June 06, 2021

Photo Essay: The Ever-Evolving Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour, 2021 Edition

I'd been to Universal Studios Hollywood twice as a tourist since 2015—but they were both at night, which meant I felt like I was missing out on the daytime experience. 

Especially when it came to the actual studio tour. 

You see, while other studio tours may put you on a tram (like Warner), the tram that takes you through the backlot of Universal is more like an actual theme park ride. 

And you have to buy a ticket for—and pass entirely through—the Universal-themed amusement park in order to get to it. 

Along the way, you pass by several homages to the past of filmmaking...

...including some screen-used cars...

...and a courtyard dedicated to Hollywood producer Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures in 1912. 

Laemmle also established Universal City, currently an LA unincorporated area (not a city) surrounded by the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank. 

And it was Laemmle who first invited the public to come visit Universal to watch productions being filmed on the backlot—the earliest predecessor to the current studio tour that officially started in its current location in 1964 and still runs today. 

All the way at the far end of the park, past The Simpsons-themed Springfield "land," is the grand entrance to the Studio Tour, where you take escalators down to a lower level...

...and wait in line to board a tram that takes you on a driving route through the front and back lots (but also on something that feels like, well, a ride).

It starts out traditionally enough, taking you past soundstages in the "front lot" that have given rise to many beloved TV series...

formerly Stage 27

... such as The Voice (currently airing on the NBC network, part of NBCUniversal)...

...Emergency!, Crossing JordanHeroes, and more. 

One Day at a Time shot at Stage 43 for nine years, while the TV series Coach shot there for eight. 

While studio tour visitors aren't likely to see any real-lie celebrities or visit any "hot sets" anymore, we did get greeted by the famous martini-swilling teddy bear from the movie Ted (and got spat on by some animatronic dinosaurs a few minutes later). 

Nor any glimpses of any famous directors or producers (like Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard) coming out of their offices, now housed in former bungalow dressing rooms for stars like Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day. But Bungalow #5195 still bears the signature silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock, whose office once occupied it.

Farther along the tram path, there are the fa├žades normally associated with a studio "backlot" (like those of its famous "New York Street")...

...which don't have much to show for from behind.   

In addition to the vehicles on display troughout the rest of the amusement park at Universal Hollywood, there's also a section of the studio tour devoted to "Universal Picture Cars"... ones from the Back to the Future franchise, the Fast and Furious franchise...

...and Jurassic Park

The "Jurassic Park cars" are just a precursor to an interactive foray into the Isla Nublar set from the first film in the series (or "saga," as they call it)...

...and there are some highlights from the Jurassic World reboot as well. 

But it's best to keep moving, in case the dinosaurs get agitated with your trespassing. 

So, the tram moves along to the "Old Mexico" village...

...where movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Three Amigos, and Nacho Libre have been shot (as well as Janet Jackson's "Escapade" music video).

The tour has definitely evolved over the years. The "Red Sea" no larger "parts" (in the middle of Park Lake, where Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed), and the tram no longer drives across a bridge during mid-collapse,  but there are still plenty of practical effects that still dazzle today. 

One minute it's raining (with raindrops bigger than normal so you can see them on camera), and the next it's flash flooding. 

The left side of the tram is definitely the "splash zone," as you're pummeled by 10,000 gallons of recycled water. 

But before you know it, the flood subsides, and you're headed down John Wayne Road and off to Six Points Texas, where the livery building dates back to the silent film era. 

Today's Western Street (actually one of six, all connected by Six Points Texas) is more contemporary—and is located farther "back" than the western sets originally were (although Denver street is in its original location). 

That's where you can find all the old hotels, saloons, banks, dress shops, etc.—one on each of the six streets. 

All the old movie cowboys shot around here—as did Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple and Leonardo di Caprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  

More practical effects await visitors in Stage 50 ("the only split-level soundstage in the world"), where an 8.3-magnitude earthquake was recreated for the 1974 release of Earthquake. 

The current version has been at Stage 50 since 1989, and it's still spectacular! (And an identical experience whether it's day or night, since it's inside.)

From an exploding tanker truck to a deluge of water from God-knows-where...

...the "San Francisco" subway station is a disaster scene with plenty of pyrotechnics that you can easily escape from. 

The Amity Harbor/Village area of Universal's backlot opened after the 1975 release of Jaws, though the Steven Spielberg film wasn't shot here—but actually on location at Martha's Vineyard.

The practical effects here include watching an underwater shark tear a mannequin scuba diver to bits...

...and then try to attack the tram. 

But here in "Jaws Lake," the shark—nicknamed Bruce—just moseys along the right side of the tram, looking for a more unsuspecting victim. 

Jaws Lake wasn't the filming location for Jaws, but it has appeared on screen—when it doubled as Cabot Cove, Maine for Murder, She Wrote. 

Just around the bend is Dolly Parton's "Chicken Ranch" from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas...

...and the homes that comprise Colonial Street...

...perhaps best known as Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives.

Another actual filming location on the Universal backlot is the Bates Motel from Psycho...

...and the mansion up the hill, lovingly referred to as the "Psycho House." 

Both are original to the 1964 opening of the studio tour, when the 2-sided Psycho House used in the film was completed to have four sides.  

Amazingly, the 2005 set for Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds starring Tom Cruise is still intact—and still smoking from the 747 plane crash!

The film crew used a real commercial Boeing 747, which they'd acquired from the Mojave Desert...

...and after tearing it apart for just a few short minutes of the film...

...they left it there...

...passenger cabin exposed...

...and tail flung across the other side of the tram road.

When I took the nighttime studio tour in 2015, I missed the debut of its new grand finale, Fast and Furious—Supercharged, by less than a month. It's a wrap-around video experience that's impossible to photograph, so you'll just have to go see it for yourself. 

I'll admit I wish King Kong hadn't been converted to 3D (for me, it just wasn't a great experience that way) and that I could see the practical animatronic version designed by Disney imagineer Bob Gurr. (Stay tuned for more on him sometime in the future.)

But this is probably my favorite studio tour of them all—even though maybe it's the least authentic

Yet you really get to experience "movie magic" at Universal, even if it's at a pace that's a little too quick to see anything super-close or for any extended period of time. 

And even if you know that it's likely to change every few years. (Stage 28, featuring the Phantom of the Opera opera house set, was tragically demolished in 2014 for the expansion of the theme park.)

You also have to wait for it, like you would any other ride. When I went upon the park's reopening after COVID-19 closures, the wait for the studio tour tram was 80 minutes. (It had jumped to 2 hours by the time I disembarked the tram.)

Fortunately, while you're standing in the line that snakes around for what seems like infinity, the video program they play for you is very good and actually quite interesting—with movie montages, celebrity interviews, and more.

Thanks to Miles, our tour guide, who kept us safe from a shark attack and Norman Bates. 

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