Red Lantern Escape Room Presents Midnight on the Bayou: 2017 review

Red Lantern Escape Rooms, Brea, CA

These days, escape rooms seem to be among the types of activities that are all the rage.  Much like food trucks, music festivals, running events, and pop-up anythings, these interactive puzzle-solving experiences have proliferated all across Southern California.  But with greater volume comes the greater challenge to distinguish oneself from the pack.  For every The Basement or Cross Roads Escape Games, there are... less successful ventures.  To that competitive end, newcomer Red Lantern Escape Rooms seems up to the task, bringing its first offering--Midnight on the Bayou--to guests with a creative and unique challenge that combines a large themed space with special effects and theatrical production.  Westcoaster (and friends) paid a visit to this very new escape room just last night to see firsthand what the "new guys on the block" had to offer.

Tucked in a little business park on Lambert Road, just north of Downtown Brea (a stone's throw from the Brea Improv and Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour), Red Lantern has only been in operation for literally less than a month, as of this writing.  Named after the city's first movie house, which opened in the 1920s, this enterprise has sought to separate itself by offering amusement park quality sets and interactive gameplay that integrates modern technology into a thematic storyline.  Midnight on the Bayou--which Red Lantern room designer and co-owner, Roy Davis, notes was inspired and influenced by the opening scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland--most certainly reflects this marriage of themed entertainment and problem solving.

Guests are greeted by their host for the reunion, hired magician "Maximilian the Magnficent."  Max provides the background story to the scene, explains the rules, and sets the the game in motion.  He also remains in the room and provides clues where needed.

Guests are greeted by their host for the reunion, hired magician "Maximilian the Magnficent."  Max provides the background story to the scene, explains the rules, and sets the the game in motion.  He also remains in the room and provides clues where needed.

The story revolves around a high school reunion set in an oddly swampy locale, conveniently near the site of a tragic event in the school's history:

You haven’t set foot in Bayou High since graduation, but this carnival-themed reunion sounded fun. Though it is a little strange they’re holding the event on the old Boudreau property at the edge of the swamp, where decades ago several students died in a barn fire. And it is odd that all the carnival workers are mysteriously absent, with the exception of your reunion host who keeps nervously glancing at that creepy old chest…

Given the backstory, it's not surprising that supernatural events start to materialize.  The challenge is simple: guests have an hour "until midnight" to unlock a series of clues that will free the spirits of the five students who perished in the fire so many decades ago.  The timer starts when Max the magician directs players toward a chest near the entrance door that needs to be opened.  And from there, a series of tasks unfold.  These puzzles relate to the perished teens' personalities--a hopeless romantic, an adventurer in training, a gothic amateur photographer, a dramatic class clown, and an aspiring prom queen.  Free all five to succeed, and you win your way out of the bog.  Fail, and you join the spirits in eternal purgatory.  Oh, and they very much make sure to let you know this throughout the game.

Although there's a ghost story involved, this escape room isn't particularly scary.  Instead, Midnight on the Bayou aims for a family-friendly setting that is, at most, "spooky."  Which is perfectly fitting.  In addition, groups are capped at a maximum of twelve players per game.  Although there is no hard minimum count, the recommended minimum group size is six.

The space is somewhat dimly lit, making moments of illumination greatly useful in the deciphering of many clues.

The space is somewhat dimly lit, making moments of illumination greatly useful in the deciphering of many clues.

The major difference in this escape room compared to most others is immediately noticeable upon entering the playing area.  The size is significantly larger--1000 square feet worth of space!  This has enabled the creators to litter clues across a much wider area than even the most veteran escape room player may be used to, and it also gives Red Lantern plenty of options for future expansion.

Players are guest at their high school reunion, which has quizzically be set at the edge of a spooky bayou.

Players are guest at their high school reunion, which has quizzically be set at the edge of a spooky bayou.

Naturally, this means that spirits are on hand to make their presence felt.

Naturally, this means that spirits are on hand to make their presence felt.

The escape room itself presents a pretty good challenge.  The crew has done a great job mixing in a variety of puzzle types that rely on various kinesthetic learning styles to solve.  This means that even seasoned escape room players may find difficulty with some of the clues--a fact reflected in its current 30-something percent success rate.  Though there is the usual assortment of combination locks that must be open and visual and directional hints, Midnight on the Bayou also makes use of the five different spirits' characters and storylines to weave five different linear but simultaneous puzzle arcs.  Attention to detail and plot are important when navigating the challenges, and interestingly, Red Lantern's operators have noted that both escape room pros and beginners often seem to have similar solve rates and speeds, since the former tend to be talented at the technical solution side of things while the latter pick up on subtle points in the story that inform the clues.  As with any escape room, communication among the group is vital to keep track of active and used clues and trace the various steps of the various puzzles.

There is also the matter of the special effects utilized throughout the room.  Most escape rooms are purely practical.  Find something inside a prop, open a hidden door, uncover a clue beneath a piece of furniture... these are traditional escape room functions.  Red Lantern jazzes this up by incorporating certain lighting effects and triggered theatrical moments to both provide clues and signify the completion of challenges (i.e. the freeing of a spirit).  It's a pretty neat touch that lends a nice flare to the ambiance, and it will be fun to see the producers take this even farther and envelope guests in additionally detailed sets and audioscape in the future.

The playing space is much more open and less claustrophobic than many other escape rooms, expanding the possibility and locations of clues.

The playing space is much more open and less claustrophobic than many other escape rooms, expanding the possibility and locations of clues.

At the end of the night, we sadly did not complete our mission and escape.  In fact, we were only seconds away from solving the final clue when time ran out, stymied by what turned out to be the very appropriately named "Frustration Box."  Our smaller group--we were only five--and our "experienced but not that experienced" level of play (we've each done a few escape rooms at most) may have been slight disadvantages.  But the experience itself was very fun, and we didn't ever feel like any of the clues were particularly diabolical to the point of frustration or rigged to be so difficult as to detract from the enjoyment.  Ultimately, Midnight on the Bayou is a venue that I definitely recommend both to people who visit escape rooms regularly and those who are just beginning to dabble in this popular entertainment medium.

After our experience, Roy told me that Red Lantern plans on adding five additional characters in the future to allow for a second game with different puzzles and different props and effects to be utilized and featured.  In addition, the producers have plans to combine the pair into a massive challenge designed for large, approximately twenty-person groups, who will have to free ten spirits.  This would be great for corporate get-togethers and good-sized team building exercises.  Clearly, the crew behind Midnight on the Bayou is aiming high, citing well known escape rooms like The Basement and Cross Roads Escape Games as motivations for the quality and immersion in which they want to take their venture.  And it's a family-run crew as well.  Roy, his brother, Justin, and their mother and stepfather all play key roles in the company.  So the labor of love definitely shows.

Don't linger too long, lest you become part of the prom's royal court... forever...

Don't linger too long, lest you become part of the prom's royal court... forever...

Early results seem to have validated the hard work that the family has put in.  Despite its short operating tenure, Midnight on the Bayou has already seen a good number of positive reviews from escape room enthusiasts both beginning and advanced.  Count this one among the batch!

For additional information, location, and ticket purchasing, head to Red Lantern Escape Rooms' web site.  Pricing is $32 per person on weekdays and $35 per on Saturdays and Sundays.  Depending on the day of the week, bookings are available for anywhere from six to nine slots--each spaced one and a half hours from each other--in the afternoon and nighttime hours.

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