The King has returned to Universal Studios Hollywood.
Two years ago, a massive fire swept through the Studios' outdoor sets and destroyed a majority of the backlot, including the King Kong attraction that was one of the highlights of the studio's famous tram tour. According to Universal Studios President and COO Ron Meyer, the outpouring of concern for the loss of Kong was immediate and massive, with e-mails and phone calls pouring in from all over the world. By the end of the day the fire had struck, Universal management had already decided they needed to construct another Kong attraction as part of the backlot rebuilding.
That new Kong attraction, titled King Kong 360 3-D and based on Peter Jackson's 2005 film, is now officially open. This time, instead of entering a lavishly themed downtown set inside a soundstage wherein a giant robotic Kong snarls and jiggles around, the trams head into a much smaller building and park between two large, IMAX-style screens. 3-D footage is projected onto these screens while the trams buck and tilt to coincide with the action. Riders are given 3-D glasses before boarding the trams (just be careful not to lose them along the rest of the tram ride).
The effect is not as seamless as I'd hoped, and thus not as "intense" as the advertising purports, but King Kong 360 3-D is still a very fun experience, just so long as you know how best to view it.
I've had the opportunity to ride the new Kong attraction twice–once in the middle of the third tram car, and again in the front left corner of the second. My experiences were very different and I'd like to provide you, dear reader, with some tips to help you enjoy the experience as best you can.
My first trip to "Skull Island" left me a little unimpressed as I found the experience a bit too overwhelming. There is constant action occurring all around the tram and I kept shifting my focus from one side to the other and back again, trying in vain to catch everything that was going on. I was trying to soak up everything and ended up absorbing little.
Let me put it this way: there is simply too much going on to catch everything in one ride-through. To put it in Disney ride terms, imagine trying to watch all the screens in a Circle-Vision movie while riding in a bucking Indiana Jones Adventure car. Much of the action in King Kong 360 3-D seems unfocused, trying to reward those who look in any given direction at any given time, yet the result is kind of a jumbled mess of action that constantly bombards your senses and, after my first ride, left me in a bit of a muddle.
On my second ride through Kong's domain, I chose to focus mainly on one screen on one side of the tram and that made a great deal of difference. I was able to tell what was supposed to be going on and I caught a lot of key details that had eluded me before.
The following information is highly spoilerish, but I think it may help first-time riders get a handle on what's taking place amid the chaos that ensues. (If you want to go into the experience totally unaware of what's going to happen next, I'd recommend you skip past the the second photo.)
Upon entering the new building, which is located right next to the old "collapsing bridge" portion of the tour (the trams no longer cross the bridge–it's merely there now to serve as decoration), Peter Jackson welcomes riders back to Skull Island via the onboard monitors. The tram emerges onto Skull Island, speeding through the jungle and right into the middle of a pack of hungry dinosaurs. The dinos give chase but are soon attacked by three larger Tyrannosaurs (Universal Studios must have a thing for sicking T-Rexes on its guests–first in Back to the Future: The Ride, then in Jurassic Park: The Ride and now here) who, upon finishing their appetizers, begin drooling over their main course: you.
Just when things are beginning to look grim, Kong bursts on the scene and begins battling the T-Rexes to save the tram, throwing them overhead and thumping down on top of the trams to jump to the other side, all the while the snapping T-Rexes drip saliva onto riders as their chomping teeth get closer and closer.
All the scuffling begins to tear apart the fragile ruins all around the tram and one T-Rex grabs onto the last car and pulls it off of the tram as the entire vehicle plummets down, temporarily upheld by vines. Kong plays the hero here as it's by his massive hands that the tram gets deposited safely back down on the ground just before both screens cut to black and the trams head back outside.
With so much action happening all around at once, every seat offers up a view of something a little different, but not always the best view of the main action. Even sitting in the middle of the third (of four) tram cars, I found the initial appearance of Kong, off to the front right of the tram, to be quite distorted by the curved screen. It seriously hindered the illusion that Kong was supposed to be standing next to the tram, when it was obvious that he was being projected on a concave screen. I can only imagine the effect looks even worse from the fourth tram car.
The 3-D footage didn't look nearly as crisp as it should have been, and that also detracted from the realism, not to mention that these brand new screens already seemed to be showing some wear that was readily apparent during the sequences of rapid movement. When I saw Avatar and Toy Story 3 in theaters in 3-D, the images were much crisper than the ones projected in King Kong 360 3-D.
Universal has been hyping this as "the most intense 3-D experience on the planet," yet the very fact that it's a part of the overall studio tram tour means it can't really be all that intense. The factors I mentioned above (the overwhelming cacophony of activity surrounding the tram, the distorted nature of some of the imagery as seen from the back cars, the lack of crispness in the 3-D imagery) work against the thrills that Universal was hoping this attraction would provide.
The first time I rode Back to the Future: The Ride, I was blown away. The first time I rode The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure, I was in awe. For a simulator experience that aspires to be the next step in total immersion attractions of this type, King Kong 360 3-D is fun, but nowhere near the levels of those experiences. I'd call it a fun experiment and good first step, but there's still a long way to go before someone perfects this method. For the time being, we can be comforted in the knowledge that King Kong is back to once again delight tram riders in the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot in an experience that's more thrilling than what was there before, but doesn't rank up with the best Universal has done.