New Rockville Panic Room Opens on Nebel Street

Rockville Panic Room recently opened at 12009 Nebel Street. Andrew Ma, owner and Montgomery county native, sat down with Pike District to explain what a panic room is and why he brought one to Pike District.

Andrew Ma gets quizzical looks whenever he wears his company’s apparel in public. “When you wear a shirt that says ‘Texas Panic Room,’ it always brings up a discussion,” Ma jokes.

If you have never heard of a panic room, or escape room as they are commonly called, you are not alone. The interactive game, which started in Japan 15 years ago and quickly swept through Europe, has only recently gained popularity in the U.S.

So, what exactly is an escape room?

Escape rooms are a new form of themed entertainment where players are trapped in a room and have 60 minutes to solve a series of puzzles to get out. Each room has a different theme, like a log cabin, a classroom or a dungeon. 

The concept sounds a little strange until you try it. Even Ma, who opened Rockville Panic Room in March, was initially skeptical.  “At first when I heard about [the escape room concept] it sounded kind of silly,” Ma concedes. “You lock people in a room for an hour and I am going to pay for that? You should be paying me.”

But Ma, who is an equity analyst, quickly changed his tune when he looked at the financials. “After I saw the numbers on it I was like ‘wow’ there’s something here.” Ma became a silent investor in Texas Panic Room, an escape room chain with six locations throughout Texas, and when the company looked to expand to the East Coast, Ma, a Montgomery County native, jumped at the opportunity. 

He thought the Bethesda/Rockville area had similar demographics to Austin, Texas, home of the company’s most successful escape room and believes his Rockville location could eventually be even more popular.

After scouring potential spaces in the area, he quickly concluded that Pike District was the perfect fit. “Coming from a finance and accounting background, the bottom line is very important,” Ma explained. The Nebel Street location checked all the boxes on his wish list: central location, plentiful parking, metro accessibility, and reasonable rent.

Once he had the location, it was time to design the escape rooms. As Ma gives a tour of the various rooms – some finished, some still under construction – you can tell he enjoys his job: “I like getting involved in this because the concept is fun.”

Ma shows off a “prison escape” game that is under construction, complete with jail cells, a warden’s office and even an authentic prison toilet shipped from Texas. As we enter a storage room, he points to a large coffin sitting in the corner that will eventually be part of a zombie-themed room.

Right now, there are two escape rooms open to the public – Cabin Fever and Escape Detention. The Pike District location has the capacity for up to five rooms and the plan is to introduce a new game every six months. 

[Andrew Ma, Chief Escape Officer, plays chess with Russell Allen, one of the game designers, in the cabin-themed escape room.]

Escape Detention, which is the easiest of the two, looks like a sixth-grade science class with grade-school desks, lockers, and a table full of beakers. Just because it’s the easiest, does not mean you will definitely escape. Every group moves at its own pace. Case in point, a group of 11-year olds recently escaped the classroom with 56 seconds remaining while a group of adults on a corporate retreat could not beat the deadline.

The harder option, Cabin Fever, challenges groups to escape a secluded ski resort in the wake of an on-coming blizzard. We cannot give away too many details but can attest that it feels like you just checked into a ski lodge when you walk through the door.

And it’s not just the rooms that are decorated. The staff ordered outfits to go along with each theme, like a sheriff’s shirt with fake Billy clubs and mountain ranger jerseys, backpacks, and Mountie hats. “We try to get into the role of things,” Ma said. “You are supposed to feel that immersiveness in a game. We like that part. I think the clients like it.”

They even have graduation caps and pin-wheel hats for group photos after Escape Detention. The hat you get depends on whether you escape or not.

Rockville Panic Room is also developing a kid-friendly arcade-themed room and has additional space for birthday parties, as well as a conference room for corporate outings. Ma expects almost one third of clients will be corporate retreats and team-building exercises during the week.

Rockville Panic Room is by appointment only and must be booked at least three hours in advance. You can reserve a room online at www.texaspanicroom.com/rockville.

Saturday, May 6, 2017