The History Behind the King Kong Rides at Universal Studios


The History Behind the King Kong Rides at Universal Studios

King Kong inspired two different experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando. 

By Tara Bennett

King Kong and Universal Studios go together like banana splits and hot summer days. The two have long been associated with both the Hollywood and Orlando theme parks. It's not hyperbole to say that Kong has been a big deal at the Universal Studios theme parks going back to his first appearance as part of the Universal Studios Tour on June 14, 1986. Since then, the major monkey has continuously appeared in several experiences at the theme parks including Kongfrontation, King Kong: 360 3-D, and the Orlando exclusive dark ride, Skull Island: Reign of Kong

With the great ape celebrating his 90th birthday in 2023, here's some history about how King Kong has made his presence felt at Universal Studios for almost 40 years. 

Inside King Kong's History at Universal Studios

King Kong Encounter 

The first King Kong-centric experience at a Universal Studios theme park was for the Hollywood Studio Tram Tour. King Kong Encounter was based on the 1976 film directed by John Guillermin, and the park actually built a 30-foot animatronic ape that weighed seven tons. It was designed by legendary theme park Imagineer, Bob Gurr. Guests on the tram would get an eye-level experience with the beast as he rampaged New York City and the Brooklyn Bridge. Just as he ripped the suspension bridge cables, the tram would jolt to safety. A thrilling stop on the tour due to the scale, pyro, motion effects, and Kong's banana breath — we kid you not — the ride remained a visitor favorite until it burned down in the tragic Universal Studios fire of 2008.

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On June 7, 1990, Kongfrontation opened at Universal Studios Florida. It was also based on the 1976 remake of the 1933 King Kong, and was a riff on the successful King Kong Encounter at Universal Studios Hollywood. A full standing ride, there was no tram tour associated with this iteration of the experience. Guests would enter a queue that was themed to look like the actual line for the Roosevelt Island aerial tram circa 1976. Everyone would eventually load into a Roosevelt Island tram (which was similar to a tram car) and then make their way on a supposedly calm commute. Guests would then float above 50 set-dressed facades modeled after Manhattan's Lower East Side during the late '70s, while radio traffic alerted the tram operator and guests about the impending Kong danger. After making it past flames, electrical explosions, and flowing fire hydrants on the streets, guests got face-to-face with a livid Kong hanging on the Brooklyn Bridge. The tram then found itself in the middle of a helicopter attack between the ape, with shots fired and the tram swinging in danger until everyone escaped. It became a huge attraction and cornerstone of the early Orlando park's success until it was retired in 2002.

King Kong: 360 3-D

In 2005, director Peter Jackson rebooted the monster for his version of King Kong. A technology enthusiast, Jackson and WETA helped develop a brand-new Kong experience based on the Skull Island section of his film called King Kong: 360 3-D. The first iteration was designed for the Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour as an immersive two and a half minute 3-D film that is part of the tour. Guests on each tram get a video introduction to the experience by Jackson who explains the tech developments of using two 200-foot wide screens on both sides of the tram with 3-D glasses to make guests feel like they're smack dab in the middle of a prehistoric fight between a Vastatosaurus rex and King Kong. With that, the tram rolls into the ancient looking cave and the chaos ensues. Using motion, water, heat, and the perception of actually falling off the tracks, guests get an exhilarating thrill from Hollow Earth. King Kong: 360 3-D continues to be a major stop on the current Universal Studios Hollywood Tram tour

RELATED: Peter Jackson’s 'King Kong' Remains an Underrated Wonder of the World

Skull Island: Reign of Kong

With the success of King Kong: 360 3-D at Universal Studios Hollywood, the idea was expanded upon for a non-tram version at Universal Studios Orlando. Skull Island: Reign of Kong opened on June 9, 2016 as a dark ride where guests enter the experience via a full scale, ancient native temple honoring King Kong. In the highly detailed queue, guests encounter a shamaness who warns the outsiders that they are trespassing on sacred ground. As they continue to meander inside, they'll see bodies littered around as another visual warning until they reach base camp. There is the entrance to a truck that will take you into the dark ride danger zone. Riders on the expedition will see animatronics mixed with 3-D filmed footage of all kinds of creatures like Terapusmordax attacking the riders and the expedition leader named Kate. Finally, the truck will experience the same screen created battle between Vastatosaurus rex and King Kong, with the extra payoff of a scale animatronic head and torso of Kong to say goodbye. It's a full circle way to honor the very first Kong ride and bring the big beast into the cutting edge of ride technology!

Peter Jackson's King Kong is now available from Universal Pictures. For more information on the King Kong theme park attractions, head to Universal Studios Hollywood and Orlando.