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The 3 best escape game spots in Durham

In search of a new favorite escape game spot?

Hoodline crunched the numbers to find the top escape game spots around Durham, using both Yelp data and our own secret sauce to produce a ranked list of the best spots to venture next time you're in the market for escape games.

1. Bull City Escape
Topping the list is Bull City Escape. Located at 711 Iredell St., the escape game spot is the highest rated escape game spot in Durham, boasting five stars out of 59 reviews on Yelp.

Bull City Escape. | Photo: Andrea J./Yelp

Bull City Escape. | Photo: Andrea J./Yelp

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Durham Tech, Women’s Business Center help pave the way for Cheung’s great escape

There’s 60 minutes on the clock.

Friends, families, and colleagues are locked in a room and must work together to find clues, solve puzzles, and crack codes to find the key to the outside.

This is a picture of the owner of Bull City Escape. It has been voted the best escape room in Durham, North Carolina.

They’re called escape rooms and they’re on an upward trend in entertainment.

“Your entire group is working toward a common goal, but it requires so many different types of thinking,” said Alice Cheung, 30, owner of Bull City Escape. “When you’re under the time pressure it really highlights people’s individual strengths within a collaborative group effort.”

Cheung brought this interactive experience to Durham in 2015 after attending a joint seminar by the Durham Tech Small Business Center and the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina.

“The seminar gave me the confidence I needed to open the business,” said Cheung. “I wouldn’t consider myself a natural entrepreneur so that was a big mental hurdle to overcome. But being in that space and being aware of all of these free resources made me realize that there’s a community here that’s going to be supportive.”

The idea stemmed from a leisure scroll on TripAdvisor during a vacation Cheung took to Nashville.

“I was just looking for things to do when I found an escape room. I decided to try it and loved it, then I looked more purposefully at escape rooms when I traveled,” said Cheung. “The more I played, the more I kept thinking about what I would do differently. There was nothing like it in Durham or the Triangle at the time so I thought this would be the perfect place for this sort of thing.”

When the idea hit, Cheung was working full-time at Duke University. She opened the business in summer 2015 by additionally working nights and weekends, but just a few months in, she decided to leave Duke and operate Bull City Escape full-time.

“When I started in 2015, it was such a new idea. It was hard to explain what escape rooms were to get business insurance. It felt pretty isolating at first, but the small business seminar was so supportive and excited to hear what plans I had. It made me feel more confident about talking to other people about it and it opened up a whole network community within Durham that I’m extremely grateful for and rely on every day.”

Bull City Escape features three game rooms, all designed in-house and unique to their facility.

“It was just a lot of notes jotted down at first, but the seminar helped make it concrete,” Cheung said. “It really gave me the confidence to be able to do this, otherwise I think they’d just be vague ideas that I keep dreaming of, but wouldn’t necessarily know how to implement.”

Cheung also supports the Durham Living Wage Project, which urges employers to pay living wages so that all workers can prosper.

“I’ve been able to hire and build a team that I trust 100 percent and are amazing,” Cheung said. “I feel more deeply connected to people who live and work in Durham and it’s an honor to be able to contribute to the health of this community and help build the kind of city that I want to live in.”

Cheung says she’s grateful for the Durham Tech Small Business Center and Women’s Business Center of North Carolina for resources they offer small business owners.

“It was great to see how supportive Durham is of small businesses,” Cheung said. “Seeing so many people who are passionate about small businesses and contributing to the growth of Durham was really inspiring and motivational.”

Bull City Escape is open Thursday through Sunday and located at 711 Iredell Street in Durham.

To learn more about small business seminars offered by Durham Tech, please visit: https://www.durhamtech.edu/sbc/

9th Street Merchant of the Month - Alice Cheung of Bull City Escape

By Kate Van Dis

This is a picture of the owner of Bull City Escape. It has been voted the best escape room in Durham, North Carolina.

It’s rare, as adults, to recapture the mysterious lure of sleuthing and the joy of epiphany that came with childhood games. But Bull City Escape might offer just that opportunity. In its “A Study in Murder” room, for example, you and your team of detectives (aka, friends, family members, colleagues, or just cool people who signed up for the same time slot) will crack the mystery of an eccentric billionaire’s murder. You’ll have just sixty minutes to discover the identity of the killer and get yourselves out of that room. Owner Alice Cheung designs each escape room to be just that - an exhilarating escape from the ho-hum evening out or at-home game night.  

Alice has always loved puzzles, and the ones she created for her “A Study in Murder” room at Bull City Escape are her toughest yet. This Stanford graduate went to college in California and grew up in New York, but she has visited more than 125 escape rooms between those two coasts (and beyond them). In fact, Alice loves escape rooms so much that she left her job at Duke to open Bull City Escape, Durham’s first escape room experience.

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Before becoming an entrepreneur, Alice’s career had been singularly focused on undergraduate admissions and higher education. Her parents ran a small Chinese takeout restaurant on Long Island during Alice’s childhood. It was hard work; so hard, in fact, that her parents often discouraged the entrepreneurial life. So, Alice had always shied away from starting a business of her own. Still, the call of escape rooms and puzzles continued in her personal life. Alice found herself seeking out escape rooms while on vacation, and she has notebooks full of ideas for riddles and rooms. Also, Alice knew that Durham had just the right energy for escape rooms - quirky, fun, creative, and smart. So, Alice took the leap and started Bull City Escape in 2015 while she was still working full time at Duke. For a while, she was working seven days a week, including evenings - the true entrepreneur life. But happily for Alice and for Durham, news of Bull City Escape spread quickly and the rooms started filling up. Alice agreed to finish the academic year at Duke and then committed to Bull City Escape full time.

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Escape games started as point and click computer games and apps and then matured into real life versions. The first real life escape game occurred in Japan and spread quickly in Asia, appearing in US cities like San Francisco and New York in 2012. At Bull City Escape, you can make a reservation for any of the three rooms (in addition to “A Study in Murder,” there are “Lunar Lockdown” and “Enchanted Kingdom”). Alice reports that Bull City Escape gets a lot of groups - families looking to bond, colleagues looking for team building opportunities, and university groups who are trying to get to know each other better. Still, it’s a lot of fun to go with just one friend and meet some new folks while you’re there. In fact, Alice says that groups made up of strangers are often the most successful. Whatever your group, you’ll be locked in a room with them for one hour. During that time, you’ll navigate a series of clues, riddles, puzzles, and combination locks in your attempts to escape.

If you’re tired of the same old dinner-and-a-movie date, this is a great opportunity to get outside the box and do something that is fun, immersive, and challenging, the three key missions that Bull City Escape keeps in mind for its clients. Alice loves creating puzzles that reach across the disciplines, incorporating numbers, colors, spatial reasoning, and word riddles - which means you don’t have to be a “puzzle person” or a “numbers person” to enjoy an escape room. This is an experience that can work for anyone. It’s also worth mentioning that claustrophobic people need not worry. The rooms are sizable enough that you won’t feel squashed, and there’s always an emergency key next to the door, just in case. Besides, once they start playing, people usually have so much fun they forget they were nervous in the first place!

Here are a few more things that make this entrepreneur tick:

Alice loves all things puzzles. When she’s not at Bull City Escape, she indulges that passion by playing board games like Ticket to Ride or Code Names, or by listening to NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

Though she misses Durham when she’s away, Alice loves to travel - she has family all over the country and enjoys visiting them frequently.

Her New Year’s Resolution? She is going to take things “one hurdle at a time.”

ESCAPE GAMES: New Business Offers Interactive Puzzle Challenges (The Herald Sun)

By Cliff Bellamy

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

DURHAM — Remember the 1990s? Knowledge of the decade might help you navigate the first problem-solving game at Bull City Escape, but immersion in the decade is not necessary to participate in the game, said Alice Cheung, owner of the business that opens Friday, June 5 at 711 Iredell St. in the Ninth Street business district.

Teams of two to six people get 60 minutes to search clues, solve puzzles and look for codes to the key that will allow them to escape from the room. The theme of the first game is the 1990s, and the space has paraphernalia from the decade — Furbies, calendars and magazines from the decade, posters of Boys II Men and the Spice Girls, and videos of “Independence Day,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and other movies from the era.

Bull City Escape (bullcityescape.com) describes itself as “an interactive, real-life escape game,” recommended for families, companies and groups, and puzzle enthusiasts. Participants can solve the escape puzzles as a team-building exercise, or just for fun.

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas (L. to R.) Briles Johnson, Melissa Terrell and Zaina Robinson are looking for clues that will allow them to escape, at Bull City Escape.

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas (L. to R.) Briles Johnson, Melissa Terrell and Zaina Robinson are looking for clues that will allow them to escape, at Bull City Escape.

Cheung played her first escape game about a year ago, and “I loved it immediately,” she said. She has played games in spaces in different cities, all with varied themes — a pirate theme in San Francisco, an office theme in Philadelphia, a warehouse theme in Birmingham.

As she played the games, she began wondering, “If I designed it, what would I do differently?” and the idea for Bull City Escape emerged.

Cheung keeps a notebook with her in which she brainstorms ideas for puzzles and future themes. Future escape room themes might be a mad scientist scenario, or a combination murder mystery with a “Downton Abbey” feel, Cheung said.

Cheung, who will mark her second year in Durham this summer, thinks Durham is an ideal fit for this kind of business and activity. There’s “such a quirky and brainy population here. They’re so open to new ideas,” Cheung said. She has lived in different cities, but “no place has felt like home quicker than Durham.”

She mentions The Scrap Exchange as one example of Durham’s creativity. She also credits American Underground for nurturing entrepreneurs, and the city’s support for small businesses.

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

Before opening the business, she attended seminars on small businesses at Durham Technical Community College, and worked closely with the non-profit Women’s Business Center of North Carolina-Durham, which she called an “incredible” resource for new businesses.

Bull City Escape’s Ninth Street area location was perfect. “I gave up square footage for location,” Cheung said of the space. “I love that we’re surrounded by small businesses.”

Employees at the Women’s Business Center helped her to test the escape room and game. Members of the center also will participate in a group-building game at the Friday opening. The game will be both a team-building exercise and a way to help Cheung grow her business, said Briles Johnson, executive director of the center. Johnson said she had never participated in this kind of game before, “which is another reason why it is very intriguing and exciting.”

Cheung studied psychology and education in school, and brings that knowledge to bear when designing puzzles and games. “All of the puzzles are designed for different kinds of intelligence, so everyone in the group can contribute something,” she said. “The most successful teams are the ones that bring those different kinds of intelligence” to the problems, she said.

People who want to play one of the games can show up individually, or as a group. Cheung recommends reserving a time on Bull City Escape website.

Cheung said she is open to talking to groups about new themes and game ideas. Looking ahead, one of her dreams is to have a larger space, and perhaps multiple themes in different spaces in Durham.

Escape games are “an immersive entertainment,” Cheung said. “You’re not just absorbing something from a screen. … You’re fully present with your team members and you’re working toward a goal” of solving the puzzle.

Escape the Norm (Durham Magazine)

By Lanier Gray

Imagine yourself locked in a room of clues and codes with friends, family members, co-workers or even strangers. You are given an hour to solve puzzles, crack codes and locate the key that leads to your escape. Sound thrilling? The experience is real at Bull City Escape.

Bull City Escape beta test team after a successful breakout

Bull City Escape beta test team after a successful breakout

A popular city attraction around the world, Durham now has its own interactive escape game thanks to Bull City Escape owner Alice Cheung. Motivated by her love for trivia, mysteries and game shows, Alice began to explore escape games around the United States and returned to Durham with ideas of her own.

“When I first experienced an escape game, I knew it would be perfect for Durham,” Alice says. “The local population is young, intelligent and has a sense of humor.”

She relied heavily on the community of people who take pride in local businesses when creating her own. In addition to the encouragement of Durhamites, she credits her support to a small business seminar at Durham Technical Community College and the guidance she received from the Women’s Business Center.

Alice designed Bull City Escape with the player in mind, providing them with a fun challenge and contributing to the development of problem-solving skills, leadership and teamwork.

Bull City Escape, which hosts its grand opening Friday, June 5, is located at 711 Iredell St. Games are $25 per person, but a 20% off promotion code (GRAND_OPENING) can be applied when booking online for the first full month.