Studio tours
Getting an up-close view of true movie magic

While movie-making is done "on location" more than ever before, the Los Angeles area still is home to a steady stream of movie and television productions - so many that it's not unusual to come across filming on any given trip to L.A. And out-of-towners never seem to get tired of visiting movie studios and famous movie-making locations.

Today most of the studios are closed to the public except when audiences are needed for live shows or when the call goes out for extras to populate various movie scenes. But there are several that do allow tours, including some where the chances are good you'll see a real movie star.

The granddaddy of movie studio tours has to be Universal Studios Hollywood, which now includes its movie studio tour as just one small part of a Disneyland-like theme park with elaborate rides and attractions all having something to do with the movies. Built along a hillside in Universal City, the theme park has grown over the years incorporating new attractions that match up with some of the hottest movies produced at Universal.

We first visited Universal more than 30 years ago so, on our recent visit to the park, the overall experience seemed much more of a complete entertainment package than when the tour was just a movie studio tour with few additional attractions. We had been back to the park in the 90's but, even since then, this theme park has seemed to grow dramatically, adding new attractions on a regular basis to encourage visitors to return.

Visitors to the park are now greeted with a choice of parking, lower priced parking that requires a little walking and premium parking that is closer to the park. We chose the former because we need the exercise - but, alas, the park has installed an elaborate 21st Century system of escalators to whisk visitors all over the hilly terrain both from the parking lot, and from the theme park down to the actual movie lot.

One of the highlights of our Universal visit was a discovery we made: the Front of the Line Pass. It is a bit pricey - at $99.95 it's about double what you'll pay if you buy a regular pass online - but it totally changes the experience. Instead of waiting in long, hot lines all day (typical of most Southern California theme parks) we were quickly zipping between the best attractions, never standing in line more than five minutes. We felt we saw everything we wanted to see in one day, but were not nearly as exhausted as we might have been standing in lines that each appeared to be 45 minutes to an hour long.

For middle-age guests who have given up on theme parks because of the lines, the Front of the Line Pass will put you right back in the game.

Most rides at Universal are relatively tame - not quite the kiddie-land variety, but something less than the roller coasters at Six Flags. The hydraulic rides like Back to the Future continue to be popular, as well as moderate thrill rides like the roller coaster in the Revenge of the Mummy and the 85-foot waterfall drop for the boats in the Jurassic Park ride.

We were especially impressed with the Waterworld show, which apparently is doing a lot better than the movie ever did. A group of actors and stunt persons puts on a show filled with acrobatic feats and pyrotechnics climaxed by an almost full-scale airplane startling spectators by landing in the water right in front of their seats.

There are numerous rides, attractions, top-notch shows - everything to keep you busy for much longer than a day. But don't forget to take the studio tour - the thing that got all of this started decades ago. The tour is still conducted on the famous trams that snake their way through the Universal back lot. The trams have been updated to offer TV commentary by stars like Whoopi Goldberg, but the experience was much the same as it was back in the 70's - only the TV shows and movies have changed. Longtime attractions like the original Psycho house are still there, but now the tour includes a stop on Wysteria Lane to see the Desperate Housewives. You can still see where Spartacus was filmed, but now you also drive right through the plane crash scene from War of the Worlds. A new Fast and Furious demonstration adds another thrill with two race cars hurtling toward the tram through the magic of hydraulics.

Universal Studios is one of the best and easiest ways to get a close-up view of L.A. movie-making, but there are many other fascinating locations around town. For example, the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills was home to productions like Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, the Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas and numerous TV series. And, did you know that you can visit a Culver City industrial area that was once the "Forty Acre Back lot," the former location of Mayberry where all the outdoor scenes on the Andy Griffith Show were filmed?

In addition, there are still other interesting studio tours you can take:

Warner Brothers Studios, Burbank - We enjoyed this two-hour tour which we took a few years back. Visitors are escorted in groups of 12 through the Warner Brothers lot, with stops along the way at television and movie sets. All of the sets and props here are real and not just for the benefit of the tourists. Visitors get to see the costume department as well as the mill that creates the sets. Since numerous productions are ongoing at any given time, you may have a better chance here of seeing a star - we didn't, but it was fun seeing the actual sets for shows like Friends. Phone 818-972-TOUR.

Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City - If you want to visit the studio that made the Wizard of Oz, this is the place. It's the former MGM Studios and offers a walking tour of the studio's back lot, sets, sound stages and historic scenery. In more recent years, the studio is where Men in Black and Spiderman were filmed, and where shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are taped. Phone 323-520-TOUR.

NBC TV Studio Tour, Burbank - These studios are where many a live television show has been taped, including the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The guided walking tour takes you into the warehouses where costumes and props are stored, control room areas and the tour gives you a great overview of how network television is produced. Phone 818-840-3537.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Universal Studios Hollywood is located in Universal City, just north of downtown Los Angeles. The theme park is easily accessed using Highway 101 North. General parking is $10 while preferred parking is $20.

WHAT: Universal Studios Hollywood offers the most complete experience of any movie studio tour - a major theme park and a tour through the actual working areas of Universal Studios.

WHEN: Year-round. Keep in mind that summertime temperatures can be warm under direct sun, so wear sunscreen and dress appropriately.

WHY: While the Universal Studios tour is the most slickly produced of the movie studio tours - which is not necessarily an advantage - it offers a major theme park right next door. Any trip to Universal Studios Hollywood is as much about visiting the theme park as the movie studio.

HOW: For more information on Universal Studios Hollywood, phone 1-800-UNIVERSAL or visit www.universalstudioshollywood.com. Admission price for an adult is $59, or $49 online. The Front of the Line Pass is $99.95 per person.

Photos:  New Fast and Furious car chase at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park; Jurassic Park ride plunges riders down an 85-foot waterfall; Waterworld show is action-packed and entertaining; tour tram takes visitors through set of War of the Worlds plane crash.

Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If San Jose is your idea of a California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Marine World, Disneyland, Legoland and Hollywood.

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