It was once a rarity to board a luxury train car on a weekday morning in Hollywood. Before the pandemic, the leather-clad seats, framed artwork, silver cocktail shakers, ornate keys, and elaborate puzzles of the One Way Ticket escape room on Highland Avenue remained largely untouched until the evening hours.
But shortly after Maze Rooms reopened its Hollywood location amid the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year, escape room owners and husbands Ruslan Balashov and Natalie Lapidus saw a significant increase in the number of weekday morning and afternoon appointments – often booked by people who are unemployed and want to escape not only a room, but also reality for a while.
“The pattern, the market and customer behavior have really changed due to the pandemic,” said Lapidus. “We’re starting from scratch.”
Maze Rooms is a stimulating activity for those over the age of 8 who enjoy spectacular production design, problem solving and teamwork. Maze Rooms features seven locations across Los Angeles. Each of those destinations features immersive games that span a variety of genres, from space missions to undersea journeys.
In addition to the One Way Ticket, which challenges players to defuse a bomb attached to an opulent locomotive, the Hollywood Maze Rooms on Highland also offer the circus-themed World of Illusions and the ancient Egyptian-inspired Pharaoh’s Tomb.
“We were actually one of the first” escape room companies in Los Angeles, says Lapidus.
In September 2014, Balashov and Lapidus emigrated from their homeland of Russia, where escape rooms were already a common form of entertainment. In December they had launched their first escape room.
“It was a little scary moving to another country — no family, nothing,” says Lapidus. “He came up with the idea, ‘OK, let’s open an escape room in Los Angeles.’”
“We delivered our son here and I really loved this city because of the sun, the mood and everything,” Balashov added. “So I said, ‘Hey, we need to move here. We need to do something.'”
By March 2020, Balashov and Lapidus had expanded the franchise to include more than 15 rooms and approximately 25 employees in Hollywood, Culver City, Tarzana and beyond. But when businesses had to close due to the public health crisis, owners had no choice but to lay off their staff, some of whom had worked at Maze Rooms for years.
“I can’t even explain this feeling when you come up to your employees and say, ‘Guys, we need to close,'” says Lapidus. “People were crying.”
“It was a very nervous situation … because we are self-employed,” adds Balashov. “We have two children and the schools are closed. That was a nightmare. So you don’t know what to do. You have to stay in the apartment with your kids and you don’t know what to expect tomorrow.”
It didn’t help that the nature of their business defied categorization. The government has periodically drawn up clear plans and instructions for restaurants and shops, but an “escape room?” says Balashov. “What is that?”
The LA County Department of Public Health has classified Maze Rooms as an amusement park, which it is not. But it’s also not a museum, movie theater, or any other sort of standard entertainment attraction—meaning it wasn’t eligible for funding from the United States Small Business Administration.
“We were somewhere in between,” says Lapidus. “It was really a challenge. We are still slowly recovering. It goes step by step, bit by bit.”
To no avail, Lapidus and Balashov repeatedly emailed the health department explaining the significantly smaller and, in their opinion, safer scale they were operating on. They pleaded with the government to let Maze Rooms reopen earlier – to make an exception.
They didn’t return to work until April 2021 — the same month Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and other real-life theme parks resumed operations.
Immediately after their return, the LA escape room pioneers could no longer afford to hire workers, forcing Balashov to arrange everything on site, from sanitizing the rooms after each game to changing the occasional light bulb—what he did last month out of habit while giving The Times a tour of the establishment.
It was like they had just moved to LA all over again.
“It was a very difficult year,” says Lapidus. “I have a few gray hairs. … And it’s still very unstable.”
Now Maze Rooms is once again fully staffed and equipped with a variety of pandemic safety measures, including staggered appointment times and hand sanitation stations, as well as disposable masks and gloves available on request.
During the coronavirus shutdown, some escape room companies went online, offering virtual alternatives to the personal thrill of decoding complex numbers and unlocking hidden hallways.
“Honestly, I don’t believe in this remote control [experience]Lapidus says. “Some people liked it because I think they were really bored during the pandemic. But… we haven’t implemented it.”
“We made these games because it’s offline,” Balashov adds. “People can actually come and enjoy the game in real time, in the real world, instead of sitting in front of their computers. And it’s very important that we ask people to turn off their phones, because … you don’t need any outside knowledge when you play an escape room.”
- 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 Blvd.
- Target Audience: Families, friends, colleagues, anyone over 8 years old
- Surrounding Locations: The El Capitan, Dolby, and TCL Chinese movie theaters, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood & Highland Mall, and the Hollywood Pantages Theater, as well as several trendy bars and restaurants, surround the Maze Rooms on Highland Avenue.