Durham’s Bull City Escape challenges, entertains with escape rooms

By Heather Prizmich

A group of seven Duke University students gathered inside a room designed as a study from the late 19th century. A tall man walked into the room wearing a deerstalker, which is commonly associated with Sherlock Holmes. In a fake Cockney accent he said, “Dun Dun Duuunn!”

He continued after a pause, “Billionaire Chester Covington has been murdered and the police need help solving the homicide. You all have 60 minutes to figure out who the murderer is and escape the room. Good luck.”

Hetherton walked out of the room, slammed the door and locked it.

Just yards away from Duke University’s East Campus is Bull City Escape, an escape room business owned and operated by Alice Cheung.

The business, currently ranked No.1 in “Fun and Games” in Durham on TripAdvisor, is giving people a chance to exercise their minds through thematic puzzle solving.

“We provide real life escape rooms, where a small group of people are locked in a room,” Cheung said. “They need to search the room for clues, they need to solve a series of puzzles, riddles, combination locks. And their ultimate goal is to unlock the door and let themselves out.”

The rooms are all themed and given different difficulty ratings. The current rooms are (in order of easiest to most difficult): Lunar Lockdown, Enchanted Kingdom and A Study in Murder.

Cheung is a native of Long Island, New York, and graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in education. She became an escape room enthusiast while traveling across the country when she worked in marketing and recruiting at the University of Pennsylvania and then Duke University.

“I traveled a lot, so I would see if there was an escape room around, and the more I played the more I grew to love this concept, and I knew that Durham and the Triangle at large would just eat it up and love the idea of an escape room,” Cheung said.

Grant Hetherton, the British imposter from the Study in Murder escape room, said he applauds Cheung for her dedication, because she takes on a lot of tasks to keep the business going strong.

“Well, I think you have to be a sort of nexus of an interesting Venn diagram to own a business like this,” Hetherton said. “Not only is she a boss, not only is she the owner of the business, but she’s designing all the games, too. I know I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure how she does.”

The room where it happens

“We need our first clue,” said the student in charge of the walkie-talkie helping the group communicate with Hetherton, who was watching their progress on a monitor in a back room.

He cleared his throat, preparing his character’s accent, and talked into his walkie-talkie.

“Time is precious,” he said. “You have 35 minutes left.”

From the monitor, the group could be seen looking at one another and talking out what the clue meant. There were multiple forms of time—a clock, pocket watch and an hour glass filled with sand—and they seem confused as to which item they should look at.

Outside looking in

Hetherton chuckled at the monitor.

“They were just so close to their next clue, but the person it seems they’ve made their leader just pointed them to the wrong part of the room,” he explained. He’s waiting for them to ask for their second clue.

The place grew noticeably noisier as more customers came in. The next appointment was a birthday party for a 12-year-old girl. The sitting area was filled with purple balloons, presents, preteens and their parents, who were waiting for the go-ahead to leave.

Cheung’s other employee, Sheryl Howell, went into the cramped sitting area to talk to the kids. She seemed to have a hard time drawing their attention away from their smart phones, but after one kid after the next nudged one another, Howell finally had their attention.

She told them what to expect in Lunar Lockdown and then handed the lucky parent, who needed to supervise them, a walkie-talkie.

Cheung said that they allow anyone 12 years old and older to participate, but they need at least one adult with them until they’re 15 years old.

“These puzzles were created by me with adults in mind,” Cheung said.” I test all puzzles on my employees, so if it’s hard for them to solve, then it might be too hard for young teenagers. Only about a third of people are able to escape the rooms, and not one of the all-teenager groups have escaped successfully yet.”

Running out of time

With 15 minutes left to escape, the Duke students asked Hetherton for a second clue.

“Set up another case bartender,” Hetherton said, quoting comedic actor W.C. Fields. “The best thing for a case of nerves is a case of scotch,”

“Thanks,” replied the student.

“It’s going to be close, but I think they might just get it,” Hetherton said. “They’re on a good pace.”

Cheung, passing by, looked at the monitor, too, to see which clue they were on.

“I give them another five minutes,” she said.

First, they solved who the murderer was and then, with just 90 seconds left, they managed to escape the room.

Some of them walked out with their hands over their head like they had just finished a race. Hetherton had said that the rooms are like a mental marathon.

The group took signs off the wall that said “We escaped!” and “Yay!” before scrunching up together in the sitting area and taking their victorious group picture.

Bull City Escape, located at 711 Iredell Street, is opened Thursday and Friday nights and on Saturday and Sunday. Games are $25 plus tax per person with a minimum ticket purchase requirement to book a room. Enchanted Kingdom and Lunar Lockdown each require a minimum of three people to book and A Study in Murder requires a minimum of four. To book an appointment, click here.


Edited by Allison Tate