The Bunker Experience, Pasadena’s only immersive “escape room” location, provides an exhilarating taste of an imagined apocalypse.
By Daniel Tozier Images Courtesy of The Bunker Experience
There’s this flight of stairs in Pasadena that’s different than all the others. Unassuming and easy to miss, they run down beneath the brick buildings on Raymond Avenue, just north of Colorado. They don’t, however, lead you into a basement or a cellar as one might expect. These stairs take you very far away to a post-apocalyptic American wasteland where gangs and vandals rule and danger waits around every corner. If you want to survive you’ll need quick wits, smart friends and the ability to stay calm, despite death, quite loudly, knocking at your door. This is the world of The Bunker Experience, the first, and only, escape room to open in Pasadena and it’s as unkind and unforgiving as the wasteland it’s set in.
The Bunker Experience was opened in 2016 by Pasadena residents Bea Egeto and Charlotte Bjornbak and although they accept the “escape room” label, it’s a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there are puzzles to be solved, combinations to be found and rooms to explore, but there’s something more at play here. There’s a rich story going on around you and, at times, it feels as though you’ve wandered into the middle of a play, watching the action from center stage before taking on a role yourself. The lines between you and the game are blurry, a phenomenon that begins almost immediately upon your arrival.
Go to any escape room in LA and you’ll begin by walking into a clean, quiet lobby where a secretary greets you, explains the rules and shows you to your room with a cheerful “good luck.” The Bunker Experience offers no such niceties. Instead, as I enter with a small group of friends, we are thrown, immediately and head first, into the adventure by actors in full makeup and costume. Before I’ve even had a chance to catch my breath, we are desperately digging for clues, keys and codes—anything that might help in our escape. Because somewhere, beyond the bunker walls, a merciless villain named Lightcrawler and his gang of savages have tracked us to this location, and are quickly closing in. Our only hope is a hidden map that promises a safe haven at the advanced and fully-equipped United Human Compound.
If, at this point, you feel as though you’ve tumbled into another world, it’s because you have. Lightcrawler, the wasteland and the UHC are all pulled from the scripts of Egeto’s passion project, Days of Light. Originally conceived as a 10 episode web series, she has instead taken the storyline of each episode and reconstructed them as escape rooms, referred to as chapters. Each chapter uses creative and immersive storytelling to push the narrative forward as you learn more about this post-apocalyptic future, each character you meet and each clue you uncover adding to the story.
But it takes more than a good plot to bring a world to life which is where her long-time collaborator, Charlotte Bjornbak, comes in. Bjornbak’s skills as a stage actor and artistic director made her absolutely essential to creating a world that felt lived in and real. Tattered blankets are draped across army bunks and dishes clutter the kitchen area. An abandoned teddy bear lies in the corner. Her incredible set design and authentic looking costumes work in tandem to pull players into the post-apocalypse. All this is done with the help of the surrounding architecture which features exposed brick walls and very heavy, very real vault doors, remnants from the late 1800s when the building above was the city bank. Thanks to Bjornbak’s work and the eerie setting, it’s easy to lose yourself down here, totally forgetting about the bustling city above.
Back in our bunker, the situation has become dire. Time is running out and we still haven’t found the key to the exit. The bunker’s electrician, Cutter, is lying, mortally wounded, on the cold cement floor. And Lightcrawler is here. His small army is at our gates trying to smash them apart, their war cries filling the air. My fingers, slick with sweat, are fumbling over the last combo lock and then…
Well, I don’t want to spoil too much, you’ll have to go experience it for yourself. Can you crack the codes and find the map or will you barely escape, empty handed but alive? Either way, you’re not done yet. Chapter 2 of your story is waiting as soon as you can feel your hands again and Egeto and Bjornbak say Chapter 3 will be opening sometime this spring. So whether you and your friends are looking for a challenge or you want to take date night beyond dinner and a movie, The Bunker Experience is a thrilling and exciting world to dive into, as long as you can find the key that lets you out.