I’ve always wanted to be special.
Waiting in line at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm or the San Diego Zoo, you see those people with shiny badges hanging around their necks, being ushered to the front, getting the royal treatment from some bright-eyed tour guide.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be them.
So, when I heard about the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood, I knew I had to include it in our family trip to California. Even if it did cost an arm and a leg, and the other arm and leg.
At $329 per person, I did hesitate slightly, but then realized it would be a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Universal for my family, so why not do it in style? My kids were old enough to know and appreciate movies and how they’re made, so I went ahead and happily booked the VIP tour through Universal’s website about a month before our trip.
The day began with real VIP treatment in a special lounge, where a continental breakfast was served while the classic sci-fi film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” played on the big screen. Our tour guide, a well-known Los Angeles stage actor named Lary Ohlson, made sure the dozen people in our group were well-fed and laughing throughout the morning. I was feeling special right from the start.
Soon, Lary was leading us out into the park, past all those poor folks waiting for the regular bus, and onto our very own VIP trolley.
Our first stop was a walk-through of the workshops responsible for set construction and prop design. Not terribly exciting for the kids, but interesting to see the nuts and bolts of movie production.
Next was a leisurely stroll to the Universal backlot, where my son perked up considerably when Lary told him that the very spot on which he was standing had been featured in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
There was movie history all around us as we walked through the streets of the backlot. The kids thought it was very cool to be able to peek into the buildings and touch the sets. Every now and then, one of those regular buses would go by, filled with people staring at us and wondering why they weren’t special enough to get off the bus and touch things too.
Yes, I was definitely feeling like a VIP at that point.
Next was one of the highlights of the tour, a visit to the multi-story Universal Props Warehouse, the largest collection of movie props in the world, where we wandered down various aisles to gawk at everything from fake sausages to a Meryl Streep mannequin. I’ve never seen so many salt shakers in one place, but it makes you realize that when any kind of kitchen or restaurant set is decorated, they need to have a pair of salt and pepper shakers on the table. There were also tikis, street signs, parrot figurines, skulls and Chinese terracotta warriors. Everywhere I looked, there were props that tugged at the movie memories in my brain.
The rest of the tour took us through other backlot locations, as well as the regular parts of the Universal tour. We were attacked by Norman Bates and the shark from “Jaws,” parted the Red Sea and lived through an earthquake. At one point we passed by the Wisteria Lane set of “Desperate Housewives” and had to be very quiet, as cameras were rolling at that very moment. Then we stepped off the trolley again to walk through the airline crash set from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” while the regular tour buses drove by with their gawking passengers.
All this time, our tour guide, Lary, was a fountain of movie knowledge and humor, tailoring his spiel to everyone in the group. He took the time to learn where we were from, and what kinds of movies we liked. His engagement of the kids in the group helped make them feel even more like VIPs, and kept them interested all throughout the tour.
It was finally time for lunch, and we were treated to the most incredible gourmet meal by one of Universal’s executive chefs. They really went all out with the food, as they should for a VIP. We went back for seconds and thirds of everything, and definitely got our money’s worth.
After that, we took a peek at a set from the TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and then made our way to a sound mixing studio for a quick demonstration of the technical mastery of sound in movies. We then walked to the studio commissary to take a look at several Academy Award Oscars on display, including the Best Picture statuette for “Gladiator.” No photos were allowed in any of those places, unfortunately.
My kids were quite pleased with the tour so far, but the best for them was yet to come. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to all the rides at Universal, including Jurassic Park, The Simpsons and Revenge of The Mummy, where we were ushered straight to the front of the line. Let me just repeat that, because it’s an amazing experience for kids: Front. Of. The. Line. Those shiny VIP badges around our necks were golden tickets to every single ride in the park.
Also included in the tour was priority seating at all the live shows, including WaterWorld, Shrek 4D and Animal Actors. My kids were blown away by the spectacular WaterWorld show. Lary, our tour guide, had us at each show promptly on time, and we didn’t miss out on anything. By tour’s end, we had seen and done everything, so with a few hours left before the park closed we just had to go and do some of it again.
All in all, it was a wonderful day for my family. From beginning to end, I felt like a VIP. Yes, it was expensive, but the memories were worth it, at least this one time.
— Phil Corless
Phil Corless is an at-home dad of two living in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, he has been writing about fatherhood and family at the Idaho Dad blog. He believes the best way for kids to learn about the world is to travel through it.