ELLSWORTH — The clock read 59 minutes and 59 seconds.
Jordyn Knowles had left Ellsworth and was somewhere far stranger: a hospital operating room. The Gouldsboro woman was with a group of friends, and they had to find a way out of the room before the clock ran out. Otherwise, a mad doctor would come for them.
“It was intense the whole time, because you can see the time counting down,” she said of the experience. “Then you’re just on your own. That’s when you start searching for clues.”
Actually, Jordyn had found herself in this situation before. And it wouldn’t be the last time. She was at Ellsworth’s Rush Hour Gaming, which features escape rooms and virtual reality gaming at the Mill Mall on State Street.
The business, started by Danielle and Josh Nelson of Gouldsboro, helps local residents and seasonal visitors get in touch with their creative side by challenging them to solve puzzles and find their way out of a precarious situation — an immersive game called “escape rooms.”
Jordyn first visited in early 2017 to help test the doctor game, and then came back weeks later with her friends. She returned later with a group of college friends to try Rush Hour’s other game in which escapees are locked in a high school principal’s office. After that, she convinced her family to try it out.
Before Danielle and Josh opened Rush Hour Gaming, she’d never heard of an escape room.
“I literally had no idea what to expect, but it was a blast,” she said. “I love it because it’s so interactive … it’s creative and you’re trying to figure things out — it’s like a mystery.”
The Nelsons opened the business because they said they saw potential for a strong draw in Ellsworth.
When Josh’s mom visited an escape room in Chicago in June 2016, she called Josh and Danielle to tell them how much she loved it. Right away, the couple began talking about starting the company.
In August — the same week Danielle gave birth to their second child — they decided to go for it.
Josh is a sternman who’s been lobstering out of Winter Harbor for the past 16 years. Typically he’s spent his winters hunting and ice fishing, but now the business keeps him busy year-round, building elements that set the scene for the two escape rooms’ changing themes and other related work.
Danielle had run a small business before Rush Hour as a photographer, so she has experience running a company and working on marketing. She’d been doing that for seven years and was looking for a different challenge when they decided to launch the escape room venture.
A big part of the project, Danielle said, was to give them something to work on together as a couple. The two met at Narraguagus High School in Harrington, and have been together ever since. This is the first time they’ve run a business together, and Danielle said they’ve learned a lot about each other in the process.
Neither of them had been to an escape room before last fall. So when they decided to launch, they traveled to Bangor, Brunswick and Waterville to get trapped themselves so they knew what the experience was actually like.
Then they had to put together their storylines. That’s where the creativity kicked in. Danielle wanted to do something with a hospital, which led to “Off the Rocker Doctor.” Josh was interested in sports, which inspired the “Gold Ball Pursuit” game.
“You have to be pretty creative and crafty in this business,” Danielle said. “My husband and I enjoyed arts in high school, and then I took some art classes in college.”
Developing the storylines can take months, they said. And once they put the idea together, they’re often tweaking as they build the rooms. After the storyline, they develop puzzles that are hidden throughout the space.
“There’s really no blueprint, we just go with a storyline and make puzzles accordingly,” Josh said.
Building puzzles is a puzzle itself, Danielle said. The trick is to make the game solvable but not easy.
That sweet spot is evidenced by how groups have actually fared. The company’s Facebook page is filled with photos of folks who made it out with minutes or seconds to spare, or were nearly done when they ran out of time. Some, though, have made it out with 20 or 30 minutes still on the clock.
The work often comes home with them; while watching their kids, they’ll build and tweak puzzles.
“Josh and I sit at the dinner table and talk about things,” Danielle said. “After the kids go to bed, we sit on the couch with our laptops and devices.”
But while the work is driven by the Nelsons, Rush Hour is run by very team-oriented people.
Caitlyn Ramos, an employee at the company, said she and her co-workers are invested in trying to make the experience good for customers.
Caitlyn didn’t know Danielle before she started working at Rush Hour, but they’ve been close friends ever since she started. What she likes about the escape room business is that it’s mentally challenging, even for staff members who aren’t in the room.
That’s because the staff has to be working behind the scenes. They watch and listen as groups attempt to solve their way out of the rooms, and provide clues to help them along the way.
“When you get into the room and you get stuck on a puzzle, we can always help you out,” said Assistant Manager Nick Maniscalco.
For him, the best part of the job is seeing people enjoy themselves.
“It’s always fun to see people struggle with a puzzle and then figure it out,” he said.
Later this fall, Rush Hour will be adding a new room for people to try their skills on. “Butcher Barn” will be the company’s third room and first foray into scary games. It is recommended that participants be 16 years old or above.
Danielle has a caveat to that. “We don’t really lock you in,” she said, laughing. “We just shut the door.”
Rush Hour Gaming is located in Suite 20 at 248 State St. in Ellsworth. For more info, call 664-7555 and visit www.rushhourgaming.com.
Escape to the Mill Mall
What: Rush Hour Gaming’s escape rooms
Where: 248 State St., Suite 20, Ellsworth
When: Thursday-Friday, 3-9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Group size: At least six people and up to 10
Contact: 664-7555, www.rushhourgaming.com.