Perhaps it’s not too bad being a losing contestant on Survivor. Sure, the dream of winning a million bucks is down the drain, but the backstabbing and backbreaking challenges are replaced with massages and proper meals. You see, after a contestant gets the boot, they don’t just pack their bags and fly home. Instead, they’re shipped off to Survivor’s Ponderosa, a secret spot where they can recharge and reflect on their once-in-a-lifetime experience. Find out more about the destination and why it’s a crucial element to each season’s final outcome.
What Is Ponderosa On ‘Survivor’?
When a Survivor contestant’s torch is snuffed, the next stop is Ponderosa—a secret holding area where eliminated contestants live until the season is finished filming.
Ponderosa is paradise or purgatory, depending on your perspective. In a revealing essay on Mic, Season 33 (Millennials vs. Gen X) contestant Hannah Shapiro said her one-night stay was “spent eating in a daze: pasta, burgers, candy, and Oreos dipped in peanut butter.”
Sounds like a welcome respite from water bugs and tarantulas. Players are also given other modern comforts like televisions and gaming consoles (but personal electronics were strictly prohibited).
Behind the scenes footage, like the clip below, confirms a Xanadu-like atmosphere.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for everyone. Ponderosa is just as often a place for booted Survivor cast members to get the cold shoulder. Take player “Chaos Kass” McQuillen, who joked to the show’s producers that she expected to be punched by a castmate upon arrival.
“No one acknowledged my existence,” she said. “It was like going to the junior high dance, showing up in the same dress as the pretty girl. You’re just mocked and laughed at and ignored.”
Even players who receive warmer welcomes consider Ponderosa an emotionally taxing place. Once the appeal of unlimited candy bars wears off, they are forced to examine their time on the island and think about where they might have gone wrong.
“For me, Ponderosa is kind of a moment to regather your thoughts and replay moments that were out in the game—things you did wrong and things that other people did right,” said contestant Will Wahl.
Why ‘Survivor’ Contestants Can’t Just Go Home After The Show
So why is Ponderosa a mandatory stop in every contestant’s Survivor journey? It simply boils down to avoiding spoilers. Flying home would be an obvious signal that you were knocked out, which would hurt ratings.
From a psychological standpoint, it’s also a helpful way to transition between competing and returning to the real world.
“I think it would have been really difficult for me to be there a short amount of time and go right back home into my regular life,” the late Sunday Burquest told Mic. “It was really good downtime for me emotionally and mentally… a forced opportunity to really think back on the experience you just had.”
One fact that viewers may not know is that Ponderosa is used in two waves. First, contestants who are eliminated pre-merge are sent there to reunite. But once the tribes merge and a jury takes shape, pre-merge members are sent off on a fantastic group vacation. Ponderosa then becomes a resort exclusively for jury members.
Why Ponderosa Is An Important Part Of ‘Survivor’
Ponderosa is as crucial to Survivor as the game itself. Once contestants are removed from the island and given the opportunity to speak freely with fellow castmates, they can sway the final outcome of the game.
Shapiro said “groupthink” is a major factor in who comes out on top.
“I remember people who had seen me play suddenly had strong, shared opinions on my game by the time we got to final tribal,” she said. “There is a shift in power from the players to the jury at the end of the game. Many other shifts occur at Ponderosa before the final tribal even happens.”
Wahl concurred, saying that as Ponderosa gradually filled up, people would become more passionate about who should and shouldn’t win.
“The first night I remember Taylor [Stocker] pulling me aside and being like, ‘Will, the game is still on in a weird way. Because we’re going to decide a winner and everyone wants their specific person to win,'” he explained.
What Former ‘Survivor’ Contestants Have Said About Ponderosa
Contestants’ feelings about Ponderosa vary. Shapiro argues that it’s such an important part of Survivor that it could be an entire hour-long show in itself. But others wished the place never existed.
“You’re tired of being there and every day is just a reminder of losing,” four-time competitor and one-time champion Tyson Apostol told Insider. He added that if he could forfeit his vote and go home immediately, he’d take that option “every time.”
Others are ambivalent about Ponderosa. Three-time Survivor player Andrea Boehlke initially described it as “the best time of her life.” But she was also mentally checked out of the game and had no interest in participating in the outcome.
“Every time someone else would come back to Ponderosa and they’d be talking about something that was going on in the game, you truly don’t care,” she said. “It’s like, ‘That’s nice, but I’m just trying to relax.'”