Not willing to play second fiddle to that other theme park (seriously, who allows their business to be run by a rodent?), Universal Studios Hollywood has its own set of hidden gems within its walls. In honor of the park's 50th anniversary year—that's right, it's turning the big 5-0—here's a rundown of fascinating tidbits you never knew about Universal Studios Hollywood.
1. ADMISSION AND LUNCH ONCE COST JUST 25 CENTS
Universal Studios Hollywood started out as simply the Studio Tour in 1964, giving guests a behind-the-scenes glimpse at movie and television production. But the studio's roots go all the way back to the silent film years. “This movie studio was founded in 1915 and it has always been in the same location, so it’s one of the longest continuous movie studios in Hollywood,” explains USH Creative Director John Murdy. “In 1915, they actually invited the public to experience movie making. It was at the very beginning of movies. There were 20,000 people here on opening day and that was March 15, 1915. Admission was a quarter and you got lunch for it, too.” This bargain came to an end in the late '20s, when movies began to use sound, because they found tourists made too much noise during production.
2. The studio's main attraction was the "Glamour Tram"
In 1964, USH introduced the first incarnation of the Studio Tour, which cost $2.50 to ride (as compared to today's hefty $92 per ticket). The tour included a boxed lunch and the vehicles used to transport guests were called Glamour Trams. The first test run of the Glamour Trams broke down halfway through and the guests had to hoof it back to the entrance.
3. Filmmakers and Relatives of Celebrities Used to Act as Tour Guides
Interestingly enough, the initial tour guides of the Studio Tour were folks USH found working at the studio or relatives of famous people. “One of the first tour guides was a guy named John Badham, who is famous for directing Saturday Night Fever and War Games,” says Murdy. “He got his start as a tour guide at the Studio Tour back in the sixties.”
4. Some Past Attractions Were Scarier—and Stranger—Than What We're Used to Today
While many stops along the tour have proven to have long shelf lives, other, sillier stops fell by the wayside. "As you come out of the parting of the Red Sea, there’s an area that was used in some old Tarzan movies," Murdy says of "one of the weirdest attractions" he remembers from his childhood. "In the early seventies, for whatever reason, they had a mechanical gorilla on a track that would swing through Tarzan’s jungle and he was holding a severed human arm in his hand. He would make the Tarzan yell and you would just see this gorilla flying in the background. It hasn’t been here in decades but some of the earliest tour attractions were really quirky like that.”
5. The Park Expanded In Order to Attract a Bigger Crowd
In USH’s first year, they welcomed just 38,000 visitors total, which Murdy notes is the equivalent to one busy summer day at the park now. “Very quickly they realized they needed to create other things to entertain people to extend their day,” he says. “Some of them still exist. We had a western stunt show that was really informal back in the '60s and now we have WaterWorld, which is this big, elaborate special effects extravaganza. We had an animal show in the earliest days and we still have an animal show today.”
6. The First Stand-Alone Ride Wasn't Introduced Until 1991
By 1991, the park finally had a ride apart from its Studio Tour: The E.T. Adventure (which no longer exists at USH but can still be found at Universal Studios Florida).
7. An A-List Star Once Lent His Talents to the Tour for a Day
The park is an actual film and television studio, so occasionally you will see a star on his or her way to work; but on one occasion, Studio Tour guests got the bejeezus scared out of them by an A-lister…and they didn’t even know it. “One day, the tour guides were giving the tour and going by the Psycho house,” recalls Murdy. “All of a sudden, Norman, dressed up like Mother, comes out with a knife and everybody kind of freaked out because [the tour guides] were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not us.’ It was actually Jim Carrey! He was doing a movie called Man on the Moon about Andy Kaufman and Andy was famous for his publicity stunts. I think it was Jim just channeling Andy as he was getting into the character. He hung out there and played Mother for a while.”
8. A Seinfeld Star Used to Hang Out on the Lot
Stars might talk a big game about wishing for anonymity, but early in their careers they'd do anything to be recognized—even camp out on the Universal backlot. “Jason Alexander told me that when he started, one of his first jobs was called ER, but it was before the ER that we all know today; it was actually a comedy and it was very short-lived,” says Murdy. “He told me he would always hang out by the Psycho house. He would have lunch there in hopes that he would be recognized because he was an up-and-coming actor. But nobody did.”
9. ATTRACTIONS ARE HOUSED IN REAL SOUNDSTAGES
The next time you’re about to stop into Transformers: The Ride – 3D, consider this: A very famous TV family used to reside in the same building. “Where Transformers is now, originally that was the old special effects show,” says Murdy. “It’s a dual soundstage. They’re real soundstages that were used for filming. One was used for The Munsters in the '60s and one was used for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and many, many other movies.”
10. The Rides Themselves Sometimes Become Real Sets
Since it would cost a TV studio a pretty penny to simulate an earthquake for a scene, production companies have turned to USH for help. “Earthquake, an attraction which opened in 1989, is a massive earthquake in a San Francisco subway station,” says Murdy. “That got used not so long ago by the television show Bones. There’s a scene in the show where there’s an earthquake and the producers were trying to figure out, ‘How do we do this?,’ and then I’m sure they just said, 'Let’s just go over to Universal and film it in their attraction.’”
11. THE MUMMY RIDE IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS
There’s some seriously impressive technology used in modern-day rides that tricks you into thinking you’re zigging while you’re actually zagging. “The Mummy uses magnetic technology to propel you forward,” explains Murdy. “It starts off like a typical dark ride, moving very slowly, and then it launches into a rollercoaster experience. Halfway through it comes to a dead end; it stops. After a scene plays out with these scarab beetles it launches you backwards and the whole last section of the ride is backwards. What’s really crazy about it, that you wouldn’t pick up on if you were riding it, is the whole track is moving in that scene. When you come to a stop and it’s playing out that scene with the scarab beetles, behind you the entire track for the roller coaster is moving and then locks into position to launch you onto an entirely different track.”
12. SOMETIMES ATTRACTIONS OUTLAST THEIR NAMESAKES
WaterWorld continues to be USH’s highest-rated show among park guests, but how many of them have actually seen the movie? Chances are, very few. While the goal is to build attractions around popular, long-lasting franchises (like the upcoming Fast & Furious – Supercharged addition to the Studio Tour, debuting in summer 2015), sometimes rides based on short-lived TV series or movies just work. “One that always amazed me on the tour was Battlestar Galactica,” says Murdy. “For years and years we had a Battlestar Galactica attraction. The tram drove inside it like a spaceship from the show. It was one of the earliest uses of lasers. The Cylons were shooting lasers at you and there were early, early animatronics. We all have fond memories of Battlestar Galactica, and there have been reincarnations of the show, but back then it wasn’t on the air for very long—I think it was just a season and a half. But the attraction lasted well over a decade.”