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12 Things That Will Surprise You About Universal Studios Hollywood

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Not willing to play second fiddle to that other theme park (seriously, who allows their business to be run by a rodent?), Universal Studios Hollywood has its own set of hidden gems within its walls. In honor of the park's 50th anniversary year—that's right, it's turning the big 5-0—here's a rundown of fascinating tidbits you never knew about Universal Studios Hollywood.

1. ADMISSION AND LUNCH ONCE COST JUST 25 CENTS

Universal Studios Hollywood started out as simply the Studio Tour in 1964, giving guests a behind-the-scenes glimpse at movie and television production. But the studio's roots go all the way back to the silent film years. “This movie studio was founded in 1915 and it has always been in the same location, so it’s one of the longest continuous movie studios in Hollywood,” explains USH Creative Director John Murdy. “In 1915, they actually invited the public to experience movie making. It was at the very beginning of movies. There were 20,000 people here on opening day and that was March 15, 1915. Admission was a quarter and you got lunch for it, too.” This bargain came to an end in the late '20s, when movies began to use sound, because they found tourists made too much noise during production.

2. The studio's main attraction was the "Glamour Tram"

In 1964, USH introduced the first incarnation of the Studio Tour, which cost $2.50 to ride (as compared to today's hefty $92 per ticket). The tour included a boxed lunch and the vehicles used to transport guests were called Glamour Trams. The first test run of the Glamour Trams broke down halfway through and the guests had to hoof it back to the entrance. 

3. Filmmakers and Relatives of Celebrities Used to Act as Tour Guides

Interestingly enough, the initial tour guides of the Studio Tour were folks USH found working at the studio or relatives of famous people. “One of the first tour guides was a guy named John Badham, who is famous for directing Saturday Night Fever and War Games,” says Murdy. “He got his start as a tour guide at the Studio Tour back in the sixties.”

4. Some Past Attractions Were Scarier—and Stranger—Than What We're Used to Today

While many stops along the tour have proven to have long shelf lives, other, sillier stops fell by the wayside. "As you come out of the parting of the Red Sea, there’s an area that was used in some old Tarzan movies," Murdy says of "one of the weirdest attractions" he remembers from his childhood. "In the early seventies, for whatever reason, they had a mechanical gorilla on a track that would swing through Tarzan’s jungle and he was holding a severed human arm in his hand. He would make the Tarzan yell and you would just see this gorilla flying in the background. It hasn’t been here in decades but some of the earliest tour attractions were really quirky like that.”

5. The Park Expanded In Order to Attract a Bigger Crowd

In USH’s first year, they welcomed just 38,000 visitors total, which Murdy notes is the equivalent to one busy summer day at the park now. “Very quickly they realized they needed to create other things to entertain people to extend their day,” he says. “Some of them still exist. We had a western stunt show that was really informal back in the '60s and now we have WaterWorld, which is this big, elaborate special effects extravaganza. We had an animal show in the earliest days and we still have an animal show today.”

6. The First Stand-Alone Ride Wasn't Introduced Until 1991

By 1991, the park finally had a ride apart from its Studio Tour: The E.T. Adventure (which no longer exists at USH but can still be found at Universal Studios Florida). 

7. An A-List Star Once Lent His Talents to the Tour for a Day

The park is an actual film and television studio, so occasionally you will see a star on his or her way to work; but on one occasion, Studio Tour guests got the bejeezus scared out of them by an A-lister…and they didn’t even know it. “One day, the tour guides were giving the tour and going by the Psycho house,” recalls Murdy. “All of a sudden, Norman, dressed up like Mother, comes out with a knife and everybody kind of freaked out because [the tour guides] were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not us.’ It was actually Jim Carrey! He was doing a movie called Man on the Moon about Andy Kaufman and Andy was famous for his publicity stunts. I think it was Jim just channeling Andy as he was getting into the character. He hung out there and played Mother for a while.”

8. A Seinfeld Star Used to Hang Out on the Lot

Stars might talk a big game about wishing for anonymity, but early in their careers they'd do anything to be recognized—even camp out on the Universal backlot. “Jason Alexander told me that when he started, one of his first jobs was called ER, but it was before the ER that we all know today; it was actually a comedy and it was very short-lived,” says Murdy. “He told me he would always hang out by the Psycho house. He would have lunch there in hopes that he would be recognized because he was an up-and-coming actor. But nobody did.”

9. ATTRACTIONS ARE HOUSED IN REAL SOUNDSTAGES

The next time you’re about to stop into Transformers: The Ride – 3D, consider this: A very famous TV family used to reside in the same building. “Where Transformers is now, originally that was the old special effects show,” says Murdy. “It’s a dual soundstage. They’re real soundstages that were used for filming. One was used for The Munsters in the '60s and one was used for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and many, many other movies.”

10. The Rides Themselves Sometimes Become Real Sets

Since it would cost a TV studio a pretty penny to simulate an earthquake for a scene, production companies have turned to USH for help. “Earthquake, an attraction which opened in 1989, is a massive earthquake in a San Francisco subway station,” says Murdy. “That got used not so long ago by the television show Bones. There’s a scene in the show where there’s an earthquake and the producers were trying to figure out, ‘How do we do this?,’ and then I’m sure they just said, 'Let’s just go over to Universal and film it in their attraction.’”

11. THE MUMMY RIDE IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS

There’s some seriously impressive technology used in modern-day rides that tricks you into thinking you’re zigging while you’re actually zagging. “The Mummy uses magnetic technology to propel you forward,” explains Murdy. “It starts off like a typical dark ride, moving very slowly, and then it launches into a rollercoaster experience. Halfway through it comes to a dead end; it stops. After a scene plays out with these scarab beetles it launches you backwards and the whole last section of the ride is backwards. What’s really crazy about it, that you wouldn’t pick up on if you were riding it, is the whole track is moving in that scene. When you come to a stop and it’s playing out that scene with the scarab beetles, behind you the entire track for the roller coaster is moving and then locks into position to launch you onto an entirely different track.” 

12. SOMETIMES ATTRACTIONS OUTLAST THEIR NAMESAKES

WaterWorld continues to be USH’s highest-rated show among park guests, but how many of them have actually seen the movie? Chances are, very few. While the goal is to build attractions around popular, long-lasting franchises (like the upcoming Fast & Furious – Supercharged addition to the Studio Tour, debuting in summer 2015), sometimes rides based on short-lived TV series or movies just work. “One that always amazed me on the tour was Battlestar Galactica,” says Murdy. “For years and years we had a Battlestar Galactica attraction. The tram drove inside it like a spaceship from the show. It was one of the earliest uses of lasers. The Cylons were shooting lasers at you and there were early, early animatronics. We all have fond memories of Battlestar Galactica, and there have been reincarnations of the show, but back then it wasn’t on the air for very long—I think it was just a season and a half. But the attraction lasted well over a decade.”

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32 Things You Should Know About Epcot
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Happy Birthday to Epcot, the only place where you can drink in 11 countries without ever leaving Florida. In honor of its 35th birthday, we've rounded up some facts about Walt Disney’s vision for the future.

1. EPCOT is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.

2. Epcot turned out much differently than Walt had originally imagined it. Before Disney’s death in 1966, EPCOT was actually intended to be a real community where people would live, work, and play. See his intentions here:

3. To build the park, more than 54 million cubic feet of dirt had to be excavated.

4. With its two distinct halves—Future World and the World Showcase—it may seem like two different theme parks smushed together. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. When plans for the park changed after Walt’s death, some Imagineers wanted to go with a World’s Fair theme while others were pushing for a futuristic park. Two Imagineers put their models up against each other, and Epcot as we know it was born.

5. With 11.25 million visitors every year, Epcot is the world’s fifth most-popular theme park—right behind the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySea.

6. In 1991, Disney announced plans to build WestCot in Disneyland’s parking lot in Anaheim. Michael Eisner put a halt to those plans when Disneyland Paris flopped. California Adventure later opened on that spot instead.

FUTURE WORLD

7. Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the giant golf ball, weighs 16 million pounds, is 165 feet in diameter and takes up 2.2 million cubic feet of space. The geodesic sphere is made from 11,324 aluminum and plastic-alloy triangles.

8. The term “Spaceship Earth” was coined by famous futurist and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who wrote a book called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1968.

9. Ray Bradbury conceived the original storyline and penned the original script for the Spaceship Earth ride.

10. The 5.7 million-gallon body of water at The Seas with Nemo & Friends is home to more than 3000 fish and other sea creatures. The sheer size makes it one of the largest man-made ocean environments in the world.

11. Captain EO cost an estimated $30 million to make. At just 17 minutes, that makes the film $1.76 million per minute.

12. The “Living with the Land” attraction is home to a Guinness World Record—the most tomatoes harvested from a single plant in one year (1151.84 pounds).

13. The food grown in Epcot greenhouses is actually used in the restaurants there, including the Garden Grill.

14. The Sea has a panel of experts that they use for consulting purposes. The panel has included Robert Ballard, most famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic; Sylvia Earle, the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Gilbert Grosvenor, a former president and chief executive of the National Geographic Society.

15. Two people have died after riding Mission: SPACE. One was a four-year-old with an undiagnosed heart condition, and the other was a woman who suffered a stroke due to high blood pressure.

16. Leonard Nimoy directed the popular Body Wars movie at the Wonders of Life pavilion.

17. The score for Soarin’ Over California was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who said that he loved the project so much, he would have done it for free. Goldsmith’s many noteworthy scores include The Omen, Planet of the Apes, Alien, Poltergeist, Patton, and Rudy.

18. The Wonders of Life pavilion once contained a film where Martin Short explained how babies were made. Really.

THE WORLD SHOWCASE

19. The World Showcase promenade is 1.2 miles long.

20. The World Showcase lagoon spans 40 acres.

21. The Rose and Crown pub in the U.K. has a special machine that can cool your Guinness to exactly 55 degrees, the temperature recommended by the company.

22. Russia, Switzerland, Spain, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, and Israel have all been mentioned as additions to the World Showcase side of Epcot at one point or another.

23. There were once plans for a boat ride called The Rhine River Cruise in the Germany pavilion. The show building was partially constructed, but the rest of the ride was trashed shortly after Epcot opened.

24. Contrary to popular belief, for the most part, the countries in the World Showcase are not funded by that country’s government. There’s one exception: Morocco.

25. Morocco’s King Hassan II reviewed a detailed scale model of the Morocco Pavilion for "authenticity and artistic effect." 

26. Imagineers have long considered a roller coaster inside of the Japan pavilion. It would be similar to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, but would instead revolve around Mount Fuji.

27. The American pavilion is built at a slightly higher elevation than all of the other countries'. This is to show that it's a host country to all of the other pavilions, and also to help it stand out as the centerpiece.

28. For 17 years, Epcot’s Japan pavilion was home to Miyuki, the world’s only female amezaiku artist. She learned the art of creating small, edible animal sculptures out of brown rice toffee from her grandfather. Miyuki retired in November 2013.

SPECIAL EVENTS

29. More than 30 million blooms fill the park during the Flower and Garden Festival every spring.

30. The Food and Wine Festival in the fall represents 25 nations with 1.5 million food samplings, 300,000 wine pours, 360,000 beer servings, and 100,000 dessert portions.

PARADES AND FIREWORKS

31. The puppets for the now-defunct “Tapestry of Nations” parade were designed by Michael Curry, the same man who designed the puppets for the Broadway production of The Lion King. He has also worked on five Cirque du Soleil shows and multiple opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics.

32. Jim Cummings is the man who provides the voiceover at the beginning of “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.” You may know him better as the voice of Darkwing Duck. He’s currently the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Pete. Listen to the first 30 seconds of this video—you can probably hear a little bit of each of those characters.

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. GETTING STRAPPED IN MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. THEY TEST COASTERS WITH WATER-FILLED DUMMIES.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. EVERY FOOT OF TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON BROUGHT A LOT OF PEOPLE INTO THE BUSINESS.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. PAINT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SPEED.

Cans of paint are arranged on the floor
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For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. SOME COASTERS ARRIVE AS GIANT MODEL KITS.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. WOODEN COASTERS ARE WEATHER-SENSITIVE.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. THE TIME OF DAY CAN AFFECT THE RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. DESIGNS CAN COME FROM UNUSUAL PLACES—LIKE JAY LENO’S CHIN.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. THE FUTURE IS VERTICAL.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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