- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

ORLANDO — An unmistakable, monstrous roar has begun to penetrate Universal Orlando Resort. That familiar sound has not been heard in over a decade, but it heralds the welcomed return of one of the mightiest beasts in cinematic history.

The recently opened “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” attraction offers guests to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park the chance to meet the Eighth Wonder of the World, a staple to the film studio’s brand.

“Kong is such a huge part of Universal’s history,” says Adam Rivest, show producer for Universal Creative. “Not just in the theme parks but at the very beginnings of Universal Studios pictures. Kong has always been there. 1933 was his first movie, and it really propelled the studio and defined what it was going to be.”

Nestled between the Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park islands, the ominous entrance reveals a rocky exterior, a mountainous backdrop and plenty of skulls leading guests to a roughly six-minute long, multimedia journey aboard a 37-foot-long, 17-ton vehicle that takes them through 36-foot-tall gates and back to 1931.

There, they become part of the research team of the 8th Wonder Expedition Co., exploring a lush land with ancient ruins west of the Sumatra coast fraught with danger and encounters with multistory-tall creatures.

Although this is a stand-alone story in Kong’s ever-evolving history, and not tied to the new film “Kong: Skull Island” to hit theaters next year, the terrain and bestiary clearly do come from the “King Kong” film brought to the screen by Peter Jackson in 2005.

Mr. Rivest acknowledges consulting with Mr. Jackson and his team to get some design feel, but he stressed that “we wanted to definitely create something separate. We keep Kong on Skull Island, and you are experiencing his world and its creatures.”

The result is a ride featuring plenty of hidden tech magic that required the work of over 1,000 artisans with digital craftsmen, set designers and engineers, combining creative might for the final product that was over three years in development.

Guests board trackless, auto-driven vehicles that seat 72 passengers every two minutes (for about 2,000 riders per hour) and are chaperoned by one of five possible animatronic guides sitting behind the wheel.

They include Cowgirl Becky Callahan, Will Denham (cousin of famous movie director Carl Denham), New York City ex-con Jinks Costanza, native Kalana and paleontologist Charles “Doc” Jordan, each with their own story to tell during the adventure.

Explorers are eventually immersed in a 3-D, Ultra High Definition projected sequence displayed on a horseshoe-shaped screen that is the longest in Universal Orlando Resort’s history.

Mr. Rivest said that with the driver’s stories, loads of action onscreen and different views (depending on where a guest gets seated), passengers will need to ride “Reign of Kong” multiple times to truly appreciate all facets of the production.

However, perhaps best of all payoffs arrives with an in-scale, animatronic version of the famed silverback gorilla that shows up during one point of the journey, a massive technological marvel that Mr. Rivest’s cannot be prouder of.

“He is extremely life-like and is able to emote better than any character we have created for the theme parks,” he says. “His face gives every feeling and nuance he is trying to portray to you.”

Equally important to the producer was making sure waiting in line was nearly as exciting as the eventual digital encounters.

“I love the queue. We know park guests spend a lot of time waiting, so we spent a lot of time developing the areas, bringing the story, feel and sound to life. It’s where we start to tell the story,” Mr. Rivest said.

Meticulous detail to exteriors meant 70,000 man-hours logged on the walls and gates with every piece of rock in the attraction being hand-carved and nothing molded or cast.

Interiors feature sounds that change by the time of day during the developing narrative as guests walk through catacombs and caves littered with tribal symbols, ancient carvings and over 500 skulls. An ominous animatronic, priestess beckons for Kong in one chamber and even tribesman (actual scare actors) pop out to remind guests of their impending doom

Also, no detail was too small to convey the materials that were available to the natives and researchers during the time period. Designs range from exposed filaments in the light bulbs to using native hair to build bamboo walls and ceilings, leather straps to construct wooden lampposts, and vintage canvas stretchers that list rider warnings.

The queue was also built to convey a sense of a heart-pounding rhythm during the wait, presenting a “subconscious feel of a pulse,” said Mr. Rivest, as open spaces scrunch down to small spaces with the constant pumping of people through big and small areas.

Ultimately, guests will decide the success of their “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” journey, but Mr. Rivest feels his mission was accomplished.

“The ride is great with plenty of payoffs. This is my baby,” the proud producer says. “At Universal Creative, we challenge ourselves every time we build a new attraction and this is a great representation of us creating the next level of adventure for our guests.”

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