According to theme park internet forums, there are some inviolate assumptions about the differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando: Disney builds attractions around evergreen intellectual properties, while Universal licenses pop-culture flashes-in-the-pan. Universal rips out their old favorites instead of expanding, but Disney preserves their parks' history. Disney designs dimensional sets and old-fashioned animatronics, instead of using video projections like Universal. Universal's new rides always break down, but Disney tests everything extensively before opening. Then along come a couple of brand-new rides – Islands of Adventure's Skull Island: Reign of Kong and Epcot's Frozen Ever After – that completely confound the conventional wisdom about Orlando's competing colossi and their relative strengths.
At press time, no formal opening ceremony has been held for either attraction, and media events canceled in the wake of the Pulse shooting haven't yet been rescheduled. Universal started "technical rehearsal" previews of Skull Island several weeks ago but hasn't announced an official opening date. Frozen Ever After flung open its doors on June 21 without fanfare or a soft opening, and the results weren't pretty. So take my analysis with a grain of salt, since some attraction elements may still be works in progress, and not as a guarantee you'll get to ride if going to the parks today.
For longtime Universal Studios Florida fans, the return of the King is kind of a big deal. For more than a decade, the 800-pound gorilla in the room has been the absence of the park's iconic ape, who was evicted from his opening day Kongfrontation attraction by the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster in 2002. Fans have been agitating for his return ever since, and rumors of Kong's comeback heated up a few years ago after the 360-degree 3-D replacement for Universal Studios Hollywood's incinerated robotic Kong proved a king-sized hit.
Kong may be back, but he's not your mom's monstrous monkey. Unlike the New York-based original, the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride is located in the other Universal park, tucked between IOA's Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon, and is aesthetically inspired by Peter Jackson's 2005 remake (with an even looser link to the upcoming prequel) rather than the 1933 or 1976 films. Instead of an elevated tram, guests board ginormous safari-style trucks helmed by animatronic drivers for an indoor-outdoor expedition through ancient jungle temples teeming with bats, bugs and prehistoric beasts, all brought to life through a seamless blend of physical props and expansive 3-D screens.
Skull Island succeeds on many levels, from its stunning stone facade and spooky queue – featuring creepy animatronics, live scareactors and a surfeit of skulls – to the finale's simian show-stopper, a robotic King Kong bust with fantastically expressive facial features. But despite a substantial six-minute running time, Reign of Kong feels abbreviated and anticlimactic, largely because the central 360-degree 3-D sequence (which recycles animation from the Hollywood version) doesn't connect with characters from the ride's first half. Plot holes may be overlooked considering the impressive technology, but flawed storytelling prevents Reign of Kong from reaching its full E-Ticket potential. (There's also problematic racial imagery involving the "native" characters, but that's a topic for a whole 'nother column.)
While Universal fans had sky-high expectations for the built-from-scratch Skull Island, many Disney devotees (myself included) weren't excited for a Frozen-themed overlay of Maelstrom, Epcot's charmingly incoherent Norwegian boat ride. Of course, those qualms didn't stop passholders from snatching all available first-day FastPass+ reservations a month in advance, and forming a 300-minute standby queue that literally stretched all the way to China (the pavilion, at least).
Cultural cannibalism and queue chaos aside, I couldn't comprehend how the Imagineers could preserve the old flume track while creating an all-new experience, but I'm happy to admit that Frozen Ever After proved me wrong by elevating an aging C-ticket into a first-rate D-Ticket.
Relocating the lavishly decorated queue and boarding dock created room for additional scenes, boosting the ride's length to nearly five minutes, and apart from a couple of conspicuously blank sections, the new digitally enhanced sets are far more exciting than the old blacklight flats. The semi-sequel story is simple but straightforward, and all your favorite earworm melodies are reprised with rewritten lyrics.
Best of all, Frozen Ever After features the most lifelike animatronics I've ever seen, with rear-projected faces and fluid limb movements that enter the uncanny valley and very nearly climb back out the other side. I'd ride over and over just to watch Elsa waggle her robotic wrists, and I weep for the world of robotic massage parlors our descendants will inherit. But until they can reduce the wait time to a reasonable length by improving throughput up over 1,000 riders per hour and decreasing the regular outages and evacuations, I'm going to advise you to "let it go" for now.
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