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Escape room craze coming to Gainesville in February
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Tonya, sitting, and Eric Merrell are bringing an escape room business to downtown Gainesville this winter. The couple from Commerce aim to open the series of five escape rooms — in which participants are challenged to find all the clues to free themselves from a locked room within a time limit — to the former site of The Fudgery on Green Street NE next to Midland Coffee.

Eric and Tonya Merrell’s children have spent the past few months building escape room scenarios inside their home in Commerce.

Good thing, too, because the Merrells will be taking tips and tricks from their children as they open Against the Clock, a collection of escape rooms, in downtown Gainesville.

A couple of rooms are set to open by mid-February with prices around $25 to $30 per person, per scenario. They’re called scenarios, and not rooms, because one scenario could span more than one room.

The attraction is opening next to Midland Station Coffee Co. on Green Street NE.

“I really didn’t think it was going to be something I would like but after about 10 minutes in there, I was loving it,” Eric Merrell said of his first time experiencing an escape room. “It went from one room and the next weekend we were going back. The weekend after that, we took two of our friends and then probably a month later, we were taking a group and we’ve been going ever since.”

After growing up around construction with his family and starting his own business in surveillance and security, Eric Merrell decided the transition to escape rooms was a perfect one.

“I don't have to worry about build-out costs … and on top of that I have all the access to the technology I need because I have vendors of my own,” Eric Merrell said. “We talked about it for probably five months and decided it was something we could do.”

Against the Clock will open with two scenarios and will add three more throughout the year. Without giving too much away, Eric Merrell tried to explain the concept of each scenario.

The Ransom will be based on a person who has been taken and is being held for ransom. Guests will have to work to find the money to free him.

“We came up with 100 percent of it, so this is our design and everything,” Eric Merrell said. “It may or may not be more than one room, but it’s one scenario. The theme of it is a library, so you’re going into the library trying to help find this money to save this guy.”

The Ghost Ship is another scenario that will be open in February. Merrell said guests will have to find a radio to call for help in order to be rescued from a ship. This room will have some “jump scares” but nothing too scary.

If you’re in the lobby, you’ll be able to hear the screams of excitement — or disappointment — as you wait, something Merrell said he did on purpose.

“I find more entertainment if I’m waiting and I hear people start screaming,” Merrell said. “To me, that just encourages you to do better when you get in there… if you’re walking down the hallway and you hear that, that’s great for us.”

Other scenarios coming later in the year will be a hotel scenario, a dream scenario and an asylum scenario.

Most of the fun of building out an escape room is mapping out each scenario. While an escape room company that specializes in designing scenarios will take care of a few at Against the Clock, Eric Merrell said he and Tonya Merrell took time to work on The Ransom and Ghost Ship themselves.

“If you don’t map it then you don’t have anything,” Eric Merrell said. “On the first drawing, we drew down to the lock that goes on the box to make sure we had this one right, because there’s just so much. We're trying to put so much into it to make sure it’s complicated enough to keep you entertained for an hour.”

When it comes to why Eric Merrell decided to put roots in Gainesville, he said it’s “a dream” to have a building in downtown. He said he’s always loved the city and didn’t want to go toward Atlanta, where he would be competing with other businesses.

He also didn’t want to go toward Athens, another location he considered, because it was too much travel between his home and work for his two businesses.

“I’ve always wanted something in downtown Gainesville, regardless of if it was a bread shop and I was making sandwiches,” Eric Merrell said, laughing.

Merrell said they looked for about three months before they found somewhere that might work. Gainesville gave him the best opportunity to serve a community he saw a need in while being in a good location for his technology business, too.

One main thing Eric Merrell is bringing that other places he’s been to haven’t: a large waiting room with plenty of seating and games for guests to pass the time while they wait for their scenario to be ready. Another is an event room for parties and groups.

“We got some really sound advice,” Merrell said. “The first day we actually had the drawings of the place, this one got labeled first as the event room.”

He also has plans to have one scenario that changes throughout the year in order to keep guests coming back for more. One day, he even hopes to have a trailer for a traveling escape room.

The more escape rooms he can offer, the better. Merrell said he enjoys everything escape rooms bring to a community and he wants to offer a place for people to go on a date night or grab some friends to enjoy a night out. Whatever the reason, he just wants people to have fun and enjoy themselves. For him, it’s all about the atmosphere.

“Everyone we’ve met inside another escape room, even though you may go in a room with strangers,” Merrell said, “even as you’re in the lobby, it doesn’t feel like you’re strangers.”

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A poster in downtown Gainesville at 119 Green St NE tells of an escape room business coming. - photo by Scott Rogers
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