Sunday, May 10, 2015

Photo Essay: The Treasures of an LA Tourist Trap, Universal Studios

There's so much to do in LA, it's easy to ignore the obvious. It's a common practice in big cities on both coasts: I lived in NYC for 14 years and have never been to the Statue of Liberty.

And sometimes when you live in a city, you want to feel cooler than the tourists – especially in a hidden city like LA, where there's a certain prestige to knowing all the best places to go that aren't listed on Yelp or Zagat's. But my interests and tastes are so broad, I want to do everything in LA, no matter how cheesy or touristy.

I'd been to Six Flags Magic Mountain. I'd conquered Knott's Scary Farm and Knott's Merry Farm. I'd taken studio tours of Warner Brothers and Sony. It was time for me to finally see what all the fuss was about at Universal Studios Hollywood.



Oh my God. Believe the hype.



I know I'm a big kid and love amusement parks and Halloween and Christmas, but this place is absolutely incredible. The studio tour drives you through the massive front lot, back lot, and even into one of the sound stages – past lakes and beaches and floods and fires, through a military installation and a 747 crash site in a New Jersey town and the Bates Motel and Wisteria Lane and oh my God who knew it would be so exciting?! (My only criticism: photos are nearly impossible on a moving tram, especially at night, and there aren't enough pauses and no opportunities to actually walk up to anything.)



This place is so absolutely gigantic, from the upper lot to the lower lot, it's no wonder it takes up an entire "city" (though it's really just an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County), with its own neon promotional letters mounted on its own hillside. Because they actually make movies here, Universal Studios a strange hybrid experience of studio tour and amusement park, with a Jurassic Park flume ride, a Mummy-themed mini-rollercoaster, and 3D motion simulator rides that transport you into the virtual reality of The Simpsons or the Minions or Shrek. And that's all I'll say, because a lot of the genius lies in the unexpected.



That's something that's true for much of LA.



Universal Studios Hollywood also has its own version of Downtown Disney – a nightlife and shopping destination to keep visitors occupied and spending money long after the park closes.



It features some usual tourist-friendly establishments, all bathed in dazzling neon, giving it a bit of a throwback vibe that still exists on Hollywood Boulevard and Broadway. But beyond the Hard Rock Cafe and the Starbucks, the popcorn and the candy, there are some hidden treasures also glowing in plain view – if you know where to look up.



The Museum of Neon Art placed some of their rescued and restored signs at Universal CityWalk back in 1993 when it first opened, expecting that they would stay there at least five years. The neon "Indians" from Holmes Tuttle Pontiac on LaBrea still hang above what is now a Guess store.



There's the famous neon sign from the facade of the Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset in Hollywood (now the Nickelodeon on Sunset stage facility)...



...the 20-foot Steele's Motel sign from Van Nuys in the 1950s...



...and the vintage sign from the former Condes' Restaurant in Gardena, built in 1960.



Even modern neon has such a great retro vintage feel...



...and makes CityWalk feel less like a mall and more like a destination...



...maybe like the Sunset Strip or Vegas Strip from long ago, or even Fremont Street now.



Plenty of local businesses and icons are represented here...



....but it's also fun to see big corporate national chains get in on the action with their own modern neon...



...like The Flame Broiler...



...Bucca di Beppo...



...Cinnabon...



...Johnny Rockets...



...Panda Express...



...Bubba Gump (kudos for the neon shrimp and spinning sign)...



...Ben & Jerry's...



...Yum Brands...



...and even Subway, looking like a bonafide casino.



I'd actually been to CityWalk twice before – once during the day for a business meeting, and another for a friend's show – but I'd never really seen it before.

I was initially drawn to Universal Studios for the studios themselves, but once I got there, I loved the whole thing. It was only by chance and good fortune that I was able to go this time – and brave enough to go by myself. Now I've got to figure out how I can go back.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Fremont Street Experience, Vegas
Photo Essay: The Collection of the Museum of Neon Art, In Storage
Photo Essay: Neon Boneyard At Night
Photo Essay: The Neon of LA, and Its One Darkened Dragon