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Designers' ideas took fine-tuning
By Susan G Strother of the Sentinel Staff

There was a problem with King Kong.
Once visitors encountered the big ape on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, the ride featuring the growling creature seemed to have little else going for it.
"We thought, 'what could top running across Kong?' " recalled
Peter Alexander, a designer at Universal Studios Florida. "Then we thought, 'He could pick you up, shake you around and then throw you down.' "

And so it was, over lunch three years ago at the Rive Gauche cafe in Sherman Oaks,
Calif.. that the hook for the "Kongfrontation" ride was born: The tram carrying visitors would appear to do a free fall at the hands of the big ape.

In the 20 years that the idea for Universal Studios Florida has been kicked around the MCA headquarters in Universal City, Calif.. dozens of plans were developed and ultimately trashed.

Gone are rides or shows based upon the A-Team, Gremlins and Conan the Barbarian. In their place are attractions based upon more recent hits, including E.T. - The Extraterrestrial. Ghost-busters and Jaws.

The cost of the attraction, now at $630 million, fluctuated as well In the early 1970's the price of the park was estimated to be about $40 million to $50 million, or equivalent to what a single ride within the attraction costs today, said Jay Stein, president of MCA's recreation division.

Over the years, Stein's support of the project was unflagging, even when soaring interest rates caused corporate support to wane.

Ultimately, the park's designer created a prototype that MCA plans to use as the basis for similar movie-themed attraction dome-shaped theater, in Europe and Japan.

In addition to Stein, the designers include Alexander and Bob Ward, both of whom had experience at Walt Disney Co., and Barry Upson and Terry Winnick, who are architects by training.

Together the men have smoothed the kinks in Kong and ensured the rushing water in
Earthauake recedes without harm to guests. They have hashed out plans on note pads and envelopes at MCI headquarters and in Stein's living room.

As Upson. a burly man who wears a yellowed bear tooth on a necklace, explained, "Our basic M.O. has been to show people how movies are made."

That has meant separating the interesting from the not-so-interesting. Movie-making, as anyone who has witnessed it will attest has more than its share of tedium.

For instance, a show based upon post-production through which programs are edited and music and graphics included - would seem sure to put audiences top sleep.

But the idea took on life, Alexander said, when it was tied to Murder, She Wrote, the popular TV mystery. Now in the finished show, the audience acts as the "producer", adding sound effects and deciding who the murderer is.

The change in some rides has been nothing short of dramatic. Originally the designers, working with movie producer Steven Spielberg, had planned a rollercoaster ride based on Back to the Future.

But they found a roller coaster moved to quickly to tell the story very well. They decided to make "Back to the Future" a simulator ride and put the movie's trademark DeLorean automobiles on a movie platform.

To test it, they took foam mock-ups of the gull-wing cars to a dome-shaped theater in Canada. There, they sat in the "cars" in the dark, "sort of like when you carve up a refigerator box as a kid," Ward said.

Alexander said: "We felt pretty stupid."