Freckles in April: Egyptian Escape Room Party for Kids! aka: FUN but So Much Work and Never Again

Monday, March 19, 2018

Egyptian Escape Room Party for Kids! aka: FUN but So Much Work and Never Again

The irony of this is that shortly before it all went down I was on Marco Polo with Erica and we were questioning moms who go all out for birthday parties.


I'm honestly the worst at kid birthday parties. My kids usually choose themes I hate (MINECRAFT). I hate messing up my house. I hate excessively detailed Pinterest ideas. I'm just...not into it.

My MO the past couple years has been to throw a bunch of money at someone else to entertain and/or feed the kids. We've done trampoline parks. Bouncy house rentals. Nothing at all (sorry, Middle Child's 7th birthday).

My point is: the party that follows is not my norm. If it's also not your norm I totally get it and I support you and after this I'll probably go back to being like, "Do you really need a party this year? How about I just order pizza and invite Grandma over?"

My oldest kid (I've nicknamed him Stinky for the purposes of this blog but he outgrew that moniker like 6 years ago so I'm just going to start call him Oldest. Baby 2 shall hereafter be called Middle and the baby is Caboose) turned 10 back in January. He told us he wanted to do his party at the FlowRider, which doesn't open until summer. I was like, "Low effort party months away from now? YES!"

THEN we went to a makerfest in Downtown Mesa that had booths and hands-on activities for kids- including a tent set up by a local escape room company that had all kinds of fun riddles and puzzles to open padlocks on boxes. I literally couldn't tear that kid away. He was IN. TO. IT.

In the car on the way home he asked if we could do an escape room for his birthday party instead. I said I'd look into it.

Unfortunately, despite having MANY escape rooms in the Phoenix area, few have options geared toward kids. And they were pricier than I was expecting.

I've been to an escape room before and I thought, "How difficult could it be to create one for a group of 10-year-olds?"

(Oh sweet summer child)

I shared bits of this on my Instagram stories and had a TON of people ask if I'd share what I did (people even offered to pay me. Which was nice and it reaffirmed that my blog readers are the best). I'll spare you the details for how it all came together but here's a walk-through of what it looked like by the end:

Oldest is super into the Rick Riordan Red Pyramid series right now (we read the first one aloud as a family and he sped off on his own after that) so a rough Egyptian theme seemed the way to go.

I made Oldest limit his guest list to 4 people. The escape room wasn't large and I knew we'd have a "too many cooks in the kitchen" situation very quickly if we had more than 5 kids in there. I think we could have done one less kid and it would have actually been better (there was often one kid sitting off to the side just hanging out while the others worked on a problem).

I wanted the invitations to set the tone for the party and thought it would be fun if the kids had to solve some kind of puzzle to get the party details. I thought about doing a cryptex and then spent ages watching how-to videos and reading lots of tutorials. I took pictures of the process with the aim of sharing a tutorial here but, to be honest, they were so much work I don't want to encourage anyone else to do it.

I made four cryptexes (crypticies?) and probably put in almost 20 hours of work on them. The ones in the tutorials I found were made out of PVC, wood, metal screws, and other sturdy materials but mine didn't need to be fortresses, they just needed to deliver the party invitations. I used cheap foam core boards in 2 different widths, wrapping paper tubes, hot glue, and lollipop sticks from the craft store. Cheap and effective!

I DID take a video of the finished product. I even took it horizontally like a civilized individual, but apparently my phone didn't realize that's what I was doing so I have a super annoying sideways video.

This is the text for the riddle in the beginning, in case you can't read it:

I can be thrown but I cannot be held in your hand

I’m best when enjoyed with your closest friends

I can be political

I sometimes include birthday cake (hint: this one will)

What am I?

After they solved the riddle and got inside the cryptex, they found this note:

Hey [Oldest], I'm glad to hear that [school event all the birthday party invitees were involved in recently] went well! It looked like a lot of fun! Work here in Egypt is going awesome. I think I've found something big but I'm not ready to talk about it- I'll tell you about it soon! Hug your family for me and I'll call on Wednesday like usual.

Uncle Jared


My uncle Jared missed his Wednesday call with my family. In all the years he's been working in Egypt he's never NOT called on Wednesday. I'm really worried- will you come over on Friday at 5pm and help me find him? Text my mom at [number] to let her know if you can come so she can make arrangements. We should be done by 7:30pm!

Signed, [Oldest]

PS We'll have pizza and cake because you can't solve a mystery on an empty stomach!

When all the boys arrived on the day of the party I read them this:

[Oldest]’s beloved uncle Jared is a world-famous Egyptologist. He’s been hinting lately that he’s found something big- really big. [Oldest] suspects it's a previously undiscovered tomb! But he missed his weekly call with [Oldest]’s family and [Oldest] is worried. [Oldest]’s mom says Jared is probably just off digging in his “secret location” and forgot to tell anyone but [Oldest] has decided to take his smartest, bravest friends to Egypt to go look for Jared. After a long flight the boys head straight to Jared’s office. [Oldest] hopes he’ll walk in and find Jared working at his desk but unfortunately there’s no one in the office, just the normal books and papers.

From there I let them loose!

We have a corner in our front room that is our kid's normal computer area. I set it up to look like the desk of an Egyptologist- I got a bunch of books on Egyptology from the library. I put up a corkboard with diagrams of pyramids, maps, images of Egyptian artifacts, etc. I even had a real Egyptian papyrus on loan from a friend (thanks, Lonica!). I used washi tape to tape off the boundaries of the office and told them they didn't need to worry about anything beyond those boundaries. Essentially, they were only working with the desk, chair, and the book case. I told them any clues in the book case would be pretty obvious so there was no need to pull out all my books to look for things.

Puzzle 1: Find the decoder wheel pieces and key and assemble.

I hid these three pieces throughout the office and they had to find them. This is where we ran into our first hiccup- there was a candle on the desk and the post-it with the key was stuck to the bottom. The boys looked INSIDE the candle but not underneath it. In retrospect, the candle was glass and they've probably been told one million times not to mess with glass items and it was dumb of me to put it underneath. I should have put it inside the lid or somewhere else entirely. They were barking up all kinds of crazy trees trying to figure out the decoder wheel ("This is a foot so it must be the letter F!") so I finally just told them where the key was.

Puzzle 2: Use decoder wheel to decipher the poem

Hidden on that white chair behind the pillow was a rolled up piece of paper. They quickly found it and unrolled it-

I found an ancient Egyptian poem online. I simplified it and converted it to hieroglyphics and put this together in Photoshop before printing it on a piece of paper that looked old and papyrus-y (my friend Lonica just happened to have some perfect paper laying around, in addition to the real papyrus she loaned me).

This is where we ran into our second (and third) hiccup. I thought this would be such a simple task- it's just basic decoding- but it took ages and there are things I would do differently in the future.

I didn't leave a big enough space between two words and the kids got WAY hung up right there (you can see the slash I added in to separate words when I finally wandered over to see what was taking so long). The bigger problem for them, though, was the fact that the ancient Egyptians didn't have a 26 letter alphabet. A few letters are represented by duplicate hieroglyphic characters (I and E, V and F, X and C). I thought the kids would be able to puzzle their way through that (I'm sure adults could have), but it was too hard for 10-year-olds, especially when you throw in the missing letters. If I were to do this again I would add a couple details to the duplicate hieroglyphics to differentiate each of the letters. 

When they (finally) translated the poem, this is what it said:

A boy goes dow_ to the r_ver
He gets a fish
for the gir_ he lov_s

Puzzle 3: Find missing letters in poem and use them to open the letter lock

The missing letters in the poem spell NILE, which was the code for the lock on a brown box that was tucked into the corner of the office.

Box was tucked at the end of the book case. You can see it in the lower right corner.

I literally just painted a box from our last Blue Apron delivery a shade of brown and added loops of twine to keep it closed with the lock. I had grand intentions of making it look like an old steamer trunk or something but the dang invitations took so long I just ran out of time and energy, so it was just a brown box. Which was ultimately maybe better because it actually took them a while to notice it. It blended.

When they opened the box they found the iPad aaaand...another box.

One of the boys said, "Another box?? WHAT IS THIS MADNESS." I died.

Puzzle 4: Unlock iPad using numbers from cork board

The iPad was locked with a 4-digit code. One of the boys noticed early on that there were pages with circled numbers tacked up on the cork board.

I found a book on Egyptology at a used book store and ripped out pages that contained numbers. I circled four of the numbers with green sharpie and tacked them up on the board. Then I changed the iPad's lock code to match the numbers I found.

When the boys unlocked the iPad they found a video waiting for them.

Side note: my parents recently moved to Texas and my brother Jared needed temporary housing before going to grad school in Pennsylvania in August so he moved in with us. We're not charging him rent which meant he didn't have any choice when I told him he was going to be a missing Egyptologist for a 10-year-old's birthday party. 

Earlier that day I took my brother into a dark closet and we recorded a quick video. He'd die if I shared it here so here's what he said:

"[Oldest]! I hope this works- I'm sending it from my iPhone to my iPad and just hoping you'll come looking for me. I was excavating a tomb and somehow the door got shut behind me and I'm trapped! I have some food and water- enough for a few days. I left a trail- you have to start at Alexandria then go to Giza. Then to the Valley of the Kings. Then to the Dakhla Oasis. Then to the Sphinx. Then to Abu Simbel. Find the- oh no, my battery is dy-!"

The video cut out.

Puzzle 5: Use Jared's directions to open the directional lock

In the lid of the big box was a map:

And inside that box was a smaller box with a directional lock-

Same song and dance with holes poked through the cardboard and twine to hold the lock.

If they followed Jared's directions in the video, they could look at the map and see how to open the directional lock- ↓↓←↑↓

Unfortunately, I messed this one up a bit and the directions did not match the lock code (should have been ↓↓↑↓). They worked on it for a while and I finally just had to open it for them. Sorry, kids!

Inside the second box was a blacklight flashlight.

Puzzle 6: Use blacklight flashlight to find marked book

I planned the party timing so that, at this point, the sun had mostly set and the room was getting dark. They used the blacklight flashlight to start scanning the room. I used a couple different things to mark the spine of an extra copy of the third Harry Potter book. Laundry detergent lights up under blacklight and yellow highlighter looks black. I painted the spine with laundry detergent and wrote hieroglyphics on it with the highlighter. Unfortunately, it still wasn't SUPER visible if they went over it quickly (which they did). I had to prompt them to go back and look more slowly. If I were to do it again I'd try to find some paint that would fluoresce more obviously under blacklight.

When they opened the book they found that part of it was hollowed out and there was a cut-up picture of King Tut

Puzzle 7: Assemble King Tut picture, flip over for tomb location

When the boys put together King Tut they had to tape the picture together and flip it over to find one last hieroglyphic word to decode. They quickly figured out that it said, "backyard" and they ran out to discover that I'd decorated our backyard with twinkle lights, lots of fun glow stick jewelry (they decked themselves out with glow necklaces, bracelets, etc.), a fire in the fire pit, a pyramid cake, pizza aaaand Uncle Jared!

Serious Eats Classic Vanilla Butter Cake frosted with Mel's Kitchen Cafe Vanilla Buttercream and topped with marshmallows I cut in half then toasted with a torch. It was a dang good cake. Time lapse video on my instagram

I thought about including a mummy's curse type element but everything I thought of was kind of hokey. I also really wanted to have the "tomb" be a separate location in our house (maybe the closet under the stairs?) with a blacklight trail leading to it but by that point my brain was so tired of coming up with puzzles that I just couldn't think of anything really creative for opening the tomb. So King Tut directing them to the party in the backyard it was. We told them the pyramid cake was the "tomb". Ha. They loved it though and didn't seem to feel it ended on an anticlimactic note.

The hardest part about this whole thing was not being sure if the puzzles I came up with were appropriate to their age level. When it was finished I thought, "This could take them 20 minutes or an hour and a half. I have NO idea." I was hoping for 45-60 minutes and it ultimately took them just under an hour, with a handful of hints and helps. They all said they had a really fun time. When I asked Oldest what he thought about his party he said, "I loved it!" Which, from my rather reticent child, is high praise.

If you'd like to make your own escape room, here are my tips:

1. Start with a back story. It will give you direction. Pick a time period, a place, a theme. 

2. Think in terms of puzzles and then make the story fit the puzzles rather than the other way around. I started with the idea of a decoder wheel then made it fit the story by adding hieroglyphics and an Egyptian poem. I knew I wanted to incorporate the iPad so I started there then worked out how to incorporate the lock code into the corkboard and what they would find when they unlocked the iPad.

3. Make a flow chart to track details. I have one on Google docs that has the puzzles listed in order with all the solutions and necessary details. It made it a lot easier to catch flaws when everything was laid out nicely that way. It was also really easy to assemble the day of the party- I just worked backward through my flow chart.

4. Make sure to include nonessential details when setting up. There were tons of books, maps, office materials, etc. that weren't relevant to solving the puzzles. It was interesting to watch the kids try to decipher what was important and what wasn't. It also adds to the ambiance.

5. Let the participants use their imaginations. The kids absolutely could have gotten past the locks and into those cardboard boxes without solving the puzzles but it didn't even cross their minds. Things don't have to be perfect- imagination will make up the difference between what you have on hand (or can make cheaply) and what you really wanted to do.


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  1. Girrrrl I'm impressed. Now buy yourself a massage.

  2. Oh my goodness, that looks like an insane amount of work! But so fun for your son!

  3. Wow! I am so impressed and also like hell no I could never even solve that.

  4. Holy crap, you get the mother of the year award!!!! OMG. 😮 I’m glad your son loved it, and so sweet of you to do it for him!


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