Why the Warner Bros. Studio Tour is more than a tourist trap

I never could have known when I booked my ticket to Warner Bros. Studio Tour, but the day I visited was the last day of filming “The Ellen Show”. The show, which ended its 19-year run this week, ended with an episode featuring Jennifer Aniston, Billie Eilish and Pink. I didn’t know it then, but I was basically one wall away from one of the most famous TV stars of all time and singers who embodied the spirit of their generations.

For me, that’s what makes visiting a Hollywood studio so exciting and what keeps me coming back to places like Universal Hollywood again and again. They’re the creative hub of the entertainment I’ve consumed all my life, and the tours are different not just every day, but every minute. You never know who you’re going to see, and you never know what’s going to happen when you get there.

A farewell to Ellen on the last day of taping her show.

Julie Tremaine

Warner Bros. been making movies since 1923, and there’s more cinematic history than I could fit into one story, or it could include into a studio tour, which is part of what I love about the experience. The visit begins with a short excerpt from the famous films of Warner Bros. “Batman”, “Goodfellas”, “The Departed” and “Goonies”. Then you board a tram that holds about 12 people. First you visit the front lot, where all the production buildings and sound stages are, then progress to the back lot to see outdoor settings like the lagoon that Pee-Wee Herman flies over in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, and the jungle area with a building that belonged to Merlotte in “True Blood”.

You’ll also see the road from the famous scene in ‘Jurassic Park’ where Dr. Ian Malcolm has been attacked by the T-Rex and is chased away in the back of a Jeep. You know the scene: the one where all he says is “Must. Go. Faster.” while that same dinosaur chases the car.

“It’s a very long way, isn’t it?” asked my guide as she described the scene. “Well, it’s not. It was this road,” pointing to the 150 meters of dirt we were driving on. Although most of this film was shot in Kauai, a hurricane ruined the sets during production and they had to move to Oahu for some filming and then back to Los Angeles for the rest.

The road to the “Jurassic Park” scene where Dr. Malcolm’s Jeep drives away from the T-Rex.

Julie Tremaine

“Steven Spielberg filmed this little Jeep 200 times and put it all together,” she said. Imagine how many times and how many different ways Jeff Goldblum must have said those three words, while pretending to be terrified of a CGI dinosaur that wasn’t really there. And they say actors have it easy.

After the jungle, you arrive in the small town “Midwest”, a place where I die a little happiness with each visit. In the middle of this small town, there is a grassy and tree-lined public square. On one side of the square there is a row of shops which could be anything from a small grocery store to a bookstore to, say, a restaurant with very good coffee. On the other side a tree-lined street with houses that could work in any era. In the middle of the square: a white belvedere.

If you’ve watched “Gilmore Girls,” you’ll instantly recognize the set as Stars Hollow, the small Connecticut town from the show. (I’ve watched this series so many times that once I had an experience where I ate like the Gilmores for a week and wrote about it. My guts still haven’t forgiven me. )

Stars Hollow Lookout "Gilmore girls."

The Stars Hollow gazebo from “Gilmore Girls”.

Julie Tremaine

There are many different tours you can take, such as the standard tour, a classic tour, a studio plus tour, and a massive six-hour deluxe tour. The standard and classic tours are a one-hour guided tour and then a self-guided portion that takes as little or as much time as you want, but can be anywhere from one to three hours.

Although the tour itinerary remains largely the same, the information the guide gives you varies considerably. During the regular tour, the guide usually focuses on new projects. The last time I did, earlier this year, my guide talked a lot about “Young Sheldon”, which was currently in production on the lot, and projects that have been filmed there in recent years such as the show Netflix “You” and movies like “Oceans 13.” She also took us to a small alley that served as the setting for Prince’s “Purple Rain” album cover and the upside-down kiss scene between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in “Spider-Man.”

Classic movie costumes from "My beautiful lady."

Classic movie costumes from “My Fair Lady”.

Julie Tremaine

On the classics tour, you visit the same areas, but the stories focus on old Hollywood. The same backlot set that was Stars Hollow was also Rosewood from ‘Pretty Little Liars’, as well as Jefferson County, Va. in ‘The Waltons’ and the town square from ‘The Music Man’ where 76 trombones have parade.

Lorelai and Rory’s house from “Gilmore Girls”, I learned on the classics tour, was also the house of Boss Hog from “Dukes of Hazzard”, as well as the house of James Dean’s character in “East of Eden”.

“Unfortunately they didn’t always write down what these houses were for,” said my guide when touring the classics. “So a lot of times you have to watch the movies to figure it out. But the thing is, they change it. These are so easy to change. You know, nothing is built permanently. Everything is built to be temporary.

Jack Warner's phone book, with Walt Disney's number displayed.

Jack Warner’s phone book, with Walt Disney’s number displayed.

Julie Tremaine

But the thing is, even when it looks different, a lot of things stay the same. There are still original buildings on the “Casablanca” backlot. The same little church where Alison Delaurentis’ funeral took place on ‘Pretty Little Liars’ also hosted Lane and Todd’s wedding on ‘Gilmore Girls’ and starred in ‘The Shootist’, John’s final film role. Wayne, in which he played a man with terminal cancer (while he was fighting his own battle with stomach cancer).

On the way to this backlot, we passed through “the landing pad,” so named because Frank Sinatra’s private helicopter landed there when he traveled from his home in Palm Springs to work in the field.

The final leg of all Warner Bros. tours. is a show building that contains real Batmobiles and costumes worn by Christopher Reeve as Superman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and more, including many major costumes from “Suicide Squad”. The other half of the building immerses you in the world of the “boy who lived”, where the magic of the movie “Harry Potter” comes to life. You can visit Hogwarts: mixing a cauldron of ingredients in the potions classroom, harvesting screaming mandrakes in the herbology classroom, even being sorted by the sorting hat – but I know that’s not the real thing. It sorted me into Gryffindor when, as I’ll tell you even if you don’t ask, I’m a Ravenclaw.

The "Harry Potter" The tour section includes potions lessons and sorting writers (like me) into Hogwarts houses.

The “Harry Potter” section of the tour includes potions lessons and sorting out writers (like me) through Hogwarts houses.

Julie Tremaine

Are you going to see a celebrity while you’re at the studio? I’d like to tell you that I met Jennifer Aniston that day, and then joined the global “Friends”-aissance rewatch party that’s been going on for two years. I did not do it. But I sat in a Central Perk setting, comically pretending to drink an oversized latte, right there on the same kind of couch where Rachel Green plopped down in her wedding dress and kicked off a decade of history of the sitcom.

Maybe a tour like this isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I love the energy of a film set. I enjoy being immersed in the environment that created the formative entertainment of my life, shaped my childhood and my interests, and laid the foundation for the person I am today. I grew up visiting historic battlefields and national parks, and I know the history that shaped our country. Every time I visit one of these studios, I learn more about the pop culture story that shaped me.

Studio tours start at $69 and reservations are strongly encouraged. Book them here.

The "New York" street on the Warner Bros. lot.  The gray facade was the orphanage in the 1982 version of "Anna."

“New York” street on the Warner Bros. lot. The gray facade was the orphanage in the 1982 version of “Annie”.

Julie Tremaine

Herman C. Harkins