Uncle Carl Laemmle/Had a very large family
When most people today say “Universal Studios” they probably mean the theme parks in Florida, California, and possibly facilities in Spain, Japan and Singapore. Before the theme parks, however, Universal Studios was a power in the motion picture for more than a century. At the beginning of the 20th century, German immigrant Carl Laemmle decided to get out of the dry goods business and buy up the nickelodeons that were attracting increasing audiences by showing the first motion pictures. When Thomas Edison, inventor of the motion picture, attempted to collect fees from exhibitors for each picture that they showed, Laemmle resolved to produce pictures himself, and in 1912 founded the Universal Film Manufacturing Company with seven partners.
Laemmle introduced a new system of vertical integration into the movie business: Universal produced the movies, distributed them and owned or controlled where they were shown. Laemmle also introduced marketing and publicity into the film industry: where Edison has refused to give screen credits and billing to the performers in his films, Laemmle sought to attract well-known theatrical actors and created a “star system” by heavily promoting them. After two or three years, Laemmle bought out his partners and in 1915 moved Universal to California, opening the world’s largest facility for movie production, Universal City Studios, on a farm in Hollywood.
Over the next 20 years Universal released noteworthy films, including the work of Lon Chaney and Erich von Stroheim, and owned the rights for Oswald the Rabbit, created by the young Walt Disney. The loss of producer Irving Thalberg to rival MGM Studios and the decision to let Disney go along with his new creation, Mickey Mouse, led to Universal becoming a second-tier film company. Laemmle was notorious for hiring members of his extended family: at one time 70 of his relatives were on the payroll and poet Ogden Nash observed that “Uncle Carl Laemmle/ had a very large family”. One of Laemmle’s personnel decisions was to put his son, Carl Junior, in charge of the studio as a 21st birthday present.
This led to an upsurge in Universal’s reputation, due to very well-received films like All Quiet on the Western Front and the movie version of the musical Show Boat. Laemmle, Jr. also established the classic Universal tradition of horror films with Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Invisible Man, and made the names of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi household words. Between the costs of these films and the effects of the Depression, Universal went into receivership and the Laemmles lost control of the company.
Universal-International, Decca Records, MCA and Paramount Pictures
From 1936 until the 1980s, Universal was first an independent company making low-budget films, then merged with International Pictures under the control of British producer J. Arthur Rank. In 1952 the studio was sold to Decca Records. Universal stars at this time included Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich and Abbott and Costello, and eminent directors like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock made some films there. This was also the time of the famous Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone, and the company distributed distinguished British films like Great Expectations directed by David Lean and Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. More typical movies, however, were the series devoted to Francis the Talking Mule, and to the adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle. On the cartoon side, Universal retained Walter Lantz, famous for Woody Woodpecker.
Universal’s fortunes began to change when a landmark Supreme Court case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, led to a ruling that movie studios could not among other things keep actors and directors under contract and prevent them for working for other studios. This meant that actors and directors could more often choose when and where they worked, and Decca and Universal were able to sign many actors who were let go by other studios. In addition, Lew Wasserman, an agent with Music Corporation of America (MCA) negotiated a deal with Universal in 1950 whereby actor Jimmy Stewart was given a percentage of the profits of three films rather than a salary. This deal is said to have changed the rules in the entertainment industry, although the financial position of Universal Studios deteriorated significantly thereafter.
MCA, which had formerly been a talent agency, began to produce movies in the 1950s, and bought Universal’s 360-acre studio lot in 1958. In 1962 it bought Decca Records and with it Universal, and virtually all of MCA’s clients received contracts at Universal. The old name of Universal City Studios was brought back, and the company became active in television as well as movie production, providing more than half of the programs on the NBC network, a relationship that was eventually to lead to merger with NBC; in addition, a studio tour began to be offered to the public which prefigured the later theme parks. Another innovation at this time was the now-common made-for-TV movie. A joint venture with Paramount Pictures called Cinema International Corporation was started in 1970, and a string of famous hits followed (Airport, The Sting, American Grafitti, Earthquake and finally Jaws).
Amid a confusing string of mergers and combinations other great movie successes followed, including E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Back to the Future, Field of Dreams and Jurassic Park, but more films lost money than made it. A subsequently important relationship was established in 1987 with DreamWorks Studios, which is still based at Universal.
MCA-Universal needed money to expand further in television and to enter the cable TV market, and Lew Wasserman, who was by then in charge of MCA and Universal, sold the company in 1990 to Matsushita Electric, the Japanese conglomerate that had just taken the name Panasonic. This money allowed Universal to enter the new home video market, but the Japanese executives were not comfortable in Hollywood and sold their stake in 1995 to the Canadian liquor giant Seagrams, which also bought Polygram Records in an attempt to enter the entertainment industry.
Seagrams had paid for this acquisition by selling a great deal of stock in the DuPont chemical company, and by 2000 had still not recouped their investment despite selling off Universal’s television holdings. Eventually Seagrams was itself bought by Vivendi, the French owners of StudioCanal, producers of such films as Mulholland Drive, Love Actually and U-571. Unable to manage this acquisition, Vivendi in turn sold out to General Electric, parent company of NBC. This created a media super-conglomerate, NBCUniversal, which was then gradually bought up by cable TV giant Comcast. As of 2013, Comcast owned all of NBCUniversal, and in the following year the studio became one of only three, the others being Disney and Warner Brothers, to release two billion-dollar movies in the same year (Jurassic World and Furious 7).
Building the Theme Parks
Universal City Studios in Hollywood offered tours to the public as soon as it opened in 1915. For an admission fee of five cents, which included a box lunch, visitors could watch movies being made and also buy fresh produce, as part of the studio was still a working farm. These tours were discontinued in 1930, when sound pictures began to be made. In 1964, new owners MCA began again to offer tours of the back lot, supplemented by walk-throughs of the dressing rooms, a chance to see ongoing productions and, increasingly, staged events. By the late 1960s a theme park was in operation, and rides based on current Universal films have opened and closed since then, most recently a complex of rides and restaurants based on The Simpsons.
A similar theme park connected to a backlot for movie production opened in Florida in 1990: Universal Studios Florida was initially a competitor to the Disney World complex, and in particular to Disney-MGM Studios, which is now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In 1994 a plan was devised to turn the Universal resort into a multi-day vacation destination like the nearby Disney properties, and Islands of Adventure were constructed between 1995 and 1999. The new resort was not initially a success, and several of the new attractions were closed quickly.
These were replaced by other attractions based on successful Universal films and television shows, and also on the characters in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat series, and Universal Studios Orlando was the only theme park in the area whose attendance increased after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The nearby Wet’n’Wild, considered to be America’s first water park, had been acquired in 1998, and several hotels were constructed in conjunction with the Loew’s hospitality chain, so that there are now about 5,000 hotel rooms connected with the two resorts.
Additional Universal Studios resorts, laid out in much the same fashion as the American theme parks, were opened in Salou, Spain, south of Barcelona, and in Osaka, Japan and Singapore. The Spanish park, first called Universal PortAventura and then Universal Mediterranea, was developed by the entertainment division of Anheuser-Busch, the creators of Busch Gardens, and a Spanish consortium, and then operated by the Tussauds Group. Universal bought the park in 1997 but sold its interest in 2004. Universal Studios Japan, opened in 2001, is the most visited amusement park in the world, and received 12 million visitors in 2014. Universal Studios Singapore opened in 2011, and was visited by approximately 3 million people in its first year.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal Studios Hollywood has two levels, the Upper and Lower lots, connected by escalators (the Starway). The studio tour with which the parks began uses trams to visit the sound stages on the front lot and the Metropolitan sets of the back lot. The tram then visits Courthouse Square and other back lot buildings, travels down a tunnel leading to the King Kong: 360 3-D attraction and visits sets from Jurassic Park complete with dinosaurs.
The next attraction is the Flash Flood, followed by Old Mexico, Six Points Texas, a model of the S.S. Venture from King Kong and Little Europe. Earthquake: The Big One is followed by sets representing Amity Island from Jaws, Whoville from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Bates Motel from Psycho and the crashed plane from War of the Worlds. The final attraction visited is Fast and Furious: Supercharged. The nearby CitWalk, which is generally open until the wee hours, has restaurants, bars and shopping.
The Upper Lot features largely family based attractions. A Mission Revival-style entrance pathway ends at the new Universal Plaza, which opened in 2013. These are less theme “lands” than small Art Deco environments linked by the common theme of past Hollywood glamor. The shows are located here: Animal Actors, the Special Effects State, a sea war spectacular based on Waterworld and a 3-D film with additional features, Shrek 4-D. Four rides on the Upper Lot include The Simpsons, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, the outdoor spinning Silly Swirly and the studio tour.
The Lower Lot is smaller and has three thrill rides with size restrictions: the NBCUniversal Experience, Revenge of the Mummy, Jurassic Park: The Ride and Transformers: The Ride. The Mummy ride is a high-speed indoor roller coaster, Jurassic Park a water ride based on the first film and Transformers a high-tech simulation of battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons involving flight-simulator vehicles. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is currently being opened in Hollywood and Orlando.
Many characters from Universal films old and new are to be seen on the lots, and can be met at breakfast, lunch and dinner in various restaurants. These include Fievel from An American Tail, Beetlejuice, Betty Boop, Curious George, Dora the Explorer, Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, minions from Despicable Me, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo as well as Marilyn Monroe, the characters from Scooby-Doo and Shrek, the Simpson family and their Springfield neighbors, SpongeBob SquarePants, several Transformers and Woody Woodpecker and his newer consort Winnie.
Universal Studios Hollywood can easily be accessed by public transportation. The Metro Red line subway train runs from downtown Union Station to Hollywood from 4:55 a.m. until 12:35 a.m., and the last train leaves Universal City station at 12:58 a.m. Metro local bus lines 150, 155, 224 and 240, as well as Metro Rapid line 750 stop at the front entrance, and local line 165 and the 656 Owl shuttle stop around the corner on Lankershim Boulevard. A free shuttle tram operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, and later on weekends, from the front entrance to the theme park.
The current admission price is $95 for adults and $87 for children; a current promotion offers admission for the rest of 2015 with the purchase of a ticket. A 2-day pass costs $111-119, while immediate access to attractions costs $159 and the VIP tour is $329. Combination tickets with SeaWorld admission or parking are also available. Park hours are 9 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. in winter, but the park is open until 9:00 or 10:00 on summer nights.
Universal Studios Florida features seven themed areas all situated around a large lagoon. In 2012, this lagoon was the site of Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories, a thematic display that showcased scenes from various Universal films, featuring lasers, projectors and fountains, and pyrotechnics. The themed areas, clockwise from the entrance, are Production Central, New York, San Francisco, London/Diagon Alley, World Expo, Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone and Hollywood. Each area features a combination of rides, shows, attractions, character appearances, dining outlets and merchandise stores. The San Francisco area will close in 2015 and construction will begin for L.A, set to open in 2017
Production Central is also home to dining outlets and merchandise shops, including Beverly Hills Boulangerie, Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Café, the Universal Studios Store, Studio Sweets, It’s a Wrap!, Super Silly Stuff, Shrek’s Ye Olde Souvenir Shoppe and Transformers: Supply Vault. New York features Finnegan’s Bar and Grill and Louie’s Italian Restaurant as well as Starbucks and Ben&Jerry’s franchises, as well as Sahara Traders, Aftermath and Rosie’s Irish Shop for merchandise. Within New York exist three merchandise shops: Sahara Traders, Aftermath and Rosie’s Irish Shop.
London/Diagon’s Alley is devoted to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and is newly-opened in Orlando and Hollywood. There are five rides, beginning with the Dragon Challenge roller coaster, open since 1999 under the name of Dueling Dragons; this is the only inverted chasing roller coaster in the world, and the two dueling sides have been renamed for the Hungarian Horntail and Chinese Fireball breeds of dragons featured in the books. Other rides include a steel family roller coaster of more traditional design, formerly called the Flying Unicorn, a newly-constructed 3-D steel roller coaster that recreates the Escape from the Gringott’s and a full-scale functioning replica of the Hogwarts Express that includes Platform 9 ¾ as in the first film.
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure open at 8:00 or 9:00 every morning and close at 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. depending upon time of year. The CityWalk is open from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day. Wet’n’Wild waterpark opens at 10 a.m. most days, and closes at 5 p.m. in winter and 7 to 9 p.m. in spring and summer. Admission to one park is $102 for adults and $97 for children, while admission to both is $147 or $142. Discounted passes are available for 2, 3 or 4 days. Express passes that bypass lines at attractions are available for one or both parks, as are VIP passes ($329 for one park and $349 for two). Combination tickets are also available for one or both parks and the Wet’n’Wild waterpark, and for performances by the Blue Man Group at Universal Studios. Additional discounts are available for Florida residents.
The parks and Wet’n’Wild waterpark are located on Universal Boulevard at exits 74B (going west) or 75A (eastbound) of Interstate 4. I-4 can be reached from Orlando International Airport by State Route 528, which is a toll road.