The attraction ends on an animatronic Kong character encountering guests, a next-gen theme park marvel. The vehicle lingers for more than half a minute within eight feet of the character, giving guests time to take in his subtle facial expressions and booming, basso profundo growls.(Photo: Universal Orlando Resort)
Everything about the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park is massive. Enormous gates open to let 40-foot-long, 50,000-pound, 72-passenger trackless vehicles onto the mysterious island. Humungous dinosaurs threaten to attack the passengers and send them hurtling over a cliff until an even larger, more menacing King Kong comes to their rescue. After he saves the day, the big galoot — 18 feet wide, 30 feet tall from mid-chest to the top of his Escalade-sized head, a roar louder and more sternum-vibrating than anything Katy Perry could ever hope to replicate — stares down the puny human survivors.
Despite the mind-boggling scale of the attraction, there's something oddly intimate about the experience. "We want you to be up-close and personal with Kong," says Mike West, executive producer at Universal Creative and lead designer of the ride. After encountering the colossal ape, I wouldn't exactly consider him my new BFF. But I would say we shared a special moment and forged a unique bond.
The journey begins in the park's Jurassic Park land. The two intellectual properties are distinct, but since they both share incongruous dinosaurs, the juxtaposition works. Guests are transported to the early 1930s and join the Eighth Wonder Expedition Company to explore the tropical island's strange happenings. "You're here to discover species of unknown origin," West says. "Which you soon discover would be better left unknown."
The long queue includes temple ruins and artifacts from the expedition's encampment. At the base, a vintage radio broadcasts ominous news reports about Skull Island. To help build suspense, live actors dressed as natives and hidden in the queue scare and surprise guests. (Note that while the ride has a height limit of 36 inches, the content is decidedly rated PG.) Universal, which presents the limited-run, acclaimed Halloween Horror Nights each season at its parks in Hollywood and Florida, is a master of haunted mazes. But this is the first time it has incorporated the "scareactor" concept into the queue of one of its regular attractions.
At the end of the queue, there is an animatronic native elder, which Adam Rivest, a Universal show producer, refers to as a "shawoman." She performs a ritual in which she apparently invokes Kong and warns visitors to hightail it out of there. So, of course they make their way to load onto the expedition vehicles that will take them to Skull Island.
The vehicles are quite impressive. They mark Universal's first use of trackless ride technology. Rivest says the system helps drive the narrative. "By removing the track, there's nothing between you and the story." Passengers literally don't know where they're going as they head out across the island.
The autonomous vehicles are also driverless, although in the context of the story, one of five fictitious characters supposedly drives and narrates each ride. Among them are a native island woman and Will Denham, a young sailor. According to the backstory conjured by Rivest and his colleagues, Denham later tells his uncle, Carl, about the peculiar goings-on at Skull Island. That inspired the expedition that was the basis for the original 1933 King Kong movie and the 2005 remake starring Jack Black.
Ruts and other intentional impediments along the vehicle's path make for a bumpy ride. On the other side of the island's gates, huge winged prehistoric creatures attack one of the scientists. Giant earthworm-like baddies then spray icky goo onto passengers, and the vehicles race farther into the island to escape the onslaught.
Universal uses a concept known as an immersion tunnel to envelop guests in the madness that follows. The vehicle is locked onto a motion base that moves in sync with action projected in 3D onto a long wraparound screen. While they are actually standing still, passengers feel as if they are careening at high speed. Kong and the T-rex brigade battle it out on both sides of the vehicle.
It's a giddy, engaging sequence that has passengers pivoting their heads back and forth to keep up with the frantic action. This part of the attraction is an update of the King Kong experience that Universal Studios Hollywood incorporates into its Studio Tour. West says that the scene is essentially the same, but Universal reanimated and re-rendered all of the media at a high-speed of 60 frames per second and in 4K ultra-high-definition. Compared to Hollywood's lower-resolution footage, the Orlando version looked noticeably brighter and sharper to me.
Whereas the California park presents Kong in the context of filmmaking and production, the goal in Florida is to immerse visitors into the world of Skull Island. In addition to the scenes that precede the fight sequence, the Islands of Adventure attraction tacks on a coda in which an animatronic Kong character encounters guests. It is reminiscent of the robotic Kongs that used to stalk guests at a defunct attraction in sister park, Universal Studios Florida, and in Hollywood before a fire on the studio's backlot destroyed the big ape.
This Kong, however, is a next-gen theme park marvel. "I think he's more advanced than any figure that's ever been created," West says. The vehicle lingers for more than half a minute within eight feet of the character, giving guests time to take in his subtle facial expressions and booming, basso profundo growls. "We really wanted to bring out his personality," adds West.
With a legacy dating back over 80 years, Kong is an icon in movies and at theme parks. Perhaps he's not as warm and cuddly as his rival, Mickey Mouse, but he's every bit as legendary. He's featured in another blockbuster titled (synergistically enough) "Kong: Skull Island" that opens today.
Universal Orlando's Reign of Kong pays homage to the big guy in grand style. Should you make your own trek to Florida to join the expedition to Skull Island, I predict you'll go ape.