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5 Wits debuts at Plymouth Meeting Mall to offer adventure amid shopping

Computer-controlled special effects, elaborate theme rooms, and immersing participants in a video game- or movie-like setting are the elements 5 Wits uses. The venue opened this Thursday at Plymouth Meeting Mall is its sixth location.

Frank Cerio, director of operations at 5 Wits, walks through lasers in a maze. The high-adventure concept debuted at Plymouth Meeting Mall on Thursday, Oct. 19.
Frank Cerio, director of operations at 5 Wits, walks through lasers in a maze. The high-adventure concept debuted at Plymouth Meeting Mall on Thursday, Oct. 19.Read moreDAVID SWANSON

To get new hires to bond with team leaders, Landmark Health takes them on a field trip to Crossgates Mall in Albany, N.Y., to experience 5 Wits, a live-action entertainment venue.

"The interactive mystery room experience is unlike anything else offered in our area," said Jeff Oliver, director of employee relations for the California-based health services provider, which made four visits to Crossgates this year and plans more. "The activity requires communication, collaboration, and the ability to listen to and follow instructions. Our staff has a great time and a memorable experience."

5 Wits debuted Thursday at Plymouth Meeting Mall — the company's sixth location — with a soft opening. A more formal debut is coming Nov. 4.

Using the slogan "Your adventure awaits," 5 Wits uses computer-controlled special effects, themed rooms, and physical interaction to put participants in the center of a story, as if they're in a movie or video game.

Reflecting its name, a participant relies on five wits to get out of jams: common sense, fantasy, imagination, memory, and estimation.

For mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, 5 Wits is part of a trend of offering entertainment at malls. Movie theaters, bowling alleys, and arcades are taking over closed department stores and spaces once belonging to apparel retailers that have faded as online shopping surges.

"5 Wits aligns with our mission at Plymouth Meeting Mall to be an experiential destination," said Joseph Coradino, CEO of PREIT, which owns Cherry Hill, Exton Square, and the Gallery Mall downtown that is being remade as Fashion District Philadelphia, among others.

Coradino said it's all about extending the shopper's time.

PREIT opened a LEGOLAND Discovery Center targeting young children and families directly across from 5 Wits earlier this year. Cyclebar — a kind of SoulCycle meets rock concert studio, debuted in May.

A Round 1 Entertainment Complex opened at Exton Square Mall in December 2016 that combines an arcade with bowling, karaoke, ping pong and more. Coming in 2019 is an AMC Theatre multiplex at Fashion District Philadelphia, while PREIT is negotiating to bring a movie theater to Willow Grove Park Mall to take J.C. Penney's space.

Coradino said apparel now makes up less than 37 percent of space in PREIT's malls, while dining and entertainment represent 20 percent and growing. "Today's consumer has a number of options, and we are committed to offering them more reasons to come visit our centers," he said.

Metro Commercial senior vice president Brandon Anapol recently blogged that, "for the landlords of [vacant retail space] the question is: What now? … Putting family fun, entertainment, and socializing venues under one roof is a new way to look at retail space."

Originally called the Puzzle Room, 5 Wits was entered in the business plan competition at Harvard Business School in early 2003. While it didn't place, founder Matthew DuPlessie was approached by one of his professors, who said he could deliver investors. DuPlessie forged ahead and had 5 Wits incorporated later that year.

The brand has been in five locations, mostly in malls, since 2010: Patriot Place in Foxborough, Mass.; Destiny USA in Syracuse, N.Y.; Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y., Crossgates Mall in Albany, and Galleria Mall in Buffalo.

At Plymouth Meeting, the nearly 14,000-square-foot venue has three attractions:

  1. A spy adventure, involving disarming 12-foot missiles, called Espionage.

  2. A medieval fantasy set in a dungeon where a fire-breathing dragon must be defeated, called Drago's Castle.

  3. An Indiana Jones-style adventure, called Tomb, with riddles from a long-dead pharaoh leading to escape.

Each attraction has three theme rooms. Participants advance to the next room after solving each challenge. Individual scores light up on an LED screen in the lobby.

5 Wits enthusiasts contend the elaborate, multi-room setup, the focus on collaboration, and having a non-timed environment set it apart from an escape room adventure, which tends to be a single room where participants solve puzzles and riddles in a set time.

"We get compared to an 'escape room,' " said Frank Cerio, 5 Wits director of operations, during a tour last week. But "we have more emphasis on immersion and narrative vs. difficulty. We are what escape rooms want to be in 10 years."

He said the closest thing to 5 Wits is found at amusement parks, like Disney or Universal Studios; Otherwise, "we really don't have any real competition."

In Boston, companies make up half of 5 Wits' clientele. Past clients include the software maker Pitney Bowes Inc., aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin, and technology firm Saab Sensis Corp.

Cerio wouldn't divulge annual revenue for privately held 5 Wits, but said it is expanding at the rate of two stores per year. Besides Plymouth Meeting this year, 5 Wits opened in Buffalo. For 2018,  he said locations are being considered in Alexandria, Va., and New England, as well as a second site in the Philadelphia area.

Cerio said two years ago the tide turned, and malls began courting 5 Wits.

"The plazas we are currently in are ahead of the curve, in that they have a very strong entertainment offering," said Cerio. "In those environments, we tend to be the 800-pound gorilla because we are unique. With all the families and companies in this area, we expect 5 Wits to do very well."