ninth street

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.

Bull City Escape launches an interactive, real-life escape game on Friday, June 5

Your team is locked in a room packed with hidden clues. You have 60 minutes to solve the puzzles, find the key and get out!

At Bull City Escape, small teams of 2-6 people—friends, relatives or strangers—use their wits, deductive reasoning, and problem-solving skills to ultimately find the way to escape the room.

Our inaugural room has a 1990s pop culture theme. Work with your team in a fun, nostalgic setting and share the glory as you crack the codes to get out.

Live escape games are widely popular overseas; top-ranked attractions in major cities in Europe and Asia. They’re becoming a favorite pastime in the U.S., and now the Triangle can get in on the fun.

We offer an extraordinary and exhilarating entertainment experience. Games are developed for families and friends, but make for a great company outing. This exercise provides a way for organizations to build leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.

Bull City Escape is located at 711 Iredell Street, next to Durham’s hip Ninth Street. Open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and upon request for private groups. To book a game, visit bullcityescape.com.

info@bullcityescape.com
bullcityescape.com