Kualoa Ranch is one of the most iconic filming locations in Hawaii. Located along the east coast of Oahu, the beautiful landscape has been seen in countless movies and TV shows. These include the Jurassic Park and World films, Lost, 50 First Dates, and Hawaii Five-0.
I recently had the chance to ask Kualoa Ranch representative David Morgan some questions. We discuss the history of the ranch as well as information about how productions film in the area.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Could you give my readers a bit of the history of Kualoa Ranch?
The modern history of the ranch started in 1850 when Doctor Gerrit Judd purchased the Kualoa area directly from King Kamehameha III. It was added to in the 1860s when his son Charles Judd purchased the two adjoining parcels to bring it to its present size, which is just under 4,000 acres. The ranch is still owned by some of the descendants of Doctor Judd.
More than half of this area is composed of very steep, spectacularly beautiful mountains. The vast majority of the usable land has been used as cattle pasture for more than 150 years. There is a bit of land suitable for cultivation, and in fact this was the site of the first sugar mill on the island of Oahu.
In addition to marketing grass fed beef, we presently we grow a number of different food crops, the largest in size being papaya, banana, taro, coffee, breadfruit, turmeric, and cacao. The cacao we have processed into chocolate bars that we market under our own label. In addition we grow salt water shrimp and Tilapia fish in earthen ponds and oysters in a large ancient Hawaiian fishpond that was built over 800 years ago.
When did you start offering tours of the ranch?
Because of the scenic beauty and the cultural significance of the property we started offering tours in 1985 and this has grown into a very successful means of fulfilling our mission, which is to preserve and protect this incredibly wonderful area.
Over the years, the ranch has become a popular filming location for movies and TV shows. How did this come to be? Do you know the first production to film at the ranch?
The first movie that had a scene shot on ranch property was Mister Roberts in 1955. I was only one year old at the time, so I don’t remember that one. The first one I remember was an Elvis Presley movie called Paradise Hawaiian Style. I still tell a story about that one. We were all excited about the prospect of them filming a movie here, even more so because it was with Elvis Presley, so we went over to watch them. Unfortunately it didn’t take us very long to realize that when they are filming the vast majority of time is spent doing what appears to be very little, at least in the mind of a youngster. (my rule of thumb is that it typically takes about a half of a day to end up with 30 seconds on the screen)
How does the process of selecting the ranch for filming work? Do you host location scouts who come to check out the area?
In recent times Hawaii has become a very desirable location for more and more movies and as a consequence they have been coming to us more and more frequently. Typically what happens is that the Location Manager, sometimes with the Director and the Director of Photography will come around to scout possible locations to shoot. I usually try to be in attendance for the initial scouts so that if there is anything that comes up that may be problematic to us, we can address it in the early stages of the decision making process.
What sort of logistics to productions need when filming? What sort of services does the ranch provide, and what do the productions need to supply themselves?
Once the wheels of the production start turning in earnest, there is quite often not much that we are involved in on their side. We just provide the location. We have a certain amount of heavy equipment and so if they need something done along those lines then we will quite often get that job because we don’t have the cost of mobilization that another company may have to bear.
When productions need to alter the land (put up buildings, dig holes, etc) what is involved in that? Are there any environmental concerns that need to be considered?
As far as altering our land or environment, we retain the ability to veto anything that we feel is going to be detrimental.
There are a couple cases where a production has left props or buildings at the ranch after filming. The Jurassic World paddock and Kong Skull Island skeletons are for examples. Does the ranch request to have these left for tourists to see? Are productions normally required to remove things after they film?
The contracts always state that if they change any of our property in any significant way, then they have to pay to restore the land to its original condition. Sometimes, but not always, we get the contract to do that restoration. If that is the case and it is a cool looking set, then we will not demolish it until it starts to deteriorate significantly. That way our tour customers can get to see the set as it was built by the movie production and we can promote the movie to them. Win/win situation. There was one movie production that we knew would be a big hit, and we knew that it would be a cool set, so we negotiated a deal whereby they used more durable construction material and we did not charge them for the demolition of the set.
We’ve seen films at the ranch that have involved animals (horses, cows, penguins come to mind). What is involved in filming with animals? Do you have animal handlers on site or does the production need to provide these? Does the humane society oversee this?
As far as the use of animals on set goes, we have some animals available but there are a lot of regulations in that industry that have to be adhered to. We do not have staff that is conversant in those regulations and so [the production] must provide there own oversite in that area.
What have been some of the more memorable productions filmed at the Kualoa Ranch?
For me the most memorable production that came to the ranch was Lost. The primary reason for that selection was the length of that run. The story line called for a lot of outdoor tropical scenes and it went for [six] seasons, so they were here a lot. The Location Manager was the same person throughout the whole run and I learned a lot about that industry during that time. Both Jurassic World movies were pretty special too. They, by far and away, did the most set construction on our property.
Do you have any funny or interesting stories about anything happening during filming?
On a personal note, there was one funny thing that happened to me. When they were filming Lost they had a fake submarine that they put in our ancient Hawaiian Fishpond. For one scene they decided that they wanted the camera angle to be from out in the pond, looking back at the submarine that was moored at our dock. They rented a large boat that we normally use to transport our guests across the fishpond to an area that we call Secret Island. They covered up the benches with a wooden deck and then put a big tent on top of that. Then they loaded up the boat with all of the camera equipment, monitors, directors chairs etc. I saw it the day before the shoot and it looked very “Hollywood”. I wanted to get a picture of it but couldn’t put that together until the day of the shoot.
As I approached the dock from my car I explained to the security guard what I intended to do and he told me “great, you should go right now because they aren’t filming right now”. I proceeded out onto the dock and as I was walking I could see the submarine at the end of the dock with two guys standing on it, and our boat with all of the camera equipment on it beyond that. It looked like a perfect picture for what I wanted to do. About halfway out the dock I started to realize that the 2 guys on the submarine looked more like actors than grips. Moments after that realization came to me a loud voice from the bushes behind me yelled out “ROLLING”. And there I was standing, looking straight at the camera, which was looking straight back at me. I sheepishly turned around and walked back off the dock. Unfortunately, when I watched that episode I realized that my one experience of being in font of a movie camera ended up on the cutting room floor.
Kualoa Ranch currently offer 2 different tours of movie sites. Can you explain some of the differences to help my readers decide which option would be best for them?
In normal times (this not being one of them due to Covid) we offer two tours that focus more strongly on movies. One is called our Ranch and Movie Site Tour. It is 90 minutes long and goes into Kaaawa Valley. It is conducted in an open air bus and sees where they filmed Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Windtalkers, Mighty Joe Young, George of the Jungle, Triple Frontier, Kong Skull Island, 50 First Dates, Mike and Dave Needs Wedding Dates and Lost.
The other is called the Premier Movie Site Tour. It is 2 ½ hours and also goes into the other side of the ranch to see a few different Jurassic World sets along with sites where they filmed Snatched, The Last Resort, Soul Surfer, You, Me and Dupree, more 50 First Dates, amongst others.
When there is filming happening, how does this affect the tours?
Our tour business has grown to the point that if a movie production company would like to do something that has a negative impact on our tours it can get very costly for them. But we have learned enough about how they operate so that we can usually negotiate a way to interact with them where their cost is very affordable and it potentially has a great impact on our tours.
We know from experience that the amount of time that the camera is rolling is very, very small. (remember my story about the Elvis Presley movie) So if our tours and their camera angle are going to occupy the same space then they put somebody with a radio near the point of overlap. If our tour arrives at the wrong time that person will hold up the tour until the camera is no longer rolling. Usually we request that the delay be no longer than three minutes and that usually works for them. Then some times our tours get to literally roll right through their set.
Besides tours focusing on filming, what other tours does Kualoa Ranch offer?
Our tours include the Ranch and Movie Site Tour, the Premier Movie Site Tour, the Jungle Expedition Tour, the Ocean Voyage Tour, the Taste of Kualoa Farm Tour, Horseback Tours, ATV tours, Electric Assist Mountain Bike Tours, an Ocean Kayak Tour, a Zipline Tour, and our Secret Island beach experience.
Thanks to David for sharing his time and information about this amazing location. To read more about my visits to Kualoa Ranch, check out my article.
For more info about Kualoa Ranch and the tours they offer, please visit their official site.
UPDATE: Kualoa Ranch has just launched a new tour focusing on the Jurassic Park franchise’s locations. Check out their Jurassic Adventure Tour!