Boarding a luxury train car on a weekday morning in Hollywood was once a rare occurrence. Before the pandemic, the leather-upholstered chairs, 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 soon after Maze Rooms reopened its Hollywood location earlier this year amid the COVID-19 crisis, escape room owners and spouses Ruslan Balashov and Natalie Lapidus saw a significant increase in weekday morning and afternoon appointments — often booked by folks experiencing unemployment and looking to escape not only a room, but also reality for a little while.
“The pattern, the market and the customer behavior really changed through the pandemic,” Lapidus says. “We’re starting from scratch.”
A stimulating activity for people above the age of 8 who enjoy spectacular production designs, problem-solving and teamwork, Maze Rooms boasts seven sites across Los Angeles. Each of those destinations contains immersive games spanning a variety of genres, from outer-space missions to submarine voyages.
In addition to One Way Ticket, which challenges players to disarm a bomb attached to a lavish locomotive, the Hollywood Maze Rooms on Highland also offers the circus-themed World of Illusions and the ancient Egypt-inspired Pharaoh’s Tomb.
“We were basically one of the first” escape room companies in Los Angeles, Lapidus says.
In September 2014, Balashov and Lapidus emigrated from their home country of Russia, where escape rooms were already a common form of entertainment. By December, they had launched their first escape room.
“It was kind of scary, moving to another country — no family, nothing,” Lapidus says. “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, of the mood and everything,” Balashov adds. “So I said, ‘Hey, we have to move here. We have to do something.’”
By March 2020, Balashov and Lapidus had expanded the franchise to include more than 15 rooms and about 25 employees stationed in Hollywood, Culver City, Tarzana and beyond. But when the public health emergency forced businesses to close, the owners had no choice but to dismiss their staff, some of whom had worked at Maze Rooms for years.
“I can’t even explain this feeling when you’re coming to your employees, saying, ‘Guys, we have to shut down,’” Lapidus says. “People were crying.”
“It was a very nervous situation … because we’re self-employed,” Balashov adds. “We have two kids, 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 kids, and you don’t know what to expect tomorrow.”
It didn’t help that the nature of their business defied categorization. The government periodically laid out distinct plans and instructions for restaurants and retail stores, but an “escape room?” Balashov says. “What is that?”
The L.A. County Department of Public Health classified Maze Rooms as an amusement park, which it isn’t. But it’s also not a museum, movie theater or other type of standard entertainment attraction — which means it didn’t qualify for financial aid from the United States Small Business Administration.
“We were somewhere in between,” Lapidus says. “It was really challenging. We’re still slowly recovering. It’s step by step, little by little.”
To no avail, Lapidus and Balashov repeatedly emailed the health department explaining the considerably smaller and, in their view, safer scale upon which they were operating. They begged the government to let Maze Rooms reopen earlier — to make an exception.
They didn’t go back to work until April 2021 — the same month Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and other actual amusement parks resumed operations.
Immediately upon their return, the L.A. escape room pioneers could no longer afford to hire employees, requiring Balashov to handle everything on-site, from sanitizing the rooms after each game to replacing the occasional lightbulb — which he hastily did out of habit last month while giving The Times a tour of the establishment.
It was as if they had just moved to L.A. all over again.
“It was a really hard year,” Lapidus says. “I got a couple of gray hairs. … And it’s still very unstable.”
Now, Maze Rooms is once again fully staffed and equipped with all sorts of pandemic safety measures, including staggered appointment times and hand-sanitization stations, as well as disposable face masks and gloves available upon request.
During the coronavirus shutdown, some escape room companies went online, offering virtual alternatives to the in-person thrill of decoding complex ciphers and unlocking hidden passageways.
“Honestly, I don’t believe in this remote [experience],” Lapidus says. “Some people liked it because I think they were really bored during the pandemic. But … we didn’t implement it.”
“We created these games because it’s offline,” Balashov adds. “People really can come and play 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’re playing 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 demographic: Families, friends, co-workers, anyone over age 8
- Surrounding sites: The El Capitan, Dolby and TCL Chinese movie theaters, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood & Highland shopping center and the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, as well as various trendy bars and restaurants, surround the Maze Rooms on Highland Avenue.