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


The Daily Tar Heel faces financial troubles as it turns 125

By Danielle Chemtob

Tyler Fleming’s nerves were racing as he proceeded to the podium. In front of him sat hundreds of journalists who had built the Daily Tar Heel, the student publication he was now in charge of.

All around him, the newspaper’s alumni traded stories full of truths and exaggerations from their time at the paper. Stories that, in many cases, shaped their careers as they went on to achieve national fame at some of the top news organizations in the country.

They were all gathered in the ballroom of the Carolina Inn for a historic occasion: to celebrate the Daily Tar Heel’s 125th anniversary. They proudly wore — and lived — the motto on the event’s buttons: print news and raise hell.

As the celebration ensued, Fleming, the paper’s current editor-in-chief, prepared to tell the crowd that despite the paper’s illustrious past achievements, the next 125 years of its survival were far more uncertain.

The paper has lost an average of $200,000 per year in recent years as the decline of print advertising revenue sweeping the industry has hit hard. In fiscal year 2016, its total revenue was less than a million dollars. It cut print publication from five days per week to four, and this year to three.

Nonetheless, Fleming began to describe his hope for the publication’s future to the 250 people seated in front of him.

“My editors have sat through meetings talking about what happens if the DTH doesn’t have any more money,” he said. “But if editors and young staffers can sit through a meeting and discuss what are we going do if we have literally no dollars left and still show up to work the next day excited to put out a paper, I think as far as internally goes, we have nothing to worry about.”

Staff enthusiasm alone can’t save the paper from financial peril, though. But the alumni in that room, a number of whom had generous pocketbooks, could certainly help.

This was Fleming’s chance to keep the lights on at the institution he loved.

A year of changes

The paper’s 125th celebration that weekend wasn’t the first time Fleming had detailed its financial woes.

In September, Fleming brought his management team to Starbucks, where he broke the news.

Prepare for the worst, he said. Print would be cut. Staff salaries, too.

They brainstormed ideas, but there was no simple answer. The same month, Fleming stood in front of his section editors and assistant editors after a typical budget meeting and had the same conversation.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

One of the editors asked him what he planned to do.

“When you respond, ‘I don’t know,’ it really emphasizes how hard of a solution this is,” he said.

All along, Fleming fought for the student journalists on his staff as the paper’s board of directors — comprised of Fleming, students from the general campus community, alumni and professionals — ultimately decided its fate.

On some battles, he had to compromise, even when it hurt most. He drafted a resignation letter after the board began seriously considering cutting all student salaries.

“You go into journalism to try to hold people to ethical standards and sometimes you have to hold yourself to it,” he said.

Ultimately, the board adopted a plan shortly before the end of the fall semester that reduced student salaries by 40 percent and shrunk the size of the print product. The paper terminated their lease early on their office on Rosemary Street, moving into a smaller space on Franklin Street in February.

And as Fleming prepared to take the stage in front of the alumni at the headlining event of the 125th anniversary weekend, the decisions he had made over the past six months weighed heavily on him.

He spoke of the paper’s importance in the community, and speaker after speaker reflected on the Daily Tar Heel as a formative experience for their career.

“Not all fraternities are defined by Greek letters, some are defined by lead stories,” Rob Nelson, now a co-anchor at WABC-TV in New York, said in an impassioned speech to the crowd. “It’s about being part of something far bigger and far more lasting than yourself. Having a chance to write just one chapter of an extraordinary book. Feelings like that cannot be engraved on a Pacemaker plaque.”

The support kept coming as the paper kicked off its $25,000, one-month fundraising campaign. A week and a half after the event, it had raised more than $14,000.

While the fundraising alone is not enough to sustain the paper in the long run — or even for a month — the event was the start of changing tides. For the first time, alumni knew the full extent of the institution’s financial turmoil, and many were willing to do whatever it took to turn the situation around at the institution that built their career.

“This paper will not fold,” Nelson said to the fired up crowd. “Period.”

A multi-generational effort

The weekend wasn’t just about the monetary support from alumni. It was also about receiving guidance from the journalists who had been forced to grapple with the same crisis themselves.

In her opening remarks for Saturday morning’s panels and events, Daily Tar Heel alumnus Robyn Tomlin, the recently appointed executive editor at the News and Observer, offered a vision of hope for the transforming media landscape.

“In local news, it’s not about selling a product,” Tomlin said later in an interview. “The DTH is free. It’s about getting people to want to invest in a service. That’s part of what the Daily Tar Heel has to do, is to define, what is the service it provides to the community?”

Hugh Stevens, a 1965 graduate and former co-editor of the paper, has witnessed firsthand the financial strain placed on newspapers in North Carolina. Stevens, a North Carolina media lawyer who served as general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, has represented the Daily Tar Heel, among other local media organizations, for decades.

Stevens continues to have faith in the newsroom he’s devoted his life to defending.

“In a town and with an institution like the university where there’s such an appetite for information, there ought to be a way to have a sustainable business model that involves collecting, editing and supplying info,” he said. “Exactly what that model is is what the DTH needs to try to figure out.”

Figuring it out

Last year, the publication began a venture that could quickly grow into a significant piece of that business model. The 1893 brand studio — modeled off of similar outposts of news organizations — provides marketing and branding services for local businesses and organizations. The team has grown to over 30 people working in graphic design, web development, photo and video, social media and event planning.

The 10 clients the studio serves are funding their own staffs, most of whom are paid as freelancers. But the studio’s costs are so low that it’s generating additional funds to help support the newsroom.

“I wish we could scale even faster,” said Madi Coffing, a senior public relations and economics student serving as managing director of the brand studio. “Once we get big enough, we could be a significant revenue stream.”

The brand studio is just one piece of the puzzle, and it alone won’t save the paper. Creating a sustained fundraising effort is another piece.

But even if all of these ideas fail, Fleming doesn’t seem worried that student journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill will be lost.

“I do think that worst case scenario, the DTH shuts down and packs up the bags,” Fleming said. “I have no doubt there’s going to be students who saw the value. They’ll keep the tradition of the DTH alive even if it’s by another name.”

It may not be print. It may not even be called the Daily Tar Heel. But whoever the young journalists to come may be, they will still achieve the most crucial part of the paper’s mission.

They’ll raise hell.


Edited by Allison Tate