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12 Things That Will Surprise You About Universal Studios Hollywood

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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Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Pop Culture
The Computer Virus That Brought Down Whac-A-Mole
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk inside any pop-up carnival, amusement park, or retro arcade space and you’re likely to find a rodent infestation so stubborn that visitors are expected to bludgeon the pests to death with a mallet. Despite receiving thousands of concussive blows, these creatures are virtually guaranteed to continue being a nuisance—and for the game’s operators, their seeming indestructibility is a lucrative source of revenue.

Whac-A-Mole, first introduced in 1976 by the Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) amusement company out of Florida, is a cabinet game that features plastic-molded moles raised and lowered on mechanical sticks to be walloped by players wielding a foam club. Despite all of the moving parts, it’s generally understood that the games will require only minimal maintenance: a new washer every now and then, and maybe a cleaning.

That’s why the sudden failure of several Whac-A-Mole machines beginning in 2008 was so strange. BSR began fielding calls from unhappy customers who complained that their units were malfunctioning. After working fine for days or weeks, the units would power down without warning.

Some of them opted to deal directly with Marvin Wimberly, a computer programmer and contractor working for BSR who was able to diagnose and fix what appeared to be a defective module that was infected with a virus.

Before long, both BSR and local authorities would come to believe the repair came easily to Wimberly for a simple reason: They suspected he was the one who infected the modules in the first place.

A Whac-A-Mole game in Cedar Point, Ohio
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to a 2011 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Wimberly, then 61, had been with BSR since 1980 as an independent contractor. For 22 years, Wimberly wrote the computer programs that told Whac-A-Mole and other games how to interact with players. Wimberly believed his software was his property; BSR believed they owned it—a point of contention that would soon come into dispute.

The work wasn’t always steady, and Wimberly was apparently unhappy with his wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations for BSR to buy his software outright for $500,000, in 2009 he asked that his fee per chip be raised from $60 to $150.

A few months prior, in September 2008, modules began surfacing that were infected with a virus—or what some programmers call a “logic bomb”—that would render the machines useless after a set number of games: sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 511. BSR bought equipment to examine the chips, found the virus, and became convinced that Wimberly had gone rogue. They told police he had sold them 443 infected modules for $51,000, then sat back as the company began to field complaints from operators. When BSR approached Wimberly with offers to fix the chips, he would—and then, according to police, promptly install a new virus that would begin the countdown all over again.

The authorities also believed Wimberly fielded inquiries from disgruntled customers who didn’t want to bother going through BSR for repairs, and even registered a website, bobsupgrades.com, that sought to solicit repair work from amusement operators.

The cabinet art for the Whac-A-Mole arcade game
Nick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Feeling they had sufficient information from BSR, Orlando authorities arrested Wimberly in February 2011 on charges relating to offenses against intellectual property. He was released after posting $15,000 bail. BSR CFO Michael Lane told the press that Wimberly’s actions had led to roughly $100,000 in losses for the company.

The news media found a lot of humor in poisoning the well of Whac-A-Mole, but Wimberly, who was accused of a second-degree felony, wasn't laughing: He faced 15 years in prison.

Except Wimberly wouldn’t be swatted away so easily. According to court records kept in Volusia County, Florida, Wimberly asserted the virus was a software bug that was a result of new diagnostic procedures, not sabotage. In April 2012, Wimberly argued before a judge that, as the owner of the software under question, he couldn’t be accused of tampering with it—as he owned it outright.

“He is essentially accused of modifying his own software,” read the motion to dismiss, which noted that Wimberly hadn’t been paid for the repairs and was therefore failing to profit from the alleged wrongdoing. The court agreed, and the criminal case was dismissed in April 2013.

But Wimberly wasn’t satisfied. In September 2013, he sued Bob’s Space Racers for misappropriation of trade secrets, accusing them of continuing to sell Whac-A-Mole and other games containing Wimberly’s codes after parting ways with him and without paying any licensing fees. He also alleged that BSR had failed to come to him with news of the virus’s discovery, preferring to build a case against him with local police instead; BSR countered that Wimberly had “intentionally programmed the [chip] software to include a virus” and that he was paid to repair the malfunctioning chips.

The case dragged on for more than two years, inching toward a jury trial. In November 2015, the parties finally reached a settlement with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for BSR declined to comment to Mental Floss on the matter; Wimberly could not be reached.

If there was an attempt to sabotage Whac-A-Mole, it couldn't be proven to a criminal court's satisfaction. If Wimberly did indeed own the software, his argument that he was free to do with it as he liked would have been weighed against the harm done to BSR's reputation for having to service defective modules. But Wimberly insisted he did not write or install a virus: The accusation that he had, he claimed, was unfounded.

The next time you play, it may be a good idea to remind yourself that the people behind the game often have worse headaches than the moles.

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entertainment
The One Phrase Disney Theme Park Characters Aren't Allowed to Say
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images

The 14 Disney theme parks located around the world attract so many attendees each year that the company recently decided to increase admission for peak times by 20 percent to help decrease crowd congestion. Anaheim’s Disneyland is such a popular tourist attraction that some days the park is actually at capacity.

What keeps visitors packed in like sardines? The promise of a suspended reality—one that treats the various Disney characters as though they had just stepped out of a movie. There’s a laundry list of employee policies to help sustain that illusion, and Travel + Leisure recently uncovered one of the most interesting ones: Actors dressed as Disney characters are never allowed to say “I don’t know” to guests.

The motivation is understandable: Disney never wants people to feel as though they need to wander around looking for information. If they pose a question to, say, a Disney Princess, the actor is expected to communicate with other employees or areas of the park in order to find the answer. If Elsa doesn't know where the nearest restroom is, she's tasked with finding out before your kid's bladder gives up.

If a guest is looking for general directions, there’s also protocol for how to point. Performers are not allowed to use their index finger by itself. Instead, they use it in conjunction with their middle finger. In addition to index finger-pointing being considered rude in some cultures, legend has it that the gesture was partly inspired by Walt Disney himself, who once roamed the park grounds pointing at structures with two fingers that pinched a cigarette.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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