By Sarah Sekula, published on usatoday.com // photos courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
ORLANDO, Fla. — Fires flare up inside a shrine-like area as the drum beat gets louder. The natives are chanting. A Shah woman with long, stringy gray hair summons King Kong. Kong responds with a massive roar.
All that, and you aren’t even on the ride yet. As guests, stroll through the queue at Skull Island: Reign of Kong, the latest attraction at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, they are treated to impressive theatrics that build anticipation in every sense of the word.
The first thing you notice as you enter is the massive scale of things. For starters, you are surrounded by 150,000 square feet of rock work. In the distance, huge temple doors are set among a rugged landscape full of craggy peaks and dense jungle.
The next thing you’ll notice are the whispering voices and unidentifiable grunts and growls. That might be attributed to the fact that the ride includes things like a terapusmordax, a flying predator sporting a 10-foot wingspan, and a vastatosaurus rex, a rather intimidating dinosaur.
Opening today, the nearly 6-minute-long experience is a feast for the eyes. It features a trackless ride system (a first for Universal Orlando), an interactive queue (yes, hostile natives are lurking around the corners) and an almost three-story-tall mechanical figure of the furry one himself.
USA TODAY was the first to peek inside the new attraction with an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour.
“Once inside the ruins, guests interact with the physical environment as the space gets tighter, the danger gets more authentic and they start to get the feeling the locals aren’t necessarily friendly,” says Mike West, executive producer at Universal Creative.
That said, keep your eyes peeled as you pass through catacombs. Among the piles of skulls a very lifelike native is peeking out. Better yet, actors dressed as not-so-friendly natives pop out from dark corners to scare the beejeebees out of you, Halloween-Horror-Nights style.
As you arrive at base camp, the ride vehicles are waiting with no track or rail in sight. Each vehicle seats 72 people and comes with an expedition guide. With five guides altogether, each guide narrates the story in a different way.
“The first thing you see are the remnants of a Kong species skeleton on the left,” West says. “You pass the terapusmordax bats as they try to attack the vehicle. Now you’re in a deep cavernous space with lots of creepy things. The truck starts rocking as more creatures attack.”
By now you are completely immersed in a jungle environment complete with giant flying bugs and all types of dinosaurs. Suddenly, Kong comes crashing through to battle the dinosaurs. The ride vehicle lowers, but Kong catches it. He pounds on his chest.
As you come around the corner, the piece de resistance: About eight feet away from the truck is Kong in all his glory. With a head the size of a car, he’s so close you can feel his breath. He even expresses human emotion like scrunching down his eyebrows in anger or contorting his face in surprise.
“We feel like we’ve made a new mark in the industry with the figure we’ve created,” West says. “We wanted to make sure this Kong we created was unlike any creature that’s ever been built before. We wanted to make sure Kong had personality.”
Kong lives on
After all, this lovable beast has wowed audience for more than 70 years. He’s starred in multiple films, books, television shows, animated series and as an attraction at Universal Studios Florida back in the ‘90s. In other words, he has some serious brand equity.
“The movies from 1933, especially the first one, are still seen and endlessly referred to in ads, mash-ups and jokes,” says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University. “There were Kong movies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and, of course, the Peter Jackson film in 2005. Millions of baby boomers, like myself, experienced Kong in the cartoon series from 1966.”
The over-the-top attraction drew inspiration from all of those elements and also from the King Kong flick that hits theaters this summer. However, West says his team wanted the story to be completely unique.
“Our journey takes place in the early 1930s, predating the Carl Denham expedition to Skull Island that brought Kong to New York,” he says. “We worked with Peter Jackson during the initial concept phase of the project to develop the look and feel of the environment. We saw how great Skull Island looked on film, but we envisioned a completely immersive experience with enormous sets, vehicles and characters that literally put our guests right in the middle of the action.”
It comes as no surprise that park-goers are atwitter. “My expectations are pretty high for the ride,” says Shelley Caran, an annual pass holder who visits the park monthly. “I’m hoping that the ride experience has a detailed environment like those from the upcoming films with nods to the past. I love a good easter egg.”
If you go
Cost: Single-park admission to Universal Islands of Adventure is $105 for adults, $100 for children. Park-to-park admission is $155 for adults and $150 for children.
Height requirement for Skull Island: Reign of Kong is 34 inches
For more info: UniversalOrlando.com/ReignOfKong