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A sneak peek at Universal Studios Hollywood's new 4-D King Kong

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Published: March 23, 2010 at 2:43 PM

When our beloved Impressions de France went down in the Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament last week, Laurie wondered if it was time for Disney to film another version of the show, both to have a more modern print as well as more modern fashion by the folks in the show, which was filmed in the late 1970s.

Nah, I said. And not just because I think the show's just fine as it is. I suggested that Disney should wait until it could do a 180-degree high-definition production, possibly in 3D. Hey why not go geek with the film technology here, to last another generation?

Which got me wondering: Could someone actually do a 360-degree, totally immersive 3D film for a theme park?

Today I got my answer: Yes.

And you'll get to see it in July, when the new King Kong attraction opens on the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour.

I was one of several online writers invited to a preview of the new Kong film, which is in production in an airplane hangar in Playa Vista. Universal Creative show producer Valerie Johnson-Redrow walked us through the hangar, where Universal's built a full-size mock-up of a Studio Tour tram, and surrounded it with two massive curved screens.

King Kong mock-up stage

We climbed aboard, put on 3D glasses, and took a seat. What we saw today was simply a rough version of what will premiere this summer. Texture layers need to be applied, and the film we saw was shown at 30 frames per second, instead of the 60 frames per second that visitors will see, Johnson-Redrow said.

Nor did the mock trams have any motion effects. In Kong, each of the four tram cars will park on its own platen, a plate with airbags under each of the four corners. The airbag technology will tilt and rock riders, like in Universal's Earthquake show, but with a more natural feel than Earthquake's hydraulic lifts provide, Johnson-Redrow said.

And yet... wow. Remember those speed tunnel effects that you often see on theme park dark rides? You know, like in the old Tron tunnel on Disney's People Mover?

Think of that effect, except instead of streaks of light flying by, you're speeding through the jungle on Skull Island.

In full-color 3D.

With 3D velociraptors running alongside, snipping at your car.

Then, three T-Rex attack, chomping the raptors while thrashing the tram with their heads and tails. Johnson-Redrow said riders will smell "dinosaur breath" and feel dino slobber as the T-Rex attack.

From the right side of the tram, Kong appears. He slams into one of the T-Rex, which backs into the tram. A second T-Rex moves in on Kong as a third... what's that dino doing?

He's attacking the car at the rear of the tram! And to your left, you'll see a fifth tram car (there are only four on the tour in real life) plunge into a bottom chasm. (Kong director Peter Jackson, who is serving as creative director for this show, is filling that tram with digital images of family and friends, Johnson-Redrow said.)

The battle is on, and eventually the rest of the tram is sent over the edge, as well, caught by vines as Kong and the T-Rex continue to fight, often bounding over the tram.

"Kong is going to get up close and personal with everyone on the tram," Johnson-Redrow said. "That's the beauty of doing this in 3D. Before, we couldn't build two state of the art animatronics, so Kong appeared on only one side of the tram. Now, you'll see him on both sides."

Sitting in the middle of a tram row, the visual effect is compelling. I felt myself swaying back and forth with the film, even though the tram mock-up never budged. Unlike other attractions on the Studio Tour, the seats on the tram sides won't be the best ones here. You'll want to sit toward the middle of the tram to avoid seeing the screen edges and to get the full immersive effect.

Kong will debut in a new building currently under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood. It's not in Kong's old location on the back lot, but up the hill a bit, so that the attraction will not interfere with other productions.

Visitors will be given 3D glasses when they board the tram. When they arrive at Kong, they will pass through a 180-foot darkened tunnel (to allow riders' eyes to adjust from the sunlight) before arriving on the Kong stage. Jackson will greet the tour on-screen in a short pre-show, before the Skull Island sequence begins.

Universal's not given a specific opening date yet, other than "July."

Don't know about you, but I can't wait.

Readers' Opinions

From Neil Trama on March 23, 2010 at 3:06 PM
Sounds great. I wonder if they could modify this and bring it to Orlando in some fashion. I know they recently got rid of their Kong attraction but it seems like this could be the perfect thing to open up in a few years to remind guests that there's a reason to visit the Universal park that doesn't have Harry Potter.

That is, unless they want to give us the Battlestar Galactica ride, which I'd be up for in a heartbeat.

From Tyler Stover on March 23, 2010 at 3:20 PM
It sounds good, but I'm just not thrilled with 3D movies. It seems like that's the solution to every theme park problem now, and I feel like eventually all theme parks will be 3D movies and motion simulators. I kinda like good old solid physical effects.
From James Rao on March 23, 2010 at 5:05 PM
Sounds like it will be awesome... and I am genuinely jealous of your access, Robert! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to this attraction and many others when I make my way to So Cal in 2012.
From Joshua Counsil on March 23, 2010 at 5:07 PM
I wasn't thrilled with the concept of another 3D film, but you've sold me, Robert.
From Brandon Mendoza on March 23, 2010 at 5:10 PM
Agreed! Robert, you definitely sold me on this one... "you had me at 'Tron'"... and the fact that there's a T-Rex AND Raptors??? Sold! Even though I thought the new movie was ok, but not spectacular, I think I'll enjoy this addition to USH!
From Sylvain Comeau on March 23, 2010 at 7:33 PM
Loved the movie a few years ago, and sounds like the attraction will be awesome. This and Transformers might actually top Spider-Man (I know, blasphemy). But that's why those two aren't coming to Orlando; we already have the original 3-D ride, plus we're getting Harry Potter. And Universal seems to be less into cloning than Disney is.
From Robert Niles on March 23, 2010 at 7:50 PM
I understand now why Universal brought us in to leak this today.

Let's face it, fans really were underwhelmed by the idea of another 3D movie. If Universal had waited until its media preview day in late June or sometime in July to get out the word that this raises the bar for theme park 4D, it would have been too late for many people (including the international tourists that Universal targets) to make vacation plans.

By getting word out now that this isn't a mere 3D movie, but a 360-degree, high-def, 4D experience, Universal is hoping that it will entice more people to make plans to come see it this summer, instead of going someplace else.

The risk Universal runs in doing something like this is that if the show is a dog, we would have called them on that today and undercut the park's promotional efforts. But I suspect that folks at Universal Creative were quite confident that wouldn't be a problem. :-)

And they were right.

From Manny Barron on March 23, 2010 at 9:16 PM
Wow I can't wait and you only saw a rough version of what the final product will be. I've waited for this the minute it was announced and anything with a giant monkey fighting T-Rex's is gonna be lots of fun. Once they finish with this promising attraction, they can get to work on the Transformers ride. Anyway I can't wait to experience Kong 360.
From Sylvain Comeau on March 24, 2010 at 7:08 AM
Robert, from what you saw, do you think this could top Spider-Man?
From Robert Niles on March 24, 2010 at 7:24 AM
It's not long enough - only about three minutes. The thing with the Studio Tour attractions is that they're really "mini" attractions, two-to-five minutes long, designed as stops on the Tour. That makes it tough to compare with other, stand-alone attractions.

When Universal went to Florida and deconstructed the Tour, it needed to extend Jaws, Kong and Earthquake so that they'd work on their own. The same would need to happen with Kong for me to consider it better than Spider-Man.

That said, Kong is going to blow away everything else currently on the tour - the tech is so advanced. I hope that this frees up some resources for Universal to make additional upgrades to the tour, because as a whole, it should be contending as one of the great themed rides in the country.

From Manny Barron on March 24, 2010 at 11:00 AM
Earthquake to me is the highlight of the tour and by the sound of it Kong will be so much better, and thats good considering earthquake is 20+ years old. Hopefully they can get to work on the fast and the furious section.

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