My first stop was Skull Island: Reign of Kong, the plussed version of the King Kong 360/3D encounter on Universal Studios Hollywood's Studio Tour. Having ridden that version of Kong more times that I've remembered to count, I was looking forward to seeing how Universal revisited the encounter in Orlando.
Let's forget the word "plussing." With Reign of Kong, Universal has multiplied what it did with Kong in Hollywood. Maybe integrated, if you're into talking about really advanced math. Even if you set aside the well-decorated queue, the impressive temple facade with its 30-foot doors that creak open for each ride vehicle, and the new "life sized" Kong animatronic at the end, this version still beats the Hollywood original with its crisper, brighter, and smoother projection.
But you shouldn't set aside those elements. Together, they help set up the encounter in an essential way. In Hollywood, Kong plays a supporting role. It's there to impress you with another of all the wonders that Universal can throw at you. (It's just another "JayBang.") So there's no need for any set-up. We turn the corner from New York Street, and hey, look, there's King Kong! Wow. Done. On to the next Bang.
In Orlando, on Skull Island, Kong can assume his royal position as star of the show. The walk through the dark, skull-filled queue, the warnings of an animatronic shaman, the themed car and animatronic driver, and that visually impressive drive around the corner to the front of the temple, with torches blazing and unseen natives chanting "Kong, Kong, Kong, Kong"... all that prepares us to believe what we're about to see in a way that Peter Jackson telling us to put on our 3D glasses simply cannot.
Once inside, Reign of Kong further rewards us with two short additional scenes that reinforce the narrative of why we are there (to deliver supplies to an exploration mission) while raising the stakes for the encounter. Once everything's gone terribly wrong, as it must on such rides, then it's time for the Big Guy to appear.
With a superior projection surface and much cleaner video than in Hollywood, Reign of Kong's core action sequence delights with a clear, colorful vision of the Skull Island forest, in which Kong battles dinosaurs intent on having us for lunch. It's a wild 3D battle that takes place on both sides of the 72-person ride vehicle. You'll get sprayed as creatures spit and hiss before our inevitable near-miss with death.
And the animatronic at the end? Amazing. That alone provides enough reason to circle back to the front of the queue to line up and ride again — the detail in this immense beast commands your attention and leaves you wanting more, as any good entertainment should.
Yeah, the plot point introduced in that opening scene is dispatched too conveniently at the end, a casualty of Universal not changing the narrative of the main scene from the Hollywood version. And if you get assigned to the first couple of rows in the truck, you're gonna miss a lot of the visual impact of the experience. When I walked on to the ride at opening, Universal's team members were loading only the back half of the trucks, as they knew where the good seats were. It's worth it to hang back and ask to wait for the next truck to sit in the middle or back, if they'll let you when you get to the loading platform. (*Actually, see the better seating tip in the comments.)
But, whatever you do at Universal's Islands of Adventure on your next visit, get on that truck. Skull Island: Reign of Kong ought to be a "Must Do" at the Universal Orlando Resort.
Later in the morning, I tackled the newly rebuilt Incredible Hulk Coaster. Confession time — as I get older, I'm fearing the day when one more bad coaster ride puts me off thrill rides for good. Now, when I'm getting ready to ride a coaster for Theme Park Insider, I feel as much dread as I do excitement. Will this leave me with an insufferable headache? Will I be knocked off balance for a big chunk of time after riding?
But then I look around at the crazy diversity of people in line, from elementary-age kids to an elderly lady with a cane (!) and I suck it up, stick my wallet and keys into a locker, then go. The dread returns as I pull the restraints over my shoulders and I look forward to the ramp that will launch me up the Gamma Ray tunnel at 67 mph.
Then we're off. And as we blast from that tunnel into the first roll on our way to the cobra, I remember why I do this.
I do this because I freakin' love this stuff.
I love flying like a super hero, cutting through the air. I love screaming every last knot of tension out of body and not having anyone look at me with revulsion or concern. I love feeling every nerve in my body, every sense on my face and in my skin, returning so many signals to my brain that it can process only one thought in response — I am alive.
And I feel wonderful.
Incredible Hulk Coaster remains the best opening sequence I've ever experience on a coaster. That said, I wish that Universal and Bolliger & Mabillard would have redesigned the track before they rebuilt it. Yeah, that probably would have required an expensive reboring of the tunnels through which the coaster passes and a complete rebuild of the station. Without that extra width, Universal and B&M couldn't go with a wider, more comfortable restraint system and had to stick with the old, bulky over-the-shoulder restraints, between which your head will ping-pong through the too-tight barrel rolls, unless you know to lean forward through them. (Hello, headache!)
So... it's not perfect. But that first sequence is so amazing that I don't care. Go ahead and get angry, Bruce Banner. Because it makes me so happy.
After Hulk, I walked out of the park and over to the new Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Tasty Feast Kitchen for lunch.
Universal has redecorated the old NBA City restaurant with a steampunk look. But, as the new name suggests, it's chocolate that provides the real draw here. Getting into the spirit of the place, I ordered the Chocolate X5 milkshake [$12.50] along with the Cheddar Bacon Burger [$14.95, with choice of chips or fries] I chose for my lunch.
With chocolate ice cream, chocolate ganache, chocolate whipped cream, chocolate chunks, and chocolate ribbons, this shake was not lacking in chocolate flavor. Heck, this might have been the best chocolate shake I've ever had. And at that price, it should be. But keep in mind that there's far more shake here than any reasonable person could finish alone. Shared with one (or two) other people, the price of the shakes become a little less outlandish. Toothsome pours its shakes into plastic mugs meant to be taken away, so they're fully aware that no one person is finishing these things with their meal. (And if you don't want a meal with your shake, you can order one from a take-away counter next to the host's stand, just inside the restaurant's entrance.)
I wouldn't recommend skipping the meals, though. My burger was the best I've eaten in a theme park resort in a long time, cooked perfectly to my ordered medium and lightly dressed with a roasted tomato and a touch of lettuce and sauce. (My server offered me a choice of additional condiments and I chose to add some mayonnaise.)
Toothsome's menu also offers flatbreads, other sandwiches, steaks, chicken and brunch selections, served all day. It's a literal book, and I overheard other diners expressing approval with their orders, as well. So I'm looking forward to trying some more of Toothsome's menu on future visits to Orlando.
A good burger, a great shake, and thrilling rides. At the end of the day, I walked back to my car with a smile on my face, nothing on my mind and a single feeling in my soul.
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