Opinion: Universal’s rejection of its movie-making past is fast and furious

Jan. 8, 2023, saw the closing of the Animal Actors Stage and the Special Effects Show at Universal Studios Hollywood, rumored to make room for a Fast & Furious-themed roller coaster.

Universal Studios Hollywood Fast & Furious
Photos courtesy of Universal Studios Hollywood.

By Jason Ginsburg

This is the latest move in the park’s transformation from a place where guests could learn about the movies, to where they could simply experience them. As a former studio guide for both the regular tour and the VIP Experience – and a lifelong movie buff – this makes me sad. I think something special and magical is being lost. But sadder still, I saw it coming.

The world-famous Studio Tour is and was a great showcase for a nerdy film know-it-all like me. I got to tell funny stories from Hollywood history – Gene Kelly was actually singing in the milk! – and share fun facts about the art of filmmaking. Sure, we got attacked by a mechanical shark and survived a San Francisco earthquake, but most of the 45-minute ride featured a compendium of movie knowledge delivered by guides like yours truly. Guests would laugh and gasp and nod their heads.

Universal Studios Hollywood studio tour

But not long into my tenure, I noticed a change. People became more knowledgeable about movie-making. I chalk that up to two factors. First was the advent of DVDs, as all major releases included making-of featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage, and director’s commentaries, revealing all kinds of trivia and fun facts. At the same time, entertainment journalism exploded on the internet, with “Ain’t It Cool News” first and then “Deadline Hollywood” providing casting and contract secrets usually reserved for “Variety” and “The Hollywood Reporter”. Those trades too, were publishing free content online, and fans of “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” were exchanging gossip on internet message boards.

The result was that Universal tour guides like me were no longer the gatekeepers for hidden movie knowledge. Today, those “secrets” are even more public, as stars give tours of their location shoots on Instagram, Comic-Con panels are broadcast on YouTube, and IMDb provides crowdsourced trivia for every film ever released.

The other factor was that special effects became … well, boring. I started at Universal explaining how Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea in “The 10 Commandments”: He took a block of gelatin, cut it in half, and filmed it being melted back together. Then he reversed the film to make it appear the two parts were separating. That backward shot was composited with footage of the Israelites marching across the sand.

By the end of my time at Universal, when guests asked about the effects in “Van Helsing” or Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” my answer was basically, “They pressed a button on a computer.”

Universal Studios Hollywood King Kong

I’m sure Kong’s Oscar-winning visual effects team would argue that point. But “texture-mapping” and “motion blur” aren’t nearly as exciting to guests as Biblical Jell-O.

Universal Studios Hollywood’s entire raison d’etre (justification for existence) was to give the general public a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood. It all began with the tram tour in 1964, but other attractions stuck to this theme. At Land of a Thousand Faces (which closed in 1980), make-up artists transformed volunteers into classic Universal monsters; at the Screen Test Theater (which closed in 1984), volunteers could reenact scenes from ‘70s disaster films; and at Prop Plaza (which closed in 1988), guests could touch and take photos with real movie props.

Universal Studios Hollywood WestWorld
WaterWorld show at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Even when actual rides appeared – The E.T. Adventure was first, in 1991 – and Universal’s tagline became “Ride the Movies,” new shows provided “infotainment” to the guests. As of 2002, the park contained five live shows: Animal Actors and Special Effects, plus Backdraft, WaterWorld, and the Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show. Now only WaterWorld (still thrilling after all these years) remains. It’s worth noting that it’s the only show that isn’t aware of itself and provides no information about its stunts or effects.

The western stunt show closed while I was there. Next to go was Backdraft, which featured Director Ron Howard and the movie’s stars, Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn, discussing their experiences making the film. The final “set” recreated the film’s climax with fire effects. I hosted the attraction for a while, and even 15 years after opening, the flames and other surprises clearly wowed the guests. But the movie was getting old, so I understood when it had to close, along with The World of Cinemagic next door, to make room for Transformers: The Ride 3-D. (though I don’t understand why historic Stage 28 had to be demolished).

Cinemagic moved to the Upper Lot in the Castle Theater, which previously hosted shows like the very fun Beetlejuice’s Rockin’ Graveyard Revue and the very bad Spider-Man Rocks! Later, it became The Special Effects Show, where a live host showed guests how visual effects evolved, from Lon Chaney’s personal make-up kit to CGI raptors. A few audience volunteers got to be in the show as well.

Its neighbor was the Animal Actors Stage, hosted by real animal trainers from Birds & Animals Unlimited, which provides animals for the entertainment industry (Doc Brown’s dog Einstein from “Back to the Future” is one of my favorites). This show also featured volunteers – kids, in this case.

Universal Studios Hollywood Animal Actors

Both shows were family-friendly, a place to sit down, and – for Special Effects, at least – a chance for air-conditioning. As a VIP Guide taking groups around the park and the studio, both shows provided a great opportunity for guests to catch their breath after being yanked around on Revenge of the Mummy or soaked on Jurassic Park. No height requirement, no lockers, just some semi-educational fun.

Universal Studios Hollywood Kung Fu Panda

Now they’re gone, leaving WaterWorld and, technically, two other shows: Minions Mayhem and Kung Fu Panda. Even there, Universal is reluctant to call them “shows,” officially listing them as simply “attractions.” Either way, the two newcomers are just video screens. There are no live hosts delivering corny jokes, no stunt performers dazzling with their physical prowess, and no audience volunteers getting to play an earthquake survivor or a Starfleet engineer.

And I think that’s unfortunate. Those experiences, “interactive” in the purest sense of the word, provided something more wondrous than a thrill ride. I was there on the tram, I was there at Backdraft, and I was sitting next to guests at the Animal Actors Stage. I saw how people were delighted by those live shows. They may have been about the fantasy of movies, but they were real.

Now those shows are gone, to be replaced by yet another family-unfriendly roller coaster. Sure, at Universal Studios Hollywood, guests can still “ride the movies.” But it’s a ride with no destination anymore.

Jason Ginsburg

Jason Ginsburg created @FakeThemePark, Twitter’s longest-running comedy project. He was a VIP studio guide, a Backdraft host, and a character performer at Universal Studios Hollywood. He studied film at U.S.C. and works in streaming TV at Warner Bros. Discovery. His first film, “The Sorcerer Beast,” is streaming on Amazon.


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  1. Oh Jason, there was this amazing live show called “Terminator 2 3:D” that incorporated all the live stunts and movie magic you speak of. Let us not forget the movie magic created by such content and dedicated performers (like myself). 😁

  2. Guess what? To the surprise of absolutely no one, Universal just figured out they can’t actually build the Fast and Furious roller coaster Florida was pushing so hard for, because of unforeseen circumstances on the lower lot. They are now scrambling to figure out what to do. So they closed two venues that can take thousands of people off the street, at the exact same time they are bursting at the seams because of the new Super Nintendo World…which is half the size of Harry Potter.

    The only remaining show is Waterworld. What happened to “entertainment capital of the world”? Even Knott’s has a more developed shows team, let alone Disneyland. Then again this is a park that replaced the Wild West stunt show with an empty, unshaded slab of concrete smack in the middle of the park , and the Blues Brothers stage next to it with a Starbucks. It is a miracle people still visit.

    1. I completely agree. There is no entertainment at Universal anymore just simulators. Thanks to Mark Woodbury my kids will not experience what I had experienced. Sid Sheinberg is spinning in his grave as we speak.

  3. I remember being at Universal Studios in ’95. Loved seeing Magnum P I.’s ferrari, the Bates Motel, The Clock Tower, the Jaws ride. It was a real joy.

    Sadly, movie magic is gone. It’s been replaced by Wokeism and CG; one is annoying, and the other boring.

  4. Thank you, Mr. Ginsburg, for the amazing article, and your hilarious fake theme park posts from the past couple of years. I really do agree with you. I used to love all the behind-the-scenes moviemaking stuff, but it gets really tedious to the layman to just hear about how they sculpted everything in a computer. T2, my favorite movie, has an amazing function on the DVD of it I own, where it overlays the screen with subtitles explaining how they made each shot, and it’s amazing. Nowadays, that sort of thing would be really boring. There are exceptions, like some of the effects in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. But for the most part, it’s just, “these fellas stood in front of a green screen.”
    That’s also one of the massive reasons why Lord of the Rings worked and The Hobbit didn’t. Lord of the Rings had so much work put into miniatures, and makeup, and sets. The Hobbit was mainly just bland CGI. Thanks again for the article!

  5. My granddaughter and I loved the Animal Actors show,we visited Universal Hollywood last summer. It was cute, and a nice breather between rides. Sorry it’s gone

  6. I understand and agree with the tenor of your argument, but the slam on VFX artistry seems petty.
    “They pressed a button on a computer.”
    You could have said that it was the combined work of hundreds of brilliantly talented artists from numerous disciplines and technicians from around the world, combining classical techniques of animation with cutting edge technology to create this experience for you.

    If you don’t like the experience that’s okay, but please don’t reduce this challenging and time consuming work to pushing a button.

    Perhaps this speaks to the broader PR issue of the industry where we don’t advocate well for ourselves and studios seem embarrassed to have to admit they used VFX. As you say it’s hard to talk about in a way the regular guest cab relate to.
    But at the end of the day we’re just people in love with telling stories and making magical moments for our audience and I hope that earns us a little respect.

  7. Thank You Jason. I was just lamenting the EXACT same thing a few days ago. They even got rid of TWD walk though (which I never got to do which pisses me off). I did everything (except the makeup show cause I was 2 at the time). Universal was my magic kingdom where you got to experience TRUE magic and be an apprentice as you learned the secrets to what made Hollywood great. This was always more fun than Disney to me and it breaks my heart watching Universal turn on what truly made it great. 🙁

  8. Great post/article! I remember those old days of Universal Studios when there were no rides and only the studio tour and the shows. Loved those shows, especially the special effects one. I even got to ride the ET bicycle! Especially loved the laid back atmosphere of the park and how fun it was to just walk around. Lobbed how it was a different park than Disney, Knott’s and Magic Mountain.

    When I went back a few years ago with the kids for the first time in decades I was disappointed how the park had changed to a two bit Disneyland with mostly lame simulated rides and a few dark rides that would never have been allowed at Disney.

    Along with the crazy crowds and exorbitant ticket prices, there’s not much attraction there anymore aside from the studio tour. That said, we’re going for spring break to check out Super Nintendo World, but old habits die hard. Anyway, thanks for the write up, really enjoyed the nostalgic look back!