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Survivor: How a teen came up with the first challenge twist of season 35

Here’s what happens when your daughter pitches a ‘Survivor’ challenge idea

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Children always want to outdo their parents. At least my children do. My daughter Violet already showed me up by publishing her first EW music review at the age of 3 (Her review of Raffi: “This CD closes my eyes, because it makes me sleepy.”) Now 14, she is trying to displace me as Entertainment Weekly’s resident Survivor expert. Even worse, she is now getting her ideas on the show.

About a year ago, after watching me successfully lobby Survivor producers to start hiding immunity idols at challenges, Violet had her own idea. Instead of giving tribes the same choice in a challenge — like selecting between a 5, 10, or 50 piece puzzle — Violet’s twist was that the first team to arrive at that section of the competition was allowed to choose between all three options, the second team must select from the remaining two choices, and the last tribe was stuck with what’s left.

So I sent host Jeff Probst and challenge producer John Kirhoffer an email with her idea. Like most pitches, it seemed to go nowhere — until the two started discussing the first immunity challenge of the upcoming Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers season (which premieres Sept. 27 on CBS). “When our new challenge came up,” says Kirhoffer. “I think it may have been Jeff who said, ‘Do you think Dalton’s daughter’s idea works here?'”

Apparently, the answer was yes. The challenge is titled “Tracks of My Tears,” and here’s how it maps out: “On ‘Go!’ the tribes sprint to a tall platform and climb a cargo net to the top,” explains Kirhoffer.

CBS

“They then work together to pull a very heavy wooden cart from a field to the top of the tower. Once at the top, they all get in, release the cart and careen down a steep ramp, and crash through a huge pile of sawdust.”

CBS

Then we get to the new twist. “They run to a station containing three different table mazes, each one unique in its way to approach getting a ball through it, but playing to different mind and skill sets,” says Kirhoffer. “The first tribe to reach this station has their choice of which of the three they will use, the next tribe to arrive gets their choice of the remaining two, and the last tribe to arrive is stuck with what is left.”

CBS

After that, “They then transport the table to the top of another, even taller tower, where two players work together to get three balls through the maze to the end,” explains the producer.

Timothy Kuratek/CBS
CBS

While watching my daughter get her idea on the show is pretty cool, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does Violet’s new job as a “Survivor Challenge Consultant” prohibit her from being a future contestant? “I don’t think so,” notes Kirhoffer. “I believe it’s her dad’s reviews of the show and challenges that will sway that decision either way.” (Note: Uh-oh.)

But that’s not the only Entertainment Weekly connection to challenges you will see in Heroes v. Healers v Hustlers. Last fall, EW hosted a convention out in Los Angeles called PopFest in which Survivor fans could attend and compete in actual challenges from the show against contestants like Ozzy, Woo, Tai, Peih-Gee, Abi-Maria, Mari, Rob Cesternino, and more. Kirhoffer was there to oversee the festivities. “We were doing the challenges at PopFest,” he explains. “It was super fun. And this kid walks up, ‘Man, I’m a big fan of Survivor.’ And he goes on to explain a challenge. ‘Can I pitch you a challenge?’”

Kirhoffer gave him his card and told the fan to send him an email. “So he did the Photoshop and worked up a nice sketch and had a write-up,” says the producer. “And it was really good. It was a really great idea. So I said ‘Hey, here’s the deal. Send me another one. Send me more pitches, and if you have one more that’s as good as that, maybe there’s a job in it for you.’”

So that’s exactly what Will Arbuckle did. “Sure enough, he sent a couple more that were solid,” says Kirhoffer. “So I hired him as a consultant. He came into the office in January and we started brainstorming. And two of the original puzzle ideas that he had you will see in the first five episodes of Heroes and Healers and Hustlers. So I hired him on the Dream Team [testing out challenges] and he’s having the time of his life.”

The moral of both of these stories is clear: Pester Survivor challenge producer John Kirhoffer whenever and wherever possible.

For more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.