Universal Studios VIP Tour Review

universal_studios_hollywood_001For our recent honeymoon trip, my wife gave me an extra surprise. Our honeymoon took us to Disneyland for what we named The Epic Disneyland Honeymoon. And it was epic, especially since we were there right at the beginning of their Christmas season programing. But this was not the surprise she had for me. No, the surprise was a special VIP tour of Universal Studios.

I had been to Universal Studios Hollywood several times, and even been to Orlando once; these trips were done as the normal entry in the park that everyone takes, with the rides and the famous tram tour of the back lot. But this was different, this was the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience. It cost nearly $300.00 per person special ticket. It is red carpet treatment and makes you feel like a big shot.

If you have followed this site for a while, it will be no surprise that I am a huge Universal fan. My favorite movie of all time is Universal’s Casablanca, and my love of Universal Horror is well documented. Of course the woman I married is well aware of this love of all things Universal. Thanks to this, she felt it was worth the money to make sure that our Honeymoon would have an event that would have special meaning for me. If you share this love of Universal, or really just movies in general, it is something you may want to consider sometime.



Now when I say ‘surprise’ I want to be clear that I knew about it before we got on the airplane; she didn’t just spring it on me that morning, which is a good thing because we needed an early start. Staying at the Disneyland Hotel meant we needed a rental car, and fortunately Downtown Disney has a car rental place onsite. This was important because the VIP tour has a specific start time, which meant that taking the shuttle was not optional. We got an early enough start that, even with Los Angeles traffic, we got there with 20 minutes to spare. Basically, you need to be there prior to park opening.

Valet parking was part of the package, and once we were parked we made our way through the Universal Citywalk to the Front Entrance of the park, checking in at the special VIP entrance to the park. The tour is not something you can just sign up for on the spur of the moment; with limited space each day, you must reserve your space in advance.  At check-in were given our special VIP badges, and then we were taken into the not-yet-opened park and escorted to the VIP lounge. Walking through a theme park, which you have visited several times, before it is opened is a very surreal experience; it was really the perfect start to a day full of surreal experiences.

The VIP Lounge is a somewhat non-descript building in the middle of the upper level of the park. It is like a small but very nice restaurant. We were greeted at the door and escorted to the patio where pastries, fruit, and drinks were available. There were two tour groups on the patio, each group consisting of 12 people. We were told our tour guide’s name was Matthew and that he would come to collect us soon. The first group left a few minutes before Matthew came to collect us. He was a 20 year veteran of Universal Studios, having worked both in the park and on some extra gigs around the studios. He was a great host, which I assume is a job requirement for leading the VIP tour;  it was clear that he knew everyone in the park, and had developed relationships with them.

The first part of the tour consisted of going on the rides. As a VIP tour we did not go through the regular entrances; instead Matthew would take us through side entrances and to the front of the line for every ride. He also told us that, after the tour was done, our badges would still get us front of the line access. We started on the Simpsons ride, on the upper level. From there we went to the lower level for the Mummy and Transformer rides. Jurassic Park was closed that day for maintenance. From there it was back up top to the Terminator 2 3D show (this attraction was really showing its age). Matthew told us that it was the last month of the show before it would be closed down and replaced with a Despicable Me attraction. He then took us back to the VIP lounge for a gourmet lunch buffet (which was delicious). After lunch, we went through the Universal House of Horrors attraction, their year round haunted house.

Next was the center piece of the whole tour: the back lot tram ride. The normal tram tour is done in a large multi-car tram that holds an enormous number of people; since our tour group was only 12 people, obviously we would not need that. Instead we got on a small tram that reminded me of a trolley.  For the most part, the tram tour was the same as the normal one, going through the backlot, discussing Universal’s history, and having staged events like a flash flood or the encounter with King Kong. But there was more to it; the normal Tram tour is around 45 minutes, whereas ours was over 2 hours. That extra time was spent doing things that made the whole trip worthwhile. Some of it was simple; since our tram was small, we were able to go places the big trams couldn’t. So we got to see where the sound stages for a lot of shows were. We passed by the CSI sets, which had their doors open a bit, although all we could see were the backs of sets. Right after that was the first thing that made the VIP tour stand out: our tram pulled up to a sound stage and stopped, Matthew had us get out of the tram and check in with a security guard after which we were taken into the sound stage. It was the set for a TV show called Parenthood, specifically a house set. I’ll be honest I have never watched this show, but that didn’t matter, this was a working TV set and we were being allowed to go in and see how it was set up and what they do to shoot the show there. Matthew went over various technical details of the set, describing how things are constructed in order to film the series, including the lack of a ceiling on the house to make room for lighting, the trees outside on wheels and the backdrop. I found myself focusing on details, like the books on the shelves. From there it was more tram tour, including the city street sets. We got lucky, and in the distance we could see a scene for CSI being filmed, my wife was very excited when she spotted Ted Danson on the set.

The next special treat was another stop. We parked outside of a very non-descript building and took an elevator to the top floor. This building held the Universal Wardrobe and Props departments; each of these departments is the biggest, of their kind, in Hollywood. Matthew pointed out that anyone can rent from them, even members of the public. The building was really just a normal warehouse with some offices. It was not glitzy, until you paid attention to what was stored there. When Universal makes a costume for a movie or TV show, they take it back when they are done and add it to their wardrobe inventory for rental. An example is that the battle armor from Starship Troopers was reused for the show Firefly. There were racks of clothes of all types. One row was ball gowns, another was chainmail, both fake and real, yet another was a whole row of Santa Claus outfits.  At one point we stopped while Matthew checked to see if we could go into the next room; the costumes we stopped by were from Hellboy 2, and my inner fanboy rejoiced.



Down one floor was the props department, which is really just one big warehouse. At first glance it would not seem terribly exciting, unless you really paid attention. The first thing we saw was an aisle of nothing but lamps, but right next to it was a rack of disco balls, then a row of telephones arranged by date (oldest to newest),  followed by a row of body parts. Matthew explained that prop masters from different productions would come in with slips containing details about the production company, and the dates various props were needed; they would go through the department and if they came to something they needed they would tag it, marking it as reserved for them, and the department would record who was taking what. The production company would be responsible for collecting the props they needed on check-out day. During our visit, several people were loading carts with props. Some of the props were just for display, as they were too iconic for use in other productions, such as the dagger from the Shadow.

While we weren’t supposed to touch anything, Matthew did take us to one spot where we could. These were demo props for the tour, designed to look dangerous but be safe (for example, a foam frying pan painted to look real that he let my wife whack me over the head with). We also got to play with breakaway glass. Going down a couple of flights of stairs (and I assume skipping a couple of floors of props) we were at ground level where they have larger props like furniture, statues, phone booths, and a giant shopping cart from Jackass.



Back on the tram, we passed the Jaws set, the Bates Motel with an actor playing Norman, and the Bates House. Beyond the Bates House was the crashed airplane set from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The Tram stopped here and we were let out again; we were allowed to walk around the crash set, take pictures, and even touch some stuff. (Interesting note – the Station 2 set from Jurassic Park is hidden behind the crash set.)  After that it was back on the Tram to finish up that tour.

Returning to the park proper, we went to the special effects show where we had VIP seating. After that, we were taken to the Water World Stunt Show where, again, we had VIP seating. It was here that Matthew said goodbye, as this was the end of the tour. After the Stunt Show we had one last treat, a Q & A with a pair of the stunt performers.

And with that, we had about 20 minutes left for shopping before the park closed.

So I would definitely recommend this. The first part is fun, if you are a theme park fan. The second half is an absolute blast if you are a film or TV fan, especially if you have an interest in how things work behind the scenes. The food in the gourmet lunch is excellent, and the tour guide and all the staff went out of their way to make sure we felt special. At times it felt more like a friend sneaking us in the back entrance than going into a priority line, and I mean that in the best ways.

If you have a chance to go to Universal Studios and you can afford it, I would highly recommend getting the VIP package.

I give the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience an A+

Halloween Horror Nights

This weekend marks the start of Halloween Horror Nights, which I count as the official kick off of the Halloween season.

For those not in the know Halloween Horror Nights is an annual event held at Universal Studios at their Florida, Hollywood, and Singapore locations. Basically afterhours during the five weeks leading up to Halloween the parks convert over to a Halloween event.

Now a lot of theme parks do this. As you get closer to Halloween the parks will have events that range from a very kid friendly one at Disneyland to very well respected event at Knott’s Berry Farm. But this is Universal Studios, who created most of the horror images that are now an integral part of Halloween. So in 1991 at their park in Florida they decided to do the event, which was called Fright Nights during its first year. The next year it was renamed Halloween Horror Nights and expanded to both Florida and Hollywood.

It’s worth mentioning that while Halloween Horror Nights happens at all Universal sites, Florida is usually considered the bigger one, with Hollywood being a little brother and Singapore only having just started doing it last year.  All three sites have their own development team and while they may have similar themed houses and scarezones they are not usually developed in tandem.

Originally the event was mostly Halloween themed shows and a traditional haunted house maze. Then performers called scarectors were added who wandered selected areas of the park called scarezones.  The number of houses increased, each with its own theme.  These would grow to Florida having 8 houses and 6 to 8 scarezones. Hollywood now has 6 houses, 4 to 5 scarezones, and a scary tram ride.

One noticeable difference in the houses and scarezones between sites is that Hollywood is more likely to have them themed based on an existing movie franchise, where Florida is more prone to creating original house themes and stories.

In 2000 a feature was added the really made Halloween Horror Nights stand out, the creation of the event icons. Really this was started a few years earlier when the event was hosted by the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. In 2000 however an original character was created to be the events host in Florida, Jack the Clown. Jack was not only created visually but was given a fairly detailed back story. Basically Jack was developed enough that he could have been the main character of a horror movie. But instead he was used as the main character of the event with a house and scarezone both themed after him. Since then every year except two in Florida has had an Icon.  Hollywood will also use Icons, but has never developed an original one, either using one of Florida’s or an existing character from a film franchise such as Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

To date Halloween Horror Nights has created the following Icons:

Jack Schmidt aka Jack the Clown (Yes they did his last name on purpose): A murderous clown who leads the demented Carnival of Carnage. Jack is the most popular icon and has been used more than any of the others. In 2001 a new Icon, Eddie was supposed to be introduced, but after the 9/11 attacks he was deemed not appropriate and Jack was brought back and a toned down Eddie was made his little brother and minion. As Jack is partly inspired by the Joker he has another sidekick, Chance, who is reminiscent of Harley Quinn.

Albert Cain aka The Caretaker: Cain was a former surgeon turned mortician who would capture people and experiment on them. Originally Albert was meant to be a background character to the events original Icon, his disturbed daughter Cindy. However a string of child abductions in the Florida area led to Cindy being pushed back and Albert being developed as the main Icon.

Paulo Ravinski aka The Director: An Eastern European film maker who would actually kill actors on film in order to capture the realism of their deaths.

Elsa Strict aka The Storyteller: An old woman who would tell stories of horror from an ancient time, known as Terra Curentas. Originally the Terra Queen was meant to be the Icon, but there were development issues with her and the Storyteller was created for promotional materials and commercials. Her lack of a backstory is unique amongst the Icons and has been played up in subsequent appearances.

Dr. Mary Agana aka Bloody Mary: A psychiatrist who through her research into fear transformed herself into the Bloody Mary of folklore. Mary had an extensive history developed, second only to Jack’s. The Halloween Horror Nights’ website had a multimedia game set up prior to the event that would allow people to uncover her story.

Julian Browning aka the Usher:  A strict movie usher at a 1920’s movie theater. He was killed after a scuffle with a patron, and now haunts the theater and enforces his rules beyond the grave.

Fear: Literally the embodiment of fear, often called Fear Himself. He was the Icon for the 20th anniversary and brought Jack, the Caretaker, the Storyteller, the Director, and the Usher with him as his Heralds.

Lady Luck: The embodiment of bad luck. If you gamble with her and lose she will devour you. She is second only to the Storyteller in lack of back story.

Besides the Icons there are other story elements that have appeared repeatedly.


Legendary Truth: An organization formed in the 50’s to investigate the supernatural. An online game based on a hunt for Bloody Mary treated the players as Legendary Truth agents. A similar game was set up for the 20th anniversary to uncover the source of the monsters. There has also been a house that was themed as a Legendary Truth investigation gone horribly wrong.

Shady Brook Rest Home and Sanitarium: A mental hospital that briefly held Jack the Clown. It has been the setting for four houses and a part of the 20th anniversary online game.

Carey Ohio: Carey, a town in Wyandot County Ohio, is the hometown of one of the creative directors of Halloween Horror Nights. Both the town and the county have been the setting for several houses over the years, to the point that this year there is a house based around all the weird things that happen in Carey.

The Chainsaw drill team: Every year at least one of the scarezones is based around a group running around with chainsaws.


But all the great backstory in the world isn’t worth anything unless the houses are well executed. And this is where having a movie studio behind the theme park really comes into play. The craftsmanship behind the designs of the houses and the costumes and makeup on the scarectors is high. A lot of thought goes into Halloween Horror Nights with some park employees working year round to put the event together.

My wife and I attended the 20th Anniversary event in 2010. I’m picky about haunted houses as I use to work in what was at the time the leading haunted house in the Seattle area for a few years. I am also hard to impress because I am not a person who goes around nervous at a Halloween event because I know I am safe, so I am impressed when someone can get a jump scare out of me. At Halloween Horror Nights only one house failed to jump scare me, and even then I was impressed with how well the set, costumes, and sound was handled. Most other houses got me to jump scare at least once, and one got me five times. My wife had to remind me that I could not high five the people who got me to jump.

I was also impressed by a lot of technical details. In one house they used scarectors on wires behind a cheesecloth screen painted to look like a wall to create the effect of translucent ghosts flying by. Two of the houses used hanging items like strips of plastic or cloth in doorways and hallways to disorientate guest. You would have to reach up and brush them away and this gave scarectors a chance to sneak up. One house took advantage of the fact that your eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. A flame effect would go off when you entered a room, wreaking your night vision and distracting you so that you would not see the person hiding in the shadows.

For a break Halloween Horror Nights always has a Bill and Ted live show that makes fun of whatever was big in pop culture that year.I expect the Avengers to have a big part this year.

There is usually another show as well, but those rotate. The year we were there it was a magician that did gory tricks. This year it appears to be a circus geek show.

I did learn that there is one big difference between the Florida and Hollywood events. My sister went to the Hollywood event the same year I went to Florida. The difference is in refreshments. In Hollywood there is no alcohol available. In Florida not only are there places to buy alcohol but they had women dressed as nurses with IV bags containing Jell-O shots roaming the park.

Overall this is a fun event. If you like haunted houses you will love Halloween Horror Nights. So if you get the chance to go I would highly recommend it and I hope to go back one day myself.


Harry Potter and the End of the Franchise .

After 14 years the juggernaut that is the Harry Potter franchise has come to a close as of this last weekend. I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 last night. It was a very good movie although the final scene did not work as well on screen as it did on paper.
Rather than review the movie I want to look at the phenomena that is Harry Potter.
The first book was published in June of 1997. As hard as it is to remember sometimes the Potter series is classified as middlegrade books. This means it’s more mature than a children’s book but not quite up to teen level yet. It was written by J.K. Rowling a single mother who was living on benefits.  It ended up being a seven book series with each of the last four books breaking the previous record for fastest selling book ever.  And Rowling went from living on benefits to the first person to ever listed by Forbes as having become a billionaire solely through writing books.
And she earned every cent for one reason. She got children interested in reading. Hell she got lots of people reading.
The strength of the series was its ability to mature along with its main characters. The first books were middlegrade with was the age range of Harry and his friends. As they matured to teenagers the series itself matured to teen level.
(Side note, friends in the publishing industry tell me that the big difference between teen and middlegrade is that middlegrade books lack angst.)
The books are full of wonderful and wondrous imagery.  The values held by its heroes are virtuous and ultimately good triumphs over evil, but not without great cost. Its great literature and proved once and for all that you can write for children without writing down to them.
The film series stands as the most successful of all time. They managed the remarkable feat of casting a group of child actors ten years ago and managing to keep them all as the series progressed.  It will be interesting to see how they progress now that the series is over.
And my opening statement may not be strictly correct. We have seen the end of the books and movies, but the franchise is actually got a lot of steam left. I recent trip to mall included poking my head into Hot Topic. There was wall to wall Potter. Yes it was ramped up for the movie but still there is a lot of merchandise.
And then there is the theme park. Last year my wife and I went to Universal Studios Florida for their Halloween event (Which will be covered later on). While there we went to Universal Islands of Adventure, which includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was an amazing exercise in environment immersion.  It’s only about a year old and it is packing them in. We went on a Thursday and it was packed. We went back on Saturday and it was so packed we could barely move. Picture frames are really video for the moving pictures, you can buy butterbeer and Pumpkin juice, There is the wand shop, the gag store, and the main ride takes place in Hogwarts.
(Please ignore my thumb.)
Finally Rowling is opening a website called Pottermore that appears to be basically a Harry Potter social networking site.
The series is over, but the Boy who lived looks like he has a lot of life left in him.