Legends of the Hidden Temple is back! The 1990s Nickelodeon game show aired just three seasons, but its 120 episodes have lived on, in reruns and now streaming. Five years ago, there was a scripted film version, and today the actual competition series is back.
Unlike the Nickelodeon reboot of Double Dare, which was for kids, The CW’s Legends of the Hidden Temple (Sundays at 8) is targeted at those of us who grew up with the show, who are also the contestants.
It’s moved from a soundstage in Orlando to an expansive outdoor set in the Los Angeles area, but retains the same general format. The voice of Olmec is the same, while Cristela Alonzo is now hosting.
I’ve seen one episode so far, and it grew on me during the episode: The closing image of the temple reflecting in the moat at sunset is gorgeous and really sells the environment; the Temple Run is very similar of the original, and I was yelling at the contestants just like I did in the 1990s; and the opening Moat challenge and its editing were quite clunky, as is Olmec’s mouth.
To learn more about The CW’s version—and, it turned out, the original Nickelodeon version—I talked to executive producer Scott Stone, who created the original with David Stanley and Stephen Brown. The original production company, Stone Stanley Entertainment, went on to produce another beloved reality competition; this new version is produced by Stone’s Stone & Company Entertainment.
How did Legends change from the Quibi version?
The revival of Legends of the Hidden Temple was initially announced in 2019 by Quibi, which was then still months away from launching. Quibi itself didn’t even last six months, and Legends never aired, but thankfully The CW rescued the reboot this year.
And I do mean thankfully. Some Quibi reality shows were effectively just half-hour shows chopped into three pieces; others were compact, efficient competitions (like this show that I highly recommend).
Had Legends of the Hidden Temple been on Quibi, Stone told me that it would have been “very different.”
“One of the things that we really had agreed to do—and it was not easy—was to do standalone eight-minute episodes,” he said. “Imagine taking the format that we have and trying to suck all the extra oomph out of it, and really make it into eight minutes, because we really did try to keep all of the elements, in one form or another, in the show, in eight minutes. So that was kind of crazy.”
“I always jokingly say that it went from the steps of knowledge to the step of knowledge,” he added.
I am so glad we’re not watching an 8-minute version! The reboot is actually the opposite: What was a half-hour episode on Nickelodeon is an hour-long episode on The CW, though it retains essentially the same format.
Where did Legends of the Hidden Temple film?
The competition filmed in July in Southern California, on a massive outdoor set dressed to look like a jungle rather than the desert. “We were shooting right as we thought COVID was going to go away, and then it didn’t,” Stone said.
All contestants had to be vaccinated, and everyone was also tested.
“We were very, very, very careful about it,” Stone told me, “and we only had, I think, one or maybe two people that ultimately tested positive, but they didn’t infect anybody on the set, and they were gone and came back later. So, we had zero real effect of COVID other than the expense of testing people every day.”
How was Legends of the Hidden Temple show cast?
On the original series, producers just paired two kids the morning of taping, and despite being strangers, they had to work together to win all kinds of fun 1990s prizes.
The new series cast pairs of two people who know each other, like on The Amazing Race, and many of them are fans of the original.
Legends of the Hidden Temple was cast by Doron Ofir, and Stone said he told Doron, “you’re going to get inundated with applications.”
“He said, What are we gonna get, a couple of thousand? Two thousand [applications is] probably the maximum you get per show—even The Mole … you’ll get two or three thousand people,” Stone said. “We had 12,000 people in the first two weeks, and then within a month we had 24,000. And now, because we’ve left our lines open, we have over 50,000 applications.”
There were, however, “very strict criteria,” Stone told me. Potential contestants “had to be within driving distance of LA, because we shot the show out of sequence. We shot all the Moat crossings in two days, then we shot all the Steps of Knowledge, and we shot all the Temple Runs at the very end. So they had to come back four times in a 10-day period; we couldn’t really be flying people in and out. And they had to be people that are willing to get vaccinated—which was another frankly issue with some people who refuse to be vaccinated—which was a mandate on our part.”
While those of us in our 30s and 40s watched Legends of the Hidden Temple in the 1990s, some of the contestants are “in the young 20s range, who had heard about the show. Their older siblings might have watched it, they know it’s cool, they watched the repeats, and they came out not really being super-fans. We have some [who] are social media-type people in their 20s, and just came out to be on the show because they just knew it was going to be cool,” Stone added. “But I would say of the 50,000 [applicants], 95 percent of them were people that watch the show when they were kids.”
Why aren’t all six teams in each episode?
Fans of the Silver Snakes or Orange Iguanas might be dismayed when they see their team is not represented in the first episode. That’s because there are only four teams per episode.
I asked Scott Stone if that was because of COVID restrictions—fewer people on set—or something else.
“It started out as a COVID-related thing, and then it became a creative decision,” Stone told me. “And if you know the show from when it was on Nickelodeon, there are only two words that are spoken by some of the contestants … When Olmec says, Who’s going first? and one of them says, I am.”
In other words, some of the contestants were gone quickly, and the original also wasn’t as focused on introducing us to the contestants, as was typical of game shows back then.
“First season, we did little interviews, but they were not very good so we stopped doing them. But this version, we could speak to them. We’ve come a long way since 1993 in terms of wanting to know the stories behind the people who are on our shows; they’ve become very much story-driven programs,” he said. “Once you decide that you want to get to know eight people pretty well, that takes up a lot of air space. That’s actually a big part of our additional time that we put in the show for the 42-minute version. To get to know 12 people is exponentially harder.”
The initial plan for The CW version was actually to have even fewer teams. “We were originally going to do it with three teams to two, so six people, and then we went to eight, just because format-wise that worked for us. I’m glad we did,” he said.
And for fans of the Silver Snakes or Orange Iguanas, Stone promised that “you see all six of the teams throughout the season. We use all six team colors, and we allowed the contestant teams to pick the color that they wanted to be, generally.”
Is Olmec’s voice being performed live? What’s wrong with his mouth?
Voice actor Dee Bradley Baker returned to Legends of the Hidden Temple as the voice of Olmec, the Mayan god who narrates the stories and introduces the challenges. Stone was thrilled to have Baker back: “I love Dee more than I can tell you.”
Baker is on set performing the voice live—and not just doing Olmec’s narration, but also puppeteering Olmec’s mouth from a booth behind Olmec on the temple set. “He’s literally talking into a microphone with one hand and on his right hand is a stick that is the mouth of Olmec, and he’s talking while he’s doing it,” Stone said.
I was thrilled that the show stayed true to the original with a practical Olmec—not, say, a CGI version. His eyes still glow red as he talks, and his mouth moves up and down. But I was also surprised that the mouth movement was so minimal. Yes, it’s a stone carving of a face, but Olmec’s mouth moves significantly less than the 1990s version did.
Stone said the production was well-aware of that issue. “Nobody knows how to build Olmec anymore; those plans were long gone. We got it out there, the mouth didn’t open far enough,” he said. “It was a very tiny mouth movement, and it wasn’t Dee’s default; he had the arm strength to do it, but the old mouth moved a lot easier and opened much wider.”
Producers kept working to improve it while filming took place. The set builders “literally took his skin off three times and tried to adjust it, and it had to be put back on and repainted,” Stone said.
Because each element of the show was shot separately, Olmec’s mouth improves during individual episodes. Stone said that “by the time we did the Temple Games, it was a week later, and we had adjusted it, and by the time we got to the Temple Run, we adjusted it pretty much to about 80 percent of where we wanted it.”
“In season two, we have to completely rebuild Olmec’s mouth so it opens more, because that’s exactly the reason why he looks like he’s kind of mumbling, as opposed to being very animated like an animatronic,” Stone told me. “So another good observation, and you are not wrong.”
Why is The Moat so big?
The first challenge on Legends of the Hidden Temple takes place in front of temple, in a large body of water that was constructed for the show. It’s much bigger, in part because of how small the original was.
“It was an above-ground, plastic liner on a soundstage that had about two feet of water and it was maybe 15 feet wide. You could jump from one side to the next,” Stone told me. “So we knew that it couldn’t really be that size, and we wanted to go big and we wanted to open big.”
“The big decision was taking [the show] outside. That became the beginning of the discussion,” he said, and the result is a moat that’s “huge. And then we tell people, you have to be able to swim and tread water for at least five minutes—and of course, they pay no attention to that. You get out there and they start treading water and a lot of them couldn’t exactly do it. You’ll see in episode two, we actually have a team where a guy went and took swim lessons; he didn’t know how to swim.”
On the first day of filming, the production filmed seven moat crossing challenges in a row, which may explain why it’s the least-polished part of the episode I saw.
Stone told me that “the moat crossing is the most-difficult part of the shoot for multiple reasons.” That starts with having eight contestants to introduce. “We want you to care about them, because we’re going to lose a team before it’s over. In the kid version, you lost two teams and nobody cared,” he said.
The actual challenge “takes about 40 minutes worth of shooting, and we’ve got to cut it down to three and a half,” Stone said, “and because they’re in water, there are no microphones, so all the micing has to be done above water, and we don’t have a lot of good, natural sound. In a future season, we have a much better way of doing it; we learned halfway through.”
Why did the Temple Games change?
On Legends of the Hidden Temple, the three teams that finish the Moat challenge first go on to the Steps of Knowledge, where they answer trivia questions.
One team is eliminated there, and the final two teams compete in the Temple Games to find out which team will go on to the final challenge and run through the temple, but also to earn immunity idols—the Pendants of Life. Those are important because three of the Temple’s rooms have Temple Guards, and if one shows up, the contestant out unless they have a pendant.
The original series had three Temple Games: the first two awarded a half pendant, and the final game awarded a full pendant. If a team went into the temple with just 1.5 pendants, the other half-pendant was hidden inside.
All of this is important because having two full pendants means it’s impossible for the Temple Guards to end a team’s run: each player has two chances, and there are just three Temple Guards.
The new version awards a full pendant of life for each of the two games. If there’s a tie, because each of the teams won a challenge, there’s a tiebreaker question worth one pendant. That means the winning team will automatically have two pendants, and effectively can’t be eliminated by the Temple Guards.
“I personally never loved it when they got taken out before the full three minutes were up,” Stone told me. “The other half-pendant was in the temple, but very few people actually found it.”
Reducing the number of challenges was “one of the few subtle changes in the format,” he said. “We took one Temple Game out, because we wanted them to be a little bit more substantial. The Temple Games in their original show were all timed, and they were no more than a minute. We needed those acts to breathe and to open up, and make them multi-layered and multi-dimensional. When we laid out the format, there really wasn’t room for a third temple game, and that did away with the half-pendant of life.”
How much bigger are The Temple Run and temple?
The final team now has four minutes to navigate the temple during the final Temple Run challenge, and there’s a good reason: it is much, much larger. On screen, it didn’t seem a whole lot bigger than the soundstage version, but it’s actually “three times the size,” Stone told me. “If you put an adult in the kid version of the show, it would be tiny—one step, they’d be on the other side of the room.”
“The original temple was maybe 28 feet high, this one’s about 60 feet high. So it’s double the height, and it’s about twice as wide,” he added.
But it was actually planned to be much bigger. “If we get to season two, we’re adding two more rooms onto the temple. We had to cut them off because we ran out of budget and time. But, on the left hand side of the temple, you’ll notice where the ladder of death goes from the queen’s armory down to the dark forest, it’s supposed to have two more rooms attached to it.”
How were the legends chosen and researched?
The very first credit that comes up at the end of Legends of the Hidden Temple is “Written by Scott A. Stone.” That’s because the legends themselves are “the thing I care about the most,” Stone said.
“The original show, we told stories of historic figures like Benjamin Franklin or Amelia Earhart,” Stone told me. “We decided early on that we wanted to make these more elaborate stories, and more about real cultures all over the world, choosing to tell actual legendary stories of cultures became a big passion of mine. We did a ton of research into all these stories.”
The legend is told through animated segments, narrated by Olmec, that are places across all five acts of each episode, and elements of the story are incorporated into challenges such as the Temple Games.
Even with that expanded storytelling, the stories are still compressed. The first episode is focused on the story of the Maya Hero Twins, and Stone said “that story is not only almost one thousand years old, but it goes on and on and on and on—it’s hours and hours worth of oral storytelling.”
Besides research into the legends to ensure the accuracy of the stories, the show also hired a University of Texas expert in Mayan culture to help design the new set. “In 1992, when we built this set, there was no Internet, there was people looking at the Encyclopedia Britannica. Our art directors were really good about making sure that we did it as best we could to our culture of its day,” Stone said.
For The CW version, the consultant helped the production “make sure that we were doing this accurately—building the set in particular. He’s been with us hand-in-hand,” Stone said. “You’ll notice the glyphs that are on the set and actually say Steps of Knowledge and Temple Run and Legends of the Hidden Temple. Those are actual Mayan glyphs that he created for us in the real Mayan language. Everything in the temple, including the Temple Guard costumes, are authentic to actual Mayan warriors.”
“We went out of our way to make sure that not only was that appropriate,” Stone added, “but we wanted very specifically to have a Latina host to be in our Mayan temple, and our temple guards are Latino. The only person, frankly, who’s not Latino is Dee [Bradley Baker]—but Olmec is omnipotent and omniscient. We are very careful: Dee doesn’t try to speak in any kind of language or accent that would match that culture.”
Stone also told me the production is open to criticism and critique. “We continue to try to do the right thing, and I’m sure we will make some mistakes along the way, and we look forward to it Twittersphere telling us,” he said.
How can I watch Legends of the Hidden Temple?
New episodes air Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on The CW, paired with season two of Killer Camp, a dumb and fun competition series.
But you can also watch Legends, for free, on The CW’s apps.
And if you’re looking for more between new episodes, the 1990s Nickelodeon version on Paramount+. All three seasons—40 episodes each—are there.