The old lady was yelling at nobody in particular. She stood alone in the dark, waving her arms around and ranting indecipherably, as a transfixed crowd looked on. Many pulled out cameras and started snapping away as her tirade continued, her face a mix of awe, fear and confusion. Eventually she started to repeat herself, but even if the sounds became familiar the words remained foreign. All except one, a word she repeated more than any other, and which was occasionally echoed by chanting voices from an unseen choir, joining together with the old lady in a solemn mantra. “KONG!” the lady would say, the voices responding “KONG! KONG! KONG!”
Skull Island: Reign of Kong’s queue is as important to the overall experience as the ride itself. The new attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando is an impressive combination of theming, set design, 3D screens and animatronics, with a massive, intricately designed temple for a show building and a show-stopping face-to-face with Kong himself that’s surprisingly powerful. The high-capacity attraction might be too slow to be a genuine thrill ride, but it’s still a thrilling experience because of the attention to detail seen throughout the entire project. And it all starts with that robotic old lady in the waiting area.
Skull Island’s cavernous line area will keep you entertained during the wait and introduce you to the world of the ride, which takes place before the first King Kong film from 1933. (It also has no connection to next year’s Kong: Skull Island movie.) The centerpiece of the queue is that old lady, an animatronic native of Skull Island who holds court in the queue’s largest chamber. The lifelike quality of her weathered skin and matted hair are matched by the natural grace of her motions. She looks like a real person, and her threats and warnings combine with the ominous choir and the room’s skull-heavy detailing to prepare us for something more frightening than what actually awaits. That horror movie feeling is reinforced further in the line by mummified corpses and live actors in masks who randomly pop out of holes in the walls around you, like they’re part of a Halloween Horror Night street experience.
After making it through the line, you’ll approach the loading bay for the ride’s vehicles, which are massive trucks that hold 72 riders apiece. Behind the wheel, in a closed-off cab, sits one of five animatronic drivers. Their heads and shoulders move around as gracefully as that old woman in the queue chamber, as they look back at their passengers and briefly give their backstory as the ride begins. During one recent press event the truck was driven by Doc, an African-American working on a PhD who joined the expedition to Skull Island to study the dinosaurs that still live there. Doc explained the attraction’s story for his passengers at the start of the ride, and later interacted with the characters that appeared on screen. The other four drivers serve the same role, but with different stories and dialogue, offering a small variety of slightly different experiences for repeat riders.
After the truck pulls out of the loading dock, it heads outside into the Florida heat, and approaches a massive temple that looks like a skull. The voices chanting “KONG!” return, the doors slowly open, and Doc tries to reassure us while struggling to hide his own trepidation. It all combines to feel like a real moment and not a carefully stage-managed theme park highlight. That immersion is increased by the trackless ride system, which makes the vehicles look and feel like real trucks out for a ride instead of show vehicles locked into a fixed rail.
Once inside the cave-like temple, Doc instructs us to put on our 3D glasses as the truck passes oversized animatronic bats and massive bones from long dead creatures. On a screen we meet an adventurer named Kate, who hails the driver and chats briefly about the archeological mission before being attacked by flying monsters. The truck peels out into another cavern, where we see Kate fight off a swarm of creatures before ordering us to leave. The truck pulls into a room that’s effectively a treadmill surrounded by a massive, horseshoe-shaped screen that fills almost our entire field of vision. On the screen we see that we’re now outside and trying to drive over a rickety bridge when dinosaurs start to attack us. From our right we finally see the ride’s star, King Kong, as he comes barreling into view and bludgeons the dinosaurs. As the 3D screens and treadmill give the illusion of movement, we feel our truck fall through the bridge and onto a rockslide that threatens to kill us all. Fortunately Kong helps to steady our vehicle, keeping us alive after he disposes of the dinosaurs.
After that centerpiece, which is based on the King Kong: 360 3D attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, the truck moves into the ride’s final showroom. It turns a corner and pauses as the driver sees the massive ape who just rescued us. In the ride’s highlight, we come face to face with Kong himself, in the form of a massive animatronic of his scarred and bloodied face. He stares us down warily as we feel the air from his nostrils upon our faces, and his eyes, lips, nostril and head move about without any hint of the animatronic’s robotic nature. It’s a powerful moment that’s more exciting than the action-packed motion simulation that comes before it.
Some people hear a theme park ride is built around screens and immediately want to discredit it. The 3D elements are central to Skull Island: Reign of Kong, but so are the practical effects, from the world-class animatronics to the immaculate set design. It also lacks the hyperkinetic movements of screen-based rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Transformers: The Ride, so it shouldn’t be as much of a strain for those who struggle with motion sickness. Despite its state-of-the-art trackless ride system and reliance on 3D screens, Skull Island is, at heart, a fairly traditional dark ride. It immerses us in a fantastic and heavily detailed environment, includes a story that hints at a broader world than what the ride exposes us to, and then introduces us to the impressively realized characters of King Kong and the native woman from the queue. Its use of animatronics might be limited, but in terms of creating a tangible world and filling it full of details, Skull Island has as much in common with Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean as it does screen-based motion simulators. It may not become a timeless classic like those two Disney staples, but it’s a welcome addition to Islands of Adventure, and one of the best attractions at the park.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong will be opening at Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando later this summer.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections and writes regularly about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.