The Ultimate Escape

It should come as no surprise to anyone when I make this statement: KATIE ADORES ESCAPE ROOMS. Since her first in-person escape room during a birthday celebration, Katie has gone on to design many awesome literary escape rooms, both in-person (see here, here, and here), and virtual (see here, here, and here)! So it makes total sense for her to test drive Finders Seekers, a mailed-right-to-your-door escape room company. Take it away, Katie!


Yes, I adore escape rooms, both participating in and creating them! Not being able to partake in a live escape room because of the pandemic, I eagerly started searching for a worthy “at-home” alternative. That’s when I found Finders Seekers.

Finders Seekers is a monthly subscription where you receive a box in the mail with an escape room mystery adventure inside. The rooms are based on the culture and history of a different city somewhere in the world. The cities have covered the entire globe, including Sydney, Australia; Athens, Greece; Petra, Jordan; and San Francisco, California. There are a couple options for purchasing: you can sign up for a month-to-month service for $30, or you can select up to 3 levels of prepay spanning a year. There’s a gift option for sending a box to an escape room fanatic as well. You can cancel your subscription at any time.

Your “Escape Room in a Box” literally comes in a Finders Seekers marked box, which tells you that “The Mystery Begins Inside.” When you open the box, you find a “Classified” envelope with all the materials you’ll need to solve the escape room, along with a letter of specific instructions from Lucy Calder, Chief Seer of the Society of Seekers. Chief Seer Calder provides a website with links to different locations within the city, along with supporting information to help you solve the clues and puzzles.

Our first Finders Seekers adventure took us up the East Coast to Boston, Massachusetts. From the deck in our backyard, my son and I raced along Boston’s Freedom Trail and visited 10 historical stops along the way. We were tested by 10 “patriots” at the sites and once we solved the riddle, we were given a token that helped us decipher the final mystery to the location of a stolen relic.

The descriptions and data provided within the website work hand-in-hand with the materials found inside the envelope. You definitely need both elements to figure out the solution. If you get stuck on a puzzle, never fear. The website provides additional hints (and even the final solution!) if you need help as you work through the escape room.

My 13 year-old son and I found some of the puzzles rather easy to figure out, whereas others required us to put in a bit more thought to figure out the solution. Some friends of ours did it with their daughter and her friends (ages 9-11) with success as well. Even though my son and I had decided to not use any of the extra hints, we did get help once because it was difficult to read part of the clue on our materials and the puzzle wasn’t terribly clear.

Otherwise we managed to solve the escape room entirely on our own. Together we traveled through the city, learned fun facts about one of the most historical places in the United States, and crossed the Boston Marathon Finish Line in a little over two hours!

Our other Finders Seekers adventures had us jetting off to Paris, France and making various stops along the Metro, including the Catacombs and Moulin Rouge. We also have a mystery in Beijing, China waiting for us to solve.

For families who like game nights, for couples searching for a fun date activity, or for anyone who simply loves escape rooms (including yours truly), Finders Seekers is ideal. You finish the escape room in one sitting, rather than having to solve one section and then wait another month for the next part of the mystery. You can also do it entirely on your own! It provides enough challenges to foster excitement and intrigue for several enjoyable hours and introduces the adventurers to new places and cultures. Finders Seekers receives my highest recommendation!


In accordance with State and Princeton University measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library is closed until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

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.