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Tram Studio Tour and Theme Park

Jaws Attack Universal Studios Tram Tour photoUniversal wasn’t the first movie studio to offer a tour of its sound stages and back lot, but it was the first to turn the movie studio tour into an amusement park. The tour at Universal has expanded over 30 years into a sprawling complex of entertainment, special effects and character performance shows spread over the hillside which rises above the movie studio itself which Carl Laemmle founded, created famous monsters and the disaster film. Movie studios are actually glorified lumber yards, where crews and actors move in for a while to create some movie magic, living in trailers, then depart once again to leave the sound stages to truck drivers and set carpenters.

Tour Universal car and motel photoThe tour itself is a narrated tram ride through the back lot with pauses and stops at automatic effects and through former film sets, left behind from movies shot on the lot, the debris of famous directors. The Bates Motel and mom’s house from Psycho left behind by Alfred Hitchcock was the first and still the most recognized icon. Riding on a tram through the streets of the back lot it’s possible to spot a famous actor or director cross the street in a brief flash, but just in case, the tour has seeded some spots along the route with cast performers dressed to look like a movie character. You’ll sure catch Norman Bates stuffing a body in a trunk outside his motel, before the tram heads up past the house, which you’ll discover is only ¾ scale.

The European street, seen in countless TV shows and movies supposed to be in the old towns of Europe was built for the Louis Milestone 1930 Oscar winning version of the WWI epic “All Quiet on the Western Front”, but possible most familiar with villagers carrying pitchforks in a handful of Frankenstein monster classics and Mel Brook's farcical revisit to Young Frankenstein (see Mary Shelley Frankenstein Memoirs). Steven Spielberg has contributed the most to the delights of the tour. Bruce the Shark from Jaws swims in the Amityville harbor pool most recognized from the Angela Landsbury 70s TV show “Murder She Wrote”, taking a swipe with his gnashing teeth at the tram stuck on a shaking bridge (sit on the right side of the tram for the tooth shot), the debris left behind from the 747 crash of the Spielberg version of “War of the Worlds” with Tom Cruise, litters the wooded back reaches of the property. Ron Howard has contributed the capsule from “Apollo 13” and the soon to open Whoville from “The Grinch”. The newest attraction on the tour, currently making appearances in an ad campaign near you, is the new King Kong. The former mechanical giant gorilla from the 70’s movie was destroyed in the studio lot fire a couple of years ago, so Peter Jackson was asked to add a sequence to his King Kong with Jack Black for use in the 3-D 360 stop on the tram ride where visitors put on 3D glasses for a full surround rear projection screen bad breath up-close fight to the death between the King of the Apes and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, making maximum use of hydraulics and spatial disorientation for a quite thrilling two minutes.

The actual tram tour is only a portion of the Universal Studios Hollywood experience. The campus of amusements would take a full three days to experience, not as big as Disneyland, but rivaling in scope. Some of the other premier attractions:

Jurassic Park

Dinosaur Universal; Hollywood photoIn the lower lot, another Spielberg contribution, an outdoor river ride through the world of cloned dinosaurs, entering the giant gates of the fictional Jurassic Park where failing systems has allowed the dinosaurs to run loose, eating their handlers and spitting water at the passing boat of park visitors, ending in a rise through the dark DNA lab about to explode, just missed by an attacking Tyrannosaur before plunging into the last splash. Probably the best ride in the park, though why getting spit on by an angry venomous Dilophosaurus is entertaining would take a psychologist to figure out.

Waterworld Stunt Show

Waterworld Stunts photoThe biggest show in the park, where you will also get wet, depending on where you sit. The amphitheater with explosions roaring speed boats and falling stunt men was first built for a Miami Vice stunt show. The post-apocalyptic “Waterworld” with Kevin Kostner was a very expensive flop of an action movie, but perfect for a water based stunt show, and has made its budget back by entertaining amusement park visitors. Avoid the green seats on the lower rows if getting splashed is not your thing, but by all means sit up close if it is. Your eyebrows will get a toasting from the big explosion at the finale.

Terminator 2: 3D
The Terminator movie franchise goes through new incarnations and Arnold Schwarzenegger has passed through the governor’s mansion and tabloids, but in this theater show of firing guns and mechanical cyborgs, John Conner is still a teenager and the Terminator a leather jacketed motorcycle riding avenger. A mix of 3D movie and now you see it now you don’t sleight of hand the characters go in and out of the movie, as you’re trying to figure out the magic.

Shrek 4D

Shreck $D Show sign photoThe green ogre, Shrek, Princess Fiona and Donkey entertain in another theater show mixing 3D movie and effects in a newer more young children family friendly performance comedy act. Other characters and shows include The Simpsons, The Blues Brothers, Animal Actors, Universal classic horror monsters Frankenstein and the Wolfman in the House of Horrors show, and the Mummy ride through the dark mystery thrills of spooky ancient Egypt. For the more staid not-so-thrill seeking movie buff, on the lower lot, tucked in the back the NBC Universal museum exhibit features authentic props, photographs, wardrobe and artifacts from actual movies from Universal’s film legacy.

Front of the Line Pass
For some special attention and to get through the park a bit quicker, Universal Studios Hollywood offers a priority pass, for which you get to go to the front of the line for preferential seating, and at a number of shows stay after to meet the performers and get a behind the scenes look at how the magic is done.

All You Can Eat
Meals at the food stands can be pretty pricey, no escaping if you get hungry, and in case you get a hankering to actually eat something called Donkey’s Waffles or Doc Brown’s Chicken. The park offers an All You Can Eat Pass which can save some money with a family brood of voracious “mommy I’m hungry” Velociraptors to feed.

Vistiting Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal Studios Tour Entrance photoUniversal Studios Hollywood is not exactly in Hollywood, but just over the hill, a five minute drive through the Cahuenga Pass on the Hollywood Freeway in its own actual postal zone Universal City. Tickets are pricey. $74 for General Admission (which actally gets you and annual pass in 2011), $66 for under 48 inches, intended for children but techically includes “little people” and I suppose, Gnomes. A Front of the Line Pass is $119 and VIP $249. You can also get a combo ticket which includes Sea World in San Diego. The Universal Studios Tram Tour requires a ticket for the whole amusement park. The Universal City Walk shopping, restaurants and entertainment zone is outside the park and does not require a ticket (see City Walk Awesome Date). The park entrance and ticket booths are through the City Walk, look for the big Universal Globe. Parking the Universal Studios Hollywood is in lots up the hill from Lankershim Blvd or its own entrance directly off the 101 freeway. Or if staying in the real Hollywood, you can ride the subway metro line from the Hollywood & Highland center (see Hollywood & Highland). © Bargain Travel West

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