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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: Survivor UF holds first two seasons on ‘Gator Island’

The new UF organization seeks to bring the challenges of the reality show “Survivor” to campus

Zack Casella wanted to face off island competitors in challenges like the CBS American reality television show “Survivor.” Instead, the applied physiology and kinesiology senior brought it to Gainesville. 

“Survivor” has been a staple of American TV on CBS for more than 20 years now, but this Spring UF saw the first iteration of a Gator copycat of the Emmy-winning program. 

Sitting at home last summer, Casella never thought he wanted to be the one to start a club at UF. Then again, he didn’t want to spend all his time studying for the MCAT either.

A longtime fan of the survival-of-the-fittest-type reality show, Casella took Twitter cues from other universities across the country, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland, and decided that UF deserved its own “Survivor” chapter. 

He posted an application for “season one” of Survivor UF and advertised it on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. He also printed out physical flyers to post around campus. 

On the application, Casella asked potential contestants to relate their personalities to past “Survivor” contestants. The application also featured a mock puzzle question for applicants to prove themselves in the face of the tough challenges ahead. 

From there, those who survived the application round moved on to the interview stage, with Casella and his team conducting them to further explore their personalities and determine their fit for a place in the cast. 

Jump ahead to January, and the birth of Survivor UF Season 1: Gators at War came to fruition, in Broward Hall’s basement. Nonetheless, 15 contestants participated in a one-day, eight-hour event hosted by Casella, competing in various challenges, making teams and voting each other out.

“We wanted to see how everything was ran and solve any kinks beforehand, having a bigger season,” Casella said. 

Luckily for students, the wait between seasons was much shorter than the CBS version’s May-and-December cycle. Season two, Survivor UF: Gator Island, was filmed April 1 and 2 in a similar format — both seasons are in post-production, according to the club’s Instagram. 

This time, applications soared to about 40 submissions for season two, nearly double the 22 applications received for season one. The chosen applicants, another group of 15 contestants, returned to Broward, but this time expanded the season into a two-day affair. 

“It’s just really awesome to see so many people interested and wanting to participate in our club,” Casella said. “We had some people who had never even watched a single episode of ‘Survivor,’ but they still want to participate for the challenges and socialization aspect of it.”

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A mental math relay challenge, a jousting challenge, a marble-balancing challenge and the classic who-can-build-the-tallest-freestanding-spaghetti-tower challenge were just a few of the intense trials contestants tested their skill with. 

“Season two ran a lot smoother because now we knew what we're doing,” Casella said. “Any issues that arise with season one, now we knew what to fix.”

Alexandra Hickson, UF biology and classical studies junior and Survivor UF’s merchandise chair, said she placed third in the inaugural season. She praised the club’s ability to replicate the reality show, even with small beginnings. 

“The challenges were real: It was complicated and hard,” Hickson said. “Everything that we did on the one day was very authentic to the beginning of ‘Survivor.’”

More importantly, Casella is excited about the connections contestants can form from their experiences “on the island.” Many contestants are still friends with each other, and the club’s first couple groups have formed a tight-knit bond lasting well after the last person was voted off.

Every Wednesday night, the club files into Casella’s apartment and turns on CBS for a “Survivor” watch party. Watching the pros weave their way through the physical and mental challenges helps the group reflect on their performances together and turn teammates and rivals into friends. 

“They were socializing with each other, and even though they just voted the person out, you could see that they were still smiling, laughing,” Casella said. “It’s really great to see the connections that are formed from one season alone.”

Kristin Deaver, a UF zoology sophomore, was season one’s runner up and serves on Survivor UF’s recruitment and social media team. A one-time applicant for big-league “Survivor,” she hopes to start working on fulfilling a dream she has had since she was 11 in Gainesville. 

“I think most of us here love the show,” Deaver said. “I know my dream and one of Zach’s dreams is to actually be on the show.”

In season two, Deaver served as an “idol,” a game-maker of sorts in conjunction with Casella who mediated challenges and evaluated contestants. After a dominant performance last season, she was ready for a new challenge in administering the “Survivor” experience for others. 

“I was like ‘I did my job. I made it to the end.’” Deaver said. “But it was so much fun just getting to see people that have the same passion for ‘Survivor’ that I do.”

Contact Caleb Wiegandt at Follow him on Twitter at @CalebWiegandt. 

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