It's been a long day at work. You come home, kick up your feet, and turn on the TV. But wait... your regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted by a blaring warning from the Emergency Broadcast System. Natural disaster? Severe weather? An act of war? No, no, and no. Would you believe that a raging 40-foot tall ape is rampaging through town leaving a trail of destruction in its wake? Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and this unimaginable scenario played out day after day in the streets of New York at Universal Studios Florida with you caught in the middle of the mayhem.
For years, you’ve been helping us build a library of in-depth stories behind the most fabled, fan-favorite closed attractions of all time. Every month, our library of Lost Legends grows as we ride through the complete stories of closed classics to preserve their tales before they’re lost forever. We’ve asked you to help us by reliving your memories, all in hopes of helping a new generation of theme park fans understand why these lost rides matter.
Hopefully, you’ve read and shared your memories in Lost Legends features on Maelstrom, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original STAR TOURS, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Test Track, and so many more. But today, we return to a park that’s all-too-familiar for fans of closed classics: Universal Studios Florida, where an aggressive agenda of keeping the park current has seen the sacrifice of some all-time favorites.
We recently chronicled the in-depth stories of two of Universal’s best rides ever in itheir own entries, Lost Legends: JAWS and Back to the Future: The Ride – both must-reads for industry fans. But today, we have an even bigger fish to fry. We’ll make our way through the ravaged remains of New York City and tackle the might of the king on KONGFRONTATION, the ride whose closure literally changed Universal Studios Florida forever. Today we’ll trace the tale that leads to that closure and ask you to share your thoughts on the “sequel” that replaced this awesome ‘90s classic.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Frequent readers know the story of any Lost Legend is shaped by events that came years or even decades earlier. Lucky for us, the story of Kongfrontation begins in a spot familiar to many of Universal Orlando’s closed classics: the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The eldest of Universal’s parks worldwide officially opened in 1912, but its rededication as a “theme park” is more recent – July 15, 1962. Even since that time, it’s important to note that for most of its life, Universal Studios Hollywood has been a “theme park” only in the loosest sense.
That’s because Universal Studios Hollywood is one of the only “studio” theme parks on Earth to actually live up to its name… it’s a real studio. First and foremost, Universal’s Hollywood property is an actual, working movie studio filled with soundstages, backlots, and historic sets where actual productions were filmed and are still filmed today!
So even when the property re-opened as a deliberate “theme park” in 1962, its bread-and-butter – the reason to visit – was the Studio Tour. This tram-tour through the working backlot and past historic sets and soundstages was the main attraction, and unlike Disney’s faked versions in Orlando and Paris, the studios and backlots of this Studio Backlot Tour are actually real.
Eventually, Universal began to add shows, demonstrations, attractions, and outright rides to the property, but even still, the Studio Tour was a revered and world-famous experience and, up until last year, was the park’s headlining ride.
As the years progressed, the Studio Tour became as well known for its staged events and special effects encounters as it was for its real sets and the chance of seeing a star in person…
In 1968, the Studio Tour added a stop in a Mexican village where the tour guide explained the movie-magic behind rain-on-demand, demonstrating the technology and an ensuing flash flood as it races downhill and through town before resetting.
In 1974, a rockslide, a close encounter with a runaway train, and a spinning, dizzying avalanche tunnel joined the lineup. In 1976, a run-in with the hideous great white from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film JAWS left Tram riders screaming in terror.
These staged disasters and close calls would become the signature elements of the Studio Tour, blurring the line between the making of movies and being in them.
But just as the Jaws encounter on the Studio Tour debuted, a new blockbuster was proving to be a rebirth for a fabled cinematic icon deserving of his own spotlight.
In 1933, the debut of King Kong took the world by storm. Released in the brief window between the 1929 advent of sound in “talking pictures” and the 1934 adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code moral guidelines, King Kong was a landmark film… unprecedented special effects, unthinkable sets, unspeakable sensuality, and astounding scale.
The story follows famed filmmaker Carl Denham and his crew as he charters a boat to the remote lost Skull Island, allegedly home to a legendary entity known only as “Kong.” When they arrive, they find a towering ancient stone wall constructed by natives, who promptly capture the beautiful Ann Darrow to sacrifice her to the massive beast.
Though the entire first act takes place on Skull Island, the most fabled elements of the film occur once Kong – billed as “the Eighth Wonder of the World” – is transported back to New York City for a public showing before he escapes, ravaging Manhattan, capturing Ann, and climbing to the summit of the Empire State Building – a scene forever transfixed in American history.
The original version of King Kong was met with rave reviews. Even today, it’s celebrated as one of the greatest films ever made. But our story picks back up in 1976, when a modern Hollywood remake brought the character back to prominence and introduced the world to Jessica Lange. In fact, though it was released with only 13 days left in the year, King Kong was the seventh highest-grossing film of 1976. Then it went on to top 1977’s year-end box office charts.
From that moment on, fans would write to Universal Studios Hollywood wondering why they couldn’t see Kong at the Studio. So Universal’s executives began asking around town if anyone could convincingly bring a 40-foot ape to life in a staged event for the park’s Studio Tour. You won’t believe who said yes…