Universal Studios, the sequel

Times Staff Writer

ONCE upon a time, high above the Hollywood Freeway and the Lane of Lankershim, lived a little tourist attraction called the Universal Studios Tour, which amazed visitors from near and far with its tales of movie magic.

Trams of blue transported wide-eyed wanderers through the studio backlot past film landmarks such as the “Psycho” house, through the parting Red Sea inspired by “The Ten Commandments” and to Lucille Ball’s dressing room. Young jesters with their own dreams of stardom conducted the tour, engaging riders with joke and song. Visitors marveled at makeup demonstrations and at dresses designed by Oscar winner Edith Head. Youngsters climbed on a giant telephone. The tour gradually added other delights, such as a man-eating shark, an earthquake machine and a king named Kong who greeted the tram with banana breath.

However, as the years passed, other beasts appeared on the hillside, and the wide-eyed wanderers flocked to them. They had names such as Jurassic Park -- The Ride, Shrek 4-D and Waterworld. The kingdom grew and grew and grew and became known as Universal Studios Hollywood. As the complex got bigger, it was the tour that got small.

But now in the summer of 2006, the gods of Universal have turned their attention again to the tour, shining it up for new business. The revamped tour, which opened last week, incorporates some of the classic elements while adding several new features, including video narration, large outdoor sets from “War of the Worlds” and the recent “King Kong,” as well as a cruise down Wisteria Lane, the home of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

The centerpiece of the new tour is a spinoff of Universal’s street-racing franchise called The Fast and the Furious: Extreme Close-Up. What better excuse, then, to look closely again at the historic tour and see how it has evolved through the years?

So on the weekend before its unveiling to the media, we plunked down our $200 for two premium front-of-the-line tickets and checked it out.

Our guide was Ingrid, a perfectly pleasant and courteous host who was a least a decade and a few years past her college graduation. Ingrid was seated beside the driver of the first car -- each excursion now contains four connected trams -- and her face was projected to the other trams via video monitors in the ceiling. At times, she got a bit too close to the camera in front of her, filling the screen with an insect-eyed image.

The monitors also offer clips from historic Universal movies filmed at various locations. That means visitors now have the advantage of seeing what was filmed at a particular spot as they pass by.

And then there’s Whoopi Goldberg, another tour host who is not so much a hot movie star as she is the new Phantom of the California Theme Parks.

Goldberg, who shows up in virtual form at one of Disney’s California Adventure attractions, appears in several pre-taped segments here. She reminds riders that she is an Oscar winner and that she made her first movie, “The Color Purple,” on the Universal backlot. Still, given the wildly erratic nature of her film career since that debut, she seems an odd choice for a tour celebrating the glory of Hollywood. Out-of-towners may find themselves researching if they will be stalked by another “Whoopi” at SeaWorld or Legoland.

And some of her shtick, such as when she advises filmmakers that the studio needs “less movies with giant monkeys, more movies with me,” is not terribly inspired. The “Psycho” house gets more laughs than she does.

But her presence is luminous compared with other splashy segments featuring NBC “Today” weatherman Al Roker as well as toothy “Access Hollywood” hosts Billy Bush and Nancy O’Dell, whose only connection to movies is their aggressive slobbering over film stars on their daily TV show. (Should it be noted at this point that “Access Hollywood” is produced by NBC Universal? Probably.)

After passing prop cars from “Back to the Future,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and others, the tram enters an outdoor garage set for The Fast and the Furious attraction. According to the tour’s press release, the ride is designed to “thrust guests into close-up range of the pulse-pounding, rubber-burning underground world of street racing.”

As the show gets underway, “shots” from an unseen helicopter are fired at a pair of Volkswagens, sending water high in the air, an explosion erupts and the cars are sent hurtling toward the tram. Stopping before they “hit,” the two cars, which are attached to robotic arms, then spin and roll to a hip-hop beat before returning to their post.

The sequence lasts little more than one minute. The two cars are far from posing a convincing threat to the tram, and the cars themselves look more like four-wheeled puppies than road warriors. Though tour honchos called the addition “spectacular,” it received a shrug from at least one reviewer.

TOMMY BIERING of Frazier Park, who was celebrating his 15th birthday, said he was not particularly impressed by The Fast and the Furious.

“There’s really not that much to it,” he said. He gave the overall tour “one thumb up and one thumb down.”

Designers of the attraction say more elements may be added in the future.

The tour has enough nostalgic flavor that it still manages to retain charm despite some of the more questionable additions. For true old-time thrills, though, visit Terminator 2: 3D. In an introductory film to the attraction, which is set in the future, Miami Heat star Shaquille O’Neal appears in his Laker uniform, making free throws.

Now that’s a fairy tale.


Universal Studios Hollywood

Where: 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

When: Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas; hours vary

Price: $49 to $59 general admission; $99.95 front-of-the-line pass

Info: (800) 864-8377, universalstudioshollywood.com