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KONGFRONTATION: The Reigning King of Universal's Lost Legends

Reign of Kong

In April 2016 – more than 13 years after the closure of Kongfrontation – Universal made an ambitious and unimaginable announcement.  The King would return.

Image: Universal

In Kongfrontation, guests had traveled through the park’s New York streets and boarded a Roosevelt Island tram to view the devastation caused by a lost and angry creature trapped in our world.  But now, the roles would swap. Reign of Kong would instead leave us stranded in the otherworldly, prehistoric jungles of Skull Island to face the unthinkable dangers of the unknown.

And for us to step into that story, Universal would construct an eighth island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Universal

On July 13, 2016, Islands of Adventure became home to Skull Island, located between Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park. The small-but-mighty new island is a dense, misty jungle of alien rock formations, churning torches, and distant drumbeats, all reigned over by an ancient stone wall built to keep us out... or is it, to keep something else in?

Image: Universal

Reign of Kong is unique even among Universal's more "mature" ride lineup for the direction it takes Kong's tale. Its atmosphere is gritty, grisly, and downright scary. 

In line, guests can pick up hints of an elaborate backstory placing us in the 1930s with the earliest explorers from the Eighth Wonder Expedition Co. as they hunt for the king of all cryptids. But this isn't your typical queue. The line alternates between dark, daunting, massive chambers with stunning animatronics and narrow passageways populated by live "scareactors" who jump out to frighten queuing guests. You can watch a walkthrough of the ride's queue here.

Image: Universal

Indeed, the ride's line was designed by the masterminds behind Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, and despite the ride's 36" height requirement, families may think twice about riding just because of the queue. 

Though Universal explicitly explained that Reign of Kong isn't based on any specific King Kong movie, the ride reeks of Peter Jackson's dark 2005 epic (and indeed, Jackson did collaborate with Universal to design "the look and feel of the environment"). In so doing, they exaggerated the film's already-grim take on the tale and essentially decided to turn Reign of Kong's queue into a startling horror experience. It's, admittedly, an odd aspect of the character to choose to highlight, especially given the more light-hearted fun that people loved so much about Kongfrontation. 

Image: Universal

Ultimately, the queue leads to one of the most technologically-advanced vehicles Universal's ever designed (even given their penchant for groundbreaking technologies)... massive 40-foot-long off-roading expedition vehicles. What makes them so unique is that they're entirely trackless, appearing to navigate the uneven terrain of the island under the total control of the driver – a member of the Eighth Wonder Expedition Co. physically present on-board as an animatronic! One of five guides leads you through the valley, each with a unique backstory and narration. 

Image: Universal

The oversized dark ride travels indoors and out as it breaches the 80-foot wall via swinging wooden doors, entering a network of caverns and valleys that blend physical sets, animatronics, tactile effects, and digital video (though, yes, at it’s core, it’s the same screen-based, Spider-Man follow-up we’ve grown a little too accustomed to by Universal) as you navigate the darkness and despair of this alien world.

Image: Universal

The heart of the experience – and its one colorful moment – is just what you'd expect: a retooled 360-degree projection tunnel based on the one that debuted in Hollywood in 2010, now a single segment in a larger experience. And while Universal probably planned on the projection tunnel being the ride's star (and in many ways, it is), the thing fans clammored to learn more about is what follows the tunnel: a face-to-face encounter with an animatronic Kong. 

We encourage you to check-out a point-of-view ride-through of the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong to get a sense of this ride's atmosphere and effects:

Our Thoughts

Fans rejoiced at the premise of Kong's return. Even if the mosty-virtual experience assured another round of debates on whether Universal's finally taken this whole "screen" thing a little too far, at least fans had been promised a long-overdue animatronic encounter. That said, reviews on Reign of Kong (including in our own Park Guides) have been decidedly mixed. Here's our four reason takeaway on why:

1) It's a little too grisly, gothic, and grey. As we mentioned, Universal might've left the ride intentionally disconnected from any specific incarnation of the character, but it's clear that Peter Jackson's 2005 reboot – a gritty, dark, epic telling of the tale – factored in visually and atmospherically. Reign of Kong is dark. And yes, since 1933 King Kong has fit into the "horror" category in a unique way. But to choose the "horror" aspect to emphasize is an odd choice... One might argue that the undersaturated, grey look might not be the best fit for a theme park, where a more fun, humorous, colorful romp might be more appropriate. 

Image: Universal

Especially given that, just one year after the ride's debut, yet another Kong reboot debuted (barely a decade after Peter Jackson's version, mind you) that recast the character and atmosphere into an explosive, vibrant, saturated, colorful comic book style that feels closer to the character's core. That 2017 film, Kong: Skull Island, populates the island with must-see stunning, unusual, fantastic creatures (bad and good) that look straight from Miyazaki's fantasy realm (which is to say, they're beautiful and classic and creative).

Only time will tell if the new, rebooted Kong film is actually a hit, but it does have a pleasant, playful visual style that hits at the fun of the character, and that's something Jackson's King Kong (and thus, Universal's new ride) seem to lack. It's probably the kind of colorful, adventurous look a Universal ride needs.

Image: Universal

2) Universal's uneven storytelling hits hard. "Story" has never really been Universal's strength. We often find ourself half-explaining convoluted plots before simply settling for "It's complicated." See our discussion a page ago about Revenge of the Mummy (when do we go from a New York museum to a movie set to an actual tomb?), or Jaws (we're going on boat tours of the real Amity to view the real spots in town where, years ago, a real shark attacked, inspiring Steven Spielberg to make the Jaws movie, and on our tour, we're attacked by a different shark?), or even Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (which quickly descends into a mad dash past every bad guy from the series with almost no sense of time or place or plot or space... something Gringotts thankfully corrected). 

Put another way, Universal's rides often play best when you simply believe what you're told in the pre-show video, let go, and let it happen, letting inconsistances, weak premises, and loose details roll off your back. And as with Jaws, Revenge of the Mummy, and Forbidden Journey, we're willing and content to do that!

Image: Universal

But on Skull Island, Universal Creative seemed absolutely determined to hammer home a plot... a plot that they then never resolve. Instead, scene-by-scene, we jump unceremoniously from day to night to day to night, apparently in search of Expedition leader Kate who, scene-by-scene, is dragged off stage left, necessitating our continued journey. Only, on her third appearance, she's dragged off and never returns. An afterthought radio transmission as you pull into the unload dock announces she's alright, but at that point, who cares? After all the trouble of introducing a cast of characters, a time period, an elaborate viral backstory, and a detailed setting, nothing ever seems to coalesce into a worthwhile motivation or plot.

In a way, it seems that Reign of Kong is like the "evil twin" of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, setting up the same sort of world-building without any follow-through.

3) The animatronic Kong encounter isn't what you're picturing. Don't misunderstand... this new Kong ranked high on our countdown of the most amazing animatronics on Earth. It's one of the most lifelike and hypnotic figures we've ever seen, clearly benefitting from the three decades of innovation since the original Kong. However, Skull Island's animatronic Kong (or more appropriately, torso-of-Kong) is a very different Kong from the enraged ape of old. Here, Kong is our guardian. He's just saved us from certain doom, and the calm, sniffing, protective ape is now basking in our praise and thanks. 

Image: Universal

If Kongfrontation taught us anything, it's that the enraged, wild, panicked ape is the preferred, brochure-ready way to encounter him. On Kongfrontation, the weight of your Kong encounter came from the unpredictability of the massive, frightened, cornered creature. As the director of 2008's Cloverfield said, "there's nothing scarier than something huge that's spooked." In comparison, the subdued and almost "sweet" encounter Reign of Kong offers carries a little less gravitas and feels somehow anticlimactic. 

4) Reign of Kong a C-Ticket dressed in an E-Ticket's clothes. Is Reign of Kong a worthy follow-up to Kongfrontation? That probably depends who you ask. As an "extended" take on Hollywood's 360 3-D? A home run. As a "sequel" meant to give Kong a place in the parks again? Success. But as a full, fresh, headlining E-Ticket on its own merits, Reign of Kong feels like it’s over before it’s begun (even technically being the longest ride Universal's ever created – a fact they eagerly marketed) with a tissue-paper thin plot that’s left unresolved and an unfortunately-expected overreliance on screens.

Image: Universal

And Reign of Kong being a healthy C-Ticket in a park of headliners would be absolutely fine! But it really, really feels like Universal wanted this ride to be their next "big" thing and expected E-Ticket returns, and in that regard, we can't help but feel it doesn't hold up. While an impressive experience in its own right, it seems that few would place it in their top three rides at Universal Orlando, or even at Islands of Adventure. As a fun aside, it's a major win. But marketed as a must-ride thrill adventure? Maybe not...

What’s Next?

If Kong has proven anything in his 85-year lifetime, it's that he is immortal; his story is evergreen; it crosses generations, presentations, and styles. From humble 1933 stop-motion beginnings, then the frenzied fun of 1976's new classic, then the gritty, dark, grimy Peter Jackson epic adventure. And just a decade later, 2017's KONG: Skull Island reintroduces the story in a bright, vibrant, comic book world of oversized monsters, setting Kong up for an extended cinematic universe meet-up with Godzilla and other kaiju monsters that may redefine the ape once more.

Click for a larger view. Image: Theme Park Tourist

There is truly no limit to the adaptability of the character. And given Universal's penchant for catching up on what's new and next, their representation of Kong may change just as often.

King Kong is a legend. Kongfrontation was the perfect theme park personification of the revered character and his cross-generational story. Skull Island: Reign of Kong succeeds at keeping the character alive within the parks, but may have missed the mark in keeping him adaptable and – most importantly – fun!

Image: Universal

Now that you've faced the King, don't forget to relive the cinematic excitement of Universal Studios Florida's co-starring Lost Legends: JAWS and Back to the Future: The Ride, or visit our In-Depth Collection Library to choose from dozens and dozens of features.

Then, we want to hear from you. Use the comments below to tell us about your encounters on Kongfrontation. Were you one of the millions of millennials who lost sleep over your horrifying near-death ordeal? What memories did you make on this outstanding disaster ride? Is Skull Island: Reign of Kong a worthy follow-up? Or did Universal once again rely too heavily on screens and, in the process, lose what makes Kong the king? 

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