Published: July 15, 2014
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.
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.
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 in the middle of a $1-billion-plus transformation of the theme park and its surrounding property. Gru and the Minions of Despicable Me have moved into the space formerly occupied by the Terminator 2 while The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is under construction for a 2016 debut.