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Stage and Screen

Universal Studios for beginners

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Of all the quintessential attractions Los Angeles has to offer, Universal Studios – nestled at the eastern end of the Hollywood Hills – is among the best.

Sprawling down the hill from the main public entrance, the century old studio comprises the studio lot and offices, as well as the well-known theme park and entertainment precinct.

Once inside, a lot of locals will tell you to do the whole park backwards – even though there's a lot to see and do right inside the grand art deco entrance, most people will be making their way down the hill from the upper to the lower lots slowly, stopping at each attraction and world in turn. But taking the 10 or 15 minute walk down the three huge escalators to the end of the lower lot will mean you'll do everything against the crowd.

The real magic for many visitors is in the famous backlot tram tour. Operating since 1915 (the trams came into service in 1964), the tour is the closest you'll ever get to the way Hollywood really works as well as showing you a thrilling glimpse of movie history. The tour operates all day, ending an hour before closing, and although there's no real best time to ride, you'll want to do so during the daylight hours as most of its outdoors.

The tram trundles down the hill into the working end of the studio where you'll see a lot of the purpose-made 'worlds' like a Mexican pueblo (complete with a man-made flash flood), a European street lined with cafes and a New York block full of brownstone houses with their distinctively weird perspective to make them look further away on camera.

But the studio often introduces new components using the latest technology. At one point the tram crawls around an ominous bend into a cave of splintered rock. Inside you put your 3D glasses on and find yourself in a primeval jungle where you're set upon by a brawl between King Kong and two dinosaurs. Created by Peter Jackson, it's an immersive, all-surround 3D film where the monsters rock the tram on its perilous track, spraying you with water and blasts of heat.

Together with displays of some of the most famous cars from films, the crashed airliner set from 2005's War of the Worlds and a recreation of the Bates Motel (complete with Norman emerging from a room with a body enshrouded in a sheet), it's inspiring, educational and entertaining all at once.


Written by Drew Turney