Marriott x TED – The Curiosity Room [Review]

Puzzles Worth Solving

Location: San Francisco, CA

Date Played: July 20, 2022

Team Size: 1-4; we recommend 1-2

Price: Around $50/ night above standard room pricing, minimum 2-night stay

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

I suspect that many an escape room enthusiast, like myself, has dreamt of sleeping over in an escape room. With Marriott x TED’s new The Curiosity Room experience, something close to this is now possible.

Just off the gritty extremes of Market Street, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis is an instant escape from the outside world. A sprawling modernist lobby presents a neutral calmness alongside the persistent buzz of well-dressed tourists and businesspeople. The staff were friendly, attentive, and accommodating, as one would expect from such a flagship hotel.

The San Francisco Marriott Marquis also contains a secret sanctum, at least for the next 3 months. As I checked in, the receptionist, noting where I’d be staying, knowingly grinned and instructed that I would find a special envelope in my room. I made my way up to the sixth floor, and as I rounded a corner at the end of a long monochromatic hallway, a bright white door with red accents β€” labeled “The Curiosity Room” in a Comic Sans-esque font β€” boldly beckoned. What waited inside was much more than just an envelope.

A red and white, TED themed hotel room.

The Curiosity Room experience includes a few different perks. At its core, it is a special hotel room that you can book at the SF Marriott Marquis β€” a standard 2-queen-bed room that has been retrofitted with a wondrous puzzle adventure, all contained in the very room you’re staying in. As an added bonus, you’ll earn some nifty souvenirs from completing the puzzles. Also included are dinner and dessert for 4 at the hotel’s restaurant. The experience is reasonably priced as an add-on to the standard hotel room, with a minimum 2-night stay.

I am generally skeptical of large brands that try to dip their toes into escape rooms or immersive activations. It can be all too easy to rely on the medium as a gimmick, without the design chops required to actually follow through.

But that was not the case here at all. Marriott’s usual level of excellence and attention to detail in service was more than matched by the creativity and polish of the puzzle design in The Curiosity Room. It was abundantly evident that the designers know their stuff, demonstrating a deep understanding of puzzle hunts, signposting, and audience calibration. Targeted towards families, the level of difficulty was low, yet the puzzles remained relatively puzzly, interesting, and full of surprises. Puzzle enthusiasts will still enjoy and appreciate The Curiosity Room for its bounty of environmental ahas, even if it doesn’t provide much of a challenge.

The Curiosity Room was not an “escape” room, nor was it trying to be. There was no real narrative, other than the pursuit of wonder, and the objective was not to escape. (If anything, the allure of the room somewhat kept me from fully exploring the rest of the hotel!) Though some substantial physical additions were made to the room, it was still recognizably a Marriott hotel room. In fact, the puzzle design particularly excelled in the more subtle modifications of items you’d normally find in a hotel room and the activations of these seemingly mundane objects in magical ways.

As I drifted off to sleep in the shadows of the secrets I’d just discovered, I fondly remembered my childhood summer vacations during which my mom would design treasure hunts in and around our hotel, experiences that played a formative role in making me the puzzler I am now. The Curiosity Room and other games in this format hold the potential to similarly inspire the next generation of puzzlers and wonder-seekers.

A TED themed hotel room, a sign reads, "The Curiosity Room: Start Here"

Who is this for?

  • Families with curious children
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Hotel guests looking for a bonus adventure

Setting

The Curiosity Room transformed a standard Marriott hotel room into a place of wonder. All the usual accommodations were still there β€” two queen beds, a hotel phone, a mini fridge, mini soaps in the bathroom, and so on. But a number of additional decorations and items were also added throughout the room. A mural featuring a cartoonish San Francisco scene filled the wall behind the beds, and a large blocky “TED” sign graced an adjacent wall. Circular red carpets echoed the TED logo. Even the room’s “do not disturb” sign was branded around The Curiosity Room.

These additions included both bold and subtle elements. Across the board, they matched the level of design polish and cohesion present in the standard room, just with a bolder, more whimsical aesthetic.

A chair, a table, and a basket with large puzzle blocks.

Analysis

βž• The Curiosity Room was locally grounded, with adorable San Francisco-themed artwork. Some of the puzzles were also framed with local connections.

βž• The puzzles followed a light puzzle hunt structure, with a satisfying progression and meta payoff. The difficulty level stayed relatively low throughout without the puzzles ever feeling too simplistic.

βž• Every element of the game was clearly presented. A print journal that guided most of the experience provided difficulty levels for each puzzle and blanks in which to write intermediate and final answers. An online answer checker was easy to use, and an online hint system provided helpful granular nudges without prematurely spoiling any secrets.

βž• The Curiosity Room held more layers than most visitors may expect. The room actually contained a fair amount of tech, and it concealed it seamlessly.

βž• Immediately upon entering the room, a panel of introductory text provided an obvious starting point. This style of this initial search puzzle reminded me of the Passover afikoman searches I enjoyed as a kid.

βž– The searching that started the game also led to an accidental discovery and sequence break. A less obvious hiding spot for a certain item could have easily fixed this.

βž• Each puzzle felt different. Each involved tactile elements around the room, leading players to manipulate some standard hotel elements in novel ways and discover well-disguised hidden properties of other items. Puzzlers will recognize the puzzle mechanics used, but these common tropes are also a sampling of the best tropes that will turn new puzzlers onto this delightful cerebral art form. This style felt reminiscent of that in David Kwong’s The Enigmatist.

βž– The application of a particular effect was too thin, and it began to reveal its secrets prematurely.

βž• The Curiosity Room saved its coolest secrets and puzzles for the finale.

βž– I’m not sure what was located above the hotel room β€” perhaps a stairwell or mechanical room β€” but I heard some rather loud metal clanging above me as I tried to fall asleep.

❓The hotel room included a stack of San Francisco guidebooks, with a slew of local recommendations curated by TED, and Marriott’s ongoing in-room TED Talk curation. Given the audience for this experience, I’d love to have also seen some local escape room recommendations and perhaps a shoutout to a fabulous TED Talk on puzzle hunts included in the mix.

A wall painted with, "Share your experience using #MarriottxTED"

Pervasive curiosity?

The self-contained puzzle room component of The Curiosity Room was fantastic.

Where The Curiosity Room as an overall experience showed room for improvement was in its decision to keep the puzzles contained just to the hotel room. If the goal was to create an experience of heightened wonder and extend that lens into the surrounding world, The Curiosity Room got halfway there.

The current pricing for The Curiosity Room mostly seems to cover the cost of the included meal, which a guest could just as easily purchase separately, even without being a paying guest at the hotel. Conversely, the puzzle room is bundled in with the hotel stay and is not available as a standalone experience.

The puzzles in The Curiosity Room provide around 30 minutes of play for seasoned puzzlers and maybe 60-90 minutes for families. For families already planning to stay at the SF Marriott Marquis, upgrading to The Curiosity Room is a no-brainer. But for escape room enthusiasts, the puzzle experience alone is probably not worth the cost of the 2-night hotel stay, unless you’re actually planning a vacation around it (and if you are, there are some other fantastic escape rooms nearby!)

Given all this, a few observations:

The hotel room puzzles provide the unique value-add and presumably will draw people in to book The Curiosity Room, yet the pricing doesn’t directly reflect this.

Escape room enthusiasts would genuinely enjoy The Curiosity Room, but I suspect relatively few will get to play it with the current pricing model (even if the SF Marriott Marquis is a lovely hotel.)

An hour of puzzles feels relatively short within a 2-day hotel stay. Additional side quests β€” like a locked box in a public space, a secret phrase to say to a server, or a puzzly walkaround in the neighborhood β€” could help to more strongly connect the in-room wonder with the outside world and make the puzzles (even optionally) fill a bit more of a guest’s stay.

My dinner at the restaurant was delicious. It would have been even better if it had connected to the puzzle magic I’d just experienced in my room, even in some small way.

Tips For Visiting

  • The Curiosity Room is available at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis from July 15 – October 16, 2022, at the Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park from August 15 – November 15, 2022, and at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall from September 15, 2022 – January 2, 2023.
  • Take your time. Unlike most escape rooms, there is no timer, time limit, or set time in which you need to finish. You could spread out the puzzles throughout your stay, take a meal/snack break, or binge them in a single session. How you play is up to you.
  • This is downtown San Francisco. Be careful where you park, don’t leave any possessions visible in your car, and watch where you walk at night.

Book your stay at Marriott’s The Curiosity Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Marriott comped our stay in the The Curiosity Room.

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