Universal Studios adds fantasy to backlot tours

Fast And Furious actor Dwayne Johnson in front of a green screen. A new tour feature related to the car-fuelled movie series aims to put Universal Studios visitors inside the action.
Fast And Furious actor Dwayne Johnson in front of a green screen. A new tour feature related to the car-fuelled movie series aims to put Universal Studios visitors inside the action.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA • When Universal Studios opened its backlot to tourists in 1964, it was one of Hollywood's biggest wows. For the first time, swarms of everyday people, riding in candy-striped GlamorTrams, could come face to face with film-making.

Disneyland offered fantasy. Universal served up reality.

But how do you keep interest strong for a backlot tour when very few movies are actually shot on your backlot anymore?

The solution, Universal has decided, involves tilting the tour towards fantasy.

On June 23, the company opened an elaborate Fast And Furiousrelated tour overlay that makes no attempt to take riders behind the scenes of that car-fuelled movie series. (Furious 7, which took in US$1.5 billion or S$2 billion this year, was mostly filmed in Colorado and Georgia, where generous tax incentives make production less expensive.) Instead, the goal is to put them inside the action.

First, the guide spots a Fast And Furious stunt car. Then, as the tram chugs past memorable sites - a set used in Back To The Future (1985) and Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) - a security guard appears on the tram video monitors: A renegade Fast And Furious street racer has skulked onto the lot and the FBI has been called.

A bit later, Fast And Furious agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) appears on the monitors with news that there is actually a "high-value witness" hiding on the four-car tram. As the tour then passes a woodsy cabin, the tram abruptly veers into a garage to hide the mystery witness from an international crime syndicate.

It is no ordinary garage: The tram is essentially inside a 180m-long simulator. Among other visual tricks, riders are made to feel as if they are inside a new Fast And Furious movie that involves a 190kmh chase through downtown Los Angeles.

"It's about adding relevancy," said Mr Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood, the theme park that encompasses the tour.

It is also about playing catch-up after years of under-investment. In recent decades, Universal's various owners - General Electric, Vivendi and Seagram - were more interested in wringing cash from the park than putting any in. Comcast finished its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2013 and has since poured money into Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando.

Comcast, for instance, is spending US$1.6 billion to modernise the Hollywood park and adjacent studio. Last year, a Despicable Me-themed area opened here. Now comes the tour overhaul. A Harry Potter-themed expansion is scheduled to open next year.

The investment has already raised attendance. Last year, Universal Studios Hollywood attracted about 6.8 million visitors, an 11 per cent increase from 2013, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

Universal wants to narrow the attendance gap with nearby Disneyland, which attracted 16.8 million visitors last year, a 3.5 per cent increase over the year before. Worldwide, Disney is far and away the biggest theme park operator, followed by Merlin Entertainments, which owns European resorts and the Legoland chain. Universal is third.

Universal has more tour tricks up its sleeve. Starting on a limited basis this summer, the trams will continue operating after sunset. Universal says it has spent two years planning the tours, in essence creating a second, after-dark tour centred on Psycho (1960) and other classic thrillers.

"The Psycho house is never going to stop being cool, but a lot of our guests have probably seen it before," said Mr John Murdy, a Universal executive who oversees the tour. "At night we can make it so much scarier - a whole new experience, really."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2015, with the headline 'Universal Studios adds fantasy to backlot tours'. Print Edition | Subscribe