The History of Universal Studios Hollywood

Posted by Staff on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Universal Studios Hollywood

Many of today’s most popular amusement parks didn’t necessarily start out as amusement parks. Knott’s Berry Farm, for example, started out exactly as the name suggests: a berry farm. Similarly, Lake Compounce was just a lakeside picnic area with a bowling alley. They grew into the full-fledged amusement parks that they are today by slowly adding new attractions in response to an increasing number of visitors. The history of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park shares a similar story. Opening up the studio lots to the public began as a way for Universal Studios to make a few extra bucks, but over the decades, those tours transformed into one of the world’s most popular theme parks.

The history of Universal Studios Hollywood starts in 1915, when Universal founder, Carl Laemmle, opened the gates of the studio ranch, called Universal City, to the public for an admission price of 25 cents. At this time, Universal City was located on a 230-acre ranch in North Hollywood. The public was invited onto the property where they could enjoy a hillside picnic while watching the production of Universal’s latest film. The practice of filming in front of an audience worked fine until the end of the silent film era when “quiet on the set” became necessary to filming with sound.

Universal Studio Tour 1964

The Universal Studios Tour Tram in 1964

The arrival of the talkies in the 1930s put public access to the studios on hold for about 30 years. During that time, Universal developed into a powerhouse studio, producing numerous classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Dracula, and Frankenstein. In 1961, Universal decided to once again open up the studio gates, but this time guests toured the lots by bus. The cumbersome and noisy busses, ill suited for discreet travel through the busy lots, were swapped out for trams in 1964. This was the year the tour officially became known as the Universal Studio Tour. For only $6.50, two adults and a child could peek into the behind-the-scenes world of one of Hollywood’s most famous studios; and if they were lucky, catch sight of star.

Universal Studios Hollywood Stunt Show

The original Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show

1967 was the year that the Universal studio tour began to transition into the theme park it has become today. With the opening of the Universal Entertainment Center came the western stunt show that would become a favorite attraction until it closed in 2002. This stunt show was a move away from an authentic behind-the-scenes tour to a production created specifically to entertain guests. Furthermore, instead of limiting the guests stay to the time it took to complete a tour, the entertainment center encouraged guests to spend an entire day at Universal City. This idea of an entertainment park, rather than just a tour, was based very much on the model of nearby Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Universal soon realized that in order to compete with these parks, they would have to developed their own unique attractions and rides.

As Universal expanded its entertainment center, they continued to use the tour model, but began to incorporate elements that were staged. In 1976, Universal unveiled what would become their signature attraction: the Jaws Experience. Although the tour included many of the original set pieces, what really put this experience on the map was the animatronic shark that attacks the tram. With the new Jaws Experience, Universal studios entered into serious competition with Disneyland for Southern California’s best theme park. Like Disney, Universal had a wealth of motion picture successes to tap into for new attractions. Jaws, however, wasn’t really a ride and that was an edge that Disneyland definitely held over Universal Studios. Yet, rather than try to beat Disney at its own game, Universal Studios developed their own style of attraction that kept with the back lot tour model, but with more complex staging and thrills.

The introduction of the King Kong ride in 1986, marks a major transition in theme park design. The 30 foot tall King Kong that terrorized riders was the largest and most complex animatronic to date. Unlike the Jaws experience, the King Kong ride was pure entertainment and was completely removed from the studio. With the King Kong ride, Universal found their groove in theme park attraction design and would continue to produce more and more rides that featured ever increasing levels of technical achievement, such as 1989’s Earthquake, 1991’s E.T. Experience, and 1996’s Jurassic Park: The Ride. Unfortunately, the original King Kong ride was destroyed in a huge backlot fire on June 1st 2008.

Jurassic Park: The Ride, Universal Studios Hollywood

Jurassic Park: The Ride

The Jurassic Park ride was produced as the “most faithful translation of movie to theme park ride ever;” it also remains the most expensive theme park ride of all time, at a cost of $110 million dollars. This faithful adherence to their movies is a huge part of Universal Studios’ success. The imagery that first captured their visitors’ imaginations on screen is brought to life and here they are invited to enter into that world that so fascinated them. While Universal Studios has gone on to open theme parks in Orlando, Florida and Osaka, Japan, it is only at the original Hollywood studio that visitors still have a chance of spotting a movie star.

The StudioTour
Etixland: Universal Studios Hollywood
Seeing Stars: Universal Studios Hollywood

3 responses to “The History of Universal Studios Hollywood”

  1. Kim says:

    The original stunt show was the best attraction they had. It lasted many years and I was disappointed when they changed it.

  2. Hector Flores says:

    I went here just yesterday it was great. I had a lot of fun. My kids loved it. I recommend it .

  3. Gloria Diaz says:

    Looking for information on my grandmother brother. He worked as an actor bits parts mostly I think. His name is a Anthony Valdez. He looked like Anthony Quinn and might have been a stand in for him. Any information would be greatly appreciated. We lost contact with him years ago but would like to find him. He probably has passed away.

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