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Big Debut - October 2016

Universal’s ‘Skull Island: Reign of Kong’ Roars to Life

by Jeremy Schoolfield

The new “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” attraction checks a lot of boxes for ­Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure:

  • Its 36-inch height requirement means the ride is available for a wide range of guests.
  • It adds another indoor attraction to a park where most of its rides are outdoors, meaning it’s weatherproof.
  • It offers high capacity, with 72 guests optimally dispatching every 122 seconds.
  • It brings King Kong, one of the movie studio’s most iconic characters, back to life at the Orlando property after a 14-year absence.

“Each generation has their own new version of Kong. We wanted this one to be a unique story at Islands of Adventure,” says Mike West, Universal Creative’s executive producer on the project. “Guests have been waiting for his return here in Florida, so we wanted to bring him back in a big way.”

“Big” is certainly an apt description. “Skull Island” turns a 90-second experience on the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour (“King Kong 360 3-D,” 2010) into a stand-alone immersive attraction. With a runtime of about six minutes, “Reign of Kong” is one of the longest rides in either Islands of Adventure or its sister park, Universal Studios Florida.

The attraction’s storyline is a prequel, of sorts, to the original “King Kong” film, which debuted in 1933. Guests join with the 8th Wonder Expedition Company in a search for new creatures of the jungle. The queue begins with an outdoor trek through a jungle, then into foreboding temple ruins lined with skulls, where guests encounter an animatronic native elder who warns of this mythical beast, King Kong. Deeper in the ruins, Universal placed hidden locations for a scare actor to jump out at guests, marking the first time live actors have been used like this in a Universal Orlando queue experience.

“We wanted to get you out of your comfort zone and put you in a place you’ve never been, where you don’t know what’s going to come at you,” says Adam Rivest, Universal Creative’s show producer on “Reign of Kong.”

Once at the loading platform, up to 72 guests board one of five “expeditionary transport vehicles.” These massive pieces of equipment—13 feet high by 40 feet long and weighing 17 tons—are 12-row trucks that follow a trackless ride system (another first for a Universal attraction). The vehicles have different “drivers” (not live people) who offer their own unique takes on the experience (via onboard voiceovers; one  can imagine guests riding repeatedly to try and catch each driver).

The vehicle leaves the station and heads out into a jungle scene in the foreground of “Skull Island’s” temple (the rockwork alone took 70,000 man hours to craft, Rivest says); if it’s raining, the trucks can skip the outdoor section and go straight into the temple from the load platform.

Once inside, guests are instructed to don their 3-D glasses and the vehicles encounter three successive media sequences. The first two occur on one side of the vehicle only, as the story intensifies with 8th Wonder Expedition Company employees being attacked by jungle creatures. The final media scene is an updated version of “King Kong 360 3-D,” re-animated in 4K resolution with a few tweaks to fit this attraction’s storyline. As in the Hollywood version, the screens here surround the vehicle on both sides, and at various times guests feel as if they’re racing forward into the jungle, falling into a crater, or being jostled by dinosaurs and Kong himself. The vehicle rests on a motion platform, so when Kong tosses a dino over the truck and then leaps after it, the vehicle moves in time with the action.

For the final scene, the truck takes a slow turn around a large Kong animatronic, seeing him from the shoulders up; the figure is highly expressive, from furrowing brow to flaring nostrils and more. It’s a nice callback to the original “Kongfrontation” at Universal Studios Florida, which closed in 2002; in that ride, an animatronic Kong attacked guests, while here he’s portrayed as an ally.

“We wanted to bring his personality out,” West says. “You’re in front of him for 35 seconds, within eight feet of him. We wanted that up-close-and-personal feel with Kong. It’s not a machine; it’s a character.” 

Universal Orlando Opens 5th Hotel, Sapphire Falls

This July, along with “Reign of Kong,” Universal unveiled its fifth on-site hotel, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. The Caribbean-themed property offers 1,000 guest rooms and suites, bringing Universal Orlando’s total room count to 5,200.

Sapphire Falls features a 16,000-square-foot pool as well as several dining options. Guest benefits include early access to the Universal theme parks and complimentary water taxi service to and from Universal CityWalk. Room rates this summer started at $172/night.

Universal also this summer opened a revamped version of “The Incredible Hulk Coaster” at Islands of Adventure; for more details on the refurbishment to this iconic coaster, see the August 2016 issue of Funworld.