In Los Angeles, studio tours are the real stars

  • Article by: KAREN LUNDEGAARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 11:43 AM

When a movie-obsessed family goes to Los Angeles, studio tours and their art of fakery are the real stars.

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The stretch golf cart pulls alongside the parking lot, which is sunken a few feet though otherwise seemingly normal, with lines forming space after space, row after row.

But this is Hollywood; nothing is as it seems.

A giant screen running along the parking lot is painted to look like a blue sky with wispy clouds, because the real, deep blue California sky behind it looks fake on camera.

This, the tour guide tells us, is Paramount’s beach or pond or ocean. They fill the parking lot with nearly a million gallons of water, and presto, instant ocean, fake sky and all. This, he says, is where Moses parted the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments.” They built a trough, filmed the water filling up on both sides until it gushed over the barriers, then reversed the film.

I stare at the concrete. The Red Sea, I think, is a parking lot.

Paramount Pictures was our third studio tour in four days, following visits to Warner Bros. Studios and Universal Studios Hollywood. I thought I would have had enough, and I certainly thought the kids, though movie-lovers, would have had their fill. How many studios could 12- and 10-year-old boys take?

A lot, apparently. Given the time, they would have visited even more.

Some people go to Southern California for Disneyland or for the beaches. For my family, it was about Hollywood. Oscars. Movies. Magic.

Jordan, 12, wants to be an Oscar-winning director. Ryan, 10, wants to be an actor in a movie by anyone but Jordan. I knew that studio tours would be a big draw when I bought our plane tickets to Los Angeles on a whim months earlier. Once I started researching, though, I was disappointed to learn that favorites such as DreamWorks don’t do public tours. Others have age limits that would prohibit Ryan’s entry. Sony, home of the yellow brick road and “Men in Black,” has a minimum age of 12, for instance.

Universal, part of the amusement park, didn’t have any rules. I decided on that and Warner Bros., the studio of Harry Potter and the kids’ favorite TV show, “The Big Bang Theory.” Both have costly upgrades to longer, more exclusive tours. But given those prices ($349 a person at Universal, $250 at Warner Bros.) and no guarantees that preteen boys would enjoy any of this, I stuck to the basic tour, already longer than two hours at Warner Bros.

When I brought up visiting another, my husband was decisive: “Two should be enough.”


We landed in Los Angeles on a Wednesday night. Thursday we went to Universal Studios Hollywood, where we walked past the theme park features, including the Simpsons Ride and the Shrek 4-D movie, to the Studio Tour.

Rolling at Universal

A videotape of Jimmy Fallon greeted the hundred or so people crammed into several open-air trams. A friendly tour guide, miked up in the first car, pointed out forgettable details as the cars wound down a hill onto the Universal back lot.

We drove by some soundstages, but there was no stopping, no getting out to look inside. The tram pulled into a tunnel, actually a soundstage, where we were told to put on our 3-D glasses. Then, we were inside a movie, surrounded by dinosaurs attacking each other and our tram. King Kong and a T. rex went at it; the tram, in the middle, felt like it was pushed over the side of a ravine.

When we stopped inside another tunnel ­— Stage 50, a split-level soundstage built to look like a subway station — lights started flickering and a rumbling slowly built. Earthquake! A truck carrying liquid gas crashed through the ceiling and slid toward the tram, catching fire. More of the ceiling began to crumble as a subway zoomed in, derailing next to us. Water gushed down the steps toward the platform. People screamed.

The tram continued past sets for “Dr. Seuss The Grinch Stole Christmas” (a giant Whoville), “War of the Worlds” (the innards of a Boeing 747 on its side), “Jaws” (an animatronic shark in a lake). In Little Mexico it started to rain, hard, and a flash flood sent a wall of water down a hill toward the tram.

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  • When visitors put on their 3-D glasses on a trip through a tunnel, dinosaurs clashed around them and the tram felt like it would be pushed over a ravine.

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