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Theme Park History: A short history of Universal Studios Hollywood

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Published: July 15, 2013 at 7:48 PM

Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle opened his 230-acre Universal City ranch on March 15, 1915, offering visitors the chance to walk around his outdoor movie studio, located just north of Los Angeles, and to watch the filming. Admission was just 25 cents, with a chicken boxed lunch available for just a nickel extra. The original Universal Studio Tour provided a nice little side income for the movie studio until the studios began adding sound to their movies, and Laemmle had to close the studio to the not-very-quiet public, to provide a soundproof environment for filming.

Universal reopened its lot to visitors in 1961, outsourcing the tours to the Gray Line bus company. But, following a feasibility study by Buzz Price — the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World — Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened on July 15, 1964.

Universal Studios Hollywood

For $2.50 each, visitors rode pink-and-white striped "GlamorTrams" around the studio's back lot, with stops to see a collection of costumes designed by Edith Head, a makeup demonstration, a walk through a star's dressing room, a western stunt show, and — the big money maker for Universal — to buy themselves lunch at the studio commissary. The next year, the studio tour entrance moved to the park's current entrance on the Upper Lot of Universal City, and Universal built an arena for the western stunt show.

Universal Studios Hollywood opened with a very lean staff, just a couple of tram drivers, another couple of tour guides, a ticket seller and contracted stunt men for the show. To keep labor costs down while adding more entertainment for visitors, Universal started using audience volunteers to play roles in various scenes throughout the tour. That began a tradition of audience interactivity that eventually spread not just to other Universal theme parks, but to parks run by Disney, SeaWorld and others throughout the industry, as well.

(In 1974, I "got my start in show business" by playing a freckle-faced, six-year-old boy riding a San Francisco-style cable car in a fake Rice-a-Roni commercial "filmed" during the Universal Studio Tour. The part was a real stretch for me, being a freckle-faced, six-year-old boy at the time.)

Filming schedules forced Universal to change the tour trams' route through the backlot, on almost a daily basis, an operational consideration that continues to this day. To keep up the entertainment value of the tour (even on the days when filming closed much of the backlot), and to compete with Disneyland, Universal began adding fixed attractions during the tour, starting with the flash flood scene in 1968, the parting of the Red Sea (from The Ten Commandments) in 1973, the collapsing bridge in 1974, and the Ice Tunnel in 1975. (Today, that special effects tunnel at the end of the tour is themed to The Mummy.)

Jaws

In 1976, Universal added what would become its biggest tour attraction to that date: Jaws. Based on Steven Spielberg's break-out hit from the previous year, Jaws recreated the village of Amity from the movie, with a 25-foot animatronic shark emerging from the water to attack the tram. An immediate hit, Jaws created the template for future big-budget, dedicated Studio Tour attractions based on enduring Universal films. In 1986, Universal added an even bigger attraction, installing King Kong in a 26,000-square-foot New York-themed soundstage. The Kong animatronic, the largest in the world at the time, was built by Bob Gurr, who also created most of the ride vehicles for Disneyland. And in 1988, Universal added its third iconic Studio Tour attraction, Earthquake: The Big One, another themed soundstage, where the trams shook and bobbed during a simulated 8.3 San Francisco earthquake.

Starting with the Castle Dracula theater in 1980 (now the home of the Special Effects Stage show), Universal added new attractions to the Upper Lot over the years to complement the Studio Tour, continuing the park's evolution from tour to full-day theme park. And in 1991, Universal Studios Hollywood expanded onto the Lower Lot, with the opening of a quarter-mile series of escalators connecting the top and bottom of the mountain upon which Universal City was built. Today, the Lower Lot is home to the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Revenge of the Mummy and 2012's Theme Park Insider Award winner for Best New Attraction, Transformers: The Ride 3D.

Transformers: The Ride 3D

Outside the park's gates, Universal opened CityWalk in 1993, providing a blueprint for a new generation of themed shopping and dining experiences, such as The Grove in Los Angeles' Fairfax District, not to mention the West Side and Downtown Disney from rival Disney.

Today, Universal has just begun a $1-billion-plus transformation of the theme park and its surrounding property. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will take over a large portion of the Upper Lot, while Gru and the Minions of Despicable Me will move into the space formerly occupied by the Terminator 2 show. As part of what Universal is calling its "Evolution Plan," the company also will be building new hotels, a new entrance to the park, a hub-like "Central Park" on the site of the old Stunt Show theater, a new loading area for the Studio Tour and new attractions on the sites of the Castle Dracula and Waterworld stunt show theaters. Despicable Me and its surrounding Super Silly Fun Land will open sometime in 2014, with no opening dates yet announced for the other new developments in and around the park.

Up next: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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Readers' Opinions

From Mike Gallagher on July 16, 2013 at 3:31 AM
That was great!! I've never been to USH, the result of one of the worst decisions of my life. In 1979, when I was 14, my mom and I took an 18-day, cross-country bus trip. I don't know if I'd do it again, but I'm glad to have done it once. As a 14 y.o., I got to see the Grand Canyon, Vegas, Reno, Chicago, and other points of interest.

When we were in L.A., all participants on the tour were given the choice of a day at Disneyland or a day at Universal Studios. We made the mistake of opting for Disneyland. I don't know why..it's certainly not what I would do in hindsight. I was disappointed with DL, having already been to DW twice and loved it. So USH is kinda the "fish that got away" for me. I did meet a cool girl at Disney that I communicated with for several years, so I guess it wasn't a TOTAL loss.

From Nick McKaig on July 16, 2013 at 5:10 AM
How interesting! I was able to visit the park in 2010 and remembered thinking that the park could use an overhaul to really attract guests to the park. At the time I visited, the tram tour and Mummy were the most engaging experiences, and compared to the Mummy ride in Orlando that contains real fire effects this seemed quite tame. Harry Potter and a range of other new experiences would make me actually consider taking the trip back out to California for once!
From David Ackerman on July 16, 2013 at 6:07 AM
> Universal began adding fixed attractions during the tour, > starting with the flash food scene in 1968

Did this scene feature ham sandwiches?

Hey, you made my morning...

From Tracy Bates on July 16, 2013 at 6:46 AM
Universal orlando is so much better than hollywood other than the backlot tour. For the things that are in both places, the orlando version is better. the mummy doesn't have the fire effects or the middle of the ride fakeout with the fake unloading station or anything.

Also, the food was particularly bad at the two restaurants at USH. One of them couldn't even tell us what the desert was. It was new so it wasn't on the menu and none of the people working even knew what was in it.

From Mike Gallagher on July 16, 2013 at 7:25 AM
Tracy said: "One of them couldn't even tell us what the desert was."

It's a big area with sand. But that's not important right now. :)

From Anon Mouse on July 16, 2013 at 8:18 AM
Your review brought a lot of old memories back. I remembered when it started out with the Tram tour. It was the first thing you lined up for. It took you to the lower levels where you visited the offices and makeup rooms of the stars. I visited Lucille Ball's old offices. Then there was the break area. After your break where you can tour around at your own pace and get a snack. You can resume your tour for the second half. On the conclusion of the tour, you can see the rest of the show attractions on the upper level.

The park to this day is a half day experience. My hope is the park becomes a full day experience after Harry Potter is added, but it is more likely, it will be a 3/4 day park.

I'm glad the Jaws attractions still remains here. Time for a revival of the old movie especially with the "Sharknado" buzz.

From Mike Gallagher on July 16, 2013 at 10:45 AM
@ Anon Mouse:

Revival? Fine by me.

Remake? Please, dear God, no.

From Anon Mouse on July 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM
I hope they improve the tram tour to where it is NOT 1+ hour long. Instead, it will be broken into 2 tours. The first is a short disaster tour that features the flood, King Kong, Jaws, the Mummy tunnel. The second is a scenic tour that features the famous backdrops with opportunity to exit your tram to physically walk around the sets (this depends on weather, but they can enclose some sets). Each tour should be 30 minutes or less. The 1 hour tour is much too long to endure sometimes, and the lines are ridiculously crowded during busy periods.
From Manny Barron on July 16, 2013 at 2:43 PM
I have so many great memories of this park, as it has been one I have visited many, many times and its the first park I remember visiting as a really young child.

The thrill of riding Back to the Future for the first time as a 5 year old, realizing King Kong's breath actually smells like bananas, and hearing E.T. say my name are all good memories. Newer memories include experiencing the supreme awesomness of their newest attractions King Kong 360 and Transformers, both of which had me getting back in line again and again.

The parks history is unique and so is its geography. This is one of my favorite places in the world for so many reasons and the future certainly looks bright!

From Joseph Catlett on July 17, 2013 at 5:40 AM
My coolest memory of Universal Studios has to be back when I was three years old. It was in the mid 70s and our tram tour had stopped for the walk through portion of the Edith Head displays and as we were out there a group of us ran into actor Telly Savalas, who was on the lot filming KOJAK. It turns out that he occasionally during breaks on filming would hang out near the tour groups and hand out lollipops to the kids. I was one of 10 kids on that tour, so I shook Mr Savalas' hand and thanked him and enjoyed my sucker that day. If you are too young to remember, Telly's character KOJAK's gimmick was that he always had a lollipop in his mouth. Obviously, stars don't do that type of stuff anymore but my parents were just blown away by it and when Mr Savalas passed on a few years ago I was sad to see him go....who loves ya baby?
From Mark Kausch on July 17, 2013 at 11:57 PM
MMMmmm...Rice-a-Roni.
From 76.174.34.87 on July 19, 2013 at 10:42 AM
Please do more stories on this park. This park has one of the most unique and interesting history's of any park around today.

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