Robot Monkeys & Mr. Toad, We Hardly Knew Ye

The following article originally ran on Radar magazine’s website, Radar.com, in the summer of 2008, before they were purchased by National Enquirer and transformed into something more TMZ-ish. I don’t remember the headline it ran under, but this is (more or less) the complete unedited version of the piece. A few sections have been updated with pertinent developments since the time of publication.

June 1, 2008, saw a devastating fire rip through Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying a number of iconic film sets and several thousand copies of Universal films/television shows themselves. Among the casualties of this monumental blaze was the King Kong portion of the famed Universal Studios backlot tour. Now the only animatronic animals left to terrorize tourists are Bruce, the grumpy shark from Jaws who’s been baring his teeth since 1976, and that dinky Jurassic Park dinosaur what sprayed its toxic juices in Wayne Knight’s face.

Kong is the latest of in a long line of tragic theme park deaths, a sobering reminder that the coasters, trolleys, trams, robots, and motion simulators we’ve come to know and love are susceptible to all manner of bizarre and unstoppable expirations. Sometimes entire parks fall, leaving nothing more than piles of brick, wood, and painful memories. Come with us now as we look back on the deceased theme park attractions of yesteryear…

King Kong: Studio Tour, Universal Studios Hollywood, 1986-2008

Inspired by the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 classic, work on this seven ton, thirty foot tall animatronic King Kong began in 1985. One year later, the furry bastard made his helicopter-smashing, bridge-shaking debut, the first of his kind anywhere. Kong’s hefty presence rejuvenated Universal Studios tourism and provided the inspiration for an entirely new Universal park in Orlando, FL, the heart of which was a similar Kong attraction (see below). Who knew it would take little more than a blowtorch to dethrone California’s most beloved simian? That’s supposedly what caused the fire on June 1, 2008, that reduced King Kong to cinders and ash. Fire fighters claim the blaze spread rapidly due to water pressure issues and the failure of certain fire protection features which were introduced after a similar fire in 1990. Despite the massive popularity of King Kong, Universal Studios has announced they will not be rebuilding the giant monkey (who originally cost a staggering $6.5 million to construct) and will replace the burnt area with a new attraction.

Kongfrontation!: Universal Studios Florida, 1990-2002

Universal was looking to open some kind of facility in the Sunshine State as early as 1982. Fear of competing with Disney for that state’s tourism dollars, however, kept the company from moving too far ahead. That all changed after King Kong’s L.A. debut in 1986; the ape’s unprecedented popularity spurned Universal to get things into gear for an all-new Orlando park. Opening in 1990, Universal Studios Florida boasted an impressive array of rides and attractions, including Kongfrontation!, a bigger, better version of the original robot monkeyshine. Florida Kong not only had a bigger fake New York to terrorize, but he also had a distinct odor about him (the famous “banana breath” that he exhaled on riders). Kongfrontation! was USF’s lynchpin attraction, anchoring years of excitement and thrills within the theme park’s walls. Its popularity was constant, which is why the ride’s closure sans explanation in September of 2002 confused legions of Kong fans. Some have speculated maintenance/repair costs ended Kong’s Florida run, but rumors persist that the building that housed Kongfrontation! was on the verge of collapsing (much like Disney, Universal is technically its own town, exempt from the architecture codes of Orange County, FL).

Back to the Future: The Ride: Universal Studios Florida/Hollywood, 1991-2007

Kongfrontation! may have been the heart of Universal Studios Florida, but the park’s real triumph was Back to the Future: the Ride. A near-perfect marriage of movie and live experience, BTTFTR plopped guests into the middle of a thrilling motion simulated time traveling adventure starring Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson. Rocketing from the prehistoric era to the year 2015 in the DeLorean was every movie fan’s dream. Universal had the ingenuity to bring that dream to life; unfortunately, they didn’t have the chutzpah to tell Steven Spielberg who was in charge. The director was reluctant to let anyone else manage one of his most enduring properties, so he worked out a deal that retained ownership of Back to the Future: the Ride for his own Amblin Entertainment and named him a specific creative consultant. This allegedly made it very hard to improve the popular attraction as technology changed over the years; Spielberg had final say over anything Universal proposed, and as you can imagine he’s always been a pretty busy guy. With 2015 rapidly approaching, both parties got together a couple of years ago and decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore. BTTFTR was given a loving send-off at both Universal locations before making way for the more contemporary “Simpsons” ride.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Walt Disney World, 1971-1994

Based on Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage attraction and one of their most popular films of all-time, riders on this make-believe voyage (which covered almost one quarter of Fantasyland) were made to believe they were journeying to the briny depths with Captain Nemo and his trusty crew. All sorts of sea life was on display here—eels, lobsters, crabs, schools of tropical fish, and, of course, the infamous giant squid from the film. Beautifully designed inside and out, 20,000 Leagues was practically a piece of art. Unfortunately, it was also a complete bitch to keep running. Disney maintenance crews despised repairing the diesel-powered submarines, not to mention cleaning out the giant lagoon housing the ride. On top of that, the whole thing was incredibly expensive. When Disney CEO Michael Eisner called for theme park budget cuts in 1994, Magic Kingdom employees took it upon themselves to “temporarily” shut 20,000 Leagues down. There was public outcry, forcing Disney President Mike Ovitz to personally visit the ride to decide its fate. This is supposedly when vengeful cast members struck, putting Ovitz in a sabotaged sub full of mildew and standing water. Ovitz officially killed 20k Leagues; today, the former lagoon now hosts some Winnie the Pooh yazz.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: Walt Disney World, 1971-1998

1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad always lagged behind other Disney fare in terms of popularity, but it was basis for one of the company’s most enduring and beloved attractions. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride took guests for breakneck trip around the title character’s neighborhood, crashing into walls, spooking various animals, and eventually ending up in the fiery depths of Hell. Again, this is a case of an original version first opening in California and an improved version opening a number of years later in Florida. The Magic Kingdom’s Toad ride was especially unique in that it had two separate boarding areas leading to two slightly different experiences on the ride. The quirkiness and fright factor allowed Toad’s Ride to live up to its name, a Disney creation that didn’t seem all that Disney. When news leaked that the Mouse would replace the Orlando Toad with a tamer Winnie the Pooh attraction in 1997, Americans bristled as if New Coke was coming back. Various protests on behalf of Mr. T begat nothing; Disney shut him down in September of ’98, offering little in the way of explanation. The original Disneyland incarnation is still running, one of the few that’s remained running since the park’s 1955 opening day.

Captain EO: EPCOT/Disneyland, 1986-1997

An intergalactic adventure directed by Francis Ford Coppola! Produced by George Lucas! Starring Michael Jackson! And the whole damn thing was in 3-D! Captain EO was one of the most expensive films in the history of cinema, costing one million dollars for every sixty second increment of its seventeen minute running time. That’s $17 million; the original Star Wars only cost $10 million, and that film was three times as long. There are Three Stooges shorts that outpace Captain EO. It’s kind of a shame this mega production only ran in two theaters in the country (one at EPCOT and one at Disneyland). No one had a problem going on a 3-D musical adventure with an effeminate, chimp-toting pop star (who apparently loved to waste food)…up until those icky child molestation allegations popped up in 1993. EPCOT closed Captain EO a year later, eventually replacing it with a Honey, I Shrunk The Kids 3-D movie. Disneyland clung to Michael and his alien pals until 1997. By that time it was clear the King of Pop had transformed into the black Howard Hughes. Thus, EO went, remembered only by those who could also remember a time before Michael Jackson looked like a metrosexual version of the Cryptkeeper. In 2010, Captain EO was brought back to Disney parks less than a year after Jackson’s untimely death so a whole new generation could experience the magic of the singer’s most famous collaboration with filmmaking royalty.

The Loop Water Slide: Action Park, 1985; 1995

New Jersey’s Action Park was notorious for being one of the most unsafe theme parks in the history of the entertainment industry. At least six people died in park mishaps during the near twenty years “Traction Park” was open and plenty more were injured. This was usually attributed to one of three things: inattentive/intoxicated park employees, inattentive/intoxicated park attendees, or poor ride design. That last one doomed The Loop, an enclosed water slide that featured a complete vertical loop towards the end. Supposedly the test dummies that were sent down this incredibly dangerous slide came out completely dismembered. The Loop opened for exactly one month in 1985 before being shut down by New Jersey’s Advisory Board on Carnival Amusement Ride Safety (who knew such a board even existed?). Those who did ride the dubious Loop were lucky if they escaped without bloody noses or a serious back injury. The ride opened for a few days ten years later before further guest injuries forced a permanent shut down. Although Action Park has reopened since its initial closing as the much safer Mountain Creek Waterpark, the Loop remains disassembled somewhere in the Garden State where it can cause no more pain.

Turbulence: Hersheypark, Aborted in 2005

Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark almost received a truly revolutionary piece of theme park machinery in 2005. The generically-named Turbulence would have been the first uniquely vertical roller coaster installation anywhere in the whole damn world. It’s kind of difficult to describe, but basically riders would sit in a car and fall down a 150 foot tall winding, vertical section of coaster track resembling a part of the old “Mousetrap” board game. The catch, though, was that the cars always stayed upright. At no time would riders be upside down (thus, all hats and/or necklaces would ostensibly stay on the rider’s person). Turbulence was all set to replace Hersheypark’s Giant Wheel—a photo booth was even built to process pictures taken of guests mid-ride. Then Interactive Rides, Turbulence’s designers, decided to ask Hersheypark for more money. Apparently the cost of steel increased during Turbulence’s turbulent production to the tune of $1 million. Hershey wasn’t willing to cough up any more dough, and Turbulence was canceled. Thus, Keystone State tourists were denied thrilling roller coaster memories before they could even have them. At least there was all that chocolate to ease the pain.

Six Flags New Orleans: Louisiana, 2000-2005

Even before Mother Nature forced its closure, Six Flags New Orleans was having its issues. The least profitable and popular Six Flags park in the whole country, critics complained that the amusement center (originally opened as Jazzland in 2000) was built too far away from other noted Nawlins attractions to be of much interest. The suits were planning to add a water park to boost attendance when Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005. The intense flooding caused severe damage to nearly every attraction in Six Flags New Orleans, and the park has been closed ever since. The future of this property is unclear; in April of 2008, the Southern Star Amusement Group proposed to take over Six Flag’s seventy-five year lease and expand the area to more than double its pre-disaster size. The New Orleans City Council is currently reviewing this proposal, although if outspoken Mayor Ray Nagin gets his way, Six Flags will be stuck in their original lease (as of October 2010, Southern Star was still attempting to recover the park). Meanwhile, Six Flags is suing their insurance company for full payout so they can figure out exactly what they want to do. At least one ride, Batman: the Ride, has been salvaged from the site, transported to Six Flags Fiesta Texas to be rebuilt as something called Goliath.

Six Flags Autoworld: Michigan, 1984

Another failed Six Flags venture, only this time the culprit was not weather-related. Nay, ‘twas the indifference of man what killed Flint, Michigan’s Autoworld, famously profiled in Michael Moore’s depressing-as-hell documentary Roger and Me. The idea of a pavilion/theme park based around the auto industry might have seemed like a great idea to the tourist bureau of this great industrial town, but honestly, who wants to spend their hard-earned expendable income on something that reminds them of the soul-crushing blue collar job they might not even have next week? A ferris wheel, an arcade, a carousel, a giant replica of an engine, even a handful of animatronic mannequins with people’s faces projected on them—none of it was enough to make auto production interesting to anyone who didn’t already work in the industry or subscribe to Car and Driver magazine. Six Flags Autoworld went bankrupt and closed the year it opened, dooming Flint to more economic pain and embarrassment. Various attempts to revive the complex failed, leading to the abandoned building’s demolition in 1997. Today, the land belongs to the University of Michigan-Flint, who constructed something education-related on the long-forgotten Autoworld site.

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