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.
I’m not sure if you’d call this a “celebrity” encounter. It was probably more like a tabloid encounter, or normal-schmoe-who-rose-to-infamy-under-bizarre-circumstances encounter.
For those whose minds aren’t immediately tweaked by the name Michael Fay, let me give you a gentle nudge: in 1994, 18-year-old Fay became one of the few Americans ever sentenced to caning by a Singapore court for alleged acts of vandalism he committed while living with his mother in the strict Eastern country. After an international outcry, the president of Singapore lessened Fay’s punishment from six hard smacks across the naked buttocks with a long white stick to four. President Clinton actually made a plea on the troubled teen’s behalf, which is interesting because Michael Fay doesn’t have breasts.
On May 5, 1994, Fay got what was coming to him (he later said the caning caused only minimal bleeding on his fleshy rear). That June, Mike was released from prison and returned to the U.S. to live with his father. Just a sliver of history in terms of America on the whole, but the frenzy of media attention has kept the imprint of Michael Fay impossibly fresh in my mind. I don’t even have to consult Google image search to tell you he looked sorta like Joey from New Kids On The Block (except mongolodier).
The official Fay timeline post-caning is sketchy at best, but I can tell you in 1995 Mike was residing in the greater Orlando area. I know this because that summer I visited Universal Studios for maybe the second time in my life and Michael Fay was my tram operator on Kongfrontation, the King Kong ride. I think I had heard rumors to the effect he was livin’ in my hood, but I was still shocked into silence when I entered the ride, looked up, and saw Mr. Singapore Cane Victim with his short curly ‘do and semi-crazed eyes. His name tag said Michael, which was all the confirmation I needed.
I nudged my pal Jim Raymond and tried not to be too obvious pointing at the guy. Jim’s jaw dropped. This lead to a strange Mexican standoff. Everyone on that tram probably recognized Michael Fay in an instant, and Michael Fay had to know damn well what kind of potential abuse he would be subjecting himself to working at one of the country’s most popular theme parks. He could see the morbid curiosity in our eyes as plainly as we could see the grit and determination not to crack in his.
Mike did a passable job navigating our fake Roosevelt Island tram through the glorious monkey-based wreckage of 1970s Manhattan. Like most teenagers working theme park rides, I wouldn’t have nominated him for an Oscar. Still, you have to hand it to Michael Fay for taking such an unprotected position that shortly after haunting the pages of the National Enquirer. It must have been his life-long dream to operate Kongfrontation. Kudos to him for trying to leave his ass-beating on the other side of the world.
As Jim and I exited Kongfrontation!, we were definitely snickering, and Jim may have actually muttered something about caning under his breath, but I honestly can’t remember. What I can say with absolute certainty is that I never again encountered Michael Fay in or around the City Beautiful. He (expectedly) fell back into complete obscurity, right along with the Jeff Giloolys and John Wayne Bobbitts of the world. I can’t help but wonder what the poor guy is up to today.
IF YOU have any information as to the current whereabouts of Michael Fay, please contact Robert Stack’s family. Also, I’d love to hear from anyone who actually worked with MF at Universal. I can’t even imagine what that hiring process was like.
Another thing the dumb-ass media messed up/didn’t make very clear in their initial reports on the Universal Studios Hollywood fire: the King Kong “exhibit” that burnt to a crisp was actually the King Kong portion of the Studio Tour (read: the part with the big robot monkey).
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. King Kong is dead. Let the nation’s period of mourning officially begin.
I’ve never been to Universal Studios Hollywood, but it feels like I spent a good chunk of my early to mid twenties hanging out at Universal Orlando. I really love that park. One of my favorite attractions there was always Kongfrontation, the east coast adaptation of the simian tram attack that began wowing L.A. tourists in 1986.
Kongfrontation, which opened along with the whole Universal Orlando park in 1990, was truly an experience, from the authentically smelly 1970s New York subway queue area to the frighteningly large fireballs that popped up as Kong was attacking your Roosevelt Island cable care. The miniature cityscape that sat beneath the fuzzy ape’s non-existent butt (sorry, kids, he was just a torso) was also painstakingly detailed.
How do I know that? Universal does this thing every October called Halloween Horror Nights. Often, they change the rides up to give visitors a new, “spookier” experience. One year, they let us walk through the fake New York backdrop of Kongfrontation. I was really impressed with how real the quasi-neighborhoods seemed. I was also impressed with how close they let us get to the monkey. I could have easily ripped all his fur off.
My favorite part of Kongfrontation may have been the closed circuit TVs in the ride queue showing vintage late eighties/early nineties WWOR programming (Universal owned the station at the time of the park’s opening). All these shows I thought I’d never see again after moving from the Tri-State area—“Steampipe Alley,” “Out of This World,” “The Munsters Today”—were brought back to life and preserved forever as part of a theme park ride second only to Jaws in terms of fun and excitement.
Seriously, all this ride needed was a cot and a functioning toilet and I probably could have lived there.
All good things come to an end, though. In 2002, Universal shut down Kongfrontation with little to no explanation. Rumor around town was the building that housed Kong was about to collapse (much like their main competitor Disney, Universal Studios Orlando doesn’t have to adhere to standard Orange County building codes). Whatever the case, thousands of people (including me) were sad. I didn’t start cutting myself or anything, though, because I always knew there was another animatronic monkey out west I’d one day visit.
Now, that guy’s dead, and I’ve got no monkeys to look forward to.
Universal Hollywood says they do not plan to rebuild the Kong portion of the Studio tour, that they will instead replace the burnt out crater with something more contemporary. I cringe at what this could mean. A Big Mama’s House encounter? Some kind of “Deal or No Deal” attraction? In all seriousness, it’ll probably be some kind of Mummy yazz like what they replaced Orlando Kong with. Yeah, Egypt is neat, but I like ol’ Banana Breath way more.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. I’m gonna miss you, buddy. You saw America through some rough times. The stock market crash, the first Gulf War, “Homeboys in Outer Space.” That’s all over now. We’re better people, though, and we couldn’t have done it without you.
Here’s looking at you, chimp.
By the way, Universal, if you ever even think of permanently shutting down the Jaws ride, I will make it my business to completely destroy you.
P.S. – Michael Fay, the kid who got caned in Singapore for vandalism, worked on the Kongfrontation ride shortly after returning to the U.S. I got him as a ride operator once. He did a pretty good job, but everyone knew who he was and you could taste the contempt/pity for him in the air. I’m pretty sure I made some kind of snide comment as I exited the ride. He had the look of a slightly broken soul, but hey, he dug his own grave. Who the fuck is dumb enough to break the law in Singapore? Shithead.
P.P.S – No one had King Kong in the death pool.