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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.”

Players Can Escape Technology and The World For an Hour at Bull City Escape (North Carolina Homes)

By Pamela Sosnowski

In today's tech-heavy society people seem to prefer looking down at a screen versus interacting with others. Bull City Escape, however, offers a chance for players to set aside the mobile devices for an hour and use their wits and work with each other to escape a room instead of relying on Google. The Durham-based business currently offers two game scenarios with a third one on the way, and is proving popular with participants of all ages.

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"Our escape rooms are fun, challenging, and immersive experiences," owner Alice Cheung said. "They're sort of like real-life video games; in fact, escape rooms evolved from online point-and-click games. However, rather than passively absorbing entertainment form a screen, players actively engage with their team members and the environment around them to achieve a shared goal. They must search for clues, manipulate objects, and solve a series of puzzles, all while a countdown timer looms above, adding an element of pressure to the game."

The current escape rooms to choose from are Lunar Lockdown, where players must escape their crashed spacecraft before it automatically self-destructsand A Study in Murder, which is the tougher of the two games and requires players to solve a whodunit murder mystery. The two games are most suitable for ages 12 and up and must be booked online in advance. Bull City Escape costs $25 a person and is open from Thursday through Sunday and upon request for private groups

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Unless a group is large enough to fill up a game, there's a good chance players may be paired with strangers, which means new friendships get formed at Bull City Escape. Each room is designed like a Hollywood movie set and full of clues such as codes, riddles, and combination locks. Lunar Lockdown is set up like a spaceship's control room while A Study in Murder is set in a Victorian-style parlor. A third game, called Enchanted Kingdom, is scheduled to be unveiled later this year.

Cheung has always loved puzzles and was inspired to bring the concept to Durham after participating in an escape game herself. "When I played my first escape game, I knew it'd be a perfect fit for the Triangle and its creative, intelligent population," she said. "In June 2015, Bull City Escape launched in a small, underground room. Word-of-mouth spread like wildfire and within a month, we expanded to a larger location with windows and enough space for 3 escape rooms. We are proud to call Durham home and so grateful for this supportive community."

Bull City Escape isn't just for families and groups of friends. It's been booked by couples and offices for team building exercises. The business has also welcomed student organizations and university employees. If you're looking not just to escape a room but also escape technology and the world for a while, book an hour of engaging fun at Bull City Escape.