Extinct Attractions: King Kong Encounter and Kongfrontation

Welcome to Extinct Attractions. My name is Cole, and I’ll be your guide on today’s trip to New York City and Skull Island.

Universal Studios Hollywood has always been known first and foremost for its Studio Tour, whose current incarnation traces its roots back to 1964. Always the most prominent film studio tour in Southern California, Universal’s began as something more akin to a traditional film studio tour where you got to go through a working studio lot and potentially catch a glimpse of a movie star. Over the years though, Universal has started to utilize its backlots less and the tour has slowly transformed into an attraction in itself, with a handful of mini-attractions throughout.

Starting in the 1970s, Universal began adding these little experiences, with their IP taking a precedence in terms of what was added at the time. Throughout the late 70s, Jaws and Battlestar Galactica both joined the tour, but Universal wasn’t yet satisfied with the use of animatronics in the tour, so they decided to go bigger and better.

In 1976, King Kong made a resurgence at the box office with a remake of 1933’s King Kong, one of the most beloved films of all-time. While the film was not very well-received critically, it was one of the highest-grossing films of the year domestically. With so many fans clamoring for more Kong, Universal kept receiving letters asking for King Kong to become a part of the Studio Tour.

To help make this idea a reality, Universal called upon Disney Legend Bob Gurr to create what was, and still would be, one of the most complex animatronics of all-time. Gurr designed the ride vehicles and mechanisms for attractions like the PeopleMover and Submarine Voyage, so he had a pretty good idea of what kind of masterful engineering would need to go into making King Kong a reality.

Starting in the early 1980s, Gurr began to make a prototype of King Kong’s head to show off to the Universal brass. After his demonstration successfully startled all of the executives, some turnover led to the project being shelved temporarily before Gurr was finally given the go-ahead to complete this monumental task.

Opening on June 14, 1986, the King Kong Encounter was not the longest attraction, but it wasn’t designed to be either as it was really only a bonus as a part of the tour. Though it wasn’t long, I absolutely loved this attraction as a kid, which was really surprising because it was a pretty scary attraction. As a kid I was scared of Star Tours, so I have no idea how I stood up to a giant ape.

For me, it all came down to how truly amazing the King Kong animatronic was. At 30 feet tall and weighing seven tons, the animatronic was truly a sight to behold, and I would always sit as far to the right as I could to have the best view of him (and Jaws).

Gurr talked about how the head was so big that he used to “ride” King Kong. Obviously, I never got the chance to do that, but I can only imagine how cool of an experience that must have been. It’s like you would have had the best mask on to go and terrorize hundreds of people at once.

Though it wasn’t all fear around Kong because if there is one thing gorillas love, it’s bananas, so Gurr gave Kong a pretty strong banana breath that would envelope every tram that came through.

The King Kong Encounter was so successful that it directly led to the creation of Universal Studios Florida. At this point in time, Universal Studios Hollywood was still basically just the tour, without any actual attractions around the park. With the experience being so successful, there weren’t any plans to expand the attractions in Hollywood, so Universal began to look at getting in on the success that Disney was having in Florida and build a park there with an expanded King Kong attraction as the crown jewel.

Opening on June 7, 1990 with Universal Studios Florida, Kongfrontation was an instant success … when it worked. Like another mini-Studio Tour attraction that was expanded for the park, Jaws: The Ride, Kongfrontation was immediately plagued with technical issues. Almost none of the opening day attractions were actually reliable, exacerbating the park’s issues, especially disappointing because a lot of these attractions were really well-made attractions.

Now I never got to ride Kongfrontation in person, but just based on my King Kong Encounter experience, I know that this would have been my favorite attraction if I could have gone to the park at the time.

I mean, come on. Look at how amazing this picture is. You sat in this aerial tramway, like a giant Peter Pan-esque vehicle, which was one of the coolest ride vehicles that I’ve seen in an attraction. There was a guide who would run around the front of the vehicle and stir up panic as you got to see, not one, but two 40 foot tall King Kongs. Basically, every single thing was plussed from California making for an exhilarating attraction.

Via HHN Wiki

At Halloween Horror Nights 2, rather than mazes, most of the rides got a little redecoration to make them a lot more spooky, with Kongfrontation no exception. They made an already scary ride even scarier by adding Darkman to the queue and ride itself. So guests would ride Kongfrontation and then jump out of the ride vehicle and get to walk around the floor and go through a Darkman-themed maze.

For a Horror Nights junkie like me, that sounds like one of the coolest experiences possible. They just don’t do stuff like that anymore, but if I heard they were going to do something similar again, I would be booking my passage to Horror Nights right now.

Even though I talked about how cool Kongfrontation was, its technical issues plagued it for its entire run before eventually leading to its closure on September 8, 2002. In its stead, Revenge of the Mummy took over as Universal was trying to keep its latest IP in the park. It was a sad day for all the parties involved, but totally understandable because if an attraction can’t work, it’s difficult to justify keeping it open.

Over in Hollywood, tragedy struck on June 1, 2008 when a giant fire enveloped the Universal backlot, destroying a ton of sets and the entire King King experience. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that the King Kong Encounter was scheduled to end its run sooner rather than later because two days after the fire, Universal announced that the attraction would not be rebuilt and instead an all-new King Kong experience was being imagined.

Only two years later, the studio tour had its new addition, King Kong 360 3-D. While the visuals are very impressive, every time that I go on it, I find myself missing the amazing animatronic.

Over in Florida, guests had to wait a bit longer for their King Kong attraction, which opened in 2016 at Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida’s sister park. Like Kongfrontation, Skull Island: Reign of Kong (not related to the film) basically plussed the mini King Kong attraction from the Studio Tour, in this case King Kong 360 3-D. The plussing was definitely worth it because the attraction uses trackless technology and does have an animatronic King Kong at the end (though not quite as cool as before because he’s your “friend” now).

I’m happy that King Kong can still live on today, even though I don’t think it’s in as exciting a way as before. So now here are your clues for what’s coming next.

  1. This show appeared in Hollywood, Florida, and Japan.
  2. This show featured a bunch of rock and roll tunes.
  3. A Broadway musical version of the movie on which this show was based recently opened.

Via Meme

Thanks for reading and have a magical day!

Cole Geryak
Cole Geryak is a childless millennial making his way through the world. He has ridden every single ride in Disneyland in one day, all while wearing a shirt and tie. Imagination is his middle name, and his heart truly lies in the parks.