Out of the Loop: Come along on the VIP Tour Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood

There’s a great tour option available at the Universal Studios park in Hollywood, Calif. called the VIP Tour Experience. It includes elements of their normal tram tour, but also includes walking tours of sets, stages and production buildings, plus gourmet food and Front of the Line privileges to the park’s shows and rides. Each day’s set of walking tours is different because production schedules are always changing. This article shows what the VIP Tour Experience was like on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, including a sneak peek at the set of the Scream Awards which air on Spike TV Oct. 18.

The VIP Experience begins in the second level of this building at the entrance plaza of Universal Studios Hollywood.

The styles seen here may look familiar if you’ve taken special tours at Universal Studios in Florida – such as the backstage Halloween Horror Nights tours.

VIP Tours have up to 15 people. Gourmet pastries, fresh fruit, coffee and juice are available in the lounge until all the VIP guests in your group arrive.

The view down to the entrance plaza.

The Hollywood resort has two on-site hotels. One of the hotels is to the right, the Hilton. You can also see a banner for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights on the entrance gate. Rock musicians and showmen Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper have helped to create scare houses for the Hollywood park.

When all of the VIPs in our tour arrived, we headed out to board a tram. Normally the trams have four cars. The VIP tour has just one car, with plenty of seating room for all aboard. Note the “00” tour number in the window.

Our tour guide welcomed us aboard and we were on our way!

We began our tour by circling on perimeter roads. This is not the normal tour route. I’ve taken the normal tram tour about 60 times in 20 years. Our tour guide pointed out a few things on this side of the property that I did not know.

For example, in this Google Maps satellite view, the bottom arrow points to fields used for filming a school baseball game or other park scenes. It’s way easier to shoot here in a well-isolated space than in a city park. The two arrows at top point to areas seen in the next photos …

This is construction of an elaborate stage for the Spike TV Scream Awards TV show. The taping is Oct. 15, the show first airs Oct. 18.

Scream Awards site from above. The seating area is really tall!

The Scream Awards theater is next to this giant blue screen, used generally for outdoor water scenes involving ships. They shoot close ups and effects shots that would be too hard to do on location at sea.

The blue screen pool has this very deep section. Scroll back to the Google Maps view to see this entire area filled with water.

The tour’s first destination was the front lot of the production studio.

The tour passed some production buildings that are not normally seen in the regular tram tour.

This building is seen in many television shows. Including way back in the 1970s, as the OSI Headquarters in the Six Million Dollar Man TV show.

Inside view of the production entrance off of Lankershim Boulevard.

The first stop of the VIP tour was the only area that did not allow us to take photos. It was a walking tour through the sound production area. The walking route we took is indicated with arrows, circling two buildings in the center. We entered one building to see a sound recording stage. One production we walked by in the building was the Muppet movie that is scheduled for theaters this November.

Nearby is this building, named for the founder of Universal Studios.

The Carl Laemmle building.

Back on the tram, passing sound stages that are decades old.

New, state of the art facilities are also on the lot, like this Universal Digital production building.

Our next stop was this soundstage – Stage 44, a where the Parenthood TV show is currently in production.

Walking to Stage 44. This architecture may look familiar if you’ve been in the queue for some of the houses at Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando.

Inside the soundstage.

Something unexpected is that the set is raised about three feet off the ground. The raised floor allows easy access of wiring that is strung underneath it.

We toured Zeek and Camile’s house from the show. An outdoor version of this same exterior is on a street in the backlot.

The living room.

This living room has a 40-foot ceiling! Look at all the wood. Soundstages in Universal Studios Florida have steel scaffolding instead of wood.

The dining room. Very little production lighting was on, so things are a bit dim in these photos. With the dark lighting, at times I thought I was in a Halloween Horror Nights house and zombies would jump at us any second!

It looks like a real house.

The center hallway.

Opposite view in the center hallway.

Stairs lead up to a deck, but not the second floor as seen in the show.

The set’s kitchen.

The rear deck, looking into the surrounding trees. Note the curtain, or cyclorama, with additional trees.

It was pretty cool to visit the actual Parenthood show set.

We then took a short walk across the street to the Bud Westmore building. Note in the view that up on the hill is the backside of The Simpsons Ride.

The Bud Westmore building houses carpentry and other set building facilities.

A display of how different treatments make a set look different.

At the far end of the building is the Staff Shop. Staff is a term for molded materials, generally plaster.

The tour guide is holding a rubber-molded anvil. Much easier to move on set, and no safety issues from weight.

Other molded elements from the Staff Shop.

Next, we took a freight elevator to an upper floor.

The sign-making shop. Workers at the right are operating a large printer, feeding a heavy surface through it.

Sample signs.

The print shop also does floors. They are printed on a material with an adhesive backing. They are easy to apply, have quick removal, are flat for camera dolly wheels and much cheaper than actual flooring. If you didn’t know these were printed, you’d assume these were real flooring elements.

Our VIP tour did most of the same elements as the regular tour – the Earthquake effect, King Kong 360, Jaws, etc. No photos of the standard tour stops here. However, it was also different to do these tour stops in a single car tram. No spoilers, but one of these tour stops involves a fifth tram car. It was funny to be in a single tram car when the fifth tram car gag happened. At one point we also got to get out of the tram and walked through the European street sets.

Recognize this area?

This area is the blacksmiths shop area in the Pirates of the Caribean movies.

If you see this building in the regular tram tour, here’s a secret: It has modern, clean, restrooms inside.

A photo of a section of the backlot for some orientation.
The Earthquake tram stop in Hollywood is roughly equivalent to the finale of the Florida park’s “Disaster: A Major Motion Picture Ride… Starring You”.
The European sets are in the walking tour photos, above.
And the next stop we did in the VIP Experience is the costume and props building.

On the loading dock, actual costumes from the upcoming The Thing movie. (Note: There is a The Thing haunted house at Universal Studios Florida this year, which is said to have replicas of the movie sets.)

Snowy detail on one of The Thing jackets.

Actual costumes from the recent Cowboys and Aliens movie. It’s pretty amazing to see costumes in the tour. Like seeing costumes on display at, say, a Planet Hollywood restaurant but without the display cases.

We walked through long hallways, lined with hundreds of costumes. We also walked by offices with artists drawing and designing new costumes on their computer screens (past doorways labeled: no photos).

And down some stairs to the props department. This is a gag setup.

When set designers visit, they tag items that they wish to rent. Tags are pulled as the items leave the warehouse. These are recent tags for work in progress now.

The props department was a crazy warehouse, with collections of common things and not so common things. Just about everything seen on the shelves is available for rental to a production.

Surely you can spot the salt and pepper shakers used in your own home on this shelf.

This made me laugh. Who doesn’t have a collection of old electronics on a shelf at home?

Yes, prop fish!

Prop money.

You’d better return the prop money. It’s almost worth as much as real money!

Plastic chocolate bunnies.

More gags.

A prop hall of fame. Props that are too valuable to rent.

Battlestar Galactica weapons.

From a 2009 movie, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.

Time to exit the loading dock, board the tram and head to lunch.

The gourmet buffet lunch was waiting for us in a VIP dining room in the theme park’s upper lot.

Pictures here show about half of the items offered in the buffet. There was an enormous variety, and high quality.

That’s salmon on the tray at top.

Arrow points to a dessert with actual gold leaf on top.

An opportunity to purchase exclusive VIP Tour ware.

After lunch we could be escorted by our tour guide to the theme park attractions, or break out on our own. The VIP Experience includes Front of the Line access which allows you to go to the front of the line of the rides, and also to have the best seating at the shows. Some of the shows have behind the scenes sessions after the show concludes. These sessions are for VIP guests and Front of the Line guests.

In this behind the scenes session, two of the performers from the Waterworld stunt show chatted with the audience and explained how elements of the show work. They revealed, for example, that only two of the performers are microphoned. The others lip sync. They also disclosed some secrets about how the big finale works and how a show element safely slows down.

Another secret that was passed around in the behind the scenes session was that most of the weapons in the Waterworld show are rubber. They don’t sink if lost in the water.

This is the view from the roped-off Front of the Line waiting area at Terminator 2: 3D. We had a chance to enter the pre-show with no one else inside.

… until the doors opened and regular guests entered.

After the show, we also got to chat with the performers. These three actors also perform in TV shows and movies.

In this behind the scenes session I met Kara, a star in the Animal Actors show. She is also seen in Beverly Hills Chihuahua and other dog movies.

The VIP Tour Experience is well worth doing if you love finding out what goes on behind the scenes in movie and TV production.

Current admission prices at Universal Studios Hollywood are: $77 for one day/2nd day free ticket; $129 for a Front of the Line Pass; and $249 for the VIP Tour Experience. For more information visit universalstudioshollywood.com


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