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What's it like to take the Warner Bros. studio tour?

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Published: June 24, 2013 at 9:24 PM

Universal's Studio Tour isn't the only option for fans who want to see "backstage" at a working film and television studio in the Los Angeles area. While Universal's iconic tour is the most popular — and certainly the most familiar to theme park fans — other studios in the area also offer tours of their facilities to the public.

This week, my family and I took the "VIP Tour" at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, just up Barham Blvd. from Universal Studios Hollywood.

VIP Tour sign

At $52 per person for a two-hour tour, it's not cheap. But the Warner Bros. tour delivers a level of backstage access that long ago disappeared from the Universal tour, as well as an opportunity to get close to some of the icons from Warner Bros.' recent history.

You'll see some of those icons represented in the merchandise for sale in the studio's VIP Tour lobby, which offers T-shirts and more from the studio's DC Comics, Looney Tunes, recent TV shows including The Big Bang Theory, and… Harry Potter.

Harry Potter merchandise

It might be a bit of surprise for theme park fans to see this selection of Harry Potter wands, robes, scarves and other souvenirs here, given the presence of Universal Studios down the street, but let's not forget that it's from Warner Bros. that Universal's licensed the theme park rights to Harry Potter. (In fact, Warner Bros. has created an entire Harry Potter-themed attraction around its Leavesden studios in England, where the eight Potter movies were filmed.) You'll get some time with Potter on the Burbank tour, however, and not just in the studio store. (Keep reading!)

Tours leave every 15 minutes between 8am and 4pm, and you can grab a drink or a gelato at the Starbucks in the lobby while you wait for your tour time to be called. After watching a short film introducing the studio and its history, you're escorted by the ever-friendly Warner Bros. hosts onto 12-person trams (elongated golf carts, really) for your tour of the studio property, where still photography is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Taking pictures

The tour begins with a trip around the back lot, where you'll get a wide view of scenes you typically seen in much tighter frames. This street's been everywhere from New York to Theme Park Insider's hometown of Pasadena, California (which also serves as the setting for The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn't know).

Backlot street set

Here's the ambulance bay for ER, for those who remember that NBC hit.

ER set

And my favorite moment from the backlot, the last surviving original exterior on the lot from Warner Bros.' Casablanca, according to our tour guide.

Casablanca set

At several points in the tour, you get to leave the trams and walk around. Here, we explore the studio's auto museum, home to several Batmobiles…

Batmobiles

…And a Ford Anglia from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (So which is the one from the film, this one, or the one in the Dragon Challenge queue in Orlando? I'm just going to presume that they used more than one in filming.)

Ford Anglia

Later, we got a chance to hang out for a moment on the Central Perk coffee house set, from the TV series Friends. Most of the production on the lot is of TV shows, as so much primary shooting for films is done on location these days.

Central Perk

The only places we couldn't take pictures were inside soundstages for current productions. So I can't bring you photos of the Ellen talk show set, or from the sets of The Big Bang Theory and Pretty Little Liars, which we got to walk through during our tour. At each stop, though, our guide offered a description of what we were seeing, an introduction to the production process and offered to answer any questions we might have. Our guide also worked as a production assistant on one of the shows, so he brought the perspective of a studio production employee to the tour, instead of simply reading a canned tour script.

We took the tour on a weekend, when there's no production on the lot, which turns out to be a good thing for site-seeing, as production rules will keep tours out of any soundstages where filming is happening. By visiting on a weekend, or during the summer when almost all TV production stops, you get access to more soundstages than you would during the height of production season. If you want to see live filming, you're better off skipping the tour and obtaining free tickets to a show taping instead. (Or, better yet, do both!)

The final stop on the tour was another no-picture zone, and unfortunately for your enjoyment of this post, it was the absolute highlight of the entire experience for me and my family.

Warner Bros. Museum

It's the Warner Bros. Museum, where you can see costumes and props from many recent Warner Bros. productions, including my son's favorite movie, Inception, as well as the Dark Knight trilogy, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Argo, and, occupying the entire second floor of the museum, costumes and props from the Harry Potter films.

And… it's time for the Niles Family nerdgasm. Harry's wand. Horcruxes. Dobby. A quidditch set. A life-sized wax cast of Emma Watson as Hemione Granger, frozen by the Basilisk. Costumes worn by Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Draco, Lucius, Arthur, Molly, Fred, George, Dumbledore. The list of artifacts here goes on and on and on. The 20 minutes we were allowed here vaporized like one of Snape's potions, leaving us wishing that we'd made time for that trip to Leavesden when we were in London last summer.

If two hours isn't enough to satisfy your curiosity, Warner Bros. also offers a $250 per person, five-hour "Deluxe Tour", which includes a chance to meet with working crew members as well as lunch in the studio commissary.

Have you ever been on one of the "other" studio tours in the Los Angeles area, or the Warner Bros. tour in England? If so, please share your thoughts about them in the comments.

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Readers' Opinions

From cynthia henisey on June 24, 2013 at 10:13 PM
Thanks for the input. I remember reading a negative review of that tour a few years ago so we've never bothered. Maybe this year we'll give it a try.
From Jack Partridge on June 25, 2013 at 2:52 AM
Other than visiting the Big Bang Theory set, I prefer the Leavesdon Studios. The Hogwarts castle at the end of the tour is breathtaking as is entering the studio via the Great Hall. Truly an amazing experience. With them also expanding with Dark Knight and James Bond memorabilia, the studio is fast becoming the best place to see props from billion pound franchises anywhere in the world.
From Jonathan Noble on June 25, 2013 at 3:27 AM
We went to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London last summer and it was completely fantastic - an absolute must for any Potter fan. I've gone so far as to say that it's the best single attraction in the UK.

The tour has so many highlights, and even when you feel like it might be running dry, it grabs you again and finishes on such an emotional note that I saw many a grown-up having a little weep. (Don't do too much research before you go - it's better that you don't know what's coming up round the corner.)

Even a colleague who wasn't especially interested but was dragged along by his wife was completely taken in and told me that they couldn't wait to go back again.

From Russell Meyer on June 25, 2013 at 6:49 AM
We did the WB tour quite a few years back. The WB set is very active, and if you look carefully, you will see many of their permanent backdrops used all of the time on commercials and exteriors for many TV shows. Their New York set is probably one of the most filmed cityscapes in Hollywood.

I did like the Sony/Columbia tour a little better than the WB tour, but it's really just a matter of taste. On the Sony tour, we got to walk through the "Angels and Deamons" Sistine Chapel set on the Sony tour, which I thought was far more impressive than the "Two and a Half Men" set on the WB lot. The route of the tours is contantly changing because of the activity on the studios, so what you may be allowed to see on Monday at 2 PM will be dramatically different from where the tour goes on Thursday at 10 AM. However, you should always try to do a tour on a weekday (Monday-Thursday), because that's when the sets are the most active.

We have yet to do the Paramount tour, but have heard it's similar, but it is the "grandaddy" of the bunch.

From Daniel Etcheberry on June 25, 2013 at 7:33 AM
I took this tour a few years ago. I felt sorry for the tour guide who had to hook and unhook my wheelchair every time we stopped.

I love movies, but I was disappointed because it's mostly TV which I barely watch.

From Kelly Muggleton on June 25, 2013 at 8:07 AM
Sidebar (whats new for me) - the Potter tour in London is excellent! I would highly recommend it.
Although this WB tour looks amazing! I want to sit in Central Perk!!!!!
From 81.106.26.169 on June 25, 2013 at 12:07 PM
Highlight of my recent trip to LA!
From Russell Meyer on June 25, 2013 at 12:35 PM
Daniel:

The tour is constantly changing, and unfortunately since TV shows are always filming, especially at the WB lot which produces a wide variety of popular shows, they are typically the highlights of the tour. You could always ask the tour guide ahead of time if there are any cold movie sets that can be included in the tour.

We were on the tour with just 4 other guests (we did it in October on a weekday), so through me asking lots of questions, the guide tailored the tour to parts of the lot that would be more interesting to us. Ultimately, it does come down to what parts of the lot are available to tours, and if the studio is really busy, there can be a lot of hot sets that are strictly prohibited to tourists. Also, the increasing level of secrecy that directors and producers are putting into their production makes visiting a set from an upcoming major motion picture virtually impossible. With decreasing sound stage space and high demand, sets are torn down almost immediately following the wrap so the next production can start constructing their sets.

As long as a TV show is not actively filming, their sets stay in one place as long as the show stays in production...So unfortunately, Hollywood studio tours are going to focus more on those when touring the soundstages. Additionally, more and more major movies and TV shows are doing principle photography on location due to tax incentives and to lower production costs. Even big effects-laden productions are shifting a lot of shooting to real locations instead of building intricate sets on Hollywood soundstages. Depending on where you live, you probably have a better chance seeing a moving filming in your closest major city than you do at a Hollywood studio.

From steve lee on June 25, 2013 at 3:46 PM
We switched from the WB tour to the Sony tour precisely because of my disinterest in television stages. Thanks for confirming that, Russell.

Loving these SoCal sidetrip reviews, Robert. We're there for ten days next month so every bit of intel helps.

From Mike Gallagher on June 25, 2013 at 3:51 PM
I enjoyed reading this immensely, Robert, and I don't always read or enjoy articles like this. But your writing style is entertaining. I must admit, though, I was surprised to see "Hermione" not only spelled incorrectly twice, but two different ways!! Typos, I'm sure ;)
From Rachelle Beaney on June 25, 2013 at 6:54 PM
I LOVE this tour! It's amazing and a lot better than Universal's quasi Ride 'Studio Tour'! Warner Brothers have rights to many of my favourite shows and movies though so I may be bias! Just a quick questions Robert, were you told you could sit on the couch or did you just do it? When we went into the Central Perk set we were told we couldnt sit on the couch or touch it! Maybe we had a different guide but i've read a few other places on the internet that your generally not allowed to sit on the couch! I really wanted to and we are going on the tour again in November so i'm hoping I get whatever guide you had!
From 96.229.225.50 on June 25, 2013 at 9:34 PM
If you are young (or unemployed) and live in LA the best way to see the studio is to get a job as a delivery driver in the summer. I suggest you only do this for about a month because the pay is terrible and you will ruin your car.

BUT...

You get a ton of access to people and places that you cant get anyway else (other than being a star).

I only did it for one month, but in that time I got to got to all the major studios, Bob Hopes house, Casey Kasem's house, and plenty of other fancy houses in the hills, pacific palisades, and beverly hills.

The best day was when I had to deliver some pots and pans (I think they were props) to the Universal Lot. The security at the studios is pretty tight to get on the lot, but once you are on its like they dont care where you go. I couldnt find the "sound stage" (It was just a trailer) I was looking for so I just wandered around for about 30 minutes. It was a friday so there was no filming and no one noticed me. It was like a private tour. Once I finally found the place I was looking for the PAs and other production staff were the nicest people I had ever delivered too and made a miserable day a work pretty great. They helped me find my next location which was a production bungalow on the other side of the lot. All the major directors have bungalows there and it was great to see where their teams do a lot of their work (the directors arent their themselves I assume).

Fox, Universal, and WB are the lots that have working outdoor sets. I have seen the Fox and Universal ones and can identify them on TV with ease now. WB has an outside drop off for deliveries so I never got on that lot, which was a bummer. These pictures were great to finally see some of it.

From Robert Niles on June 26, 2013 at 4:50 PM
After telling us not to go on the carpeted area on the Friends set, our guide volunteered to take pictures of each group on the couch, for those wanted to sit there. We jumped on it before he finished talking!

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