Two years ago I stood outside of my Studio City apartment and smelled the smoke from the blaze at Universal Studios, just a few thousand feet away. Sections of the studio backlot burned that day, as well as the 20 year old King Kong attraction. Now the backlot has been rebuilt and revitalized, and the King has returned to Universal.
Today was the unveiling of the new King Kong 360 3D experience, a part of the Studio Tram tour that also includes the famous attack by Bruce, the shark from Jaws. Peter Jackson ‘created’ the attraction, which is a very high tech 3D gimmick that is actually a whole lot of fun. More on that in a moment.
There was a red carpet at 11am, which I didn’t care about. A couple of celebrities showed up – I saw Kevin Smith, Craig Robinson and Christopher Lloyd – but I was more taken by the other attractions. To celebrate the ‘return to Skull Island,’ the folks at Universal Studios had brought in a couple of animals. A majestic tiger lolled about, while a 15 foot python was stashed near the bathrooms. Best of all, though, was a monkey – specifically a crab-eating macaque, who was very angry.
Before the celebrities hit the carpet a bunch of white actor/model types dressed in native garb made their way across the press line. It was mostly embarrassing to watch, although they really got into their roles. One of the body painted twinks even shook his spear at me. There were a couple of attractive jungle goddesses as well – you could tell they were primitives as they were the only girls in LA running away from the cameras.
But not all the faux-natives were white! There was a drum and dance group that included a jolly little midget. I stood inside Stage 6, where the press ‘briefing’ would be held, rather than futz about on the red carpet. My punishment was to listen to these guys bang on their drums for 45 minutes.
Finally the speechifyin’ began and then we were told to put on our 3D glasses. Peter Jackson couldn’t be there, but he had recorded a lifeless, depressing message from New Zealand. In 3D. You could totally see his foot coming out of the screen at you.
After listening to that it was time to get on the trams; King Kong 360 3D isn’t a ride, but rather a part of the standard Studio Tram tour. I think some of the people who were disappointed in the attraction didn’t understand that it’s part of a larger backlot experience. I had been told that the middle cars of the tram were the best, so I crowded aboard with some colleagues from the online horror community and settled in for action.
After winding through the backlot we came to a temple. In front of it was a crushed, steaming tram car. Scary! The tram went into the tunnel and drove a little ways, and then we felt something locking on to the cars. Then there was the sensation of moving and I actually gasped – it was like I was in a ravine on Skull Island.
The illusion was quick; once I adjusted to what I was seeing through my 3D glasses I realized the tram was just parked between two huge movie screens. But for a split second I didn’t know if I was looking at a screen or a set. There are some nits to pick with the presentation here, but mostly it was just awesome, especially when you realize how rarely you’re looking at the 3D screen from an optimal head-on position. The screens mostly envelop the tram, and there is intense dinosaur action happening on either side of you. You’re turning your head back and forth, looking at the screens from the side, and the sense of depth is still impressive and full.
There’s not much story here – tram gets attacked by T Rexes, King Kong shows up and fights them, a couple of random monsters appear, there’s some serious to and fro, and then you’re out – but it’s a fun few minutes. The attraction mixes motion – perfectly timed rocking, crashing and seemingly dropping of the tram cars to go with the action around you – as well as some tactile business. When a T Rex roars right at you, he spits on you.
At ten minutes, with a touch more variety, King Kong 360 3D would be unbeatable. As it stands it’s a damn huge amount of fun – people were yelling as the tram was tossed and almost toppled, and I do believe my voice joined theirs at more than one point. And as the next step in theme park technology it’s pretty remarkable – there isn’t a single real or animatronic element on display, and yet the attraction was completely immersive and enthralling.
If you’re headed to Universal Studios, take the Studio Tram tour. Say hi to Kong for me.