Play Time

Christina Riddoch in Oscar’s Playground, which she opened last year on Cannery Row. It offers arcade games, but also a bar, a living room-type lounge for watching sports on television, as well as an event space.

There is a group of friends picking desperately for hints in a crazily appointed room. They need Tweedledum and Tweedledee to answer some questions and the pair are happy to oblige. What should be asked, however, is a mystery, as is the point of their repeated yes and no responses. The friends remain hopelessly stumped in an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, unable to clear the room – until someone recalls an earlier clue and everything begins to fall into place.

If all of that seems a bit unclear, Christina Riddoch understands. “It’s an experience, and experiences are hard to convey,” she explains. “You have to do it to understand it. But once you do it, you’re hooked.”

Escape rooms – essentially a team effort to solve the mental challenges of a scenario in 60 minutes – are a relatively recent global phenomenon. Clues are everywhere. There are images and wordplay, equations and codes, even little tricks. One challenge is inspired by The Christmas Story. In another, a submarine has been captured and the crew must elude the enemy. Guests can also try to break from jail cells to prove their innocence to the warden. At no point, however, are participants actually trapped.

“People are afraid of escape rooms because they’re afraid they’re locked in,” Riddoch acknowledges. “But you can always get out.”

Riddoch brought the escape room phenomenon to Monterey in 2017 when she opened Escape Room 831 on Wave Street in what had been office space for Cannery Row Company (what had been Sardine Factory and company co-owner Ted Balestreri’s space is now a mummy’s crypt bearing a terrible curse). In 2018 she opened a second location, inside a former bank on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey.

Last year Riddoch added to her empire of fun with Oscar’s Playground, a family arcade space on Cannery Row with three more escape rooms, offering a total of eight different scenarios. She also operates a mobile setup.

“It’s a get-out-of-yourself fun,” she says, explaining the popularity of interactive amusement. “You’re immersed in a scenario with no time to think about anything else for an hour,” she continues. “You go through five different emotions.”

A jubilant sense of accomplishment is the last – even if the clock gets the better of your team. Riddoch tells of the time a family including a grumpy teenager came in. It was clear the teen had no intention of spending quality time with her parents. An hour later, however, the girls’ demeanor had changed dramatically. “After they came out, she was a completely different person,” Riddoch recalls.

She first encountered the mind-bending game on a visit to a grandchild in Kansas City. The family took Riddoch to an escape room. “I thought, ‘Why doesn’t Monterey have this?’”

As a child, Riddoch traveled the world with her parents. She grew up in Germany, but considered Monterey her home base. Both her mother and father did stints at the Defense Language Institute, and Riddoch returned frequently. “I remember as a kid running through the old canneries,” she says.

Another of her favorite memories of Cannery Row is of Oscar Hossenfelder’s Edgewater Packing Co., an amusement center with an aged carousel inside what is now a long-vacant building along the Rec Trail. Oscar’s Playground is an homage.

Riddoch points out that she opened Oscar’s Playground as a service as much as a business. “I found there wasn’t a place for families to land. Maybe you’re waiting for dinner. You want to do something,” she explains. “I get a lot more locals than I expected.”

Her fondness for Cannery Row runs even deeper. One evening 26 years ago, she chanced upon Barrie Riddoch while hanging out on the strip.

Christina Riddoch likes to imagine that they crossed paths as kids on the carousel. Family amusement rings through both of their lives – then and now. “We’re grandparents,” she says. “We get what families need.”

Riddoch is planning another escape room location – “because I’m crazy.”

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