Going ape over Universal Orlando's new Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction

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Jul 12, 2016, 3:59 PM EDT

Journal Entry, 23 June 2016 1931:

My journey with the Eighth Wonder Expedition Company begins as I wade through carved stone, covered in the darkness of a dense jungle canopy where sun occasionally shines through, making my way past piles of skulls placed in a near ceremonial fashion. The chants begin early.

Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!

Beyond ominous carvings of skeletal shaman, I enter the antechamber of a temple, where an ancient woman of magic prays to even more ancient deities, calling forth the spirit of something big – a kong of some sort -- and a hellstorm of fire.

Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!

Winding through stone tunnels, I encounter more skulls, the piles of which seem to be getting larger. A hostile native of this exotic land springs out here and there to frighten me … Or perhaps this resident is not-so-subtly warning me of the dangers ahead.

Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!

I enter into the Eighth Wonder’s base camp, where I find maps of the barely charted island I find myself on. Crates full of undiscovered critter – including one intolerably ugly worm that looks to be a cousin of the fabled Mongolian death worm, squirming and lashing from its enclosure – make me only wonder what else is in the wilds ahead of me. And how much larger they may get.

Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!

The chants cut to my core, summoning a primal fear, but what is this “kong”? I don’t get much time to become lost in this thought before I board a cargo truck for the trek beyond the great wall (a massive gate into which gaping, screaming maws of demons are carved, either warning people to stay out, or hoping to keep something in!).

The truck passes through the gates, and into the caves on the other side, where my journey truly begins into the heart of Skull Island…

And this is all just the queue and opening moments of Skull Island: Reign of Kong, the exhilarating and innovative new attraction at Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure.

Set in 1931, the Reign of Kong story is set two years before director Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong, and is not connected to the 2017 Skull Island film. Instead, this adventure focuses on the Eighth Wonder Expedition Company and the crew that searches the mysterious island for a great ape and unimaginable creatures of unknown origin – some that are better left unknown.

While still in its soft opening, and officially opening July 13, Reign of Kong has nevertheless arrived in a very big way at Islands of Adventure.

If you’ve visited the theme park in the last two years, you’ve no doubt seen the mountains and great wall emerging within the Jurassic Park land. In its completed stage, this attraction is 150,000 square feet. The great wall is about 80-feet tall with a 36-feet tall gate.

Technologically, it’s an impressive attraction as well, and marks a leap forward for the park. Combining practical models -- like a 3-story tall, incredibly designed animatronic Kong bust by Creature Technology Company -- and a 4K digital resolution 3D experience, it’s immersive; the jungle on-screen is alive and vibrant, with a depth I’ve never seen in a ride before. According to Mike West, executive producer of Universal Creative, it is also the park’s first completely trackless ride system with one of the largest single-ride vehicles ever built. The cargo truck, which operates on a pretty sophisticated positioning system, is 40-feet long, 13-feet tall, 10-feet wide, weighs 17-tons, and can carry 72 guests at once (or up to 50,000 pounds with its gross vehicle weight and passengers).

The adventure ride is also something of a work of art – and a movie come to life. Aside from a few spots here and there, West said “every nook and cranny” of the ride’s stone work is hand-carved, which took about 70,000 work hours to create. And it shows: the mounds of skulls, the imposing shamanistic sculptures, the impressive ape-face jutting out from the temple all set the scene for this exotic destination. The island setting feels lived-in. The queue alone -- with its alternately small and large areas (described in my journal entry above), thudding tribal chants, and even live scare actors -- is like a heartbeat that builds anticipation, and pumps visitors through to the main event.

But as for the 60-ton gorilla in the room, is the ride itself any good? I am happy to say if you put this ape in the spotlight, the monkey shines.

As an Orlando native raised on roller coasters and rides, and a globetrotting junkie for coasters abroad, I went a little bananas over Reign of Kong. Islands of Adventure has been my favorite spot for the hybrid coaster/3D-simulator rides going back 17 years to when the park opened with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (which still holds up). But the 6-year-old Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was a gamechanger with an engaging line and fantastic ride. And I think Kong has just leveled up the park once more.

From the queue through to the end of six-minute action-packed ride, I was all in, and fully on board with the adventure. The use of the trackless vehicle system along with the combination of practical and digital effects – especially the grand finale that takes place on all sides – offers something visceral, thrilling and fresh to park guests. Plus, the re-ride value is exceptional. I was fortunate to ride Reign of Kong twice, and still couldn’t absorb all the details that unfolded around me. To borrow a line from the neighboring Jurassic Park, it’s clear the creative team spared no expense in building on Peter Jackson’s world and bringing the island to life.

Now, if you want more info about Skull Island: Reign of Kong, read ahead in a more detailed spoiler-filled breakdown of the attraction. Or you can skip to the end for a gallery packed with pics from the queue and ride -- including a look at the new Kong model.

Wearing our “safety goggles” (3D glasses), our truck moves through the island, led by one of five different (animatronic) characters.

Meet your Skull Island guides:

  • Becky Callahan: The loose-cannon cowgirl who isn’t fazed by the dangers awaiting her on Skull Island.
    Will Denham: The fresh-faced, adventure-seeking younger cousin of famed movie director Carl Denham.
  • Jinks Costanza: A hardened New York City ex-con who is wary of the island’s mysteries.
  • Kalana: A mystical descendent of the natives who first settled on the island.
  • Charles “Doc” Jordan: A PhD student in paleontology who took time off from his studies to explore the world.

We pass a skeleton of what looks to be a great ape, then head into a darkened cavern where we meet Kate McCaffrey (on the 4K screen). When a flare is fired, a swarm of bats flood the cave, before a giant Terapusmordax with 10-foot wingspan swoops in and carries Kate off. Our truck and hers head off on a rescue mission, leading us to a prehistoric buggy swamp.

Occupied by the likes of the crabby-spider monster (“Arachno-Claw”), the roachy ant-beast (“Decarnocimex”), the slimy fanged slug (“Carnictis”), the swamp scene escalates quickly as we are attacked on the right. The creatures override the truck as Kate escapes the grasp of the giant bat, with the help of a machete, and unleashes a hail of machine-gun fire on the bugs – which explode in a splash that hits us in the truck (don’t worry; it’s only water). An Arachno-Claw snatches Kate away and our truck pursues deeper into the jungle.

The next scene has us and Kate’s crew truck racing along a cliff on one side, with the jungle on the right. Velociraptor-esque dinos give chase, screeching and lashing out at the truck – that is, until a Vastatosaurus rex crashes through the growth, steps on our roof, and takes a bite out of the raptors. A second V. rex smacks into our side with its massive head. When a third arrives, things feel pretty bad for us passengers as the cargo truck is jostled to and fro, edging closer to the cliff. But from the distance, exploding from stone formations is the big boy: Kong. The ape flies through the air and lands with a gigantic roar while pounding his chest. He wrestle with a V. rex on our right and flings him over our truck before leaning in close to give these puny humans a look.  He bounds over the vehicle, and tosses one of the V. rexes off the cliff, which takes part of the rocky ledge with it. Kong suffers a bite from the rex on the left and is flung back over our roof, jostling us around further. Now on our right, Kong is none too pleased as he pins a V. rex down, wrapping his fingers around the jaw and head of the dinosaur, splitting him open like a wishbone on Thanksgiving.

We don’t stick around to watch since the cliff gives way, taking our two trucks and the other V. rex with it, plummeting into a crevice deep within the earth. Saved, barely, by thick, ancient vines, we swing like a pendulum over the pit below. As a V. rex stands atop the other truck, he snatches its lethal mouth at us. Our truck is saved just in time by Kong, who descends on the vines and dispatches the final V. rex, sending it to its death at the bottom of the crevice. Bloodied but victorious, he pounds his chest once more and roars as our truck is righted and continues on its path.

The final scene is less one of shock, and more awe, as our truck passes by a three-story animatronic version of Kong, growling but calm, assessing the humans in the truck. His scarred face is close enough to touch, but the king of Skull Island lets us pass unharmed. We pull back into base camp where we learn, via radio, Kate survived the ordeal.