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Meet Chapel Thrill Escapes, the first student-run escape room nonprofit

Escape Room

Chapel Thrill introduced an on-campus escape room in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Cameron Champion. 

Chapel Thrill Escapes — the first student-designed, built and operated nonprofit escape room in the country — started this month on campus. 

Co-founded by UNC students Cameron Champion, Hunter Davis, Dan Hirst and Philip Smart, Chapel Thrill Escapes seeks to give individuals a unique experience of an escape room that they can enjoy with students, friends and families. 

Champion said he thought it would be cool to bring a lot of his creative friends together to start an escape room. 

With an idea and dream, Champion pitched his idea to a UNC administrator who manages various types of property around the University and Chapel Hill community. He said the administrator loved the idea but thought it would be unattainable due to the lack of funds for the project and the fact that Champion and his friends would be running the organization as  full-time students. 

Champion said he and his team were determined to get started regardless, so he talked with Carolina Housing, which later provided them a two-year, rent-free deal for the escape room in Cobb Residence Hall. 

“It was all hands on deck after that, and we had a crazy realization that it was all going to happen,” Champion said. 

He said after securing the space for the room, the team applied for and received many grants to fund it and has been blown away by all the support. 

Champion said BeAM@CAROLINA recently reached out to create a partnership with Chapel Thrill Escapes, which has provided them with resources that have been beneficial to lowering their costs of production. 

At their Nov. 1 grand opening, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz accepted an invitation to come speak and cut the ribbon beside the team. 

The escape room team is made up of various students from different academic disciplines who manage the creative, marketing and building of the room. 

“Bringing all these people together is truly magical,” Champion said. “We have a team of 20 people and no one has the same major and that’s kind of our secret sauce as to why our puzzles are so unique.”

Julia Dudick, a junior studying advertising and public relations, is on the marketing team for the organization. She said no one really knew each other before working on the escape room, but they now have created friendships with the other students on the project. 

Escape rooms give people the opportunity to live in the moment while thinking about the people and puzzle that is in front of you, Champion said. He said the team hopes all campus community members — from first-year students to faculty members to local employees — will visit the escape room so that they can discover the mystery of the experience. 

Champion said individuals called gamemasters, who help participants navigate the escape room, were added to the Chapel Thrill Escapes team in October to assure the best experience for the users. 

Zane Fish, who is majoring in communication studies, is a gamemaster whose role is to make sure everyone is grasping the full experience of the room. He said he helps people stay engaged with the story and tries to make sure everyone is having a good time. 

“There is a mysterious vibe that we want to give people but what really comes first is making sure everyone is having the time of their life,” Fish said.

Emily Kramer, a junior majoring in communication studies and music, is on the building team and first got into escape rooms when she was a junior in high school. She felt as though she thrived in the environment and said she has always had the idea of starting her own escape room one day. 

The impression of the escape room was so inspiring, she said, that she wrote her Common Application essay on escape rooms and how similar they are to life. 

“My full college experience has come full circle because I get in by writing my essay on escape rooms and now I’m helping build one,” Kramer said. 

Collaborating with students outside of class can be a challenge, Champion said, but the Chapel Thrill Escapes team has created a culture where all team members get joy from creating and enhancing peoples' experiences through the escape room.

“The best ideas came from the quietest voice so making sure to amplify them and adding on to them is very special and important,” Champion said, referring to valuing team members' inputs when working together. 

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He said the Chapel Thrill Escapes team has high hopes of expanding and getting onto Franklin Street in the future, but for now just want to provide an innovative experience for students on campus.