By Grace Brandt

Imagine you’re deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, backpacking with your friends during your summer vacation. As the dense trees give way to a clearing, stunning Mayan ruins sprawl out before you. You eagerly rush to explore them, but it turns out you’re not the only ones there—this is an archeological site, and you’re trespassing. The archeologists handcuff you and your friends together and lock you in a room until the authorities can come arrest you. They’ll only let you out, they say, if you help them solve some ancient Mayan riddles. Can you do it in time?

If solving mysteries like this one sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon, then you should check out a local escape room. Escape rooms offer players a chance to fully immerse themselves in a scenario—whether it’s a retro post office, a laboratory, or even a witch’s kitchen—as they scramble to solve riddles and unlock puzzles to escape in time.

Mankato has its very own escape room, Kato Escape, and it’s sure to offer fun for everyone—even if they don’t escape.

A New Kind of Fun

Kato Escape opened in March 2016 and features five unique rooms: Ivan’s Room, the Tubes Lab, Mayan Escape, Directive 42, and the Oracle.

Submitted Image - Kate Escape Room in Mankato
Submitted Image – Kate Escape Room in Mankato

It’s the brainchild of Elizabeth and Jason Hanke, who first learned about escape rooms during a date night in the Twin Cities. While they enjoyed the concept, they found that was a bit difficult to include their children in it because the cost was per person, which can add up quickly for families. In addition, since they didn’t book the whole room but only their spots, they were never sure who else would be in the room and whether the group would be good for kids. Because of this, they decided to really focus on family-friendly fun, including the ability for groups to have the whole room to themselves.

“When you’re mixed in with other people, that’s harder for families,” Elizabeth Hanke said. “We specifically wanted to cater more to families and friends, among themselves.”

Hanke said that different rooms have different origin stories. For example, with the Mayan Escape room, they built the entire scenario around the skylight in the middle of the ceiling, which seemed similar to a flat Mayan pyramid top. With the Tubes Lab, the whole thing was built around the idea of tubing in the ground. Kato Escape also has a portable version of the game: an electronic suitcase that can be brought to houses or events and contains puzzles to solve.

Submitted Image - Kato Escape in Mankato - The Oracle Room
Submitted Image – Kato Escape in Mankato – The Oracle Room

Staying Fresh

Hanke said they have to always look forward to the next room idea, since it’s difficult to attract people back once they’ve solved all the riddles. She’s already working on her sixth room, which will revolve around magic and illusion, which she hopes to open sometime this year.

“Typically, you don’t do it again,” she said. “It doesn’t change much. So, we’ve just been adding rooms.”

We see a lot of people with grandparents, parents and kids. It’s hard to find something that an 80-year-old can do with a 6-year-old. Most of our rooms are diverse enough to fit most age groups. Elizabeth Hanke

Different rooms also focus on different sorts of challenges. Uncle Ivan’s room has a lot of “find this” sort of challenges, which can be great for young kids. This room is scheduled to be replaced by the new magic and illusion room, so if you’re interested in checking it out, you might want to go sooner rather than later.

“If you’re not a problem solver, or if you’re a young kid, the finding aspect is great, because anyone can find things,” Hanke said. “The game is really in the control of the people who’re playing. You can always ask for clues if you get stuck. Some people want to do it without any clues, and other people just want to escape. We don’t limit clues at all. It’s mostly about having a good time.”

And, Hanke adds, just about anyone can have a good time in these rooms.

“We see a lot of people with grandparents, parents and kids,” she said. “It’s hard to find something that an 80-year-old can do with a 6-year-old. Most of our rooms are diverse enough to fit most age groups.”

Submitted Image - Ivan's Room at Kato Escape in Mankato
Submitted Image – Ivan’s Room at Kato Escape in Mankato

Staying Safe

Like many other business owners, Hanke was forced to shut her doors in March in the wake of COVID-19. She said she was able to reopen in June, first offering rooms to people who had booked but who had needed to reschedule because of the closure.

“There were people who were scheduled out weeks or months in advance, so they could get a refund or reschedule,” she explained.

Once these prior bookings were accommodated, Hanke opened up her escape rooms to the general public. To follow Governor Walz’s mask mandate, customers are required to wear masks in the lobby, but since they book an entire room for themselves, they are able to remove their masks while they’re in the escape room if they feel comfortable. Customers are required to wash their hands when they arrive at the business, and Kato Escape employees thoroughly clean rooms between bookings.

With a lot of things closed down, I feel like I’m getting a lot more first-timers who have never done an escape room. People are going out of their way to try something new. Elizabeth Hanke

“Once you’re in a room, because they’re all separate rooms, it’s like reserving a hotel room,” Hanke said. “It is your own private space. If a family comes in, they’ll take off their masks in the room. When the room finishes, we typically spray everything down, leave the room for a little while, then come back and wipe it down and reset. It works really well, because we’re not super busy.”

According to Hanke, one of the toughest challenges of waiting out the pandemic was losing most of her employees, many of whom had worked at Kato Escape for years. She said she tried to keep as many people for as long as possible, but as the stay-at-home order continued throughout the spring months, she finally couldn’t afford it. Now, she’s down to just one employee and herself.

“We did lose almost all of our employees, so that was kind of sad,” she said. “It’s a small company, so I felt like we were a family.”

Now that Hanke is reopened, she said she’s already back to roughly the same number of customers as any other summer. She tends to have three or four groups every day, spread evenly throughout the week. Once school starts, she said most of her business will be clustered between Friday and Sunday.

Submitted Photo - Story author, Grace Brandt (right), and family members in the Mayan Escape Room at Kato Escape.
Submitted Photo – Story author, Grace Brandt (right), and family members in the Mayan Escape Room at Kato Escape.

One bright side to this situation, Hanke said, is how people seem eager to try new things, since so many “normal” activities are still shut down.

“With a lot of things closed down, I feel like I’m getting a lot more first-timers who have never done an escape room,” she said. “People are going out of their way to try something new.”

She added that people have been patient and understanding ever since she reopened, with nearly all her customers happy to comply with whatever safety and social distancing guidelines she has.

“We’re fortunate because the people who are coming out to see us are in the right mindset,” she said. “Typically, people are excited to get out and do something. Everybody has been super kind and [showing] even better dispositions than usual, as far as making sure they wash their hands and getting there on time. We’ve been really fortunate that way.”

Part of this article first appeared in Southern Minn Girlfriends.

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Author

  • Grace Brandt

    is the managing editor of MankatoLIFE. Throughout her 13-year career, she has written for more than two dozen publications. She lives in Mankato with her husband and two cats.

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