Scavenger hunts in Philadelphia: Seek and ye shall enjoy

Away they go: Danny Loder (front) of Philadelphia and teammate Justin Needles (ballcap) of Cheltenham run into the Art Museum on a "Museum Madness" scavenger hunt, organized by Watson Adventures.
Away they go: Danny Loder (front) of Philadelphia and teammate Justin Needles (ballcap) of Cheltenham run into the Art Museum on a "Museum Madness" scavenger hunt, organized by Watson Adventures. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 28, 2014

Even lifelong Philadelphians who enjoy games will find these questions challenging: How many signers of the Declaration of Independence had the first name John? Which signer has a name that implies he would have been a good doctor?

Your mission is to find the answers somewhere in Center City without the help of a Google search. Be quick about it - other teams are on your heels, competing with you for prizes ranging from a cash payout to bragging rights.

"The region's parks, museums, and even old buildings make up an incredible field for scavenger hunts," said Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive officer of tourism booster Visit Philadelphia. "Fortunately, many creative programmers and entrepreneurs feel the same way and are giving travelers and consumers lots of options."

Local companies like the Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia and City Food Tours have created hunts for customers in recent years. National organizers like Watson Adventures create adventures that take hunters through city streets or into institutions like the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There's even a mobile phone application that helps folks build their own hunts. (The locals who came up with that bit of technology include former Philadelphia first son Jesse Rendell.)

Bret Watson, whose New York-based company began creating hunts in 1999 and expanded to Philadelphia in 2003, said the best hunts contain a variety of clues. Hunters need to be challenged, working to find answers amid the city's four centuries of architecture, its historic sites and modern marvels, and its public art. Watson also likes to create clues that "make people shift their paradigm" and create aha! moments. People who normally walk with their eyes fixed ahead find themselves looking in every direction, noticing the unusual roof of the Drake building (it looks like a Tuscan hillside village, doesn't it?) or discovering a cryptic message in a Toynbee tile.

"One of my favorite things is when people say, 'Wow, I walk here every day and I never noticed that,' " he added. "Every time you turn a corner, you feel like you're seeing something new, something amazing."

Most local hunts last between 75 minutes and two hours. Some require players to document their finds via photos. Others require only that answers be written down. Prices vary as well. Some customers jump into public hunts. Others arrange private ones. The latter are popular with large family groups and businesses that are looking for a team-building exercise.

Robert Weinberg, co-owner of City Food Tours, said the company added a scavenger hunt to its offerings "because clients asked for more team-building. . . . People asked for something hands-on, something different." Now, in addition to sushi-making classes and a cocktail tasting inspired by Mad Men, visitors can try City Food Tours' scavenger hunt, based in Northern Liberties.

Weinberg's hunt, like many others, aims to educate as well as entertain. One City Food Tours clue: "Keep your eyes peeled to 'stitch-up' this part of the hunt with the name of the company that's been selling 'singers' for the past 33 years. (Hint: You won't hear these singers in an opera hall.)" Finding the answer - Keystone Sewing Machine Company - requires studying your surroundings.

"It's tricky, but that's how we like it," Weinberg said. "No one has an advantage. Even if you live in Northern Liberties, you may not know all of the answers."

Jon Bari, president of the Constitutional, said his company began offering scavenger hunts in addition to its traditional tours in 2003. Teams take a tour first, then try to solve clues that make them retrace their steps. The idea came from visitors who wanted something "more experiential," Bari said.

"A lot of the scavenger hunts stand alone. They can lack context. They become more about finishing first rather than the experience and the history," Bari said. "We like to say ours is both: A mini Amazing Race through America's birthplace."

While most hunts require a quest for answers to locally oriented questions, others add activities to the mix. The mobile app, for example, has challenged players to photograph a teammate dressed as a knight and fighting the Drexel University dragon. Once a year, CitySolve Urban Race organizes a Philly adventure that has required things like a photo of a team member and a local cabbie giving the thumbs-up sign. More than 250 people showed up for the May event that took participants from river to river. Part of the proceeds went to a local charity.

"It's the combination of an urban adventure and an amazing race with pop trivia," said Jason Hofsess, company founder and chief executive officer. "It certainly helps if you know the city, but you don't have to."

So, would-be scavengers: Did you figure out where to find the answers to the opening questions? If not, go to Signers' Walk, Chestnut and South Sixth Streets. There, you can answer the Constitutional's question by tallying five Johns plus one Jonathan. Look more closely to find Massachusetts delegate Robert Treat Paine as challenged by Watson Adventures.

"Philadelphia's a giant treasure hunt," Watson said. "We try to come up with questions that can only be answered by standing in the right spot and doing the right thing. Someone just can't Google the answer."


If You Hunt

Here are a few companies that offer scavenger hunts. Another tip: Pay attention to local fairs and festivals. Last year's Harry Potter Festival in Chestnut Hill had a family-friendly hunt. In May, the Independence Seaport Museum hosted the Walnut2Walnut Regatta and River2River Scavenger Hunt.

City Food Tours: Its Northern Liberties hunt is designed for groups of all sizes. The game can also be combined with lunch at a local restaurant. Hunts must be arranged in advance. www.cityfoodtours.com/

philadelphia/scavenger-hunts.html.

Watson Adventures: A wide array of public hunts throughout the city, inside and out, are available. The hunts have themes, so visitors can try to solve a murder mystery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, enjoy tastes at Reading Terminal Market, or try Haunted Historic Philadelphia. www.watsonadventures.com.

The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia: Public hunts that any individual can join are offered four times a year. The company's specialty is groups of 25 people or more that make arrangements in advance. www.theconstitutional.com.

CitySolve Urban Race: The 2014 race was held on May 3, and the 2015 race date has not yet been finalized. Interested players should keep an eye on www.citysolveurbanrace.com. The earlier the registration, the cheaper the price.

And falling into the "There's an app for that" category:

Scavenger Hunt With Friends, available from iTunes for 99 cents, lets users create their own hunts from scratch or borrow from a collection of already-written clues and tasks, such as dressing like a knight, then fighting the dragon statue on Drexel University's campus.

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