King Kong: The Monster Who Created Universal Studios Florida
By Peter Alexander
Totally Fun Company
It's strange to think that King Kong is gone from Universal Studios Florida because without King Kong, the whole Universal Orlando complex might have never existed.
It all goes back to a spring day in 1986 when Craig Barr and I were animating the first "L.A. version" of King Kong in a sound stage on the "lower lot" of Universal Studios Hollywood. Kong was due to open to the public in a week or so, and Craig and I were running the 30-foot monster through his paces, adding one "move" after another via the animation control system in order to bring the ape to life. When we finished an animation sequence, I turned my head and saw Steven Spielberg, accompanied by his bodyguard Larry, drive into the sound stage in Steven's golf cart.
"I didn't know you were doing this," Steven said. Although we had been college roommates at Long Beach State, I hadn't seen Steven since I had started as the Show Producer for Universal in 1983.
"Yeah, you want to see Kong do his thing?" I asked.
Steven said yes, and we ran Kong through his routine again. The big guy put on an amazing show. The team of Tom Reidenbach, Dave Schweninger, and Bob Gurr -- all, like myself, former Disney Imagineers -- had done an incredible job creating the Kong figure, and when brought to life by Craig's programming, with a little help from my "arm waving" (the technical term for art direction), he was awesome to behold.
Steven said, "You guys are pretty good at this. My friend (George) Lucas told me only Disney could do this. He just took me on Star Tours at Disney. He said, 'You (Steven) screwed up going with Universal. They could never do a Star Tours.'" Then Steven got a devilish glow in his eye and said, "If you guys can do this ... why don't you see what you can do with Back to the Future?"
He then drove away in his golf cart, but the next day, I was called to Sid Sheinberg's office (Chief Operating Officer of Universal Studios) for a "Spielberg Visit Debriefing Meeting."
Steven had apparently called Sid immediately after seeing Kong and told him how impressed he was with not just the monkey, but the entire attraction. In Sheinberg's mind, if Steven Spielberg liked Kong, then millions of people might think the same ...
Both Steven and Sid Sheinberg were proven right when we opened the L.A. Kong in June, 1986, causing tour attendance to jump to 4.5 million, one million more than had ever visited the tour before.
Shortly thereafter, the Florida project, which was -- at that point -- dead as a doornail, came back to life.
Kong had been a part of the Florida project since its inception in 1982. The first design I saw had been created by Henry Bumstead, the three time Academy Award winning art director. It featured King Kong attacking the Universal Studios Glamour Tram as it passed over a New York bridge. It was part of the "back lot" tram tour, which, along with a "front lot" walking tour, formed the original plans for Universal Studios Florida. However, Lew Wasserman, Universal's Chairman of the Board, was concerned about the ability of the Florida tour to compete head to head against Disney in its own backyard of Orlando, Florida, and so Kong and the rest of the Florida project had died a still born death.
Fortunately, Spielberg's visit and Kong's success meant a rebirth for the Florida project. Planning went into high gear in 1987 when we discovered that Disney was developing a studio tour of their own for Orlando. When Disney revealed its plans, we saw that Disney-MGM Studios bore a startling resemblance to the old, aborted Universal Florida project: a "front lot" walking tour and a "back lot" tram tour, albeit produced at a Disney quality (and budget) level that went far beyond what we had envisioned. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner had seemingly outfoxed his potential Universal competition by opening a "bigger and better" studio tour and getting into the marketplace first, thereby making it difficult, if not impossible, for us to compete.
What Michael Eisner didn't know was that Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman was the kind of guy who not only didn't shy away from competition, he relished it. Lew's competitive instincts had been piqued by Disney-MGM Studios, and with Steven Spielberg vouching for our creative talent, the battle was joined: Universal Studios Florida was "green-lighted."
As the (one and only) show designer, it seemed to me that the only way we could compete against Disney with essentially the same product (a studio tour) in the same market (Orlando) was to "out-Disney" them. That meant bigger, better rides. The thought of designing and building custom rides was both new and staggering to Universal management. They had never before built any kind of ride, let alone a Disney-quality experience. When I told Sid Sheinberg that the rides would probably cost $25-30 million each (about four times what we had spent on the L.A. version of Kong), he looked ashen, but being a fearless executive, he green-lighted them anyway. We were in an "arms race" with Disney, and he knew that only way to win was with bigger and better "weapons."
Kong and Back to the Future were our biggest guns and so among the first attraction concepts developed (starting design in early 1988).
The Kong attraction's design came about this way: Bob Ward, Executive Art Director on the Florida project and my co-designer on the L.A. version of Kong, had seen a film starring Rutger Hauer that featured the Roosevelt Island Tramway, an aerial tram that travels along side New York City's 59th Street bridge. Bob thought that it would be great if the guests could ride the aerial tram, suspended high above the ground and thus feeling vulnerable, and be menaced by Kong.
"That's really good, Bob," I said, "but we need more of a story."
I knew that just an "attack" by itself would not be enough to "out-Disney Disney." So, I said, "Okay, here's the story ... you are in the queue line ... and you hear Kong has escaped. You board the Roosevelt Island tram to be evacuated, but in the first scene, you see that Kong has laid down a path of destruction before you ... then you round the corner ... and there he is on the bridge. He stops your tram car, then picks it up, but a helicopter shoots at him and he throws down the tram car." Then (since our basic theme was "behind the scenes in Hollywood"), TV monitors turn on inside the tram car, and you find that your whole experience has been filmed and that you -- the guest -- have actually just "starred" in a King Kong film. (Later, our Advertising VP David Weitzner's team coined the term "ride the movies" to describe Kong and the other "super rides" we developed.)
That notion became, after a great deal of work by many talented people, the King Kong ride that opened in June, 1990, and quickly became the most popular attraction in the park.
Getting to that opening day was a tough, but fun, job.
The ride system proved particularly difficult. Not only did the vehicles need to look something like the real Roosevelt Island Tram cars, but each of the four cars required a "traveling motion base" that would create the illusion that Kong was "picking up the tram" and then "throwing it down."
I asked two firms to develop designs that would accomplish this never-before-seen show-action. One, Intamin of Switzerland, developed a ride vehicle suspended by cables at each of the four corners. The second, Arrow Development of Utah, created a device that acted like an accordion bellows on top of the tram car. Arrow won the job, and then it was up to us at Universal to provide them with the "specs" that would define the tram car's motions.
A key question was: how fast should the tram "drop" when King Kong "threw it down" at the end of the ride? In order to determine this, we developed a harness rig to "fly" a person. We suspended the rig from the top of (45-foot tall) Stage 24 at Universal Studios. Somebody had to be the test pilot, and since nobody else volunteered, I took the first "drop." Unfortunately, there was some miscommunication, and the engineers dropped me at full free-fall, then jerked me to a sudden stop about three feet from the cement stage floor, resulting in a double hernia operation some months later. From that, we learned that we didn't want to make King Kong a free-fall coaster type of experience!
The next big challenge was to get the computer system that controlled King Kong to "talk" to the ride control system. In order to create the illusion that "the big guy" was picking up the tram, he needed to place his hands inside the "ride envelope" (directly under the tram car). That meant that Kong's actions had to work in sync with the ride's "bellows" (which was actually doing the work of picking up the fifty-passenger car). Kong's producer Craig Barr and his team spent months inside the "curtains" at the center of the attraction -- the control room -- getting the two systems to work with each other.
By opening day in 1990, they had just about every bug worked out except the "talk back" system: there was still no way to be certain that Kong wouldn't malfunction and stick his hand into the tram car and nail that lady in the third row or that the tram car wouldn't break off Kong's hand in the process. The result was that we couldn't guarantee the safety of the general public and had to screen opening day passengers!
This problem occasioned my favorite memory of the King Kong ride. On opening day, I had to serve as on-board ride control, communicating Kong's actions to Craig and his crew in the control room. If Kong acted up, I was to radio Craig to "pull the big guy's plug." I also had to serve as "gatekeeper" to determine who looked like a good risk to let on the ride: we didn't want the guests to repeat my double hernia experience.
The very first party of guests to show up was Steven Spielberg and his friends. I looked over Steve's group, trying to weed out any potential lawsuit-happy trial lawyers, when one man said, "Can I ride? If I get killed, it's no big deal." I decided that he was a good risk and let him on. Years later, I met this man again when I "pitched" the Batman Stunt Show to Six Flags -- he was Bob Pittman, Six Flags CEO, who fondly remembered our attempt to "kill him" on opening day. If I hadn't let Bob on the ride that day, who knows if there ever would have been a Batman Stunt Show at Six Flags?
There were many, many original "inventions" that we developed in order to make Kong a great attraction, but probably the one people ask me about the most is the famous "banana breath." We actually invented this in 1986 for the L.A. version of Kong and used the same system for Florida. The idea came to me while I was making one of the first presentations on the L.A. show. I just sort of tossed in the idea that as the tram passed Kong, the last thing the guests would experience was Kong's "banana breath." After hearing this, my boss, Jay Stein, lobbied for bad breath, but I kept mentioning "banana breath" in each and every "pitch." After awhile, it became accepted.
Of course, I had no clue as to how to make my idea work, so I asked my father -- a veteran aerospace engineer -- what kind of device might be used to suddenly blast the banana smell at the guests, yet not create so much of the smell that it would permeate the entire sound stage. He told me to try an "impellor." I didn't know an impellor from a left handed Johnson bar, so I looked it up in an equipment catalog, and about a week prior to opening the attraction, Kong project manager Larry Lester and I went out and bought one. We asked a lady who sold "smells" to stop by our office and bought some "banana juice." Larry developed a device that would hold the smell inside a small box in Kong's head until a valve opened, whereupon the "impellor" would blast out the smell. Voila! Instant banana breath!
In addition to all the technical breakthroughs, the setting for Kong had to be brilliantly designed in order to allow the 37-foot tall creature to appear at his best. For that task, I asked Henry Bumstead (Bummy to his friends) to design the set, and under his supervision, with Tom Reidenbach's help in turning my layout into a fully functional plan, Kong's world took shape. The most difficult scene to design was the second where the aerial tram came face-to-face with Kong on the bridge. Our reproduction of the 59th Street Bridge had to be a scale model, fitting inside a sixty-foot tall building yet appearing to be a real bridge. Bummy's forced perspective miniature bridge did the job, aided by yards and yards of "Gerritts black velour" (a kind of jet-black curtain that magicians use for "black art" tricks like "levitation"). It made the horizon disappear and helped allow the guests to lose sight of how high off the ground they really were.
Our field art directors had an equally difficult task: creating realistic New York "graffiti" in the pre-show. I found them a reference book of New York graffiti art, and then they went to town destroying the set just like the real graffitists! (Someone told me that they asked real graffiti artists to do the final art work, but what I saw was our own tech crew painting their initials on walls!)
Kong was a great accomplishment, and everyone involved wanted to feel that they had left their mark on it. My own personal contribution was to use my own voice -- pitch shifted down to a growl and then sampled -- as the voice of the mighty Kong. In real life, I have a soft voice, but it sure didn't sound like it when Kong roared!
"The big guy," as we used to call him, had a good run at Universal Studios Florida. Though he has now been retired, his legacy -- the two theme parks, hotels, and CityWalk -- lives on, and sometimes ... I think I can still smell his banana breath.