How Los Angeles escape room owners recovered from COVID-19

A luxury train ride on a weekday morning in Hollywood was a rarity. Before the pandemic, leather-upholstered chairs, framed artwork, silver cocktail shakers, ornate switches, and the elaborate puzzles of a one-way escape room on Highland Street remained largely unchanged into the evening hours.

But shortly after Maze Rooms reopened its Hollywood location earlier this year amid the COVID-19 crisis, escape room owners and couples Ruslan Balashov and Natalie Lapidus have seen a significant increase in weekday morning and evening appointments – often booked by people with Unemployment and looking to escape not only a room, but also a reality for some time.

“The pattern, the market, and customer behavior has really changed during the pandemic,” Lapidus says. “We are starting from scratch.”

A stimulating activity for people over 8 years old who have amazing production designs, problem solving and teamwork, maze rooms It features seven locations throughout Los Angeles. Each of these destinations has immersive games covering a variety of genres, from outer space missions to submarine excursions.

In addition to the One Way Ticket, which challenges players to disarm a bomb attached to a luxury locomotive, Hollywood Maze Rooms on Highland also offers a circus-themed fantasy world and a pharaoh’s tomb inspired by ancient Egypt.

“We were basically one of the first ‘escape room companies’ in Los Angeles,” Lapidus says.

A woman and a man standing in a dark room with a pyramid and animal statues

Natalie Lapidus, left, and Ruslan Balashov inside the escape room of the pharaoh’s tomb in Hollywood.

(Myung Jae-chun/Los Angeles Times)

In September 2014, Balashov and Lapidus emigrated from Russia, where the escape rooms already existed A popular form of entertainment. By December, they released First escape room.

“Moving to another country was kind of scary—no family, nothing,” Lapidus says. “He came up with an idea: OK, let’s open an escape room in Los Angeles.”

“We had our son here, and I really loved this city because of the sun, the mood, everything,” Balashov adds. And I said, ‘Hey, we should move here. We have to do something.”

By March 2020, Balashov and Lapidus had expanded the franchise to more than 15 rooms and approximately 25 employees based in Hollywood, Culver City, Tarzana and beyond. But when a public health emergency forced businesses to close, owners had no choice but to fire their employees, some of whom have worked in Maze Rooms for years.

“I can’t even explain that feeling when you come to your employees and say, ‘Guys, we have to stop working,'” Lapidus says. “People were crying.”

“It was a very nervous situation…because we are self-employed,” Balashov adds. We have two children and schools are closed. That was a nightmare. So you don’t know what to do. You have to stay in the apartment with your children, not knowing what to expect tomorrow. ”

Split image of a man standing and touching the ceiling in a blue room with the same man hanging upside down

Ruslan Balashov illustrates the element of optical illusion inside the escape room from the World of Illusions in Hollywood.

(Myung Jae-chun/Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t help nature of their work Classification challenge. The government periodically laid out distinct plans and instructions for restaurants and retail stores, but an “escape room?” Balashov says. “What is that?”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has classified Maze Rooms as a theme park, which it isn’t. But it’s also not a museum, movie theater, or other type of standard entertainment—which means it doesn’t qualify for financial assistance from the United States Small Business Administration.

“We were somewhere in between,” says Lapidus. “It was really difficult. We are still slowly recovering. It is step by step, little by little.”

Unsuccessfully, Lapidus and Balashov repeatedly emailed the Ministry of Health explaining the smaller and, in their view, safer range, which they were working on. They begged the government to allow Maze rooms to reopen earlier – to make an exception.

They didn’t return to business until April 2021 – the same month Disneyland, Six Flags, Magic Mountain, and other actual theme parks resumed operations.

Immediately upon their return, Los Angeles escape-room-goers could no longer afford to hire staff, which would require Balashov to handle everything on-site, from sanitizing rooms after every game to the occasional light bulb replacement — which he hastily done far from custom last month while giving The Times a tour of the institution.

It was as if they had just moved to Los Angeles again.

“It’s been a really tough year,” says Lapidus. “I have some gray hair. …and it’s still very unstable.”

Now, Maze Rooms are once again fully equipped with all kinds of pandemic safety measures, including staggered appointment times and hand sanitizing stations, as well as face masks and disposable gloves on demand.

During the coronavirus shutdown, some escape room companies have gone online, offering virtual alternatives for the personal thrill of deciphering complex ciphers and unlocking hidden passages.

“Honestly, I don’t believe in this remote control [experience]Lapidus says. “Some people liked it because I think they got really bored during the pandemic. But… we didn’t do it.”

“We created these games because they are offline,” Balashov adds. “People can really come and play and enjoy the game in real time, in the real world, instead of sitting in front of their computer. And it is very important that we ask people to turn off their phones because… you don’t need any outside knowledge when you play in the escape room. “.

maze rooms

  • Locations: 8632 S Sepulveda Blvd., 11901 Santa Monica Blvd., 4365 Sepulveda Blvd., 132 S. Vermont Ave., 1328 N. Highland Ave., 19347 Ventura Blvd. and 1147 S. Robertson Street.
  • Target demographic: Families, friends, co-workers, anyone over the age of eight
  • Surrounding locations: El Capitan, Dolby, and TCL Chinese cinemas, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood & Highland Mall and Hollywood Pantages Theatre, as well as many trendy bars and restaurants, surround Maze Rooms on Highland Avenue.

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