The Candy Challenge: A Willy Wonka Escape Room

You had a sneak peek here…now it’s time for the big reveal! Katie designed a totally amazing Willy Wonka escape room for kids ages 9-14. Today, we’ll be posting all the puzzles, riddles, activities, and solutions. Hang on to your sweet tooth, here we go!

Last year’s Sherlock Holmes escape room took place in the Victorian-esque classrooms of Princeton University’s East Pyne building. But we wanted a more scientific feel for Wonka, so we headed across campus to the Computer Science Library. The big ceilings, glass walls, and funky artwork were perfect.

Like last year, we ran 3 identical rooms simultaneously, every half hour, for 5 hours. The 3 classrooms we used were lined up down a long hallway, each door marked with a different color – red, green, or blue. We also had an extra classroom to serve as a “waiting room” for kids and parents.

In between the rooms were cool displays of vintage machinery and mechanisms. Like these old record players (our Muggle Studies 101 curator would be having a field day!):

Annnnnd drumroll please! This is what the escape room looked like…

As the kids entered, a game master welcomed them to Mr. Wonka’s “Inventing Room.” She explained that there were job openings at the world-famous factory, but in order to make the cut, the team had to solve the puzzles Mr. Wonka had left for them. They had 20 minutes to find the ultimate solution. Here we go…

The 7 candy balloons each had a word written on them. String the words together, and you get the sentence: “The Invention Book May Shed Some Light.”

Next, find the black light flashlight in the pocket of a lab coat hanging nearby:

Then head over to the lab table, which had a number of objects on it, including the aforementioned Invention Book:

The book was full of recipes, ideas, diagrams, and quirky thoughts (all Roald Dahl appropriate of course, Katie really did her research):

But shine the black light on the pages, and secret messages are revealed in UV ink!

Eventually, with several directional clues like “This way,” “Go Back,” “Stop,” or “Too Far!” you end up on this most curious page:

Shine the black light on it and…

The clue leads to an inflatable kiddie pool filled with giant plastic “gumballs”

Count the balls, solve the equation, and you get the three digit code for lock #1 (we provided a calculator to help them with this calculation. It can be hard to do math under pressure):

Inside the lock’s chamber is a piece of paper requiring 3 measurements: 1) The length of a gummy bear’s leg; 2) The number of red candy cane stripes; 3) The diameter of Smartie’s candy. But, of course, nothing is QUITE the right size. The gummy bear, for example, was simply enormous:

To measure things, you have to discover that the giant lollipop is actually a measuring stick (which we hinted about here, and also share instructions on how to craft one of your own)!

The jumbo candy canes for the equation are hanging next to the lab coat…

And across the room? A giant set of Smartie’s:

When we test-piloted the room, some kids said they had trouble recalling diameter. So we snuck the information on the classroom blackboard to help out:

Once you have the 3 numbers, open lock #2, which holds a key. The key opens the pink box on the lab table, which reveals a test tube. Your instructions? Smell the tube’s contents:

The tube contained McCormick banana extract. After a good sniff, teams had to vote and select the correct flavor from a rack of test tube labeled with various fruit smells:

Once the selection was made, the game master produced a tube and said “If I add this liquid to the tube you picked…and the liquid turns purple…you WIN!” Unbeknownst to the kids, the winning “banana” test tube was filled with phenolphthalein, and the game master’s tube contained sodium carbonate. Combine them to get an awesome purple color change (sorry, the only photo I have is Katie testing it in her kitchen!):

One very important thing to note…only the game master handled the tubes with the chemicals in them. When the liquid turned purple, there was much screaming, yelling and jumping up and down. Most teams took 20 minutes to finish the room. The record that day was 12 minutes.

But wait, you say! Earlier in the post, I saw chocolate cookbooks on the lab table! Yes you did. It wouldn’t be an escape room without red herrings! The vintage cookbooks (purchased on ebay) and plastic science equipment were included in the room to throw kids off. Heh heh.

We had a game master in each room, dropping hints when needed, being encouraging, keeping time, and generally keeping kids on task. Here are our 3 amazing game masters, Princeton University students Michelle Vilarino, Amy Cho, and Jasmeene Burton.

It was a total blast. Hilarious things happened, teams rallied around one another, and one of the gummy bears was dubbed “Freddy.” Below are quick hints for running the room. If you have any specific questions, or want to know where we found/ bought our items, feel free to e-mail Katie: zondlo@princeton.edu

  • Our room was designed for ages 9-14. A maximum of 6 kids participated per room.
  • Make sure participants arrive at least 10 minutes before the game begins. We were very clear in all promotional and registration material that late arrivals would not be admitted.
  • Have a waiting area for participants, and try to keep it away from the the actual escape room so no one overhears the puzzles being solved.
  • Make sure all clues are printed. Not all kids can read cursive.
  • Test everything in advance! Make sure the locks fit on the things they’re supposed to lock to!
  • Using a black light flashlight? Bring extra batteries!
  • Make sure the game masters know the game. We ran them through the room once, and we gave them cheat sheets on event day.
  • Bring cell phone chargers. Our 20 minute game timers were our cell phones. Woe to ye who runs out of battery!

Many thanks to Michelle Vilarino, Amy Cho, and Jasmeene Burton for being such awesome game masters (and way to ROCK that blue wig Jasmeene!). Big shout out to the Cotsen Critix for pilot testing the room and giving such terrific feedback. Thank you to Dr. Kathryn Wagner for the color change chemistry assistance. And Katie…woo girl. You did it again. You are amazing.

Sneak Peek: Willy Wonka Escape Room

giant lollipopNow that’s a large lollipop! Tomorrow, our library is hosting an original Willy Wonka escape room, designed by the same genius (i.e. Katie) who brought you our Sherlock Holmes escape room last year. And I must say, she’s outdone herself this time.

The premise is thus: there’s a job opening in Willy Wonka’s top secret Inventing Room, but in order to make the cut, teams of 6 kids will have to solve the puzzles he’s left behind. And this isn’t your ordinary lab, of course. For one thing, the candies are unusual sizes, including this humongous lollipop, which we hope will measure up to the escape room challenge (heh heh, that’s a hint!).

We’ll have a complete breakdown of the escape room puzzles and solutions for you next Friday (and here it is!). But today, here’s how we made this giant lolly!

You’ll need:

  • 1 pool noodle
  • 1 large wooden dowel
  • Clear cellophane
  • Ribbon
  • Scissors and a box cutter for construction
  • Hot glue

This project starts with a pool noodle, which are the long, Styrofoam tubes you can find for a couple bucks in pool toys section of Target, or even at the Dollar Store during the summer months. We bought ours bulk from Oriental Trading company, because we plan to use them for another event. Our noodles were 46″ long, with a 2.5″ diameter.

pool noodlesStart by cutting a pool noodle in half. Katie used a box cutter and scissors. She found that neither tool was ideal, but the scissors worked a little better for her. Both methods, however, resulted in shredding, so definitely work over a trash can.

To create the spiral head of the lollipop, glob a bunch of hot glue on the end of a pool noodle half, then roll it inward. Keep globbing and rolling, and Katie advises LOTS of hand pressure to make sure the glue really adheres.

rolling the pop When you get to the end of the first noodle half, glue on the second half and keep rolling! Note: there will be a gap where the two halves meet, but it’s not too bad:

gap in noodleWhen the lollipop head is finished, use a box cutter and scissors to create a small hole in the bottom of the spiral (about 1.5″ deep), for the lollipop’s stick. We used 36″ wooden dowel that was .75″ in diameter. I found them at Michael’s Craft store for $1.60 a piece. Insert the stick, and glob a ton of hot glue in and around the hole to secure the stick in place. Katie’s also used color masking tape to reinforce the perimeter of the lollipop spiral.

lollipop stickFinally, use clear cellophane and a ribbon to wrap your lollipop head. Here’s our finished lollipop…the final length was a whopping 46″. I included a marker to show you the size ratio. Notice the measurement notches along the stick? Shhhh! It’s a clue!

finished lollipopAnd just in case you’re wondering, yes, it is a lot of fun to run around the office wielding giant lollipops. Definitely recommend it.

Poison in Princeton: A Sherlock Holmes Escape Room

sherlock holmes escape room

You might recall the sneak peek of our Sherlock Holmes escape room. Now it’s time to unveil all its secrets! It all started when our gang did a professional escape room for my birthday weekend. Katie and I thought the puzzle-solving premise of the escape room would pair perfectly with the literary world’s master of deduction.

bottle solvingThis entire escape room – the research, the puzzles, the narrative, the props, the logistics – is all Katie’s doing! Her preparations were extensive. She watched escape room videos, visited escape rooms, and had a meeting with game master Rebecca Ross from “Epic Escape Game” in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She bounced clue ideas around with Princeton University student Anna Leader (she of Victorian Tea fame) and pretested everything on a group of 6th graders at the Saint Paul School of Princeton. The logistics were pretty staggering too. We ran 3 identical escape rooms simultaneously for 5 hours,180 kids total.

solving pop sci

The premise of the escape room was that a poison had been released into the water system of Princeton, and Princeton University asked Sherlock Holmes to quickly find an antidote. He did, but a nefarious group of business men were trying to capture him, steal the antidote, and sell it to the infected populace. Holmes escaped and hid the antidote in a room with clues on how to find it. Kids had 20 minutes to solve the clues and identify the antidote.

The escape rooms took place in East Pyne Hall on campus. Its beautiful wood-paneled classrooms with leaded windows were the perfect setting for a Victorian caper.

east pyneUpon entering the room, kids found a large wooden desk with a number of items scattered on it. A teacup, teabag, an old map of London, a magnifying glass, books, photos, trade cards, a key, and an issue of Popular Science.

desktopAs I mentioned in the sneak peek, the trade cards, Popular Science, photos, and books are real objects from that period (sooooo cool). Also in the classroom were 8-10 Princeton University test booklets…

test bookletsFive bottles on the windowsill with scientific labels (Katie filled the bottles with items from her pantry, and hot glued the corks in really, really tight!)…

bottlesThere was a padlocked wooden box, which was in turn chained to a radiator grate…

locked box and keyAlso chained to the radiator (and far, far out of range of the box) was a key that had an unusual letter lock.

letter lockAdditionally, the room had two signs posted on opposite walls. An alphabet:

alphabet cipherAnd a figurine code. Holmes fans will recognize this as the famous “Dancing Men” cipher.

dancing men cipherThe blackboard also contained some clues…

clues on blackboardFinally, we had “Do Not Touch” signs posted in the room for over-eager investigators. You’re definitely going to need these…kids tear the rooms up looking for clues!

do not touch trapdoordo not touch flatscreenHere’s how all the clues worked, and the final solution. Hidden inside (and on) the various objects were Dancing Men clues. There was one inside a book:

book clue

One spread across the back of 2 test booklets…

test booklet clue

There was one on the back of the tea bag…

tea bag clueOne on an old map of London (you needed the magnifying glass to find it):

map clueFinally, there was one in a dyspepsia ad in Popular Science.

popular science clueThe last two clues were a little hard to find, so we left hints on the blackboard…

scotland yard hintdyspepsia hintThe Dancing Men clues corresponded to the 2 signs on the wall. Each figurine matched a different letter of the alphabet.

dancing men cipher

alphabet cipher

However, the signs were posted on opposing walls. So the kids had to cooperate to solve them. Teamwork! Did you notice the Roman numeral on each Dancing Men clue? Those were the order in which you dialed the letters on the letter lock.

letter lockOnce the key was released from the letter lock, it opened the padlock on the wooden box.

solving box clueInside the box was an old-fashioned periodic table with the words “I’ve found it!” scrawled on it. Elements hydrogen (H), sodium (Na), oxygen (O), and phosphorous (P) were circled as well.

periodic table clueKids matched the circled elements to the correct label on the antidote bottle. And we made sure it was an actual antidote. Sodium hydrogen orthophosphate is a saline laxative agent (something Katie’s 11 year-old finds endlessly amusing).

final solutionThe kids took the bottle to the game master, who confirmed that they had solved the escape room! We had a game master in each room, dropping hints when needed, preventing parents from solving puzzles, and generally keeping kids on task. Here are our 3 amazing game masters, Princeton University students Anna Leader, Anne Merrill, and Erica Choi.

game mastersAs kids exited the room, the game masters awarded them their choice of a souvenir key to take home!

key prizeBut wait, you say, what about the photographs, the trade cards, the key on the desk, and all that other writing on the blackboard? Hah HAH! Those are all red herrings, added to throw kids off. Because it wouldn’t be an escape room without red herrings!

red herrings

And how did the escape room go over? Very, very, well! There was excited screaming, running, urgent problem solving, clever work-arounds, and hilarious dialogue. Two of our favorites as heard through the door: “For the LOVE! Will someone please FIND Scotland Yard?!?” and this one (presumably when the periodic table was discovered): “Oh my gosh…guys! We all got Ds in science class!” Most kids finished the room right at the 20 minutes mark. The record? 12 minutes, my dear Watson.

To conclude, here is a list of hints for running the room. If you have any specific questions, or want to know where we found/ bought our items, feel free to e-mail Katie: zondlo@princeton.edu

  • Our room was designed for ages 9-14. A maximum of 6 kids participated per room.
  • Make sure participants arrive at least 10 minutes before the game begins. We were very clear in all promotional and registration material that late arrivals would not be admitted.
  • Have a waiting area for participants, and try to keep it away from the the actual escape room so no one overhears the puzzles being solved.
  • Make sure all clues are printed. Not all kids can read cursive. We learned this the hard way.
  • Test everything in advance! Make sure the locks slide into the objects they’re supposed to lock! Again, learned this the hard way.
  • Make sure you have backups of every clue and object in case something breaks or wanders away (scotch tape for paper repairs is a good idea too).
  • Make sure the game masters know the game. We ran them through the room once, and we gave them cheat sheets on event day.
  • Bring cell phone chargers. Our 20 minute game timers were our cell phones. Woe to ye who runs out of battery!

Many thanks to everyone who helped us put this escape room together! Thank you Rebecca Ross from Epic Escape Game for fielding our endless questions. Anna Leader, thank you for helping with the puzzles! Thank you to Anne Merrill, Erica Choi, and Anna for being such excellent game masters. To the young investigators at Saint Paul School Princeton, thank you for enthusiastically testing our room. And finally, a BIG tip of the deerstalker to Katie for putting this all together. You are an escape room MASTER!