains rooms and logos of both Surelocked In Escape Games and Escape This Frederick. Both escape rooms offer many levels of difficulty and fun puzzles to try.

The time slowly dwindles down on the clock on the wall. Players race around the room completing tasks, figuring out clues and helping each other. Bit by bit, they unlock each piece of vital information and secure their escape from the room.

Escape rooms are a lively but often overlooked form of entertainment. Originally invented in 2007, the idea is not new. However, in the last decade, an exponential number of escape rooms have popped up around the country.

Home to four escape rooms, Frederick, Md. is a great place for any budding escape artist. With many levels of difficulty to choose from, the city offers many opportunities for the community to engage their creativity and problem-solving skills.

Frederick saw its first escape room eight years ago, when one innovative entrepreneur decided to pursue his love of games.

Surelocked In Escape Games first got its start in 2015 when owner and founder Chris Sparks and his family first discovered an escape room.

Escape artists sit in the main lobby at Surelocked In Escape Games while waiting for the game master to introduce the story behind each room. Once the story is told, escape artists go through the mysterious black curtain to enter into their story. (Courtesy of Surelocked In Escape Games)

After their experience, the family decided to bring this new form of entertainment to Frederick, Md. Surelocked In was Frederick’s first escape room establishment.

Quickly after opening, Surelocked In began to take off in popularity. The Frederick community was eager to get involved and experience an escape game for themselves.

“One of the wisest lines I’ve ever heard in my entire life was ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I love playing games, [and] I love telling cool stories. So, it was natural for me to be like, ‘Hey, what if we brought escape games to my hometown?’” said Sparks.

 Inspired by the uprise in popularity in escape games, a veteran- and minority-owned family business popped up. Frederick’s second escape room location, Escape This, opened in 2017 and began introducing many other customers to the world of escape games.

Owner Alex Mercado has been an entrepreneur since the late 1990s, so when he first heard about escape games, he was ready to take a leap of faith.

“We did five escape rooms five days in a row,” said Mercado. “We [my family] started to do the research into opening up our own escape room, because I was just thinking about changing the business that I had … When we did the research, we decided that we should open up our own escape room.”

Many members of the Frederick community have experienced an escape game before, but not many know what goes into creating one. Surelocked In owner Sparks spoke about what goes into bringing a game into existence.

“It always starts [with] the same question, and the question is, what story do we wanna tell?” said Sparks. “And whatever that story is, from there we think, ‘What would it be like if you were living in that story?’”

It always starts [with] the same question, and the question is, what story do we wanna tell?And whatever that story is, from there we think, ‘What would it be like if you were living in that story?’

— Chris Sparks

A fully-developed room takes about three months to craft from start to finish, with puzzles, interior decorating, story lines and remodeling. 

Both Frederick escape game locations offer many different rooms to try. Surelocked In has four rooms, with escape rates ranging from four percent to 40 percent, while Escape This has six rooms with escape rates ranging from 19 percent to 42 percent.

Room themes change periodically, with themes changing based on audience engagement and popularity. Some room themes between both escape game locations include haunted houses, crime scenes and the Wild West.

Escape games are also structured to play on the average person’s adrenaline. A typical escape room is played within an hour, and players have that time to find and complete all of the clues to escape. 

Because every group of players gets the same amount of time to attempt a room, players often get competitive and try to secure the fastest time to escape. Oftentimes, top times are listed and avid escape room goers compete to achieve the best time. 

As it turns out, there are also professional escape room players. In 2017, Red Bull hosted an escape room world championship. There was live coverage of the three-day event and the event was hosted each year until the pandemic began in 2020. This event began the global frenzy of competing at escape room world championships.

Sparks noted that many professional escapists visit Surelocked In. Often, they will drive from over two hours away, complete every escape room at one place, and then leave. For an escape room business like Surelocked In, that could mean that the escapists are completing five hours worth of games.

One of the most unique puzzles that Surelocked In has to offer is a dinosaur dig table in the Tyrannosolveus Rex room. (Courtesy of Surelocked In Escape Games)

“It’s really cool to watch them. They tend to be very good at the rooms. One of my favorite things is when they come by and they go, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen this puzzle before’ or ‘This room’s one of my favorites.’ That one really means a lot,” said Sparks.

Currently, there are countless escape room conventions and conferences that take place all over the world. At conventions, escape room businesses will bring their mobile games, which are smaller-scale puzzles that can be transported beyond their brick-and-mortar building.

Both Surelocked In and Escape This have mobile rooms. These mobile games are very popular among offices and businesses looking to increase their team productivity, spirit or cohesiveness.

Mobile games can also be used at conventions. Surelocked In has been to many conventions in Maryland at which mobile games are provided for attendees to experience first-hand.

However, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic put a sudden and harsh damper on the success of the escape room industry in early 2020.

According to XOLA University, escape rooms grossed an average of $315,000 in 2019. After the pandemic struck the United States, the gross revenue went down a great deal. Many businesses had to get creative with the way they offered services, and many got shut down due to Maryland’s shutdown of nonessential businesses in 2020. This meant that no business except for those providing utilities necessary for human survival were allowed to offer in-person service.

After the first lockdown during the pandemic, many establishments in Frederick closed their doors to protect the community. Business was slow for the entertainment industry, especially because of the risk of being indoors with others. 

However, both Frederick escape rooms stayed optimistic. They began to brainstorm ways to keep customers safe and healthy. When the entertainment industry was allowed to open back up again, they offered private rooms to isolate groups of people

“During the year of the pandemic it was very, very slow. We were closed for almost four months. But after 2020, the business has been rising and rising and rising, so we’re actually really good after the pandemic year,” said Mercado.

The efforts to stay relevant and in business paid off– Surelocked In has won the Best of Frederick award for Best Entertainment Value in the years every year from 2018 to 2022.

Sparks, the owner, was also granted the 2021 “Game Master of the Year” award from the online publication Escape The Roomers

Since maintaining the secret of the rooms is imperative to the rooms themselves, clues to the escape rooms cannot be posted online. This introduces a lot of challenges when it comes to marketing, because the customer has little-to-no idea what they are getting into when they sign up.

One of Escape This’ most popular escape rooms is Cell Block 1. (Courtesy of Escape This Frederick)

Owner of Escape This, Alex Mercado, spoke on how escape rooms market themselves.

“We do put pictures on the internet of the rooms. We just make sure that you can’t see any of the puzzles that are in the room. But you know, we do put pictures up of the rooms … and mostly we just try to market the unique qualities of each room,” said Mercado.

The pictures on the internet draw attention and cause people to want to try out their escape rooms. This helps to generate interest and draw in those people who want to experience an escape game.

Escape rooms are not only for fun; they can also be used in an educational setting to help solidify understanding of topics and increase problem-solving skills. 

In 2019, the University of Arkansas performed a study around their students’ participation in an educational escape room about radiology. They concluded that the escape room increased the critical-thinking skills and collaborative discussions between students. 

Students at Linganore High School (LHS) also enjoy participating in escape-style activities in the classroom. Many teachers incorporate puzzle games or mystery elements into their assignments to engage students and get them interacting with each other during lessons. 

Cassandra Nti is a junior at LHS and has experienced many escape-style lessons in her classes. She reported that they make school more fun and make the course material easier to remember.

“I enjoy playing games similar to murder mystery or escape rooms in class because they make the class more interesting,” said Nti. “They also challenge me to think about the work a bit harder to solve them.”

Surelocked In Escape Games is located on North Market Street in Downtown Frederick. (Courtesy of Surelocked In Escape Games)

Escape rooms are an unusual but impactful source of education, fun and entertainment. Both Surelocked In and Escape This provide a great opportunity for members of the community to experience an escape game or continue their escape game journey. Be sure to look out for events and new rooms at both locations, and follow them on social media to receive updates.

Book your room today at or