Puzzle Rides: Solving Puzzles From The Back Of A Golf Cart
Puzzle Rides, a woman-owned and veteran-owned business that gives traditional escape rooms an outdoor upgrade, is a successful COVID-pivot for owners Gregg and Katie Dufort.
How we were introduced to Gregg and Katie Dufort’s Puzzle Rides:
Every year, the team here at Merchant Maverick gets together for an in-person company meetup. As a fully-remote company, this is an opportunity to meet the faces behind the screens. Flying in from around the country, we spend a few days getting to know each other better, discussing ways to improve our business, and engaging in a variety of fun and constructive team-building activities – all while taking a well-deserved break from our normal daily routines. While it’s not all fun and games, those two elements do figure prominently in the Merchant Maverick meetups.
Group activities are carefully chosen to include opportunities to practice working together as a team – something that’s invaluable when our interactions are almost entirely online during the rest of the year.
At our most recent meetup – held in sunny Scottsdale, Arizona – we had the chance to enjoy a new and exciting form of entertainment, courtesy of a unique company called Puzzle Rides.
Table of Contents
Just What The Heck Is A “Puzzle Ride,” Anyway?
Puzzle Rides describes what they do as “part escape room, part scavenger hunt on a golf cart.”
Think of it as an outdoor escape room. Don’t worry – you won’t actually have to drive the golf cart yourself. The company provides each team with a cart and a driver, who also functions as the Puzzlemaster. As you might expect, Puzzlemasters are familiar with all the locations you’ll be going to and know how to identify and understand each clue you’ll encounter along the way. Naturally, they also know the final solution to each puzzle. Much like a guide in an indoor escape room, Puzzlemasters can also drop some subtle hints if you’re getting stuck or on the verge of going on a wild goose chase.
If you have a large group, you’ll be assigned to different teams – each with a driver/Puzzlemaster and a cart. This is a practical limitation, as the carts can only carry up to five passengers each. With multiple teams, you can independently solve separate puzzles or compete head-to-head by simultaneously working on the same puzzle.
Each puzzle ride has a theme that ties the various clues together into a coherent whole. For example, our team completed both the Wild West Heist and the Pirate’s Treasure Adventure rides. Other teams in our group solved the Hijacked By Science ride. New and seasonal rides are being added all the time, and there’s now even a “pub crawl” option (adults-only, of course) that combines puzzle-solving and visits to several bars in the area.
To make solving the puzzle even more challenging, there are strict time limits on how long your team has to come up with the correct solution. Regular puzzle rides run for 75 minutes each, while the pub crawl rides can be as long as two hours.
It All Started With A Golf Cart…
Old Town Scottsdale is justifiably famous for its wide variety of bars, restaurants, and gift shops, making it one of the highlights for visitors to the greater Phoenix area.
However, the “old town” area is more spread out than most downtowns, making traveling on foot a less-than-desirable option – especially during the heat of summer. In recent years, enterprising companies have met the need for a better way to get around by shuttling visitors around Old Town in golf carts. It’s a quick, efficient, and economical way to get from one place to the next, and it’s especially useful for safe barhopping.
Marine Corps veteran Gregg Dufort and his wife Katie, co-owners of Puzzle Rides, started one of these taxi services with just a single golf cart, using it to whisk visitors between their hotels and the various restaurants and bars scattered across Old Town Scottsdale.
They eventually hit upon the idea of using their carts as part of an outdoor escape room and started planning their first puzzle ride.
And then COVID hit.
An Entertaining Escape When Everything Is Closed
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, everything about their business changed overnight. As Gregg explains it, “We actually had a ride ready to start testing out, and then COVID hit and shut all the bars and restaurants down. So that really accelerated our process for getting the Puzzle Ride thing going.”
After putting the finishing touches on their first puzzle ride, the couple opened it to riders in nearby Prescott in the summer of 2020.
The choice to launch first in Prescott, rather than Scottsdale, came down to two factors: 1) Prescott had eased COVID restrictions earlier than the more densely-populated Scottsdale area, and 2) the cooler weather in Prescott (elevation 5,000 feet above sea level) made it a better alternative during the summer. By October 2020, the weather had cooled down sufficiently to begin offering puzzle rides in Scottsdale.
The early puzzle rides proved so popular that the company hasn’t experienced any interruptions to its operations due to COVID since launching its first ride. Since then, Puzzle Rides has continued to grow in popularity while offering a safe, outdoor form of entertainment in the not-quite-post-COVID era. Although the golf cart taxi services have returned to Old Town, Dufort says, “It’s been going so well for us that we both looked at each other earlier in the year and said, yeah, we’re never going to go back to our old business model.”
In addition to being entertaining, the puzzle rides have also become popular with corporate groups (like ours) looking for a unique and engaging way to host a team-building event without it having to feel like work.
After a group puzzle ride, the Puzzlemasters can offer feedback to corporate leadership about how the group performed, and who the standout team members were.
Technology To The Rescue
With the Duforts pulling double-duty as Puzzlemasters and also running the business, there isn’t much time to spend in the back office keeping up with the paperwork.
Like many other small business owners today, they’ve turned to technological solutions that automate as much of the business record-keeping as possible. This allows them to get out and drive their carts with actual riders, which in turn gives them invaluable insights into what works (and what doesn’t) when a random group of people try to solve their puzzles. This feedback allows them to fine-tune and improve their puzzles for future participants.
Puzzle Rides currently uses Xola, an online booking software and event management system designed specifically for tour and activity operators that allows users to set up their own ride reservations directly from the Puzzle Rides website.
It also includes credit card processing, offering a one-stop solution to the needs of any business of this type. Dufort credits the Xola service with allowing him to take a more hands-on approach to running his business, rather than spending his days in an office going over spreadsheets.
Puzzle Rides: The Right Idea At The Right Time
Puzzle Rides is a great example of how creative entrepreneurs can see an opportunity when everyone else around them might see nothing but despair. While the lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on thousands of small businesses around the country, Puzzle Rides was literally able to ride out the storm by pivoting to a radically different business model that offered people something they needed the most at the time: a chance to get out of their houses and savor the triumph of solving a puzzle.
As Dufort says, “In the pandemic, everybody needed a win, right?”
With the Duforts at the helm, Puzzle Rides is both a woman-owned and veteran-owned business. In fact, Gregg Dufort has been able to coax many of his fellow retired Marines into joining the Puzzle Rides team as drivers and Puzzlemasters.
As COVID restrictions ease, the crew at Puzzle Rides is busier than ever. When asked to explain the appeal of his company’s unique take on an outdoor escape room, Dufort offers this quote from an obviously very satisfied customer: “Oh man, we get to ride around in a golf cart! How often do you get to do that?”