As I sat near the window at Starbucks, a man wearing brown leather boots and a denim jacket hand-stitched with the name “Wolf” immediately caught my attention. Though I had heard and read many things about Lee Wilson, I had never met him up until this point. As one of the co-owners of Jackson Escape Rooms and a winning contestant of CBS’ reality show, Hunted, Lee has proven his seemingly uncanny ability to strategize and solve problems, a skill that far surpasses his knack for style.
But even while this local celebrity dedicates much of his time methodically creating a perplexing world filled with riddles and clues, life itself has been anything but a simple blueprint for Lee and his family.
“We thought that we would kind of have this normal, predictable life, and it seemed like it was going to happen until we moved to Jackson,” Lee said.
Lee and his wife, Beth, both moved in 2008 to work at Union University. While Lee served as the director of discipleship for University Ministries, Beth worked as the assistant coach for the women’s cross country team. But things radically changed for them after the tornado hit campus two weeks later.
“The next six years at Union were crazy,” Lee told me. “We started Jackson Escape Rooms, I got recruited to do the TV show one year later, and then we began this kind of wild adventure of entrepreneurship we never thought we’d be on. It changed our direction completely.”
Over the next three years, Jackson Escape Rooms would become one of Jackson’s leading sources of entertainment for friends and family, bringing in revenue of over three million dollars during that time period. The business’ success also triggered growing interest in many other entrepreneurs who were eager to bring the excitement and mystery of an escape room to their own hometowns.
“Not only do we do these things for ourselves, but we also have sold these escape room concepts in places like Memphis; Oklahoma; Rockwell and Waco, Texas; Rome, Georgia; and Cookeville, Tennessee,” Lee said.
The growing popularity of Jackson Escape Rooms and the change of pace it brought was entirely unexpected for Lee. After becoming a full-time entrepreneur, he quickly learned how to manage a business while simultaneously creating new escape rooms that kept participants engaged. And as Jackson Escape Rooms flourished, new challenges arose. But even challenges can become opportunities, which is why Lee and his team recently built a two-room mobile unit under the name “Overland Escape Games” that made sharing the escape room experience with communities outside of Jackson possible.
“We worked on the unit for seven months before we started operating it last summer,” Lee said. “Not only did we upgrade the interior space, but we also commissioned a designer to design the exterior wrap. It was quite a process.”
The trailer is configured to host two five-minute rooms or two ten-minute rooms and allows people the opportunity to experience the excitement and adrenaline rush of an escape room in manageable time frames.
“It’s super fast and super fun,” Lee said. “Most importantly, it exposes people to what an escape room can do for them.”
Unlike a typical Jackson Escape Room where teams are given sixty minutes to escape, the mobile unit is especially designed for individuals who fear being overwhelmed with too much external stimuli. After all, being cooped up in a room filled with people for ten minutes rather than a full hour is a much easier sell. But regardless of which room they choose, Lee is confident that each participant will have the time of their life.
“They’re going to love it, because escape rooms are just fun,” Lee said. “The concept sounds daunting. But the experience itself is much different than what many people imagine, and the portable rooms really open people’s eyes as it starts to click for them.”
With places like Jackson State in Savannah and Humboldt’s Reinhausen Manufacturing plant under his belt, Lee’s wasted no time broadening Jackson Escape Rooms’ demographic beyond Madison County. And even though he wants to expand his company’s footprint by rolling up to bigger institutions and businesses, Lee’s never lost sight of his core vision: encouraging people to face the same challenge he did (and still does) by trying something new and savoring the experience.
“It’s a really incredible team-building experience that’s a ton of fun,” Lee said. “Even though you’re forced outside of your comfort zone, it can be an amazing thing to offer to people who are used to working with the same old teams and doing the same old tasks.”
For Lee, creating these shared experiences is the heart of Jackson Escape Rooms.
“The business itself is just a means to an end for me,” Lee said. “What I love about it more than anything else is how people can be in a room, working together without caring about each other’s politics or ideologies, only to walk out of it connecting with each other in ways that later result in conversations around the table. I love that Jackson Escape Rooms make these experiences possible.”
Ever since he pursued this crazy, unexpected adventure in 2014, Lee’s learned to embrace the freedom of living life outside of a one-shot trajectory, no matter how unpredictable it seems. He also gives credit to his wife, Beth, who has served as the single point of continuity through their entire journey together.
“Our life has turned out pretty odd, but Beth and I play very well together in all regards,” Lee said. “Like any relationship, there are moments where you get frustrated with each other. Still, it’s unique that a husband and wife can work and be together all the time like we are.”
So what’s next for Lee? Well, no one really knows—not even Lee himself. Along with managing Jackson Escape Rooms, Lee also supports Beth with Wisdom House, a new business she recently started toward the end of last year. On top of this, the couple is expecting their fourth child this year. It’s clear that the Wilsons have their hands full, but regardless of what takes place in the upcoming weeks and months, Lee guarantees he’ll chase any opportunity that cannot be explained by “complete randomness.”
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “We have no shortage of ideas. And with these kind of things, there are no walls to confine you.”
If you are interested in booking Overland Escape Games for a party or other event, visit their website.
Katherine Cheshire is a student at Union University. She is currently interning at the Jackson Chamber and enjoys reading, journaling, and eating donuts.