Escape U brings historical twist to the First Coast


When most people consider “puzzles,” the word conjures images of 100-piece paintings boxed up on grandma’s coffee table and the crosswords commonly found in the weekly paper. But several local businesses are throwing visitors for a curve by changing what it means to enjoy a puzzle game.

“Escape rooms,” a new phenomenon in the sphere of entertainment, promise visitors hours of brain-teasing fun contingent on their ability to work in teams to find their way out of a room by solving puzzles and clearing objectives. Guests pick their poison – options run the gamut from film noir-inspired mystery to jailbreak and horror-themed rooms – and work to beat the clock to win the game. The rooms are a popular choice for friendly get togethers, family gatherings and corporate team-building for their collaborative nature. Some rooms, like those at St. Augustine’s Escape U, bring a series of geo-specific events to the table for hyper-realism that adds up to a completely engrossing experience.

Escape U was founded by friends and business partners Brandon Buzard, Mitchell Swanson and Griffin Holtsinger. The St. Johns County natives first experienced escape rooms during a trip in Orlando in the spring of 2016. Enamored of the level of immersion offered by the puzzle-solving nature of each room, the partners quickly realized what a hit the attraction could be in St. Augustine. In December, Escape U opened with a twist.

“We noticed that no one ever incorporated local history into escape rooms,” Buzard said. “And St. Augustine has such a rich history that we realized it would be the perfect place. So, all of our games are based off of real events and places.”

Visitors who step into St. Augustine’s newest escape site will be transported in time.

Guests choose between two nearly impossible rooms: The first venture, the Castillo de Matanzas sends participants through an interactive, historic experience as they act as guards who must escape imprisonment by British soldiers in time to thwart an attack on St. Augustine. The room’s 14 percent completion rate makes the experience all too real, set amid a room meticulously fashioned into an 18th-century fort with handmade furniture and a functioning cannon.

In the second room, Save the Fleet, players must weather the storm of fictional Hurricane San Zenon, guiding a shipping fleet to safety through a treacherous storm by making it to the top of a 15-foot replica of the St. Augustine Lighthouse to operate the beacon.

The allure, said co-owner Brandon Buzard, is detachment.

“Escape rooms disconnect people from other things,” Buzard said. “The game requires so much focus – a lot of people think it’s a matter of intelligence, but it’s not. It’s attention to detail.”

According to Buzard, that level of immersion is no accident. The set design of Save the Fleet mirrors that of a keeper’s house built in 1929, the year in which the room’s events are set. The house consists of antique windows and a door from an actual home in Jacksonville's historic Avondale neighborhood. Both rooms are also complete with scenery, sound and lighting effects.

“You’re so immersed in the scenery,” Buzard said. “It just takes people away. During that hour, they don’t think about their cell phone, their work or any number of other problems. It’s an escape from reality.”

There’s also the additional element of achievement.

“It’s totally fun,” Buzard said. “There’s the added reward of solving something with your friends or family and coming out on the other side feeling like ‘we’re the greatest! We’re so smart!’”