Issue: Issue Summer 2010

Universal Studios Hollywood

What’s it like to be in a Hollywood movie with a superstar? Thanks to Universal Studios Hollywood, millions of visitors from all over the world have experienced moviemaking “magic” aimed at making people feel they’re actually part of a movie.  

King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood
King Kong returns to the Entertainment capital of Los Angeles

This summer visitors to the theme park can become part of a movie scene with one of Hollywood’s most famous and fearsome creations - King Kong.  The monstrous gorilla will make his comeback at the studio in a new special effects attraction that will be part of the Studio Tour Tram Ride and will be the world’s largest and most intense 3D experience.

Entrance to Universal Pictures in 1929
The entrance to Universal PIcture in 1926.

John Murdy, Creative Director of Universal Studios Hollywood said, “We bring movies to life.  This place is all about behind-the-scenes magic of how movies are made. What we do is we take you through the screen.  It feels like you’re actually in the movie.  The latest state of the art technologies and animation enable Universal to do that.  What I most frequently hear is people feel like they lived the movie.  There’s nothing quite like this anywhere in the world.”

Universal Studios combines an authentic working movie and television studio with cutting-edge thrill rides and attractions.  It’s home to a wondrous array of fantasy creatures from those who wreak horror to whimsical cartoon characters.

Movie production in Universal cerca 1936
Movie production at the studio in 1936.

According to Peter Jackson, creator of the new attraction, “King Kong 360 3-D” will transport Studio Tour guests to Skull Island and catapult them into the middle of a terrifying struggle. Aboard the Universal tram, you’ll get a wrap-around view of the action through a process involving eight 3-D images shot and projected at 60 frames per second,” he said. “The film and tram will be tied into a motion simulator that will allow you to physically experience this pulse-pounding spectacle.” 

It includes a 35-foot tall dinosaur intent on attacking the tram and Studio Tour guests.  Suddenly the 25-foot tall Kong appears.  The trams jolt and shudder as the guests find themselves caught in the middle of a battle between these colossal prehistoric foes.

Universal's House of Horrors
Universal pioneered the horror film genre, and a hideous host of ghouls and gremlins inhabit the House of Horrors.

Jackson said, “As a filmmaker, you’re hoping to have the audience step inside your movie and become part of the experience…to create the illusion of reality in a way that is much more profound than can be done in a normal theater.  It’s only within a theme park attraction like this that you have the opportunity to do that.  It’s ultra realistic and astounding.  This is the first time special effects have been done to this extreme.”   He is the writer, producer and director of “King Kong”, the 2005 movie that won multiple Academy Awards.

Revenge of the Mummy
The “Revenge of The Mummy” ride thrills visitors as it brings them up close and personal with the tattered, 5,000 year old sociopath...

King Kong was an integral part of the theme park for decades until he was destroyed in a fire in 2008.  Larry Kurzweil, President of Universal Studios Hollywood said, “After the fire, we knew he had to be reintroduced as a new, groundbreaking, thoroughly over-the-top experience.  King Kong will be the most exhilarating feature of our world-famous Studio Tour.”  It’s scheduled to open this summer.

Spongebob Squarepants at Universal Studios
It’s not all horrors at Universal Studios; cuddly, affable Spongebob Squarepants strolls the grounds to meet his fans, young and old.

What is almost as remarkable as this colossal thrill and fun zone is the real-life rags-to-riches story of how it came into being.  Universal Studios was founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle, a German-Jewish immigrant who reportedly came to America with only $5 in his pocket.

After arriving in America, he spent the next decade in a series of dead-end jobs, mostly in Chicago, and then worked for twelve years in a dry goods store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  He went on to buy nickelodeons, and later produced movies.   Universal was founded by Laemmle in New York.  In 1915 he opened the world’s largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, on a 230-acre converted farm just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood.

Reoped backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood
New back lot recently reopened after devastating fire in 2008.

Unlike other movie moguls, Laemmle opened his studio to tourists.  According to Creative Director Murdy, they’d charge each visitor a quarter to watch movies being made during the silent film era.  When sound movies began they stopped inviting visitors.  “In the 50s they started letting tour bus drivers drive on the property,” Murdy said.  “They did this because they thought they could sell some lunches to these people in the commissary.  That was the start of the Studio Tours, selling a lot of lunches.

Tours (with trams) were an overnight success.  In the late ‘60s they started building the beginnings for the theme park with stunt shows. “They added special effects driven attractions like ‘The Parting of the Red Sea’ in the 1960s, Murdy said.  “One of the really big attractions was the first King Kong in 1987.”

Policeman and taxi in Universal Studios' "1950s Bronx"
New York City’s finest on foot patrol in “1950s Bronx.”

Terrifying creatures now are among the theme park’s main attractions as well as cartoon characters.  They are featured in “Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride”, “Jurrassic Park: The Ride”, “The Simpsons Ride”, “Shrek 4-D”.

There also are monsters from the Studio’s 80-year horror film legacy.  “Universal’s House of Horrors” is a walk through an attraction featuring the most fearsome stars.  Guests navigate the dark passages of a Gothic castle where they encounter twenty movie monsters including the zombies from “Dawn of the Dead” and “Land of the Dead”, Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. Universal Studios introduced the horror genre to U.S. audiences in the early years of motion pictures.  In the decades that followed many of the world’s greatest movie monsters came “to life” on the studio’s historic back lot.

Old Western town at Universal Studios
Old West town scenes still figure essential in many movie productions. If not for the car is the distance, it could be 1865.

The Studio Tour transports guests on trams behind the scenes of such landmark movie locations and sets as the plane crash set from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”, the Bates Motel from “Psycho”, the dinosaur-destroyed research laboratory compound from “Jurassic Park: The Lost Worlds”, the snow-covered town of Whoville from “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, and Wisteria Lane from television’s “Desperate Housewives”.

Other highlights of the Studio Tour include a vast array of movie sets, themed streets, soundstages and façades featured in thousands of motion picture and television productions.

Photo: Anthony Nelson

The tram ride also features flat-screen Hi-Definition television monitors and digital playback providing commentary from filmmakers, actors and other notables and relevant movie and TV production clips.

What would Laemmle’s reaction be if he could experience the wonders of his Universal Studios almost a century later?   He’d probably think he’d landed in a Hollywood fantasy beyond his wildest dreams.