The world’s first officially licensed “Downton Abbey”-themed escape room is right here in Salt Lake City. Really.
And the man behind it is a little bit surprised about that, too.
Leslie Pardew, the owner of Mystery Escape Room at The Gateway, was attending the Las Vegas Licensing Expo in May 2018 when a representative from NBCUniversal — which owns the company that produced “Downton” — approached him.
“He said, ‘Would you be interested in this as an escape room?’” Pardew said. “They thought that they would test the waters with us.”
MYSTERY ESCAPE ROOM
Where • 130 S. Rio Tinto (in The Gateway)
Open • Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Admission • $34.95 ages 8 and over; group rates are available
Phone • 385-322-2583
For more information • Go to mysteryescaperoom.com
It took “almost a year” to negotiate the contract, build the room and come up with a story. Pardew and his team have re-created an area familiar to fans of the series — the servants’ hall, Mrs. Hughes’ office and the hallway between them in the lower levels of the abbey. They hit secondhand stores looking for furniture that approximated — or could be made to resemble — items on the set of the show.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t try to replicate the grand hall upstairs. The show itself never did that — those scenes were shot on location at Highclere Castle, which played the role of the Crawley family’s Yorkshire estate, Downton Abbey.
“We have to do it within the physical limitations of what we have,” Pardew said. “But in designing these rooms, you want to create the space as exact as you can.”
The rooms are a bit spare, but they definitely have the feel of the spaces made so familiar by the show, which ended a six-season run on PBS in March 2016. (A theatrical film is set for release on Sept. 20.) The most impressive piece in the rooms is the servants’ bell board, which features small bells that ring to tell the servants downstairs what room upstairs they’re being called to by one of the Crawleys.
“That was at least a week’s work,” Pardew said. “But it took much longer figuring out how to build it. It was tough because it couldn’t just be a prop, it had to work.”
He spent about 30 years designing video games before starting the escape room business about three years ago.
“My background isn’t in computer code, it’s in art. And so I kind of traded my paint brushes in for a DeWalt tool bag,” he said. “It was an opportunity to create something I could actually watch people enjoy, and it seemed more real to me as well.”
The bell board plays into the story that Pardew “worked a long time with NBCUniversal to get the right story — something that didn’t create new characters. Something that fits with the theme of the show that still would work for an escape room.”
The narrative that guests are presented with takes place in 1922, during Season 4 of the show. It seems that when the oft-evil Miss O'Brien suddenly exited at the end of Season 3, she left behind a diary “filled with rumors and innuendo” that “could ruin the Crawley family.”
(O’Brien was the lady’s maid to Cora Crowley, the Countess of Grantham. The actress who played her, Siobhan Finneran, described O’Brien as a “thoroughly despicable human being.”)
Guests have to figure out how to break into Mrs. Hughes’ office and locate three letters that O’Brien wrote to the head housekeeper. It’s part of a series of clues that participants must follow to locate the hidden diary and spirit it out of Downton Abbey before the servants awake — and before an hour is up.
“I tell people it’s like you’re in a movie, but you’re playing yourself,” Pardew said.
The “Downton Abbey” room, which opened on Friday, is one of five puzzles currently running at the Mystery Escape Room — the others are built around Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Sleepy Hollow and Zorro. And each session includes an actor in costume to add to the experience.
(Several members of the Los Angeles Lakers tried to solve the Sherlock Holmes mystery a few months ago. They failed.)
The Zorro room has also been licensed; the other three are in the public domain. Pardew also recently licensed Nancy Drew from the publisher Simon & Schuster.
The term for the “Downton Abbey” license is three years, and Pardew expects the Mystery Escape Room will come up with other mysteries built around the show in that time.
There are also Mystery Escape Room locations in St. George and Tucson, which will soon see their own versions of “Downton Abbey.” And the hope is to turn around and license it to other operators across the country and around the world.
“It’s a big deal — that an international entertainment company would actually think about putting something like this here and working with a company out of Utah,” he said. “The stars aligned for us, and we were able to put this together and make it happen.”
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.