The history of King Kong at the theme parks

by Jake Goldberg

In 1878, the world would be introduced to the first moving picture, “The Horse in Motion” — a sequence of a man riding on a galloping horse on a racetrack. From there, the medium would evolve to showcase stories encompassing explorers venturing into a dangerous theme park of prehistoric creatures to super-heroes defeating inter-galactic threats.

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A look at King Kong at The Wildwood Pier, via a postcard.

Often, these characters make the jump from a 2-D screen into an immersive theme park attraction. Earlier last year, Disney debuted Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, an incredibly immersive thrill ride that has guests follow along with their favorite heroes from the sequel trilogy. None of these characters would be where they are today without the aid of the original icons of cinema, including one gargantuan ape who had a habit of knocking over airplanes.

King Kong originates where all good stories begin: Jacksonville, Fla., of course! Merian C. Cooper, born in 1893 in The River City, was more than just your average Hollywood screenwriter; the man was a globetrotting adventurer who lived a life filled with danger. Cooper got his start in the film industry in San Fransisco when his friend recommended him for a cameraman job to a producer and would later implement these skills when he was enlisted in World War I.

During his adventures, Cooper found a particular interest within “nature dramas,” which were films that featured glimpses of the many real animals he encountered along his expeditions. Cooper’s friend would later return form his exotic locations with a komodo dragon in hand. This inspired Cooper to create a film that would tell the story of a gorilla fighting off a komodo dragon. Cooper’s interest in gorillas was shared with the rest of the world, as these creatures were still relatively unknown and shrouded in mystery.

King Kong was an icon of cinema; in fact, the character was so popular that when Universal Studios rebooted the character in 1976, it became one of the highest-grossing films that year. The terrifying ape would eventually see life in several popular amusement parks and theme park properties around the world.

One of Kong’s earliest amusement park appearances would be seen in the ocean side shore of New Jersey. The Wildwood Pier was a popular boardwalk destination alongside the Jersey Shore and had many notable attractions, including a walk-through haunted hose within Dracula’s castle. Guests who may have taken a quick pit stop on a nearby bench may have noticed the presence of a colossal ape towering over the boardwalk.

This ride was appropriately named Kong, and was an elevated rotation attraction similar to Dumbo the Flying Elephant at Magic Kingdom. Guests would take flight on their choice of airplane ride vehicle and circle around the giant King Kong figure. The ride was noted to have a unique cry due to the park’s creative team recording the sound of a lion roar and playing it backward. Kong’s battle cry would later have to be tamed, as many New Jersey citizens filed noise complaints against the figure.

As time went on, the King Kong figure’s frame would begin to deteriorate from the wear and tear of life. Despite a plan to have the iconic ape refurbished, he was finally put to rest in 1980. It was not until 2014 that Kong returned to the pier, as guests were once again invited to take flight around the monster. The attraction substituted the massive 72-foot statue with a smaller, more adorable interpretation of the ape.

While Kong made the occasional appearance in the obscure amusement park scene, there was a strong demand to see the mighty ape in an officially-branded Universal theme park. Following the overwhelming financial success of the 1976 reboot, Universal had a pivotal opportunity to incorporate King Kong in its equally popular studio tram tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, which also doubles as an actual working movie studio. Recent examples of entertainment filmed there include “The Good Place” and “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.”

Universal Studios Hollywood’s “World-Famous Studio Tour” has been going strong since 1964, and incorporated animatronics from some of Universal’s most iconic characters. In 1975, guests could encounter the cold, mechanical mouth of Jaws, and in 1986, guests would be invited to encounter the monstrous ape himself at King Kong Encounter.

Famed Walt Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr notably developed the 30-foot-tall King Kong animatronic. Universal approached Gurr, interested in recruiting his skills to develop the first major theme park appearance for the famous ape. The King Kong animatronic was a force to be reckoned with, and rumors said that the character even had banana-scented breath.

Along the tour, guests would enter a soundstage into the city of New York, where they would watch news broadcasts warning the city of Kong’s incoming attacks. Buildings were decimated, civilians were panicked, and guests on the tour were able to witness it all. The brief encounter was popular enough to inspire a duplicate attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

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Kongfrontation was located at Universal Studios Florida in the New York section of the park. The attraction debuted on the theme park’s opening day, June 7, 1990, and was closed on Sept. 8, 2002. Unlike its counterpart in California, this attraction was a standalone ride and was able to create a more grand and immersive experience for guests. Not one, but two King Kong animatronics were built for the ride. Guests would board an aerial-tram tour ride vehicle and witness an above-the-ground look at the destruction of New York City. The ride even came equipped with a Jungle Cruise style on-board operator who helped narrate the sequence of events.

Unfortunately, in 2008, the original King Kong encounter at Universal Studios Hollywood was burned down in a tragic fire. This incident left not only the famous attraction in ruins, but also destroyed master tapes, digital and film copies of Universal motion pictures, and more. However, the spirit of Kong was far from gone in the minds of theme park executives.

In 2005, director Peter Jackson premiered his adaptation of “King Kong” to financial and critical success. Following the devastating fire, Universal Studios Hollywood once again teamed up with Jackson to create an immersive 3-D experience that brought the studio tram into the trenches of Skull Island. In 2010, the Studio Tour would officially debut King Kong 360 3-D. This addition to the Studio Tour was the first experience to incorporate a fully-simulated 3-D environment and is displayed on the world’s largest 3-D projected installation.

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Similar to Kongfrontation, Universal Orlando wanted their own slice of the action to incorporate into their park. Thus in 2016, Universal’s Islands of Adventure would invite the world to the daring reaches of Skull Island. Islands of Adventure had the opportunity to take what Peter Jackson created with the Hollywood tram tour and create a much more immersive experience with Skull Island: Reign of Kong. On the ride, guests enter an ancient temple on Skull Island, where they can catch a glimpse of the local inhabitants and creatures from the island before boarding their safari truck.

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While this version of the animatronic is slightly smaller than some of the character’s previous renditions, what makes the latest Orlando figure stand out is the attention to detail. Here, guests can have an almost face-to-face encounter with Kong himself as the tram slowly drives by.

If there is one thing you should take away from this article, it is that people love King Kong and that admiration isn’t going away anytime soon. Legendary Entertainment has an upcoming “Godzilla vs. King Kong” film, currently slated to release on Nov. 20 of this year.

Have you been to any of these famous attractions? Which King Kong-themed ride do you go bananas for? Let us know in the comments.


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