Universal Studios Orlando opened on June 7, 1990. The signature attraction? – Kongfrontation, a studio tour style ride delivering the excitement and spectacle of Universal’s 1976 King Kong remake. An animatronic Kong hung from the Queensboro Bridge in a display of themed entertainment excellence. Pyrotechnics and other ride effects delivered a unique ride experience to Universal patrons for more than a decade. Kongfrontation was closed on September 8, 2002. Consistent technical difficulties, amplified by the popularity of the attraction, lead Universal executives to first scale down the spectacle of the ride and then, ultimately, close the attraction permanently.
The first time I went to Orlando as a child, my family and I spent two days at Islands of Adventure – Universal Studios’ sister park. Kongfrontation had been recast by the time we went back. In its place stood a new ride, Revenge of the Mummy, a personal favorite if I’m being completely honest. But now, as of May 2016, the King has made his triumphant return to the mystical land of Orlando. Kong now roosts at Islands of Adventure in a brand new attraction – Skull Island: Reign of Kong. The king has returned, and it is good to be the king.
I was in Orlando this past October on another family vacation to the Universal parks. Aware that a new Kong attraction was in the works, I was still as surprised as any other park goer when I saw the massive facade of the brand new ride as it jumped out at us from around a well foliaged corner of Jurassic Park. Yes, they really do have King Kong in there now. The visual aesthetic of the attraction borrows heavily from Peter Jackson’s 2005 re-envisioning of the King Kong story. We walked into the enormous queue space – a dramatic black stone temple with doors so large that Kong himself could have easily erupted through them at any time.
Once inside, we curl through black stone hallways lined with skulls and the mummified remains of what I can only guess were other less fortunate patrons. The queue opens into a large chamber, lined with stylized ape faces carved into high pillars. The center piece of the room is a life-size animatronic witch doctor. She motions toward the crowd, praising the great Kong in some unknown dialect. Her menacing gibberish accented by the one word we all know and understand: Kong. We hear tribal chants as the audio of the speech builds. Kong. Kong. Kong. KONG. KONG! The mighty ape roars! Then, silence.
We move into the next room of the queue. There are boxes, crates, and barrels full of supplies needed for an expedition in an unknown land. Radio messages from various crew members already on the island punctuate the tension in the line. There are guns, cages, captive animals, and an animatronic larval insect that’s as big as a large dog in a glass case. In remembrance of Jackson’s King Kong, the ride designers have brought to life a monstrous maggot with fangs! One of these monsters saw to it that Andy Serkis didn’t make it to the end of the last movie. At the end of this room there’s a chalkboard on the wall that displays the expedition zones on Skull Island, and it says that someone is missing. What happened?
We make it to the loading bay after a paltry 30 minute wait. The ride cars, large expedition style safari trucks, load a large number of patrons that don 3D glasses. The truck leaves the station, rolling outside on a track that I was unable to locate. We come to the front of the temple. The gigantic doors swing open for us, and we’re plunged into the dark of the island. A radio voice in the truck keeps us abreast of our situation, but we really don’t need her. Giant animatronic bats, 3D displays of an expedition gone wrong, and a growing sense of dread are all the company we need from here on out.
We’re soon surrounded on either side by massive 3D screens depicting the deepest pieces of Skull Island. We zoom along, pursued by dinosaurs, and other jungle dangers. And then, just as we’re about to meet a toothy end, Kong erupts from the jungle depths to dispatch the would be predators. What follows next is a journey into survival action. We’re then rocketed through a high octane ride through the most dangerous parts of Skull Island, only to come face to face with a massive, imposing animatronic King Kong. He’s big, he’s dangerous, and he would really like us to leave. Patrons are put almost within arms reach of the giant ape. It’s the closest I think I’ve ever been to a live animatronic, especially one on such a scale as the King. At last, we make it back to base camp. We survived, and Kong reigns supreme.
Studio tour style rides like this are Universal’s bread and butter. They take us through movies in a very real way. Skull Island: Reign of Kong delivers a highly immersive experience, literally surrounding the patron in a 3D jungle. As a themed attraction, it works very well. The ride falls a bit short in that the motion implied by the 3D screens doesn’t translate very well to the motion of the ride car. What’s more, since there are screens on every side of the car. It sometimes felt too overwhelming to try and decide in which direction to look. There are so many things going on that I found myself missing bits of the action because I was trying to take in too much at once.
Another thing that came to mind is the fact that we’re getting another Kong film next year. March 10 marks the return of King Kong to the cinema, and one can’t help but think if the ride is a bit mistimed. It looks like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. This isn’t a bad thing, but with another, completely different Kong film coming to theaters in just four months (less than a year from the opening of the attraction itself), you have to ask yourself, “how many people are going to enter this attraction expecting to see the elements of the most recent film, only to be shown monsters and action from a movie that’s more than a decade old?”
Ultimately, Skull Island: Reign of Kong is a treat. It’s good to see a classic Hollywood story remaining relevant in the public eye. Next time you find yourself in Orlando, do yourself a favor and check out the Universal Resort. Reign of Kong is a wonderful tribute to a venerable character that has withstood remake upon remake, and ride upon ride. Kong is King for a reason, and we would be fortunate to see the Great Ape hang around for another few decades. The King has returned, ladies and gentlemen. Long live the king.