Seeing Stars: The Studio Tours 


100 Universal City Plaza,
Universal City, CA./ (818) 508-9600


Universal is unique among the various Hollywood studio tours because their tour is only one part of a much larger theme park experience.

I’ll review Universal Studios Hollywood in general on another page. (To read it, click here.) This article will deal solely with the studio tour.

In studio lingo, the "front lot" is where you’ll find sound stages and offices, while the "back lot" is where you’ll find the large outdoor sets that the public tends to think of when they hear the words "movie studio". These big back lots are an endangered species in these days of on-location filming. Universal Studios and Warner Bros are the only two studios which still have large "back lots" filled with colorful sets.

As such, their tours tend to be more interesting than those at the other studios (e.g. Sony & Paramount, where what visitors mostly see are the exteriors of sound stages). And because of the large size of their back lots, both Warner Bros and Universal use trams in their tour (while Sony and Paramount offer walking-only tours.) The good side of this is that is the trams save visitors a good deal of walking. The drawback is that a tram-based tour can seem more removed from the reality of movie-making, and less personal than a walking tour.

Warner Bros manages to get around this potential drawback in two ways. First, they use tiny, golf cart-sized vehicles, which limit the size of the tour group to an intimate number of visitors - so that guests can easily ask questions of their tour guide. Second, they allow visitors to get off the tram and explore the "front lot" on foot, taking a peak inside places like the wardrobe and prop departments, and seeing inside the sound stages. Guests are even allowed to visit the current sets on foot at WB. The Universal tour trams, on the other hand, are huge, noisy vehicles, which hold hundreds of passengers on each trip. And, for better or worse, guests are stuck on those trams for the entire 45-minute tour. The trams slow down to let guests get a good look at the various streets and sets, but they never stop and let people explore them on foot. (Ages ago, when the studio learned that guests’ main wish was to visit the sets on foot, the studio’s reaction was to build a few fake "streets" up in the amusement area, filled with shops and restaurants, where guests could spend money. They are still there today: a French street, a Western street, etc.)

On the other hand, Universal spiced up their tour with something that Warner Bros doesn’t try to offer: special effects and unique "rides" within the tram ride. Not very authentic, perhaps, but still entertaining. Like Universal Studios Hollywood itself, the tram tour is part authentic studio tour and part show-biz razzle dazzle. How you will react to this depends upon what you’re looking for. If you want your studio tour spiced up with jumping mechanical sharks and simulated earthquakes, Universal is the place to be. If you’re looking for authenticity and Hollywood history, Warner Bros is the best bet.

(However, Universal is now offering a new VIP tour, which provides an experience similar to Warners, and offers a much more intimate look at the movie-making side of the studio - albeit at a high price. More about that later.)

But enough with comparisons... Let’s get to the tour itself.


I shot this photo in 2007 - looking down on the Universal back lot (with Burbank in the distance). Copyright © 2014-Gary Wayne

The layout of Universal Studios Hollywood is such that most of the theme park is located on top of the hill (near the main gate), while the working studio (the front and back lots) are located far below. To reach the tram boarding station, guests ride escalators down about half way down the hill, and the tram ride takes them the rest of the way down to the working lots.

Between the roar of the tram engines and the flashy special effects along the way, it’s easy to miss the commentary by the tram tour guide/narrator. But you’ll do yourself a favor to pay attention to his spiel. Universal has a proud history of movie-making. "More movies and TV shows have been shot at Universal than at any other studio," our guide tells you at the start. And as you make your way through the various sets, the guide will inform you of many of the movies and TV shows that were shot on those exact sets (as well as those being currently shot there).

The tour begins with a quick trip through the front lot, past the offices of creative types (like Steven Spielberg) and the many massive sound stages: those warehouse-sized buildings with the numbers painted on them. (Sound stages are basically empty space where movie-makers can create whatever environments they need inside - while enjoying the controlled lighting, sound, and protection from the weather that only an inside location can afford).

Your tour guide will tell you that the very first sound stage at Universal was Stage 28, built back in 1925 for the original Lon Chaney version of "Phantom of the Opera". The same Stage 28 was used for productions such as "Psycho," "Bride of Frankenstein" and even "Jurassic Park". On my last visit, they were shooting "CSI" nearby on Stage 24 and "Crossing Jordan" on Stage 41.

We then move on to the back lot and its large, permanent sets. We see a New York Street, a series of brownstones, a "Small Town", "Old Mexico", "Six Points Texas" (their Western streets), "Little Europe" and the "Square of Warriors". For the most part, these streets are "facades", fake exteriors made of foam rubber and fiberglass - but they sure look real. And they are designed so that they can be made to look like different areas by simply changing a few signs or props.

For instance, "Little Europe", began life in the 1920’s (helping Universal win its first Oscar for "All Quiet on the Western Front"), and went on to star in countless class horror films ("Frankenstein", "Dracula", "The Wolf Man"...). But it is flexible enough that it is also seen as a street in Paris in "The Pink Panther" (with Steve Martin), a street in Germany in "The Good German" (with George Clooney), and various ports o’call in the three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films (with Johnny Depp).

The "New York Street" was seen in such movies as "The Shaggy Dog" (with Tim Allen), "Spider-Man 2" (in the scene where the car comes crashing into the cafe), as well as TV series such as "Alias", "Boston Legal", "The A-Team".

The Old West town (where six different Westerns could be shot at the same time on its six streets) was also the location of a "Star Trek: Enterprise" episode and of scenes from the series "Carnavale".

"The Square of Warriors" was built to look like Rome in the movie "Spartacus", but it also was seen as the city of Gomorrah in "The Scorpion King" (starring "The Rock"), and in "The Princess Diaries 2", where it played the role of Anne Hathaway’s fictional European kingdom.

Normally, you’d recognize "Courthouse Square" from the "Back to the Future" films, with its classic clock tower (that was struck by lightning in the movies). But on my last visit the Courthouse was virtually unrecognizable - since its Small Town area is now serving as the set for "The Ghost Whisperer", and they wanted a different look.

Speaking of "The Ghost Whisperer", on my last visit, the tram took us past the residential sets and picket fences of both that show as well as the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives". They were shooting at the time, so the tram went silent, but we did get a decent glimpse of "Wisteria Lane". (The residential area is actually known as "Elm Street", and was originally built for the classic Gregory Peck film, "To Kill a Mockingbird".)

The tram takes you right past the actual "Bates Motel" and the famous old house from the movie "Psycho", and past the "Chicken Ranch" house from "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas". You see man-made lakes (one of which is "parted" like the Red Sea for the tram to drive through) and "collapsing" bridges.

New sets include one wintry twirl of Dr. Seuss fantasy from "The Grinch", and an impressive set from 2005’s "War of the Worlds" (with Tom Cruise), where an airliner has crashed into a residential neighborhood. The actual, full-size 747 jet airliner fuselage is there, ripped in two, it’s tail section still intact, while its engines smolder in the ruins of the tract houses around it. It’s an impressive addition to the tour, and the trams slow down long enough to give the riders a good, long look at the set.

As I mentioned, the Universal tour is half history, half special-effects-extravaganza. So what about those f/x "extras"? Look out, because they never miss an opportunity to try to spice up the studio tour with a little "show", often when you least expect it.

Sometimes it works reasonably well - such as the "flash flood" in the "Old Mexico" section (which is so obviously fake that it’s actually fun). Other times it falls flat: such as the "Jurassic Park" velociraptors standing motionless at the side of the road when the tram passes through the studio’s "Greens Department" (an outside nursery).

But they don’t stop there. Employing the basic idea of a large sound stage, they have built-in several ambitious "rides" within the tour itself. The tram rolls through the open doors of a sound stage building, and guests suddenly find themselves face to face with a roaring "King Kong" (who looks rather fake, compared to his 2006 movie version), or find themselves inside a collapsing subway station during a 7.0 earthquake (which really rocks the tram).

There’s an entire "Amity" set - the small town where the movie "Jaws" took place. If you’re sitting in the front car on the right side, prepare to get wet when the shark suddenly pops up out of the water, gnashing its teeth - preceded by a bloody attack on a skin-diver and accompanied by exploding gas tanks.

They like both fire and water on this tour -- a lot.

Exploding balls of hot flame are featured in the Jaws section, Fast & Furious, King Kong, and Earthquake (not to mention off the tour, in the all-fire "Backdraft" walk-thru and the Waterworld show).

And you can get splashed (or squirted) with water in the Flash Flood section, Jaws , Earthquake, and the Jurassic Park ride (not to mention driving through a lake in the Red Sea (where they now have on display a Kong-sized miniature of the boat that took Jack Black & his crew to Skull Island)

A recent addition to the tram tour is "The Fast & Furious". I suppose it must have sounded good on paper: racecars would come out and then suddenly break out into dance - to hip-hop music. But in practice, heaven help us, the small show is dreadful. Basically, two tricked-up cars are bolted to giant robotic arms, and the arms simply pick up the cars and shake & spin them in front of the tram audience. The huge robotic arms are clearly visible (with no attempts to disguise them), so we end up looking more at the arms than the "dancing" cars. Sorry, but this one needs rethinking, guys.

And right before you leave, they run the tram through a tunnel where the walls revolve. If you have any tendency towards motion sickness, be sure to close your eyes during this experience - it can be very disorienting. A decade ago, it was a wintry tunnel themed to the movie "Avalanche". Now it’s themed to "The Mummy", and features a new surprise, an "attack" by scarab beetles (simulated by water droplets on your skin).

When I heard that Universal was going to add video displays to their trams, I thought it was a great idea. The screens could be used to show clips from the very movies that were shot on the sets guests were driving past, refreshing their memories and enriching the tour experience. Alas, it doesn’t work out quite that well in practice. The current video screens are rather small and somewhat dim out in the sunlight. Add to that the roar of the tram’s engines and the chatter of both the guests and the narrator, and I suspect that most of what goes on up on the video screens ends up getting lost in the shuffle. (One solution would be to replace the current screens with brighter, more vivid video displays.) However, it does allow Ron Howard to bookend the tram ride with nice speeches about the history of Universal.

The narration by the tour guides tends to be droll and tongue-in-cheek (think Disney’s "Jungle Cruise"). Half of the charm of this particular tour seems to be that it pokes fun at itself and at Hollywood fakery in general. None of the "adventures" one encounters along the way during the tour can be taken seriously (by anyone over the age of five) - and guests seem to enjoy laughing at the fake flash floods (where the trees automatically right themselves after each flood) and the lame "parting of the Red Sea" effect.

A few suggestions: Most of the special effects are aimed at people in the middle section of the long trams. If you sit in the very front or the very back, your view is limited (except for "Jaws", which favors the front section). Likewise, most of the best views are on the left side of the tram, not the right (with the exception of "King Kong", who appears on the right side). Whatever section you choose, the views (and photo ops) are best (and unobstructed) from the outside end of each row.

To avoid long lines to board the tram, take the tour early, when you first get to the park. Most other guests will be rushing off to see "Terminator 2: 3-D" or ride "The Mummy" roller coaster. Be warned that you can get a little wet during both the "Jaws" and the "Flash Flood" effects, especially if you are sitting in an end seat.



The VIP Tour

However, if you want a more authentic look at Universal Studios, and are willing to pay a lot more for it, you may be interested in Universal's new VIP Tour, a luxury version of the Universal Studios experience.

For $249 per person (compared to the usual $77 for a standard pass), you get a behind-the-scenes guided tour with access to previously "off-limits" areas of the studio. The tours are limited to no more than 15 people at a time (aboard private trolleys and on foot), and includes such extra perks as a continental breakfast at their VIP Lounge and tours of the studio's production areas. VIP guests get to visit sound stage sets from current TV productions such as Crossing Jordan, as well as the studio's huge prop department, the sound department, a house built especially to accommodate cameras for interior shots, etc. The six hour tour gives guests the chance to see how sets are built, how lighting is designed, how sound is added after filming, etc.

Perhaps best of all, unlike the standard Universal tour, where guests are stuck on the giant tram for the whole tour, the VIP tour allows guests to get off their small trolley and walk among the sets, such as War of the Worlds and Psycho, and along the streets where movies such as Back to the Future, Spartacus, and Frankenstein were filmed. And I'm told that the VIP tour guides are very well informed. (I haven't taken the VIP tour yet, so I'll have to take their word on that.)

And back in the theme park area, the VIP tour also gives you escorted front of the line privileges, that lets you go straight to the head of the line for all of the park's rides (such as Jurassic Park and the Mummy roller coaster), and gives you reserved seating at all the shows such as Waterworld and Terminator 2: 3-D (including behind-stage meet & greet with the shows' performers). You also get unlimited food service at the park's cafes. They even let you see an Oscar statuette up-close... Looks like they've tried to pull out all the stops.

It's a nice way to be pampered and see a lot more than the average tourist - if you can afford it. Space is very limited on the tours, so you need to book reservations ahead for this one, since space is limited. You can phone the VIP Tour office at (818) 622-5120, or you can make reservations online, at www.UniversalStudiosHollywood.com.



(Oh yes, one of the best attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood doesn't even charge admission. The Universal CityWalk is a delight. Also see the separate page about the history of Universal Pictures.)

Parking: $16 (until 3 PM, when it drops to $10), with both outdoor parking lots and indoor parking structures. Expect a fairly long walk back from the parking structures (through CityWalk) to the main gate. Preferred parking is $20. (Parking can be free with an annual pass.)

Admission Price:

    Ages 10+: $92.00
    Ages 3-9 : $84.00

    (Children under 3 are free.)

    (all prices + 2% tax)

     (There is usually a special 20% seasonal discount for California residents from March through early May.)

    For $179, you can buy a "Star Pass," which includes unlimited free admission to the park for an entire year and free parking. (That's actually an excellent bargain, considering that Disneyland charges $699 for their best annual pass with parking.) Without the parking, a Universal season pass is just $119 (or $139 if you insist on no blackout dates).

    The VIP Experience is currently $299 - $329. (Higher prices during holiday periods.)

    (Prices current as of early December 2014. Click here for today's prices or to buy tickets online.)

Hours: Open daily (except Christmas & Thanksgiving.)  Park hours vary a lot, so be sure to check before your visit. In general, the usual winter hours are 10 AM to 5 PM. /  In the summer, the usual hours are 9 AM to 8 PM. / In the fall, it's usually 10 AM to 7 PM. That's for weekdays - they usually stay open an extra hour on weekends. Phone for details and updates. (Click here for an updated calendar of their hours.)

 Getting there: From Hollywood, take the Hollywood (101) Freeway north to the Universal Studios Boulevard offramp, and follow the signs up the hill to the parking lot.


[For more information on this subject, you can access Universal's official website at:
http://www.universalstudios.com.]


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Copyright © 2014-Gary Wayne
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