This post is actually a continuation of Tuesday’s Wizard World Atlanta recap. You don’t have to read that if you haven’t already, but you might as well. It’s where I tell you how Jonathan of WrestlingWithPopCulture.com got me a media pass for The Walking Dead Escape at Phillips Arena last Saturday.
The first I ever heard of the Walking Dead Escape was before 2013’s San Diego Comic Con. I wanted to say that G4 did a report on it, but I’m pretty sure G4 was already dead by then – and my heart still aches with the loss of X-Play and Attack of the Show; though the latter died long before it went off the air. I saw a report about it being a presentation from Skybound – Robert Kirkman’s publishing imprint under Image Comics. This is important because it means that the attraction is based on the comic book and not AMC’s television series. This is reflected in the art related to the event as well as the font used on the event’s promotional materials and merchandise.
I will say this – that first glimpse at TWD Escape made it look significantly more physically intense than AZA. It seemed to be patterned more after those sadistic obstacle courses that crazy, physically fit people pay to go and get maimed on – Tough Mudder and the like – than after an actual haunt. But I figured if I ever had the opportunity I’d give it a shot. There isn’t much in the realm of dorkery that I wouldn’t at least try. I mean, I have a website to run here. I need content.
My initial impression of Escape was that you participated as a Survivor. The report didn’t go inside the attraction, so I had to guess. I imagined participants would run the course, doing their best to avoid Walkers. If one “got” you, you were eliminated. I imagined a movie set-style city constructed inside the arena where Survivors would encounter empty alleyways, clogged streets, and all manner of simply constructed obstacles as they ran from zombie hordes.
The reporter made it through but looked pretty rough. It seemed like a memorable experience and one I would be unlikely to have. From the report it looked like Escape was a one-time deal.
That was the last I heard until about two weeks ago.
I got a Facebook invite to a launch party for The Walking Dead Escape at Phillips Arena in Atlanta on May 31st. This was a little surprising to me, as a dork-oriented event that large taking place in my hometown would not usually creep up on me like that. I never heard a single ad for it and never would have known about it if it weren’t for the Facebook event. In other words – the people putting on Escape did a shitty job of promoting it.
Once I found out about it I had sort of a passing curiosity, but I had plans to be at Wizard World and didn’t see Escape fitting into that. Taking too much on at once rarely seems to work out for me and combining a costumed appearance at a con didn’t seem likely to mix well with a zombie race. Btu then I got that message from Jonathan and I couldn’t very well turn down the opportunity to participate for free.
We left Wizard World at about 4:45. The lovely Sells had given me the key to their room in the nearby Embassy Suites so that I could change in more dignified surroundings than a World Congress Center restroom. I dropped some stuff off at the car and grabbed my backpack with my runnin…. Heh… pfft… I’m sorry – I just have a hard time referring to anything I own as “running gear” with a straight face. But that’s pretty much what it was, as you’ll see later.
About halfway to the hotel I realized that I had left the room key in my coat, which was hanging from the hook in the backseat of my car. Genius. We went back to the car and rather than waste any more time I just changed there. I’m sure Jonathan enjoyed the show. The group of Russian tourists looking for their van certainly seemed to.
Once I was all geared up we headed across the street to Phillips.
Checking in was no problem. We got a spiel from Escape’s very pleasant publicist, where she explained the roles of Survivors, Walkers, and Spectators; pretty much as I explained them on Tuesday:
“Walkers would get made up as zombies and dispersed throughout the attraction to stumble around and menace the Survivors. This didn’t appeal to me because I didn’t want to just stand around in one area and I don’t particularly care for having anything other than form-fitting lycra on my face.
Spectators would stand along the path or sit in the arena seats and watch. This did not appeal to me because I am not a giant pussy.
Survivors would set out upon the path and do their best to avoid the Walkers. In my mind this would involve running, jumping, crawling, and all sorts of other physical activities that I am by no means equipped to perform but that I will not shy away from in the face of possibly getting a good post.”
We had a little trouble figuring out how to get into Phillips, until I suggested that we just go in where they were making up the walkers. We showed our Media badges to the folks at the door and walked right in. It took a minute for us to get our bearings, but eventually we made our way around to where the Escape was taking place. Prior to that I took the opportunity to upload a video to Instagram:
The main portion of Escape was in what I consider to be the front of Phillips – by the escalators near the CNN Center entrance. There was a large military tent set up that was the entrance to the attraction. The escalators led up to the Fan area, where you could buy merchandise and alcohol and later on meet Booker T and some dancing zombies. Or buy some art from the delightful Chris Hamer, owner and proprietor of UrbnPop.com:
Chris told me that Skybound had called him up and asked if he wanted to work the event and I told him the casual way he said that was pretty much the coolest thing I had heard all year.
There was dubstep playing the whole time up there, which was simply awful.
The fan area is where we ran into the third member of our party, none other than Chambers of Horror’s own Luke Godfrey. We downed some zombie Fireball shots (no different from regular Fireball shots except that we said, “Zombie Shots!” before we drank them) and headed for the big tent. From here on out is my official review and recap of Skybound’s The Walking Dead Escape as it was presented in Atlanta.
You start off with a large group of people in front of one of those mildewy Army tents. There was a lady in an orange shirt with a megaphone up on a podium. This is where the mistakes began. Mistake number one was not dressing the people directing us like military. Instead they were dressed like the people that run the rides at Six Flags. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when some lady in a neon orange shirt is stumbling over a script she is literally reading off of the piece of paper in her hand. Mistake number two is that every single person with a role in Escape referred to Walkers as “zombies”. Over and over again.
If you know Walking Dead – the comic or the show – you know that the word “zombie” is never used. These are worlds where zombie movies don’t exist. George Romero never did his thing. These characters don’t have a clue what the fuck is going on. They just know that the dead are walking (hence, Walkers). “Zombies” is not a word in that world in the same way that “Flurbulplex” is not a word in ours.
So the orange shirt lady instructed us to make our way into the tent. There another orange shirt lady told us that they didn’t know what was going on but that zombies were attacking (but… isn’t that a description of what’s going on?). She explained the attraction to us and told us several times not to run. Then there was a scream from the back of the tent and some sort of other commotion and orange shirt lady told us to run (?). This thing was just full of contradictions.
But it seemed that urgency was in order so Jonathan, Luke, and your ol’ pal Phantom Troublemaker took off like somebody lit our little asses on fire.
Right out of the gate – or tent, as it were – there was a zombie horde awaiting us. They were just sort of shambling around in little zones, clearly instructed to reach out and not touch someone. We had been told not to touch them or we would be ejected. Luke filed that information away for later in the event that we might end up wanting to be ejected.
We ended up outside at one point and had to run through some abandoned cars full of dead bodies and some walkers… walking. It was raining pretty hard outside, which was actually kind of cool and added to the atmosphere of the event. I didn’t have any of my normal electronics on me, so I didn’t mind.
We ran all through Phillips arena and eventually emerged into a parking area. Normally this would be the place where things would happen like Raven running over Kane with a golf cart, but instead we ran into more zombies. At one point there were concrete barricades set up with chain link fences on top, forming barriers that you had to crawl through. I sensed that this would be a good way to fuck up my knees, so rather than crawling I laid down and log-rolled through. As far as I could tell I am the only one that utilized this particular move. In my opinion that makes me the smartest person that was there.
The next set of barriers removed the possibility of the log roll. There was a zombie trapped in the middle, surrounded by fencing so there was no choice but to crawl. Once out the other side I saw a large sort of gate made of chain link with a zombie stuck inside. We had to run through that to emerge onto the circular ramps on the other side.
Let me paint a picture for you – I was not running in the sense that one being chased or otherwise molested by the undead would run. As you might have surmised from my log-rolling, I was attempting to be a ridiculous as I could possibly be. So my running style was more akin to a John Cleese’s gait in the “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, albeit at a sped-up framerate. I was pumping my arms and legs in as exaggerated a manner as I could manage, nearly hitting my chin with my knees. This was, of course, extremely stupid because it took twice as much energy as a standard run and probably three times as much as the slight jog I could have gotten away with. It’s doubly stupid given that as far as I know nobody has any footage of it that will ever credit me. There were tons of photographers and videographers all over that course, but I have no clue who any of them were.
I had to stop to tie my shoe at one point – something I would not have done in a real undead crisis – and lost track of Jonathan and Luke. Good for them. I wouldn’t have waited for me either. By the time I caught up with them – and I did catch up – we were being directed into a school bus that was clearly full of zombies. I pointed this out to the guy telling us to get on the bus and he looked slightly uncomfortable and said, “Uh, just go on in”. We chose to go around the first bus, but had no choice but to enter the second bus, which led back into the arena and was the only way to continue on the course. Luke was waiting inside and might have actually made Jonathan poop a little bit when he jumped out at him. It was probably the scariest moment of the Escape.
Upon entering the arena we found ourselves in the sort of area where Mick Foley might drop and air conditioning unit on Big Show. It was full of walkers that seemed slightly more motivated than some of the others we had encountered. From there we entered the actual arena floor. There was a large medical tent set up and some people with the courtesy to actually dress up as doctors were directing us inside. Where there were a bunch of zombies.
The inhabitants of the Walking Dead Escape world were proving to be kind of assholes.
Once out the other side of the tent we ran back into a hallway where we were stopped by some guy with a “Staff” badge. He told us this was a safe zone and I did not trust him one bit. But I was glad to have the opportunity to stop because, quite frankly, I was about to have a fucking heart attack. Not from the walkers, which were utterly unconvincing but still pretty fun, but from the running. The constant running. I leaned on the wall and tried to remember how you were supposed to breathe when your lungs were on fire and your knees had fallen off of your legs about ten minutes ago.
This is where the story goes bad. Up until this point I had been having a lot of fun. Not because the Escape had been competently arranged – far from it. But because running freely through Phillips Arena through hordes of walkers cannot possibly not be fun.
We stood in that hallway for at least half an hour. At one point the Staff guy informed us that they had run out of zombies and were waiting for more to populate the areas ahead of us. This was fucking crazy talk. Our group consisted of about twenty people, and we stood there talking for quite some time. Think about that one. Got it?
This might be where the story goes bad, but it’s also where the story goes perfect. Because we had been having a great time running from walkers and having adventures, but now we were just standing around and talking for way too long with not a walker in sight. Sound familiar? Do you get where I’m going here? It was just like the fucking show.
I made my little joke and everybody laughed and was kind enough to not point out that Escape was based on the comic, which is much more exciting than the show. Jonathan found a large sign rolled up on the floor that said “Safe Zone”. I pointed out that zombies probably couldn’t read and wouldn’t know to it was a safe zone. And if they could read, maybe they had made the sign and this was a trap. Then one of our party sneezed and I shouted, “He’s infected! Kill him!”
Eventually Luke had had enough of waiting (or bad jokes). Well, we had all had enough, but Luke was the one that said it. He verified with the Staff guy that he would be ejected if he touched a zombie and I gently pointed out that the lack of zombies was the whole problem. So he turned around and went back the way we came, hoping to find a path of egress. Jonathan and I followed.
I had no idea how bad the situation was until I turned the corner behind where we had been standing. People were stretched all the way back into the arena. Hundreds of Survivors were just standing there, waiting. As we made our way through the huddled masses, some asked us what was going on and over and over again we told them that they were out of walkers. Disappointment and impatience were thick in the air.
Once we got back to the arena floor we headed up the stairs and out through one of the portals. We just happened to emerge in the spot where the walkers were being made up and were shocked to find a couple hundred people waiting to be made up. It was then that I realized the flaw in planning of the Walking Dead Escape – the Walkers and Survivors had been told to show up at the same time. The problem was that the Survivors just had to go and stand in front of a tent. The Walkers had to undergo the makeup transformation into members of the undead. There simply wasn’t enough time to make up the volume of walkers needed. Oops.
The bright side to the delay is that it had kept us at the Escape long enough to be there for Booker T’s appearance. He got to his table at 7:30, right before we got back upstairs. I shook his hand and got his autograph while Jonathan took pictures. I wanted a for-real picture, but the photo ops weren’t until 9:30 and we all agreed that wasn’t going to happen, no matter how many zombie dancers they had in store.
Side Note: No – I have no idea why Booker T was there.
I had a blast at The Walking Dead Escape, not because of the way the event was planned but despite it. The poor choices in staffing were bad. Running out of zombies was inexcusable. Other aspects of the event were very cool. The way the arena was set up and the immersion of the news reports on the televisions was great. There was also a sort of “undead hum” playing over the sound system. That was cool. The fan area was a neat setup with a bar and some other stuff. The atmosphere was good, but the event itself fell flat. I would have been asking for my money back if I had paid.
In short, Shane Morton has no reason to be mad. Unless he wants to be mad that somebody would rip his idea off and do it so poorly.
At best I expected Escape to be AZA, but on a bigger scale and with less flair. At worst I thought it would be an overblown obstacle course that I would give up on in five minutes. It ended up falling somewhere in the middle. I had a lot of fun with what I was able to hang in there for, but that whole walker shortage was just absurd. I can’t even really rate the thing, but I suppose I’d give it a 2 out of 5 if I had to. And one of those points is for Booker T.
Can you dig that, SUCKAAAAAAAA!?!
Side Note: Jonathan took three pictures of me and Booker T. In this last one it totally looks like I am leaving Booker T hanging, though that is something I would never do under any circumstance. Jonathan said I should have gone, “SUCKAAAAA” and walked away. Also something I would never do.