Feeling the joy of three new experiences at Universal Orlando

November 18, 2016, 9:41 AM · ORLANDO — Before the IAAPA Attractions Expo kicked off in Orlando this week, I spent a day catching up with some of this year's additions to the Walt Disney World theme parks. Yesterday, after I'd finished visiting IAAPA, I hit up Universal Orlando.

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.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Tasty Feast Kitchen

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.)

Cheddar Bacon Burger

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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Replies (17)

November 18, 2016 at 10:12 AM · Happy, Happy, Happy! Gotta love UO!
November 18, 2016 at 10:32 AM · I'm here at the moment Robert and I agree with your comments about Long and Hulk, both are fantastic not to be missed rides. Haven't experienced the Toothsome emporium yet but hopefully will get chance over the weekend. Great website by the way!
November 18, 2016 at 10:34 AM · The big time tip on Kong seating. Before boarding, the line splits into two lines, one to the left and one to your right. Always take the line to your right. That will insure you will be seated in the middle to back, the superior seating. If you take the line to your left, you will be seated in the front section of the vehicle...I rode Kong 20 times on my trip in October. Fantastic attraction. One of the top five attractions at Universal. It has great repeatability. This is a ride that you really need to ride a good number of times to fully appreciate it. My 20th ride was even better than the first. There's so much to see & experience, and the ride's views & effects are so very different depending on the seating, that one, two or even five times are not enough to fully evaluate the attraction. It gets better the more times you ride it.
November 18, 2016 at 10:47 AM · I wish Universal took the year off from Hulk to build a stronger narrative for the ride, rather than a weaker one. I thought story upgrades were a part of the press release. Kong was a hoot, though. I thought it was good fun in a park that needs more to do on a rainy day.
November 18, 2016 at 10:49 AM · Thanks Rob. There was no line split when I rode, as it was still walk on. So we must all have gone down the right.
November 18, 2016 at 10:54 AM · It's pretty dead here right now. Love IT. Thank you for all the extra tips
November 18, 2016 at 11:12 AM · One thing to mention about Kong. The ride, when it has it's outside portion, was originally 5:50 long from the time you left the station until the time your vehicle pulled in the unloading area. Since the first month like that, they apparently increased the time in front of the skeleton in the beginning indoor scene before the screens and greatly increased the time in front of the Kong animatronic at the end. Others on Orlando United, and myself, have timed the ride at apx. 6:19 now. Initially, there were complaints that the time in the Kong AA room was too short. Now, it's pretty substantial.
November 18, 2016 at 1:40 PM · For the best opening sequence of any coaster, I'm definitely going to say Top Thrill Dragster, especially if you are in the second station. The "Christmas Tree", the music (Ready to Go by Republic), and the sound effects can make even a seasoned coaster vet like me a little nervous, and I've been on almost every hydraulic coaster in the US.
November 18, 2016 at 3:26 PM · Thanks Robert. Really appreciate the timing of your review. We are actually taking our 7 y.o. grandson for his first visit to Universal next week. He will ride anything and everything he is tall enough for. It's unfortunate he is still 3" short of the magic 54" height but at least he can ride 85% of what Universal and IOA have to offer.

Glad to hear that Kong made such a strong impression on you. FWIW-I have always loved the launch sequence on Hulk. Looking forward to experiencing that again.

November 18, 2016 at 3:42 PM · James,

There weren't any narrative changes to the hulk? No storyline changes?

November 18, 2016 at 4:36 PM · Kong seems pretty family friendly also. Originally, a lot of posters were criticizing Kong before it opened saying the queue would be too scary for young children. But, there were always lots of small kids in line and I can only remember a very few that seemed scared. The scare actors are actually pretty scarce. They're there, but only a handful of people in line actually get to see them. And the giant creepy bug AA at the end of the stand by line that some said would scare small children, usually only invokes laughter, smiles or curiosity from them....A couple of Kong tips: Ride it before 10:30 AM. The lines get long after that... Make sure the outdoor portion is open before you get in line. It loses a lot when it's indoor only. The ride needs that slow unveil at the beginning & the grand entrance through the gates to set the ambiance. The action is so fast paced that the ride seems shorter than the actual time, especially if it's indoors only. I rate the ride as a 9 with the outdoor portion but only a 7 when it's indoors only. The queue is a 10 though, on a par with Gringotts & FJ. The Witch pre show may well be the best pre show I've ever seen. Make sure you get a number of rides in. The views from the middle seats, left seats and right seating are so different that's it's really like three different rides. So much action is occurring at one time from different directions, that it's impossible to see everything happening.I saw major action things on my twentieth ride that I hadn't seen before. This reminds me a lot of Gringotts, since you need to get a number of rides in to appreciate how good it is. It gets better the more you ride it, as does Gringotts.
November 18, 2016 at 7:03 PM · @Jay, all of the previous queue footage in the old version has been replaced with generic minute-long loading screens on a loop. Bruce Banner has been removed from the storyline and the launch is now just a bunch of visuals. The new narrative is a serious downgrade from the original. Fortunately the ride's still a lot of fun.
November 18, 2016 at 9:33 PM · I'm sure the Kong ride is good for what it is, but, after giving us nothing but screens for years, I still say it could/should have been much more. It should have been a visit to Skull Island, with the jungle all around us and giant AAs attacking. It probably would have cost 2-3 times more, but it would have been the ride of the year. Instead, that accolade goes to Shanghai Pirates, and it's not even close.

As for the Hulk, I have heard it's still rough. If so, that's a huge disappointment. I recently had the chance to ride the re-tracked Ghost Rider at Knott's Berry Farm. It was MUCH smoother than the torture rack that used to stand there. Now that's how you retrack a ride!

November 19, 2016 at 7:18 AM · Kong utilizes it's smallish space quite well, and I doubt it could have much of a ride if it was AA's only. Universal seems to have decided their AA's are most effective in their immersive queues, where you can pause & enjoy the AA better than a rush through the ride. The Witch Shaman AA is one of the most entertaining scenes anywhere, and the queue could stand on it's own as a walk through attraction. Universal has space issues and screens serve their thrill emphasis best. The only time that there was a technical issue on one of my twenty rides, and it was a minor issue, the doors didn't close as we exited the 360 room scene. This caused the 360 scene to bleed over the blank wall where you exit that room. I was in the back row and turned around, whereby I was able to see the vehicle behind us on the motion platform. It was amazing how small a space that 360 room occupied, and how much Universal was able to do with that area utilizing screens. If it was an AA only ride, there wouldn't have been much to it and it would probably be incredibly short. Universal emphasizes thrill in their attractions,their major demographic is different than Disney's, and screens serve that best. Even Disney has & is now using screens for many of their new planned attractions.
November 19, 2016 at 10:47 AM · Yes, but if screens are all they're going to offer us, we might as well go to the multiplex...

I contend that theme parks need to offer a variety of experiences. Or would you be happy if they replaced Mummy, MIB, their water rides, coasters and shows with yet more screens? If current trends continue, they seem to be headed in that direction.

November 19, 2016 at 1:08 PM · Not really. There's mostly AA/limited screen attractions in the planning stage also, like Secret Life of Pets. And Universal has debuted some of the best AA's in existence during the past six years, but they choose to place them in their immersive queues that are attractions in themselves. And multi plex movie screens aren't on the same order of thrill rides that use other elements to create thrill, combined with the screens. Multi plex's have more in common with the France, China & Canada attractions in Epcot, not much at Universal.
November 19, 2016 at 3:11 PM · Sounds like the Pets ride will be a nice change of pace. But first we get that Fallon ride. Ugh.

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