Universal's Islands of Adventure is scarifying its Orlando guests with the newly opened Skull Island: Reign of Kong -- and not just because the colossal ape arrives to whomp on dinosaurs up close. In Universal's first-ever trackless ride that also houses the largest-ever screen and most ambitious Audio-Animatronics, the action does in fact set the standard for the future of Universal attractions.
Yet the innovations within the ride aren't what you'll go home raving about. Surprisingly, and to great effect, the scariest part of Reign of Kong is its freaky-as-hell line.
That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's largely by design. Mike West, a Universal Creative executive producer, made sure that from the moment guests enter the ride's stone gate -- shaped like the monster ape, of course -- they're fully immersed. "I try not to look at it as a queue and a ride," he said. "To me, it's all one story."
The ride is primarily 3D action on screens, followed by a face-to-face with Kong himself. It's a rush, with a very slow build along the way in the line. And while the line isn't the ride, per se, it is at least as memorable. Put it this way: Universal has managed to turn the line from the worst part of visiting a park into a proper mindfuck of cinematic proportions. Instead of doodling on Snapchat and checking the time every four minutes, you feel like you're pinned in a claustrophobic haunted house.
While waiting, guests encounter characters throughout -- like the virtual native who glares at guests, or the sinewy haired, surprisingly lifelike shaman woman who electrifies an unseen crowd of island natives by speaking gibberish interspersed with the word "Kong." Flames blaze in the eyes of animalistic faces carved into the surrounding walls. Boxes holding unknown creatures rattle, warning visitors of what's to come. There are no monitors throughout the building, safety announcements fit within the walkie-talkie arguments of island expedition staff, and the lamps have exposed filaments, just like they would back in 1931.
Guests weave in and out of expansive rooms and smaller corridors accompanied by a soundtrack that mixes, apparently, the screams of tormented ghosts with the shaking of tribal instruments. Live actors pop out among skeletons in darker, narrower sections of the line. Or they might not: the "live native presence" changes locations and may disappear altogether. You can't let your guard down regardless.
Even the building design, complete with hand-carved stone work, is geared to freak you out. "We created this entire queue space to be small and then large," West said. "So you kind of pump the guests through, almost like a heartbeat, and the intensity builds with each scene that you go through."
Blame Harry Potter for this nightmare
Universal has been chasing this level of immersion since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, its boy wizard-themed park within the park, has done huge business the past few years in Florida, California, and Japan. After shopping the snow-topped businesses of Hogsmeade or encountering the Gringotts goblins firsthand, guests can expect a high level of detail and execution everywhere. If you can be dropped into the living, breathing world of Harry Potter just a short walk away, why should Skull Island fail to scare you stupid?
"We don't want to ever say we can do it as good as that, we want to say we can do it better, especially things like the queue," West said. He cited the success of the dark ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, in which guests wind through the famed corners and talking portrait-lined corridors of Hogwarts. "We've had that amazing queue," he said. "We were challenged to keep beating that and making it bigger and better."
You're truly keyed up for Kong
As for the actual ride? It barely matters; by the time you first slide into that benched seat among 71 other people, you're already freaked out.
You'll tag along on an expedition within Skull Island, encountering awful-looking bugs, freak insects, and dinosaurs that rattle and menace the vehicle until King Kong steps in. It's impressive enough, but the bones of the vehicle and the bulk of the ride borrow a lot from King Kong 360 3D on Universal Studios Hollywood's Studio Tour. The Orlando attraction adds extra footage, new creatures and characters, and an upgrade to the existing footage, now re-rendered in 4K at 60 frames per second. You can see the difference in the below side-by-side of the two rides.
The massive King Kong winds up being the least frightening part of the ride. Though Kong is brilliantly executed, 26ft tall, and "pore-level" detailed, he appears in head and shoulders like a monster mammalian driver's license photo. The driver says don't look him in the eye. Otherwise, you'd feel like chatting with the big lug. At this point, in fact, seeing a beast that isn't primed to rip your head off feels oddly enough like a relief.
And that's just the point -- you'll spend the whole experience being spooked and scared, pushed and prodded. By the end, when you're face to face with the beast, he's tame by comparison. The design, characters, and layout are so on point that even a colossal creature can't faze you. Skull Island is already so deep in your head that Kong can't compare to your imagination.
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