This bug's for you: 'Fear Factor' goes live at Universal
By Vincent J. Schodolski
Tribune national correspondent
Published April 24, 2005
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- Have you ever watched the reality show "Fear Factor" and said to yourself: "I wonder if I could do that?"
Well, come this summer, the Universal Studios theme parks here in California and in Orlando will give you the chance to find out.
Starting in early June both parks will debut their latest attraction—"Fear Factor Live"—where visitors will be given the opportunity to put themselves through a series of experiences that, well, let's just say for now that one involves diving into a vat of live eels.
Cooperation between the theme park creative staff and the producers of the NBC television show has produced a new experience that they hope will bring out the risk-taking side of guests who want to go beyond hanging out with the Lucy impersonators.
"It really is going to take ordinary people and put them in extraordinary situations," said Scott Trowbridge, worldwide creative vice president for Universal parks and resorts.
So what is he talking about?
The first test will have all six of the starting contestants standing on a platform 30 feet in the air with a thin trapeze style bar suspended just in front of them. After a count of three the platform falls and the six have to hang on to the bar for as long as possible. While they are hanging midair, audience members will fire volleyballs at them from air cannons to enhance the experience.
The first two to fall are eliminated.
Eliminated from the contest, that is, since everybody will be attached to a cable to stop their falls before they break their necks.
The lucky four who survive that test go on to what Universal calls Recipe for Disaster—where the remaining players are locked in shackles and attached to an overhead bolt.
The first thing they have to do is disengage from the bolt by spinning as fast as possible.
Once that is done they have to race across a giant turntable to reach the vat of slithering eels and dive in to grab one of the yellow Fear Factor flags at the bottom of the pit.
Not done yet.
Then they have to take the flag and attach it to a nearby pole suspended over the revolving turntable.
Still not done.
The final step in the challenge is to drink the Fear Factor Smoothie, a blend of "secret ingredients" chosen by members of the audience when the par- ticipants aren't looking.
Trowbridge said the ingredients will change, perhaps even being seasonally adjusted.
"We are going to find the grossest stuff," he said.
Among the ingredients being experimented with at the moment: sour milk; peanut butter; octopus; pigs' knuckles; mayonnaise and Vegemite.
"These are all FDA-approved products," he reassured.
The first two to quench their thirst go onto the third and final test—Shock and Roll.
In this round the final two contenders find themselves connected to a shock console that starts sending 10-foot bolts of arcing electricity in the air.
Trowbridge said 3,000 volts will be produced, but at very low amperage. He assured that this and all the other situations are carried out under strict controls to minimize any real danger to the participants.
While the electricity courses, the two finalists are instructed to spin a wheel on their shock consoles and send jolts of electricity into their opponent.
The person who withstands the highest jolt wins, while the loser is launched backwards via what Universal describes as a "fly by the wire" rig that sets off a pyrotechnical explosion. There will be a prize for the winner, but just what it will be has not yet been decided.
All this happens in a span of just 30 minutes.
But that's not all.
In between the tests for the contestants, volunteers from the audience will face their own challenges, and not insignificant ones.
The first involves eating bugs. This one is designed for kids. They are challenged to eat a variety of insects—all FDA-approved and common staples in many Asian grocery stores, some even chocolate covered. The child who eats the largest number of bugs wins. It's that simple.
The second also involves insects, but this time they get the chance to munch on you.
The contestant sits in front of the audience with his or her head in a giant Plexiglas box. A professional animal handler then unloads a load of emperor scorpions into the box and on the head of the contestant whose ears, nose and mouth are protected during the adventure. The object is to remain covered in the scorpions for as long as possible.
Universal points out that emperor scorpions are the largest known variety of scorpions and can grow up to 8 inches in length.
Universal also notes that while the sting of an Emperor is not lethal "their sting could be painful."
Matt Kunitz, the executive producer and one of the creators of "Fear Factor," said they had worked closely with Universal to ensure that the experiences offered at the theme parks are authentic.
"We did not want a dumbed-down show," he said.
"We would not partner with Universal if we did not think that Universal would do a show that would complement 'Fear Factor.'"
Before anyone gets to participate in "Fear Factor Live" they have to audition. Both the California and Florida parks set up "casting booths" where those who want to confront their fears will go before a casting director and be videotaped.
"We are going to audition people," Trowbridge said. "They can't be the most boring people on the planet."
He also said that while no medical examinations would be carried out, would-be participants would be asked to consider their own state of health before being allowed to be a contestant.
Universal also noted that age, height and weight restrictions will apply, and that each participating guest will have to sign a release form.