New ‘escape room’ attraction opens in downtown Petaluma

How does one describe a puzzle in detail without, you know, spoiling the puzzle?

That’s the challenge currently facing Sara and Dennis Davis, of Petaluma, as they sit in the lobby of Code Zone, their recently launched escape room operation in the heart of Petaluma’s downtown.

“We can say that one of the rooms is on a pirate ship, and the other is in a high school,” says Sara Davis. “But if we say much more, we could give something away, and that would not be good. Part of the fun of going into an escape room is having to figure everything out from scratch. We always tell people, please keep the secrets so others can have the full experience that you had.”

Thus sworn to secrecy, this reporter is facing that same challenge: describing something without really describing it. What is allowable to reveal is that the Code Zone rooms are less about “escaping” - no one is ever trapped inside, and participants can leave any time - and more about solving clues on the way to achieving a set task. Combinations are discovered leading to locks being opened, leading to new clues, all with a one-hour time limit.

And all of that takes place on the second floor of a fairly nondescript building across the street from Petaluma’s Putnam Plaza.

“We looked at a lot of different locations before deciding on this one downtown,” says Dennis Davis. “It’s perfect. We really think something like Code Zone belongs in the heart of downtown. There are amazing restaurants, dessert places and concert venues, all within walking distance of each other. We felt like this was filling a void, giving people one extra little cool thing to do with friends or family in Petaluma.”

The Davises, both teachers at San Marin High School in Novato - she teaches math, he’s an athletic director - discovered the joys of escape rooms in September of 2018, when they visited one in Rohnert Park for Sara’s birthday.

There are currently two separate escape room companies operating in Rohnert Park. Game the Room, on Commerce Boulevard, features three attractions: The H.G. Wells-themed “Skeleton Key,” the somewhat “GoT”-inspired “Key to the Throne,” and “Escape Atlantis,” which is more-or-less what it sounds like. At Reed Between the Lines, on Redwood Drive, visitors can currently enjoy a game called “The Babysitter,” a search-game in which participants try to find “something precious” their babysitter has hidden in a bedroom.

“We just fell in love with the whole thing,” says Dennis. “After that, whenever we went somewhere, if there was an escape room, we’d check it out.”

“We did one in San Francisco, one in Tahoe, one in San Diego,” Sara adds. “Eventually I had the idea, ‘What if we started our own?’”

“We’ve never started a business before,” notes Dennis. “We are both career educators, so it was initially a bit foreign to us.”

But not surprisingly, the pair accept the challenge much the way they’d approach a new escape room - by taking it as a series of puzzles to solve.

“I like the puzzle and problem solving aspect of escape rooms,” says Sara. “I’m a math person, right? So I like the calculating piece of problem solving, trying to figure out what part comes next, fill-in-the-blanks, that kind of thing. And we like the team-building, cooperative side of an escape room, too. It’s always a lot of fun to problem-solve and play games with a bunch of friends.”

“A lot of people get scared when they hear Sara talk about the math involved in some of these puzzles,” allows Dennis. “It’s not ‘math math.’ It’s more about looking at problems from different perspectives as a group.”

Though the Davises had the idea for Code Zone in February, it took the rest of the year to plan the rooms, build the clues, find the location and go through all of the various permit hoops and legal have-to-dos required when starting a business of this kind.

“A lot of love, time, thought and energy has gone into building this together, as a couple,” Dennis says. “As teachers, we work at the same school, but we’ve never actually ‘worked’ together. So for us to hash things out, talk things through, work together and grow together, it’s been really great. It’s been an adventure, and we’ve loved every minute of it.”

The first themed room they came up with was “Get to the Game,” inspired by school detention.

“We’re teachers, so we ‘get’ school,” laughs Dennis. “It’s a super-easy fit. In this game, you’re in detention, and you need to find your basketball and get to the championship game. It’s like a step back in time. I can’t say more, because I don’t want to give away any clues. But you will feel like you’re back in school. It’s really fun.”

In the other room, called “X Marks the Spot,” participants find themselves on a pirate ship, complete with a jail (and skeletal occupant), where they have one hour till the pirates return, during which they must locate a particular treasure in order to save the kingdom.

All of this searching and puzzle-solving is carefully overseen by Sara or Dennis. They watch every game from “back stage” and communicate with players via a wall screen that includes a countdown clock, offering instructions and information along the way.

“Critical thinking is fun. It doesn’t have to be work,” says Sara. “Math doesn’t have to be work. Playing games, deciphering codes - all of that is fun. That’s what an ‘escape room’ is all about. It’s about problem solving, putting things together, figuring things out. And in our case, there’s also a skeleton in a jail on a pirate ship. What’s not fun about that?”

Most people go online and book their visit in advance, rather than spontaneously walk in and play the game, but according the Sara, the sandwich-board sign out on the street has already been effective in letting passersby know that Petaluma now has its very own escape room.

“I did have a guy call in and say, ‘I’m driving through Petaluma. Do you think I could do the game by myself?’” says Sara. “I told him that he could probably do ‘Get to the Game’ by himself, but ‘X Marks the Spot’ is really hard. So he said, ‘Oh, okay. I’ll just get a group and come do it later.’”

According to Dennis, when people first hear about the escape room, the first question they ask, is, “I’m claustrophic, so will I feel trapped?” Others ask, “Does anything jump out at me?”

“Basically, people want to know, ‘Will I be scared? Will I be okay?’” he says. “Our answer is, ‘You’ll be fine.’ Code Zone isn’t that kind of escape room. It’s just like being in a classroom, or a living room, playing a game with friends.”

To be clear, it’s like being in living room bedecked in pirate décor, with a jail, a skeleton and a whole bunch of secrets.

“So, it’s more like a treasure hunt,” admits Dennis.

“It’s puzzles and codes and nothing scary,” adds Sara. “I’m claustrophic myself, and if I can handle this, anyone can.”

As for the puzzles themselves, don’t expect such an easy time.

“Don’t expect to solve the game the first time,” laughs Sara, with a hint of math-teacher pride in her voice. “Some of these puzzles really are pretty challenging.”

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