Amidst the theme park rides, thronging tourists and assorted hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Universal Studios in Los Angeles is a working film studio and has been since the earliest days of movie-making. In 1915, German immigrant Carl Laemmle, who had spun a career as a bookkeeper into a thriving nickelodeon and silent film distribution business, opened a film studio in Los Angeles.
Ever the self-promoter, Laemmle gathered a crowd of 15,000 to celebrate the event on 50 hectares of land he had purchased for $US165,000 in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. So was born Universal Studios, which went on to produce some of the most iconic movies the world has ever seen. From the first days of operation, Universal invited fans onto their sets and it quickly became a must-see attraction.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Universal Studios continues to give the star-struck public an insider’s view of the movie-making process. The modern period of tourism began in 1964, when pink and white tramcars whisked visitors through the backlots. To handle the increasing numbers, some years back Universal extended the general admission policy (which had begun to see long queues at the various rides and attractions), into a three-tier system.
The first is general admission, the second is general admission with front-of-line privileges which takes visitors to the front of any queues at any attraction and reserved seating at any show. The third is the VIP Experience. Current pricing from the Universal Studios website (and keep in mind that discounts on these packages are widely available) is: General Admission – $US74.00. Front Of Line – $US139.00. VIP Experience – $US259.00.
The VIP Experience is the ultimate and is available to only a limited number of guests each day. During my recent visit, the majority of customers were Australian, taking advantage of the Pacific Peso’s above-parity exchange rate. In the comfortably-appointed VIP Lounge, guests milled about waiting for their guide while drinks and snacks were served. The first half of the day was taken up with rides, shows and attractions then it was lunch at a private dining room before boarding a small trolley car for the backlot and studios tour.
You have to feel sorry for those with general admission tickets who only get a 45-minute dazzle through the backlot. The VIP Tour lasts two-and-a-half hours with, among other things, a visit to a working sound stage (on this day, it was the chance to wander through the house from the television’s Parenthood) and unhindered access to an outdoor set left over from the 2005 Steven Spielberg-directed remake of War Of The Worlds. It was bizarre to say the least to wander through the smoking remains of a massive 747 that had crashed (at least on film) into a suburban streetscape, crushing everything in its path. But, as they say in Hollywood, that’s showbiz!
The highlight for this committed film buff and widely-pitied celluloid bore, however, was time spent in the prop warehouse. Ranging over several floors, the collection has everything needed to dress any film set. From ordinary glass vases to 1930s food packets, from tiki trinkets to authentic-looking human skeletons, each and every item has a film provenance that most likely goes back decades.
As an active eBayer, I couldn’t help speculating what some of the smaller, more easily-transportable items might be worth with a Universal Studios imprimatur. Only my highly-refined sense of honour, along with the fear of getting busted, prevented me from finding out.
So, at the end of a long day, is the VIP Experience worth $US259? The rule of thumb, when it comes to travel journalism, is – would I pay to do it again? In this case, I’d have to say yes.
Universal Studios in Hollywood isn’t just a do-it-once-and-never-have-to-do-it-again tourist trap. It changes on each visit and the VIP Experience is the best way to do it. And it sure is fun to by-pass the crowds to the head of the long queues just like you’re a close personal friend of Carl Laemmle himself.
NOTE: In the interests of tranparency, I flew to the US with Air Pacific via Fiji and stayed at the W Hotel Hollywood.
Words and photos © David Latta