How citywide Treasure Hunts put Fort Wayne on the map during the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Corey Ford’s Escape Room business in downtown Fort Wayne initially took a hit.

The company of 10 employees had been planning an “extreme Escape Room” experience when nonessential businesses were forced to close, and they had to tell several employees not to return to work.

Ford quickly realized that he needed to alter his business model, especially because at the time, it was unclear when he could open his doors again. Corey Ford is Owner of the Fort Wayne Escape Room.

After evaluating a few options, he came up with a new business concept that would harness his Escape Room skills in creating an intricate series of clues, but also work with the social distancing regulations in place.

What was born was a digital, outdoor Escape Room experience that has given Fort Wayne residents a way to pass the time and rediscover their city while social distancing. It has even captured the attention of an estimated 50,000 participants across the U.S., living as far away as California, who have tried to crack the codes on their computers, using Google Maps.

In 2020, Ford launched the Escape Room’s first citywide Treasure Hunt, creating a digital map riddled with clues, which participants used to find a real, undisclosed sum of cash hidden somewhere in the city. The map’s digital distribution and its outdoor clues were designed around local parks and landmarks, so participants didn’t have to go indoors or live in Fort Wayne to take part.

The Fort Wayne Escape Room is located in downtown Fort Wayne at 327 E. Wayne St., #200.

Ford says he was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly—and nationally—his Treasure Hunt gained interest.

"There are online forums for escape room and puzzle enthusiasts, Reddit, and social media,” he says. “People from Fort Wayne would send maps to their family and friends across the country to help them solve it.”

Ford is a 2006 graduate of Wayne High School who opened his first Escape Room in Fort Wayne in 2015 after visiting a similar business while on his honeymoon in another city.

“I just thought, this is the most fun I’ve had, in years as far as, like, an activity,” Ford remembers. “I was like, ‘I can make this—I could build one of these,’ so I opened one up in Fort Wayne, and it's been going well ever since.”

The Fort Wayne Escape Room is located in downtown Fort Wayne at 327 E. Wayne St., #200.

Now, Ford owns five Escape Rooms across Indiana and the Dominican Republic. While he feels there are a limited amount of Treasure Hunt clues in Fort Wayne, specifically, he plans to design a few more hunts for the city in the coming years and to grow his business by repeating the process in other locations, too.

"I do think there is a sustainable business model for the treasure hunts,” he says. “I want to scale them up and make them bigger and more lucrative. So maybe, in 10 years, hunters will be traveling all over the world solving our elaborate puzzles for $10 Million."

Participant signatures on the wall of the Fort Wayne Escape Room at 327 E. Wayne St., #200.

So far, the Escape Room has hosted two Treasure Hunts in Fort Wayne, which cost $30 to participate and could be completed individually or on teams with any number of participants.

After a Fort Wayne team found the first treasure in 2020, the Escape Room held a second contest in May 2021. This year, however, when an estimated 50,000 people participated, it took just more than 24 hours for a Cincinnati duo to find the case of cash—with the assistance of four other remote helpers.

Ford says the only two masterminds behind the Escape Room’s crafty Treasure Hunt clues are himself and his brother, who take one to two months to scout out locations around the city and do the planning.

A difficult part about the process, Ford says, is that it's hard to test the map—not only because of the time involved, but also the risk of compromising the puzzle’s security.

“I couldn’t give it to my mom and say, ‘Hey, Mom, go spend four days trying to solve this treasure map,’” he says.

Corey Ford is Owner of the Fort Wayne Escape Room.

Another complicated aspect creating the map was designing an experience for all ages and skill levels. Ford designed the map to not only entertain expert treasure hunters, but also young families and those with little to no experience in solving advanced puzzles.

“We didn’t want it to be something too easy, or something that was too hard,” he says.

Both years, teams had to not only uncover the correct email address to send the final code, but also had to solve the clues’ order, among the other intricacies hidden in the map. The team that won the 2021 race to the treasure released a document detailing the logic and problem solving that went into cracking the map.

What did it take to solve a part of this year’s map? Check out this clue, for example.

The red text gave treasure hunters the number of the clue. This riddle results in the number 5, regardless of the numbers chosen to answer it.

A map from the 2021 winning team's walkthrough of their win.
“OAC members” refers to the “Old Aqueduct Club,” an informal group of boys in West Central who used to swim in the Wabash-Erie Canal aqueduct on the St. Marys River. The club erected the “Let’s go Swimmin’” monument in Orff Park, near where the old aqueduct once ran.



The next symbol on the map corresponded to a symbol on the monument, under which a list of boys who swam in the aqueduct is recorded. Name number 19 on that list of boys is John H. Bass, builder and former resident of Brookside—today’s headquarters of the University of Saint Francis.






After traveling to the Bass Mansion, treasure hunters would find a statue of St. Francis who is depicted surrounded by birds. The “highest bird” faces east, where scavengers should have followed Spring Street, passing the trees, lake, and satellite dish depicted on the map.


After some searching, they would have found the image of a teapot on a square slab of a bridge just before the train tracks. This symbol corresponded to the number 73 in the code area of the map.






Resulting from this clue were not only its position in the 23-digit sequence, but also the characters to insert in the blanks on the treasure map. This clue was one of many that hopeful winners had to solve.

This process may seem complicated, and the winning team did not even know about the Old Aqueduct Club. They say that they were just driving by Orff Park and “got insanely lucky.”

Along with providing a new business model for the Escape Room and getting more people to explore Fort Wayne digitally or by foot, the project is also helping more people engage in Fort Wayne’s history. Although many in the city have never heard about the old aqueduct, or perhaps even Orff Park, Ford has found that many residents do have an interest in local history.

“I was surprised at how much people did know about the history of Fort Wayne,” he says.

As people across the U.S. delve into local history for the sake of Ford’s Treasure Hunts, his business in putting Fort Wayne on the map by bringing out-of-state virtual visitors and local families together to solve his annual puzzle.

Learn more

Fort Wayne Escape Room is fully reopened at 327 E. Wayne St., #200. It offers multiple one-hour rooms with tickets, starting at $30 per person, and these experiences can be booked on their website at fortwayneescaperoom.com

You can also find the Escape Room at their Facebook page or by calling (260)-423-1444.

Hours
Monday-Tuesday Closed
Wednesday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m.
Friday 5-10:30 p.m.
Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Sunday 2-6 p.m.