It's best to face your fears head-on. At least that's what I tell myself as I push the button for the top floor. The city street drops away as the elevator climbs upward and my palms break out in a sweat. Then the doors open, revealing a wooden plank suspended above a terrifying plummet into the traffic below. After a moment of paralyzing fear, I take my first tentative step out onto the wobbly board, repeating to myself, "This isn't real."
When Michael Katzman, the co-owner of Escape Reality, invited Sarasota Magazine to spend an hour in virtual reality, I jumped at the opportunity. By donning a headset with a screen inside and using hand controls, one can explore and interact with a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment. Though I was familiar with the concept of virtual reality, that didn't prepare me for how immersive the experience is. Taking that first step out onto that shaking wooden board feels uncannily like the real thing.
Katzman and his wife, Suzan Ponte, opened the first Escape Reality location on Lockwood Ridge Road in 2016, starting with escape rooms, where groups of people are “trapped” in a room until they successfully solve a series of puzzles and break free. The couple expanded into virtual reality earlier this year when they opened their second Escape Reality downtown. Here, they offer six full virtual reality stations, a sci-fi-themed escape room called Area 941, classic arcade games and a libation station. Ponte enjoys dabbling in mixology, so the bar serves custom cocktails. Try the Donkey Kong (a salted caramel white Russian) and the Tri-Force (fresh lemon, basil and cucumber with spirits). You’ll also find craft beers, shandies and wines.
Katzman and Ponte come from corporate backgrounds. Ponte worked in software management, while Katzman helped install custom home electronics. They've loved trading in the 9-to-5 life for the chance to create engaging activities for customers. “It's not just about gaming," Katzman says. "It's about trying something you've never tried before.” The couple's virtual reality stations, equipped with Vive headsets and controls, allow guests endless possibilities, from Google Earth, where one can virtually stand in any location that has been mapped by Google, to simulators and games for groups.
So how did I spend my hour in virtual reality?
The moment I put on the headset, I was transported into another world. From a menu screen, I opted for a brief tutorial, which demonstrated how to use the hand controllers and navigate the menu. The tutorial also showed the space one can move in by illuminating a large red grid that will pop up as a reminder if you get too close to the edge. The information is doled out in a three-dimensional cartoon garden narrated by a giant animated tree, giving one the illusion that they've found themselves in an interactive Roger Rabbit segment. It's a charming intro to your new virtual world.
Trying out Google Earth seemed like the perfect place to start my adventures. In a few moments, I stood in front of my childhood home in Fourlakes, Washington. I gazed at the garage my grandfather built, the fields I picked flowers in and, after zooming down the street, the post office we walked to each day to pick up our mail. It was surprisingly moving. Afterward, like any reasonable adult, I went to Tokyo and scaled myself to the size of Godzilla, stomping and lurching around the city's streets. (I imagine Katzman has a lot of fun watching people behave ridiculously.)
One of my favorite activities was The Blu. The immersive aquatic experience allows one to stand in the center of a series of underwater scenes. Imagine giant whales arching past, blooms of jellyfish bobbing all around and glowing anglerfish playing hide and seek. It's delightful. My sweetheart also got into the action, when he joined me in a popular cooperative shooter game, Arizona Sunshine. We battled our way through zombie hordes while solving puzzles in a desert apocalypse.
My hour comes to a close all too soon. When I emerge from my headset, I'm not the only one feeling giddy. A young boy in a neighboring booth exclaims, “This is the coolest thing I've ever done in my life.” Other virtual activities include a simulated roller coaster, a dungeon crawler called Dreadhalls (I might not be brave enough for that one) and games designed for children, such as Cowbots and Aliens. Escape Reality even offers virtual escape rooms, including a few exclusive titles like Escape the Lost Pyramid and Beyond Medusa' s Gate. You'll need several hours to try everything.
Katzman tells me about a woman in her 80s who one day popped in to check out the business. Katzman gave her a chance to explore with Google Earth, asking her where in the world she'd like to go. The woman had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, but never made it. Thanks to virtual reality, she soon found herself “flying” above the natural wonder. The virtual world is now your oyster.
Escape Reality is located at at 1900 Main St., Suite 104, Sarasota. For more info, call (941) 806-5858 or visit escapesarasotavr.com.