King Kong is still kind of a big deal in these parts, and soon we'll all be able to visit him at Skull Island: Reign of Kong, an attraction at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
The ride is not officially open yet. There have been sporadic previews, some available only to Universal Orlando employees, some open to whatever visitors are in the theme park. Universal did not announce a schedule or an official opening date for Skull Island. So if you go to IOA, you might get to ride. And since this is considered a technical rehearsal, some elements may not be in place.
So without being too spoilery, here is what I saw on my first run-through of Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
The ride is a blend of familiar and fresh in the scheme of Universal blockbuster rides. Yes, yes, much of the action takes place on giant screens. But for much of the experience, the screen is curved above the ride vehicle and the action — and Kong — can leap seamlessly over us. That's also true for flying dinosaurs.
The vehicles are as jumbo as advertised. They hold up to 72 passengers, and they lumber out of the gate, parading through a circle drive that passes by the queued-up masses. It's a fun layout. The vehicles are comfortable — but perhaps too comfortable.
Once Universal's monster trucks enter the substantial gates, the attraction's expeditions pass big-time bones and mammoth hanging bats ("real," not on-screen ones), which set an eerie scene. Once the action begins, there are great maneuvers, including a stretch I call "running with the dinos," exposure to big, sloppy slugs and an epic battle between Kong and a dinosaur.
But I felt our truck's reaction didn't always match up with the intensity of the big-screen action. In such a prehistoric fight, it seems like the vehicle should be jostled about more. Other park attractions are rougher on the body than this dangerous-looking outing.
Reign of Kong also pulls out this Universal chestnut: We're falling! Been there, escaped that death on Spider-Man, Transformers and Gringotts. But I must admit, that trick remains effective.
Action takes place on both sides of the vehicle, which is fascinating and frustrating. Where to look? As I'm peering out of the truck on the left side, I got a little bit wet from behind from action on the right side. What was that? Should I ride again? Why do I feel the intended answer is "yes"?
Good luck with that. My wait was about 75 minutes on Friday night, including an "extended delay" of about 15 minutes. Remember, it's dress rehearsal and these things happen.
The ride culminates with a huge Kong head, very lifelike but, when we passed, pretty sedate. (He's on the right-hand side of the truck, if you can finagle yourself over there). We are instructed not to panic. Then moments later, yes, go ahead, panic, but the King didn't seem particularly disturbed.
It's been whispered to me that the animatronic has way more motion that what I witnessed, so I'll give the big guy a soft-opening pass, for now. A friend who was about 20 minutes behind me in line said his Kong was more animated and loud and the scene made more sense.
My friend also had more happen in the queue. For instance, the much-chattered-about presence of "scare actors" — a la Halloween Horror Nights — was a non-issue for me, even though many people around us were on high alert for lurking team members paid to frighten us. That didn't happen. My friend did see some of that, and he saw a nearby child come unglued. Your results may vary, in other words.
The queue was long and winding and basically alternates between big rooms with back-and-forth action and little areas and hallways. It reminded me of a cross between the old Dueling Dragons queue (so HERE is where all those skulls went after its Harry Potter reimagining) and the Revenge of the Mummy ride, which is where the Kongfrontation attraction once operated. The new line has an expedition theme and two top-notch, photo-op animatronics.
Some people prefer the queue to the ride. I did not. Some people think it's too scary for kids. My inner 7-year-old is wigging out, especially in the room with giant glowing skulls, a witchy character and unnerving power outtages. But Uncle Dewayne is more like, "Time to grow up, kid." Of course, Uncle Dewayne doesn't deal with ensuing nightmares.
Parents, I advise a preride chat with your child. We should not be hearing, "Is there a Kong in here, Daddy?" in the queue.
Yep. He's big. And he might be grumpy.
More: Wifi, witch, Kong Dog on tap
Leftover monkey business from my first trip to Skull Island:
•I was pleased to see that Universal's Wi-Fi worked well for me during the long wait, even during the inside stretch. My phone service was spottier. I noticed lots of folks looking at their devices and basically ignoring the theming that surrounded them. This cannot be a good sign for future elaborate queues. (Sidebar: I also liked the look of the queue rails and dividers, which are not your basic solid silver shiny variety.)
•I'm anxious for Universal to share more about the animatronic character in the queue. I've been describing it as "a manly witch," but who knows? She speaks in a language in which I can only decipher one word: KONG.
•The exit to Skull Island does not take you through the gift shop. That's a welcome rarity. You do see a Kong-related kiosk on the left as you leave the realm.
•There are Kongish food offerings nearby, too. Belly up for a banana Icee ($4.19) or order up a Kong Dog Combo (beef footlong, pretzel roll, cheese sauce, relish and chips for $13.99).
•The attractions sign instantly became a photo favorite. It's low enough for selfies with skulls.
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