Universal Studios Hollywood is the most unique of the 4 big studio tours in Hollywood. A tour of the studios and backlot is just one of many attractions within the theme park.
Universal has operated studio tours for years, but in the 80s they decided to construct a theme park. They incorporated the studio tram tour as an attraction within the park. There is currently no way to tour the studios and backlot without paying for admission to the park. Universal Studios does offer a VIP tour which includes a special tour of the studios and front-of-the-line access to the rides. You can read more details about my VIP experience below.
Studio Tram Tour
After entering the park, you can make your way to the queue for the Backlot Tram Tour. Much like any ride, your wait time depends on a number of variables, including the season and time of day. Once it’s time, you board a large tram (usually 4 to 5 cars) to begin the tour. There is a driver and a tour guide at the front of the tram, but most of the tour is narrated on video screens by Jimmy Fallon. The tours follow the same general route, however sometimes they need to adjust based on filming schedules. Here are some of the areas you may see on the tour:
Stages and Offices
The Tram Tour starts by driving past some of the soundstages on the Universal lot. The guides will point out some of the current and past productions filmed in these soundstages. You’ll also see some production offices before going into the backlots.
One of the most popular locations in the backlot area is Courthouse Square. It should be instantly recognizable to Back To The Future fans as the Clock Tower. The facade of the Courthouse has been changed numerous times over the years, as different productions made changes to suit their needs.
Surrounding the square are a series of building facades used in many different productions. Unfortunately in 2008, a large fire destroyed much of this area. The Courthouse did survive the fire, but many of the other buildings had to be rebuilt, causing them to look much different than then did previously.
New York Street
Universal Studios Hollywood has a large New York backlot, including a variety of buildings that can be used depending on the need.
Adjacent to the New York Street is a row of brownstone houses. One of these houses was featured in Home Alone 2 as Uncle Rob and Aunt Georgette’s house. The stunts involved would have been difficult to film on location in New York, so this brownstone set was a perfect option.
Much like Courthouse Square, almost all of New York Street and the brownstones were destroyed in the 2008 fire. This entire area had to be rebuilt, and thus some of the area looks very different from how it appears in movies and TV shows.
At one point, almost every studio in the industry had a western set. But as Western movies became less common, many of these sets were demolished. Now Universal Studios has one of the only western sets standing.
The tour includes a drive down Colonial Street, which is a residential street used for many productions. These include Leave It To Beaver, The Munsters, and The ‘Burbs. This area was also used as Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives.
The studios features an area known as Little Europe, and the buildings all have European style architectures. This area was also used on the series The Good Place.
There is a street designed in a Mexican style, which can be used as a variety of locations. There is also a market area that features a water flood feature. While this has been used in a couple productions, it is largely a display for the tram tour.
Universal Studios still features the original Bates Motel set from the 1960 movie Psycho. The set has been moved several times but is still featured on the tram tour. A note, this motel set was not used in the TV series “Bates Motel”, as that show was filmed in Vancouver.
Just up the hill from the Bates Motel is the Psycho House. This house set was also used in the original movie and has also been moved several times.
War of the Worlds Set
Just passed the Psycho House is the area used in the 2005 film War of the Worlds. This area was set up to depict a neighbourhood that’s been destroyed by a plane crash. A real retired airplane was purchased and brought here to be incorporated in the set.
The Great Outdoors Cabin
The cabin used in the 1988 movie The Great Outdoors is located just passed the War of the Worlds set. It was originally elsewhere on the lot, and had actually just been moved here shortly before my visit. It was also recently seen and Riker and Troi’s cabin on Star Trek: Picard.
The Universal Movie Cars
The Tram Ride “Attractions”
The powers-that-be have decided that a studio tour is not enough to thrill guests, so they’ve added some ride experiences to the tram tour. There are attractions based on the movies The Fast And The Furious, King Kong, and Earthquake. There’s also a spot featuring a mechanical shark based on Jaws. At least the theme park shark is more reliable than the one in the movie.
The tram tour only lasts about an hour, and is the least personal of the major studio tours. You cannot leave the tram at all, and there is no guide that you can ask questions of or interact with either.
Pictures are permitted throughout the tour, but you may find your view is restricted based on where you are in the tram. Depending on your seat, you may be on the wrong side or have shoulders blocking your view. I suggest trying to take the tour during a quiet period, as you may be able to get a row to yourself. Alternatively, ask if you can sit in the very back row. You may need to wait until the next tram, but the back row allows you to take photos of everything behind you. Alternatively, if you’d like a more personal and up-close tour, you can opt for the VIP tour, which you can read about below.
Since you have paid for admission to Universal Studios Hollywood, you can enjoy all the rides and shows as well. You can also do the studio tram tour more than once if you wish. There’s some great attractions based on franchises like Transformers, Jurassic World, The Simpsons, and Despicable Me. The Waterworld stunt show is also excellent. While the movie was a flop, the show is very good.
Occasionally Universal Studios has some props and memorabilia on display in the park. At one point the space capsule from Apollo 13 was on display. Previously they also had a small indoor museum. The DeLorean Time Machine from Back to the Future was on display, along with props like the flux capacitor. They also had an ET model, an Oscar Award, and several other items on display as well. This museum is now closed, but the Delorean is on permanent display at the Peterson Automobile Museum in LA.
The VIP Tour
Universal Studios Hollywood does have a way for you to get a more personal look at the studios, the VIP Tour. In May 2022, I had the chance to take the VIP tour, so I’m happy to share some details about it. The VIP tour is designed for those who want an up-close and personal look at the studios and the theme park.
When booking, you are given instructions on parking as part of your confirmation. The VIP tour includes valet parking at the Jurassic Parking Lot.
Once you drop your car off, you take a short walk through Universal Citywalk and go through security. Once at the gates, there is a special building to the right of the main entrance for VIP guests. You’ll check in at the front, and then be lead upstairs to enjoy a light breakfast. Some of the items included hard-boiled eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, various cereals, and fresh juice and coffee. There is a lounge area to sit and eat, and also an outdoor veranda overlooking the main courtyard where you can watch people enter the park.
Once it is time for your tour to begin, your guide will gather everyone in the lobby, pass out some water bottles, and lead you outside. On my particular tour, we had an excellent guide named Tony, who seemed really knowledgeable. He said since it was a Sunday morning, we would start by visiting the studios. As my main interest is the studios and backlot, this was my main focus of the day, much more than the theme park rides. The guided tour of the studios follows a similar path to the main tram tour, but is much more in depth. We were driven around in a small open-air bus, and made numerous stops.
After driving past some of the sound stages, our first stop was the one I was most anticipating, Courthouse Square! On my previous visits, the tram always skipped this area due to filming, meaning I didn’t get to see the famous Clock Tower from Back To The Future. As one of my favourite movies, it was amazing to not only see it, but to be able to get off the bus and walk around.
Tony then walked us around parts of the New York Street, and over to the brownstone houses, where Home Alone 2 was filmed. Getting to walk through the backlots was really cool, and an opportunity that most park guests don’t get. This alone made the day worthwhile for me.
From there, we went back on the bus, and drove through some of the other backlot areas including Denver Street, Mexican Street, and Colonial Street (which I would have LOVED to explore on foot, but at least we saw it).
During this backlot tour, the VIP bus also goes into all of the “attractions” much like the large trams do. These don’t really interest me, but I imagine they are done to entertain people who aren’t as interested in the studio side of things. We did get to do is at the Jaws/Amityville area to watch the shark attack ‘experience’, but then we parked on the other side and got to walk around the lake and village. We were told Murder She Wrote was filmed here. Then we got to watch the shark attack again, but this time from across the lake, watching a tram full of guests react. It was pretty cool to see it from that perspective.
We then drove past the Bates Motel and the Psycho House. Then the bus parked to let us walk around the War of the Worlds set. This was also pretty cool, as a lot of detail went into this set, including seeing a full airplane completely destroyed. We also walked over to The Great Outdoors cabin.
One thing I was particularly interested in was seeing the original house from Leave It To Beaver. For years it has been sitting on a quiet corner of the studio that most people don’t get to see. If you’ve read my article about the show, you’ll know that the house on Colonial Street is actually a recreation built for the 1990s movie version. I asked Tony about this, and he said we could take a special trip up to see it. Unfortunately when we got there, we realized it had been torn down. Tony and the driver assumed it had just happened within the week.
Once our tour of the studios ended, Tony lead us back into the park and brought us to some rides on the lower lot. The great thing about the VIP tour is that your guide actually leads you right onto the ride. You get to bypass all the queues. This makes it very easy to do all the rides in a day.
We headed back to the upper lot, and Tony lead us to the Moulin Rouge Restaurant, which is exclusively reserved for VIP guests. I know the lunch was advertised as a gourmet buffet, but honestly my expectations were pretty low. That was my mistake, as the lunch was fantastic! The spread of food had a lot of choices, and everything was delicious. They even had a carvery station with fresh pork loin in a berry compote sauce. There was also a huge selection of desserts. I’ll admit, I ate WAY too much for someone who was about to go on more theme park rides. There is also a large outdoor eating area with a patio overlooking the studios. When considering the price of the VIP tour, I’d say the value of this lunch is easily $50 or more.
After eating, we met back up with Tony and he brought us to a couple of the gentle kids rides. We went on the Minions and Secret Life of Pets attractions, a wise choice after such a hearty lunch. We then went over to the Waterworld show where we had a special seating area, It was in the middle, but high enough to be out of the splash zone. After the show, we went to some of the more intense rides, including the new Harry Potter attractions (which often have a very long wait). We finished the day at the Simpson’s ride, where Tony left us.
Once the tour concludes, your VIP pass still gives you unlimited front-of-the-line access to all rides and shows for the rest of the day. As I was more interested in the studios than the other rides, I actually went back and did the regular Tram Tour. I wanted an extra chance to see the backlots. As promised, I went to the queue, and was brought right to the front of the line. I asked if I could sit in the back row, and they sent me right over to that spot. This worked great as I could turn around and take unobstructed photos.
Once the tram tour ended, I had to end my day at the park, as I was meeting my friend Andrea (who runs the great FilmTourismus site). While I didn’t get to go back and redo any rides, I was ok since the tour made sure I got to do them all once. However, if you ever decide to do this tour, I recommend booking the earliest tour departure. This way you have lots of time to redo the rides and shows before the park closes.
In terms of the cost, I will admit the price is very high. It generally costs $350-400 USD depending on the day and season. This unfortunately puts it out of the price range for many people, especially if you are a family. My tour group was made up mostly of couples, with a couple single people and just one child. Some things to consider with the price though: It includes park admission, front-of-the-line access, breakfast and lunch, valet parking, a tour guide, and a VIP tour of the studios. For those who want to see the studios up close and skip the queues, this could be the perfect option for you!