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Just announced: Universal to open huge new King Kong attraction

A giant new King Kong attraction is coming to Universal Orlando next summer, the theme park announced Wednesday. The head of the theme park's creative team called it an immersive experience that "defies categorization," in a preview given first to the Tampa Bay Times.

Skull Island: Reign of Kong will open in summer 2016 in Islands of Adventure, and it's already a looming presence between Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon. This adds to a steady building boom at Universal, already profiting from its Harry Potter attractions. The company has vowed to bring new theme park attractions year after year.

The investment has paid off handsomely so far. On Monday, parent company Comcast reported its theme park business saw quarterly revenues rise 34 percent to $651 million.

"They are on such a roll right now," said theme park expert Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati consulting firm International Theme Park Services. "They have had such tremendous growth over the last four years, the largest increases we've ever seen in the industry."

Universal appears to be gaining on the Mouse, if slightly. Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010, Walt Disney World's market share has dropped from 74.9 to 71.3 percent, with Universal's market share increasing from 16 to 20.8 percent, according to a 2014 study by Themed Entertainment Association and the consulting company AECOM.

After the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, the theme park's fortunes changed drastically. Attendance jumped 20 percent and per-person spending was in double digits as well.

Comcast accelerated its spending at Universal Parks and Resorts to more than $500 million a year. Universal doesn't release figures, but was estimated to have spent $400 million building Diagon Alley, which opened last summer. And industry buzz is that Universal is spending $100 million to $200 million on King Kong, Speigel said.

Sales of Universal season passes are at an all-time high and operating cash flow is up by more than half, according to recent earnings reports. Meanwhile, 80 percent of Orlando visitors chose two-park tickets — the only way visitors can ride the Hogwarts Express train between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure next door.

The King Kong attraction has been under construction at Islands of Adventure for months, and it looks mammoth. Huge rock walls are rising in what looks an ancient temple in a primordial jungle setting.

In a telephone interview before the official announcement, Mike West, executive producer of Universal Creative, said this is "more than just a ride." With an elaborate queue and environment, the goal is to put the visitor in another world.

King Kong may not have the tween fan base of the boy wizard, but the great ape has been a movie icon since 1933. Filming is now under way in Hawaii for yet another Kong movie, starring Tom Hiddleston, the British actor best known as Loki in the Marvel films, as well as Michael Keaton.

Universal worked with Peter Jackson, the director of 2005's King Kong, a $207 million spectacle that was then the most expensive movie ever filmed.

The theme park is going big as well. The great wall at the entrance to the ride looms 72 feet high and the ride vehicles are among the biggest the theme park has built.

As in the two Harry Potter lands, immersing the visitor in the story line plays into the King Kong attraction.

As you enter Skull Island, "You'll come upon dense jungles," West said, "and make your way through temple ruins, and along the way you'll encounter hostile natives" — and that's just the queue.

Cryptic messages along the way will warn of "unimaginable giant creatures," West said. "So by the time you get to board the expedition vehicle, your anticipation is peaking."

The ride takes place indoors and out, West said, and as the vehicle approaches the wall, "these marvelous, huge wooden doors swing open and you enter to find great chasms and caves." The ride gets darker and more intense, and you "find yourself face to face with the great Kong himself."

This isn't Kong's first stay at Universal. Kongfrontation was one of the original rides at Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990, but it closed in 2002 to make way for Revenge of the Mummy.

West described this as "very different," and although crew members will be driving the vehicles, they won't be the wise-cracking guides found on the '90s rides at the theme park.

"It's not a Jaws kind of attraction," he said.

Technology comes into play with 3-D imagery, but West said the animatronics and advanced puppetry used in the theme park's Halloween haunted houses are not part of Kong.

In addition to Kong, a new resort called Sapphire Falls is being developed at Universal, and permits have been filed for an on-site water park that may be called Volcano Bay, though no details have been released.

SeaWorld has announced a new 200-foot roller coaster coming in 2016 and said it will release more details this month. Busch Gardens has confirmed a new ride is under construction in the Egypt area of the park to open in 2016. And Walt Disney World is in the midst of bringing James Cameron's Avatar to life at Animal Kingdom in 2017.

As a close watcher of the theme park industry, Speigel said the old Kong ride "had run its course," but with less property to work with than rival Disney, Universal has more turnover in its parks by necessity.

"They have to reinvent themselves and take out attractions and put new ones in," Speigel said, "but King Kong has a legacy going back to the '30s and '40s, so there's always something that people will continue to like about it."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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