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Behind the scenes with the Survivor Price is Right’s $25,000 winner

Behind the scenes with the Survivor Price is Right’s $25,000 winner
Tom Walter, center, with Survivor alum Cirie Fields and Price is Right host Drew Carey. (Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Seven years ago I was called down to contestant row on the Price Is Right, but—as a game show fanatic I hate to admit this—I never made it out of contestant row. So it should come as no surprise that when I saw an article that the Price Is Right was doing a Survivor prime-time special, I immediately called my dad, who had recently retired.

“Dad!” I yelled over the phone. “You and mom have to come to LA for the Price is Right! This is what life and retirement is all about!”

For nearly 16 years my family has loved Survivor and has never missed an episode, so I was able to convince my parents to book a flight to LA for the taping. One of my best friends from high school, who currently lives in San Diego, also joined us. Since I was ineligible to get on the show—you have to wait 10 years to try again—it was my mission to get one of them on.

The morning of the taping I gave my parents homemade Price Is Right t-shirts with a customized Survivor logo: OUTBID, OUTSPIN, OUTWIN. We went to a diner at The Grove near the CBS Studios and I put them through “How to Get on the Price Is Right” boot camp:

  • From the moment you step foot on the CBS lot, it’s an audition.
  • Be the most outgoing, friendly, personable, engaging and excitable version of yourself while still being genuinely you.
  • Talk to everyone: other audience members, the CBS staff, the maintenance crew, everyone.
  • During the interview process (they take groups of around 20 and walk down the line asking questions) own your answers and the conversation. Don’t give one-word responses. Go in-depth, share anecdotes and give the casting director a reason to not want to talk to anyone else.
  • Most importantly, have fun! If you’re having fun during the four-ish hour waiting process, you’re sure as hell going to have fun if you’re called down to contestant row.

On the CBS Television City lot

As soon as we arrived to CBS we were given a number and a questionnaire, which was atypical. The questionnaires were all about Survivor, which I loved! It asked questions about favorite contestants, seasons, challenges, et cetera. It made me feel like they were going to do their best to pick true superfans and to match people up with their favorite players.

My parents and friend Anne filled out their questionnaires, and I urged them to put down some answers that could potentially match them to former players that were likely to be on the show.

It was a blast interacting with Survivor superfans in the holding area: There was a woman in a dress with Survivor logos all over it, a sure bet to get on (and she did with Tina); families and friends in customized Price Is Right: Survivor t-shirts; fans dressed like Jeff Probst; and even a woman who had a printout of the YouTube page for her audition video. I’m sure there were some seat-fillers among the crowd, but overall the audience was packed with fellow superfans.

When it came time for the interview process, my family was ready! By this point we had already befriended everyone around us and walked toward the casting director chanting the Survivor theme song. The casting director walked down the line asking people their names, hometown, and job, plus a few Survivor related questions.

Out of our group of 20 or so, he spent the most amount of time talking to my friend Anne and my dad Tom. They crushed it!

When my dad was asked who his favorite contestant was he immediately responded, “Russell Hantz,” drawing some gasps from the people around us. He owned it and further elaborated on how he loved that Russell changed the game forever through aggressive idol play. My dad said he roots for villains like Russell, Parvati and Jerri who stir things up and make the game interesting. By the time our group moved on to the next holding area several people came up to us saying for sure Anne or Tom would get on—we could only hope!

Survivors on the set of The Price is Right

After nearly four hours, we finally walked into the Price Is Right studio. My parents both had the same initial reaction, like so many others: they were shocked at how small the stage and studio was. My dad said it felt like an out-of-body experience walking into a TV show he’s watched over the years. My mom loved that the studio was decked out in Survivor props and that the stage was so colorful and vibrant. None of us could believe we were actually there together.

My family was seated toward the back near an entire section that was roped off and marked by small tiki torches, the area for the former Survivor contestants. We were shocked that there were so many seats. We knew nine former Survivor players would be on the show, but there was room for nearly 30. Anticipation grew for who was going to show up.

Once everyone was seated—after I made my family dance while we were waiting—the executive producer came on stage to thank all of us for being there and went through an overview of the taping. When he was done explaining the logistics, he asked us if we were ready to meet the Survivors. Immediately everyone jumped to their feet and began screaming. We turned our heads as the group of former Survivor players walked into the studio.

It’s an understatement to say I lost it!

There were so many epic and legendary contestants that I didn’t think would be there like Tina Wesson, Cirie, and Boston Rob! There were contestants I figured would be be there like Rupert, Joe, and Kelley Wentworth. But then there were contestants who I was surprised to see because I could barely remember their names—whoops! And of course, my dad kept looking around for a nonexistent Russell Hantz.

One thing I immediately noticed was some contestants had two buffs, a sign that they would be called down to contestant row because they would give one of their buffs to the superfan they were paired up with.

A family of fans face to face with Survivors

Justin Walter, Tom Walter, Survivor, Price is Right
Justin Walter, second from right, with his family and dad, Tom, who won $25,000 on The Price is Right. (Photo courtesy Justin Walter)

As I scanned the crowd of former Survivor players, it hit me how epic this experience already was. Here we were—a Midwestern family that loves reality TV game shows—standing feet away from some of our all-time favorite contestants. For most of the contestants, it looked like they were enjoying the experience as well, high fiving fans on their way in, laughing and smiling with one another, and cheering right along with us.

Out of all the classic players, Boston Rob seemed a little out of it and tired, almost as if he had to be there. I mean, if I had to be on Survivor four times, I’d die a happy man.

Now if you think the crowd went wild for the former players, multiply that by a million (pun intended) when Jeff Probst came on stage! The crowd went crazy while Jeff stood there grinning with that ear-to-ear Jeff Probst smile and dimples. Once he was able to calm us down, he thanked us for coming and then knocked out some host copy and the intro of the show. After Jeff Probst did his thing, he walked off stage and we weren’t sure if he was done.

Next up—game time! It was the moment of truth: Would someone from my family get picked?

Come on down! You’re the next Survivor fan

Since this was a special episode, there was an added element to being called down to contestant row. Once a superfan was called down they were then paired up with a former Survivor player. Superfans were told to meet their partner in the aisle, head down to their bidding booth, put on one of their buffs, and have fun for the rest of the show.

If you’ve never been to a taping of The Price Is Right, know that it’s extremely loud in the studio, so it’s actually really hard to hear what is being said by the announcer and even, at times, Drew Carey—especially at the top of the show. For this reason, when they announce contestants, they also hold up huge cue cards with names written on them in case people don’t hear their name.

As the show began, I giddily looked at my parents and my friend Anne and wished them all good luck. Seconds later, I faintly heard “Thomas Walter, come on down!” Looking at the stage, the cue cards confirmed it—THOMAS WALTER written in large black ink.

Mind blown.

I Immediately jumped out of my seat while my dad didn’t hear his name. Soon after I went bonkers my dad saw his name on the cue cards and was completely stunned. Our entire row went nuts. Forgetting momentarily that he was paired up with a former player, I looked toward the stage again and saw CIRIE FIELDS written in bold letters. Mind blown again! My dad was paired up with one of our all-time favorite Survivor players, Cirie!

As my dad escaped our row, met up with Cirie, and headed down to contestant row, I remember looking at my mom who was hysterical and on the verge of tears. Embracing, jumping up and down—we couldn’t believe it.

My dad not only got on the Price Is Right, but more importantly he got on the primetime Survivor special.

If you haven’t watched how it all went down, I urge you to watch the full episode. It’s an understatement to say the entire experience was surreal, a dream come true and one of the best moments I’ve shared with my parents in my 31 years.

My dad went on to have Jeff Probst hand him $25,000 in the classic Punch-A-Bunch game and almost won the showcase showdown against golden boy Joe.

What happened off camera

That’s what you saw on TV, but here’s what you didn’t:

  • The Survivor contestants were just as excited as the superfans to play the game. Since the taping, my dad hasn’t stopped talking about how amazing Cirie was. She was immediately friendly, encouraging, incredibly supportive and gave genuine hugs. He said she kept saying, “We’re gonna do this! You’re gonna do this Thomas!” He laughingly told her, “My name is Tom, and people call me Tom.” The entire show my dad was called Thomas because that’s the name that appears on his license. He told me being called Thomas threw him off because it felt like they were talking about someone else—ironic for his out-of-body experience!
  • During downtime, my dad talked to Cirie about being on Survivor and she told him the first few days were always the toughest, but then it got easier for her.
  • During the Showcase Showdown, my dad interacted with Joe, and in a short amount of time he developed an Andrew Savage man-crush on him. My dad said Joe was such a warm, outgoing, nice guy. Joe kept wishing him good luck even though he had a different superfan partner.
  • The show took a lot longer to tape than a normal episode, especially bidding on prizes in contestant row. They really wanted the superfans to interact with the Survivor contestants.
  • For the first two games, Jeff Probst was nowhere to be found. I was scared that he basically made an appearance at the top of the show and was done. When my dad got on stage and they revealed his game along with Jeff Probst, we all went crazy.
  • My dad had four punches in Punch-A-Bunch and I wasn’t surprised he risked it to the end. He thought, “Hey, I’m here once! This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot—I’m going for it!”
  • One of the wildest, unbelievable, memorable moments of my entire life will be when Jeff Probst gave my dad $25,000! Everyone went insane. My dad was the first big winner of the episode and won over everyone’s hearts. My mother and I were crying with happiness and everyone kept giving us high fives. While celebrating on the floor my dad thought, This can’t be real.
  • Immediately after getting off stage, my dad had to receive medical attention because he cut his hand open punching the holes and was bleeding.

Jeff Probst shows up

  • I was sitting feet away from Jeff Probst when he revealed Joe and his superfan’s prize—a trip to Borneo—and I flipped out. Less than four months before, I traveled to Pulau Tiga where season one filmed, and was so excited they won such an epic Survivor prize!
  • Jeff Probst signed autographs a couple of times during set transitions. Throughout the entire show, Survivor contestants also signed autographs and were extremely welcoming.
  • When the GoPro cameras were up for bidding I saw Jeremy telling his superfan they needed Joe’s help, since he enjoys filmmaking. What Jeremy didn’t know was that I was currently in the market for GoPros and knew the prices. I like Jeremy but wanted Kelley to get on stage more than anything. When it was Kelley’s turn, I made my entire row start cheering for an $801 bid. I knew that would get her on. Slowly my section got the larger audience cheering for an $801 bid, and Kelley’s duo bid that much and won. I have no proof they went with that number because of me, but a Kelley superfan can dream.
  • During the showcase showdown my dad originally wanted to bet $35,000 and Cirie told him to bet $31,000. I wanted my dad to bet $32,000. He eventually met Cirie in the middle and placed a bid at $33,199, a little too much.
  • During the break before the showcase showdown reveal, our entire section thought we won. Everyone thought Joe’s team overbid and that my dad was under. At one point I remember standing up, looking toward the Survivor section and Kelley Wentworth screaming to me “You’re going to Fiji!” Turns out a Mustang looks a lot more expensive than it actually costs.
  • When Joe’s team won, everyone, including my family, was beyond excited. If my dad couldn’t win we were happy someone went home with a showcase showdown.
  • After the show we waited outside for my dad because he needed to fill out paperwork. My mom went to the bathroom and returned saying “Jeff Probst! He’s by the bathroom and I told him I was going to send over my son!” To me, she sounded more like Jeff Probst yelling, “Survivors ready, go!”, because in that moment, I sprinted my ass off to go say hi. Sure enough, Jeff Probst was there about to get in his car. We briefly talked about how he had watched my most recent Survivor audition video on Twitter and retweeted it to casting. Jeff said he recognized me and told me to never give up on my dream all before we snapped a selfie.

Living another Survivor dream

Living my Price Is Right: Survivor experience in the moment and now reliving it on TV was a dream come true.

So much of my life—and my family’s—has revolved around Survivor: making my family play a full-scale version of the game; creating a small adventure company called Reality Rush that runs adventure team building events; having a travel blogging lifestyle that’s focused heavily on backpacking adventures to tropical locations like Pulau Tiga, Borneo.

It’s beyond surreal now being able to add to the list my dad winning $25,000 on the Price Is Right with Cirie—and hopefully soon me becoming #SoleSurvivor on the real show.

For the past 16 years, my family has supported my Survivor obsession because our common love for Survivor is one our strongest ties. I will cherish this memory with them for the rest of my life. My mom and dad have given me so much throughout their entire lives that I hope they spend the winnings on a Survivor-inspired adventure.

Sure, I made both my parents agree to splitting any winnings 50-50 with me if either of them got on (Dad, remember that?!). The truth is sharing this Survivor experience with them was priceless—but I’ll settle for $12,500.

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About the author

  • Justin Walter is an LA-based travel blogger and writer who shares his travel adventures and tips on his blog, Around The World with Justin. As a Survivor superfan and reality competition show junkie, Justin also founded a company called Reality Rush that runs team building events based off of popular reality TV game show formats.

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