What's the Attraction? : Valley Area Draws Its Share of Tourists Visiting Los Angeles

Lustig is a regular contributor to Valley View.

For an anticipated 6 million of the 49 million tourists who will visit Los Angeles this year, the San Fernando Valley area will be more than just another suburb, it will be a major place to play.

Although a majority of those 49 million people fan out to various Westside attractions--especially the beaches--upon arrival, the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau says the Valley is the No. 1 specific destination in the county, thanks to Universal Studios. (The top spot in Southern California is, of course, Disneyland.) Last year, more than 4 million people took the tour and, according to company spokesman Joan Bullard, attendance is up 30% over last year at this time.

But Universal is not the only big draw in the Valley area. Of the top Southern California attractions tracked by the visitors bureau, the NBC Studio tour in Burbank ranks 11th, pulling in 150,000 people a year. Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, which is not ranked by the bureau, attracts about 500,000 tourists annually.

Of course, these Valley-area attractions are not just vying for crowds; with exceptions such as Forest Lawn, which does not charge visitors, these amusement parks and studio tours are hoping to net some of the billions of dollars--almost $13 billion in 1988--that tourists bring to the Los Angeles area.

What follows is a rundown on some of the top tourist spots in the Valley.

Universal says the increase in attendance is due largely to its newest ride, Earthquake--The Big One. "Attendance from other states was up 20% from last year, other countries up 30% and local attendance up 65%, all because of the Earthquake attraction," Bullard said.

First-time Los Angeles visitor Dennis Dotson of Midwest City, Okla., said he brought his family to Universal to see how movies are made. "I've always enjoyed movies," he said, "so this is a real treat for us. If we were coming to L.A., we had to come here."

Universal is not the only studio conducting tours. The Burbank Studios runs a daily tour for groups of up to 12 people, taking them through the various departments and operations of the combined Warner Bros. and Columbia Studios lot. About 70% of its 6,500 yearly visitors are from out of state.

At NBC, up to 15 people at a time can take the 75-minute tour. "Over 50% of the people are from out of state or out of country," said Donna Goodwin of NBC. "And visitors have included citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, Japan and France."

While many on the tour hope to see Johnny Carson, and he does occasionally arrive while one is being conducted, it is some of his comments, particularly about local landmarks, that has peaked the interest of some tourists.

"Johnny kept on talking about Forest Lawn, and that's why I came to the San Fernando Valley," said Florence Silverstein, 63, of Boston. "It was a very pretty place."

Besides being pretty, Forest Lawn promotes itself as the final resting place of a number of Hollywood luminaries, including Mary Pickford, W. C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Nat (King) Cole, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn.

Six Flags Magic Mountain in the Santa Clarita Valley pulled in 3.1 million visitors in 1988, most of whom were from Southern California. (Attendance increased almost 9% over 1987.) In fact, Magic Mountain officials regard the amusement park as a regional, rather than a national, attraction. "We're basically a Southern California park for Southern Californians," said Courtney Simmons, a park spokesman. The park's newest ride, Tidal Wave, opened June 3, and park officials say it is operating at full capacity--1,200 people an hour.

While it is the major attractions such as Magic Mountain, Universal and NBC that bring tourists in, some not-so-obvious spots keep them here.

"There's a lot of things to do in the Valley," said Nancy Hoffman of the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce, who said her office receives daily calls from out-of-state tourists wanting to know about local fairs, art shows and parks.

"A lot of our calls are from people who want to know about shopping malls," Hoffman said. "Compulsive shoppers live everywhere. And don't forget the tour of the Van Nuys Airport."

While tours are available at almost all airports in Southern California, only at Van Nuys can one regularly get a visit of an Air National Guard C-130 Hercules as part of the package.

Photograph Aircraft

While most of the 2,500 monthly visitors are local school groups studying transportation, airport employee Dolly Hickland said, "many foreigners, especially the English and the Japanese, like to photograph the older World War II-era aircraft parked here."

Not too far away, tourists are also coming to see the Sherman Oaks Galleria. "From the inside, it looks just like the ones we have in St. Paul," Marsha Libby said while taking a recent tour of the mall.

Maybe, but the malls of the Twin Cities haven't been constantly used in such movies and television shows as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Commando," "Innerspace" and "thirtysomething." Galleria General Manager Jonathan Alpert said that because of these starring roles, some out-of-towners come to the mall strictly to take a look.

"It's families with younger kids, teen-agers and older adults. One of the things they really wanted to see while in Los Angeles was the Sherman Oaks Galleria," Alpert said. "I was in Denver talking to someone and when I told them what I did, they said, 'I've got to see that place when I go to Los Angeles.' "

Marriages, Masses Performed

The San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, which still performs marriages, baptisms and Sunday Masses, draws an estimated 35,000 visitors each year.

"I've never seen so much stucco in my life," Marvin Beglighter of Ennis, Tex., said when asked what he thought of the Valley while touring the mission. "Haven't you people ever heard of bricks?"

It was spots such as the mission and the endless rows of citrus groves in pre-subdivision times that enticed tourists of the 1920s and '30s to venture over into the Valley, especially Europeans.

"Lots of Europeans wanted to come and see the endless rows of citrus," Valley historian Elva Meline said from her office in the Andreas Pico Adobe in Mission Hills. "To see an orange growing on a tree was really something for these people. And the movie industry was very busy out here in the '30s too."

School Tours

One of the oldest buildings in the Valley, the Pico Adobe draws about 5,000 people per year, primarily school tours from as far away as Ridgecrest and Tehachapi and those who find reference to it in the AAA tour guide book.

Every year, about 150,000 people, 40% of whom are from out of state, visit the 155-acre Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. "Anyone who is a camellia fancier from around the world knows about us," said spokesman Paul McBride. "We're also well-known for our collection of roses."

One of the best-kept secrets in the Valley is the Japanese garden in Van Nuys.

Part of the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant operated by the city of Los Angeles, the 6 1/2-acre garden "was built as a relief to the traditional square boxes this type of facility inevitably becomes," spokesman Gene Greene said.

About 1,000 people visit the garden each month (by appointment only), 35% of whom are from out of state. They can gaze at azaleas, cherry trees, magnolias, wisteria, iris and lotus as they walk.

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