Cold war Diefenbunker joins 'escape room' craze
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Mar 09, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Cold war Diefenbunker joins 'escape room' craze

The Ottawa-area Diefenbunker Museum is launching the ‘world’s largest escape room’ this week.


During the Cold War, only a fortunate few would have been allowed inside the Diefenbunker in the event of a nuclear war. Today, only a fortunate few will get out.

Starting this week, the historic site and national museum will be used as the “world’s largest escape room.”

Escape room games — in which players are locked in a room and have to solve clues to find their way out — sprang up in Asia about eight years ago and have since become a recreational phenomenon across North America, with dozens in Toronto alone. Escape Manor, which hosts several escape rooms in Ottawa, was recently approached by the Diefenbunker Museum to develop a historically appropriate version for the site.

Most escape rooms are on a much smaller scale than what’s planned for the Diefenbunker. Starting this week, from Thursdays to Sundays when the museum closes at 4 p.m., a whole new kind of visitor will explore the 100,000-square-foot, three-storey underground bunker.

Twelve visitors at a time will be plunged into an hour-long, espionage-themed scenario, tasked with stopping an imminent nuclear detonation.

Even before the attraction opens, it’s already booked up through September, having sold out in a single week.

“It’s an experience in itself to visit the Diefenbunker,” said Escape Manor spokesperson Steve Wilson, noting the entrance to the museum is down a massive subterranean “blast tunnel.”

“You’re three storeys underground and there’s no Internet, so there’s no connection to the outside world. It’s very, very immersive.”

The bunker, built at the height of the Cold War during the administration of late prime minister John Diefenbaker, was meant to house more than 500 government officials in the event of a nuclear attack.

“It’s like a labyrinth in itself. You feel immediately humbled and transformed back into a lost era. It takes you right back to the Cold War era. There’s an office for the prime minister, and you can walk in and see the bed where he would have slept; you can see all the old phones and AV equipment,” Wilson said.

“There’s computer rooms that are just mind-boggling, knowing the BlackBerry in your pocket has more power than most of these things that are the size of garbage trucks. You really feel like you’re stepping back in time.”

Clues are intermingled with the museum’s existing artifacts and participants — who pay $30 each — have 60 minutes to achieve three tasks that will allow them to solve the puzzle.

Megan Lafrenière, marketing manager for the museum, said bringing in Escape Manor was a novel way to “attract audiences who don’t typically visit museums; you’re bringing them in a whole other way.”

“There are younger people who may not have a connection to the Cold War and may not have been born then, so it’s attracting an altogether different audience, which is exciting for us.”

While the Diefenbunker is a national historic site and museum, “we’re a not-for-profit. This is part of our revenue-generating and helps us to maintain a very, very old facility,” Lafrenière added.

Escape Manor already operates nine other “rooms” in two other buildings — with scenarios including an asylum, a jail and a laboratory — one in downtown Ottawa and one in the Hintonburg neighbourhood.

While Wilson and his business partners expected a demographic of clients from 20 to 40, they’ve been surprised that visitors have ranged in age from 12 to 86. There’s also a large contingent of companies seeking “team-building” exercises.

Have fun with world history at these 5 escape rooms

1. Casa Loma, Toronto

The historic Toronto mansion offers two extremely popular escape room games, developed and operated by Company and Co., and a third launches this month.

You can “escape from the tower,” set in 1941 with a team recruited to an undercover anti-submarine detection research centre with only an hour to find the enemy’s U-boat co-ordinates.

Or play “king of the bootleggers” in the tunnel beneath Casa Loma, which has been turned into a 1920s speakeasy.

Coming at the end of March, go inside Toronto’s post-Second World War-era “Station M,” a code name for the British Security Coordination’s secret spy-gear manufacturing facility.

All of the games incorporate some of the home’s real history with fictional elements added on, said Leonardo Dell’Anno, Escape from Casa Loma general manager.

“Station M was said to have had a secret lair, somewhere in or around this area.”

2. Bletchley Park, U.K.

As captured in 2014’s Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game, this historic mansion was central to Britain’s code-breaking efforts during the Second World War and the spot where mathematician Alan Turing and his team cracked Germany’s infamous Enigma code.

Opening this month, the escape game takes place in “E-block,” which was the old centre for radio transmissions during the war.

Teams must work together to solve puzzles and crack codes, just as the code-breakers did more than 70 years ago with much higher stakes.

3. Escape from East Berlin, Germany

When visiting the German capital you can go back in time with this escape room game from German company The Room.

Taking place in the 1980s during the Cold War, this game is for teams of two to five players.

“Your emigration application to the ‘Golden West’ has been rejected and things start to get tricky. But surprisingly you receive a tip from a secret source: There is a way to the West — you only have to find it,” reads the site.

“Get off your couch! Forget your computer, smartphone and boring history books. With us you’ll experience Berlin’s history,” it promises.

4. Gamescape Paris, France

This company offers three historic escape games in the City of Light.

Players can try to escape from shackles inside the royal jail of La Bastille or from Gustave Eiffel’s locked office by solving puzzles. They can also take the “alchemist’s challenge,” sorting through the mysteries of famous French alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

Each of the three scenarios are based on real legends and iconic figures of the city’s history, wrote Irving Le Hen of the company in an email, and learning is part of the process.

In the Gustave Eiffel room, for example, players can find real coins more than 100 years old and hand-drawn copies of Eiffel’s blueprints for a bridge in France.

5. Nuclear Bunker Escape Room, Prague

Another Cold War-inspired escape game, this one takes place in a recreated bunker in the Czech Republic capital, complete with period costumes and gas masks.

Your team’s mission? To find secret documents the resistance has hidden in a fallout shelter that could cause regime change in the Soviet Union before they fall into the hands of Russian KGB agents.

Toronto Star

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