King Kong lives again at Universal Studios

Attraction ravaged by '08 fire is revamped in 3D

Two years after a fire destroyed the animatronic King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, the iconic ape made his way back to the theme park, this time by way of a 3D extravaganza produced by Peter Jackson.

The new attraction is dubbed "King Kong 360 3-D," and it made its red-carpet premiere on Tuesday, an event attended by NBC Universal brass and talent but not Jackson, director of the 2005 movie. He made an appearance on video from New Zealand, where he's working on two "Hobbit" movies and three "Tintin" pics.

"The King Kong movie doesn't lend itself to a sequel because Kong flies off the Empire State Building at the end," Jackson told attendees. "So I was thrilled to have an excuse to go back and have a bit more fun with King Kong. He's just about my favorite movie character."

On June 1, 2008, a blaze that broke out on the studio backlot wiped out Kong, the video vault and several structures and took 500 firefighters 12 hours to contain. Tuesday, Universal executives were equating King Kong's return with a sort of resurrection of what had been lost.

"It's been exactly two years since we had the horrific fire, and today really marks the final piece of the rebuilding of our backlot," Universal president and COO Ron Meyer said.

Theme park president and COO Larry Kurzweil recalled for the audience a conversation with Meyer the day of the "calamitous" fire, long before the decision to remake a Kong attraction had been made.

"By the end of the day we were getting calls and e-mails from around the world about what happened to King Kong, and it was almost as if there was a humanity about Kong that reached out to the farthest parts of this planet," he said.

The first Kong attraction, unveiled in 1986, starred a 30-foot tall, 7-ton animatronic figure that was the largest contraption of its kind at the time, and it marked a turning point that led to Universal being considered a full-grown theme park and competitor to Disneyland.

"Up to that point we were a studio tour," Kurzweil said. "The beginning of the rest of the life of Universal Studios Hollywood really started with King Kong in 1986."

The new attraction has little in common with the old, slow-moving animatronic Kong, though, except that it remains a brief stop on the tram tour.

Tuesday's unveiling didn't go off perfectly. The tram loaded with celebrities had to go through the attraction twice because the audio and video shut off halfway through the first time around. The actors didn't seem to mind, as some broke out in a good-natured chant: "One more time, one more time."

"King Kong 360 3-D" takes guests into a tunnel-shaped soundstage, where they are advised to put on their 3D glasses. There's a curved screen on each side of the tram that together make up the size of 16 traditional movie screens.

The tunnel represents Skull Island, and during the course of about two minutes, guests are treated to battles between Kong and several dinosaurs, with tram jolting, water spritzing and wind blowing at the appropriate moments.

Universal's Ron Meyer, left, Larry Kurzweil and Tom Williams (Getty)
Jackson called it a continuation of the movie he made five years ago, "using technology that we could have only dreamed about in 2005. It's amazing what five years have done."

Walking the red carpet were mostly talent associated with NBC Universal -- actors from "Community" and "The Office," Christopher Lloyd of "Taxi" and the "Back to the Future" franchise, et al.

Also attending was the family of Dino de Laurentiis, who produced the 1976 version of the film starring Jessica Lange (though Kurzweil mistakenly referred to that one as "The Fay Wray King Kong"). Also on hand were Skull Island natives banging drums and looking menacing as well as a 500-pound Bengal tiger, a 13-foot-long albino python and a crab-eating macaque, a Southeast Asian monkey.
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