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.


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.”


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.’”


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.” 


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.”

10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.


Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.


Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.


Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.


For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.


Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”


Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.


Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.


The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."


A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.


Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.

Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People

Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.


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