Theme Park History: A short history of Universal Studios Hollywood
Written by Robert Niles
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.
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.)
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.
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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