King Kong roars back to life at Universal Studios Hollywood — in 3-D

For more than 45 years, the defining experience for Universal Studios Hollywood has been the venerable tram tour through the production facilities and backlot. Now the ride is being brought to the 21st century by filmmaker Peter Jackson and the world's most famous gorilla.

Beginning Thursday, the tram will take a detour that transports guests to Jackson's version of Skull Island, where they will be attacked by dinosaurs and rescued by the three-story-tall silverback gorilla.

The new attraction, "King Kong 360 3-D," replaces the original, which burned in a June 2008 fire that also destroyed several famous backlot sets.

Instead of reviving the 1986 attraction, which brought visitors to 1970s New York to face off with a 30-foot animatronic ape, Universal decided to revamp it based on Jackson's 2005 remake of "King Kong." The Academy Award-winning director of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" jumped at the chance to resurrect a character whose tragic end doesn't lend itself to a sequel.

In the new ride, which was previewed to the media Tuesday, the tram drives into a darkened cave where Jackson appears on video monitors and instructs guests to put on their 3-D glasses. As the tram moves farther, guests are cocooned by jungle life on Skull Island, projected on two colossal curved movie screens, each 40 feet high and nearly 200 feet long. A system of plates beneath the trams rock and shake them, and bursts of air, scent and water add to the vivid sense of realism as King Kong defends tourists from a pack of T. Rex.

Jackson worked with Weta Digital Ltd., the New Zealand-based visual effects studio behind "Lord of the Rings" and "Avatar" that he co-founded, to create the immersive mini-story.

"It's a modern hybrid of the movie technology we've been developing for shows like 'Avatar' — in that it's 3-D and entirely digital but still naturalistic and photo-real — and combining that with the ride aspect," said Matt Aitken, visual effects supervisor at Weta. "There's the thrill of it and the fact that, you know, it's quite a compressed canvas that we had to work on because of the running time. That was a particular challenge as we worked with Peter on the animation, so it told the story he wanted to tell but still worked within the constraints of the running and physical space that the work will be screened in."

The ride itself lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, during which the tram is hunted by a flock of velociraptors, attacked by a trio of T. Rex, lunged at by horse-sized spiders, hurtled off the edge of a cliff, and jumped on by Kong himself. Bursts of air and water coincide with swinging tails and dino-slobber. Kong roars not the banana breath of the old ride, but a staler, less inviting scent, somewhere between locker room and wet dog. In a fun bit of digital trickery, the back car appears to be torn off the tram.

"What we've done is used all the technology that we had at our disposal and some very highly tuned specifications to make the experience a very compelling one; we're working with very high-resolution images so the images have an enormous amount of detail in them," Aitken said. "We're working at a very high frame range — 60 frames per second — so a lot of the [adverse things] associated with a typical movie experience at 24 frames per second — motion blur and flicker — those go completely out the window. The audience is getting delivered a huge amount of visual information at a very high rate."

Much like "Avatar" and other spectacles that present 3-D film on an Imax screen, visitors may find themselves unsure where to look and wanting to spend more time in the virtual world that surrounds them. The plot relentlessly unfolds in every direction, making it easy to miss a key moment while distracted by some nearer thrill. There's a lot to take in, and riders at the front will likely experience the story much differently than those at the back. The good news is you'll want more. The bad news is you'll wish it lasted longer.

Universal is billing the attraction as the world's largest 3-D experience and hopes that Kong will bring a new face to the old tour.

"When the park first started in '64, all there was was the tram ride; that was the whole experience," said Eliot Sekuler, a vice president at Universal Studios. "You took a ride through the backlot of Universal, which until that time had been closed to the public.... So that was how it began. It's our roots. Then Kong came along in the '80s, and it sort of changed things. It was the first big major investment they made in creating an attraction specifically for the guests to see. So when we lost it in June of 2008, it was always, 'We gotta find some way of bringing it back.' "

Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer for Universal Studios, said that the new ride is both evolution and revolution.

"It's King Kong," Meyer said. "It's certainly in the spirit of the original, but it's today's version of it."

Along with the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, at Universal's sister resort in Florida, Kong will likely be a trendsetter in fully immersive theme park attractions, Meyer said.

"How it would shape other people's attractions, I'm not sure," he said. "But certainly it's going to influence us."

noelene.clark@latimes.com

Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this article.

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