The best movie studio tours for your money

Want to get within few yards of your favorite actors from Glee or walk the same stage where Charlie Sheen does Two and a Half Men? Then a Hollywood studio tour might be just the thing for you. It's a chance to see movie and television production up-close and, if you're lucky, encounter a famous actor.

If you're planning a trip to Los Angeles, a trip to a movie studio is a great reminder that L.A. is still the Center of the Entertainment Universe and it will give you all sorts of stories to take home and impress your friends. As you are guided through the movie studio back lots you'll be amazed at how much Hollywood history was made here – around every corner you'll find someplace a famous actor did a famous scene, or furniture or clothing actually used in that scene, or bungalows where Hollywood icons have lived while filming the best motion pictures ever made.

The three studios we toured have each created a cottage industry in just taking people around to show how they do their jobs. Imagine if you could set up tours of your company and make a zillion bucks a year just because people were so fascinated with what you do.

The Hollywood studios do just that and the public eats it up. It may cost you a few bucks but the tours are something you can do only in a few places around the world with the best and most elaborate selection in Los Angeles.

We headquartered at the Beverly Garland Hotel, an impressive Spanish architecture hotel that has a Hollywood pedigree all its own – it was built and operated by the famous actress, Beverly Garland. The hotel is in North Hollywood, just a hop, skip and a jump from Universal Studios and Warner Brothers studios, and it's just a 15-minute drive to the Paramount lot over in Hollywood. Recently, the hotel updated its 255 rooms and suites with all the amenities you expect from a thoroughly modern hotel – a new pool and Jacuzzi spa, state-of-the-art fitness center, flat panel HD television sets, complimentary high-speed internet and private balconies. The rooms are, in fact, a little larger than normal and we found our suite was big enough to feel almost like a condo.

The Beverly Garland (800-238-3759) was ideal for the mission we had in mind – to sample the various movie studio tours and to contrast and compare. First, the overall results: When you're talking about the actual back-lot touring, there really is little variation in the tours other than the size of group you're traveling with and the particular movie or TV show sets you're able to explore. Universal, Warner Brothers and Paramount are all quite informative and well worth the effort.

Universal Studios Hollywood, of course, is more elaborate than the other two and was the first to tap into the lucrative tour business. While the other two are mainly visits to working studios, Universal adds an entire entertainment complex that makes it a popular amusement park, not just a movie studio. Universal also has put together several impressive demonstrations for visitors to see how movies are made. The net result is Universal is an all-day (or even multi-day) visit, while the others are experiences that will last two to five hours.

Another thing they all have in common: These tours aren't likely to result in meeting a movie star or television personality. The tours are by tram or golf cart and your guide will only be able to take you to certain locations within the back lot. If it's a “hot” set – in other words, if filming is taking place – chances are you won't get very close because film and television directors really frown on having to re-shoot scenes because of curious and sometimes noisy tourists.

Our guide at the Paramount lot did make a point to take our small group over to an outdoor 1930's-era city set where a Japanese production company was filming a movie that included vintage cars going up and down the main street while extras in period clothing roamed the sidewalks giving every impression this was a bustling city from back in the day. Over at one corner, in a restaurant, actors were clustered together doing a scene under lights with all of the street activity being filmed as background. It was interesting to watch as the old-style cars lined up for their entry onto the main street, then drove past the camera, and then went around the block to line up and drive up the street again.

You'll find that all the standard tours are dummed down a little bit, offering a lot of basic information about filming procedures that you may already know – they just want to make sure all the visitors understand what they're seeing and that no tourist gets left behind, so to speak.

That said, you will find that all of the tour guides know their studios backward and forward. Since they're touring their lots several times each day they have a feel for where there is more likely to be something of interest on any given day. They'll relate stories about all the famous people THEY have met and seen in action on the lot during these tours – probably so you hold out hope you'll see someone famous yourself.

To be honest, the most famous person we saw on our three-studio study was the set director for the television show Community, who also was working on a set for a new show called Happy Endings and talked to our group briefly as we were touring. We did have one near-miss: Driving through the Paramount lot our guide asked us if we'd just noticed the Glee stars who were walking the lot a little ways back. Of course we hadn't.

We couldn't brag that we had seen any stars, but we did get instant recognition and a certain expression of amazement when we mentioned to our 10-year-old daughter we had toured the Warner Brothers set of Big Time Rush, one of her favorite shows. Also at Warner Brothers we walked the stages of Two and a Half Men and the Big Bang Theory, both extremely popular shows these days. There were also numerous sound stages at all the studios where famous movies were made – some open for us to look inside, others already made over for a new production and not yet open for tours. All three studios have great outdoor sets where you'll recognize lots of buildings and locations you saw in the movies.

If you're planning on visiting Los Angeles, here are the three major motion picture studios we had a chance to visit:

Universal Studios Hollywood – the granddaddy of studio tours, this one is the most elaborate of the bunch and takes you through several sound stages set up specifically to show you how the movie business works. Visitors travel by tram, so the groups are much larger than the other two studios. You'll see demonstrations you won't see at the other two and, of course, Universal is more than just a movie studio nowadays – it's a major theme park on the order of Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Cost: It's a theme park so it's going to cost you $74, rides included – or you can go on a more intimate VIP tour and get front of line ride passes for $239 per person. Call 1-800-UNIVERSAL or go to www.universalstudioshollywood.com.

Warner Brothers Studio Tour – The Warner VIP Studio Tour takes you through this famous lot that you see depicted at the beginning of so many movies. The tour starts at an elaborate tour center where groups of 12 board electric carts to go through the back lot and various sound stages. The tour lasts two hours, 25 minutes and there also is a more in-depth Deluxe tour lasting five hours. Cost: $48 for the VIP Tour, $225 for the Deluxe Tour. Call 818-978-TOUR or visit www.wbstudiotour.com.

Paramount Studios VIP Tour – This tour is in the heart of Hollywood, not far from the Hollywood sign and is just loaded with history. The Paramount lot is where the old RKO Studios were once located as well as Desilu Studios. Paramount took over the space occupied by both of those and in 2005 added Dreamworks Productions. The two-hour tours here are smaller groups of just a few visitors at a time and a little less expensive per ticket. Cost: $40. Call 323-956-1777 or visit www.paramountstudios.com/special-events/tours.html.

Photos, from top: Universal Hollywood is granddaddy of movie studio tours; Paramount back lot is in shadow of the Hollywood sign; Beverly Garland Hotel is convenient family hotel near studios; a Warner Brothers tour guide walks visitors through the studio back lot


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