TJ: I used to work at a company on the Universal Studios lot – which meant I had access to the backlot – the sound stages which, if you ever go on the Studio Tour, the trams for ride drive around. Normally, you’re not allowed out of these behind the scenes trams, but, if you know someone who works at Universal Studios, or if you pay the roughly $350 VIP experience fee, you’re in luck!
Dara: So this is one where we had special insider access and a golf cart – but anyone can enter for a fairly steep price.
TJ: Right, and the outdoor stages are very fun to explore if you get the chance! Most filming these days happens on the indoor stages around the lot, which you will likely not have access to. But, if you do have a legitimate reason to be on the lot, and if filming is not happening on the outdoor stages, you can explore anywhere in the outdoor areas.
Dara: Of all the studios in LA, Universal has the biggest backlot – which includes a large New York area, a Western village, a European center, Whoville, and more. They’re enormous, and, for the most part, abandoned. Since these are sets, all of the buildings are just facades, their interiors are, for the most part, empty. They’re very fun to explore, and filled with little odds and ends – like props that have been left there for years.
The below map lays out where everything is. You can find some official photos of the locations here, and this site is a great reference for looking up what films the location you’re at has been featured in.
Cue the music:
We normally start in New York – a large neighborhood of outdoor sets built to look like various parts of New York City. Most LA studios have some version of this on their lot, but none are as big.
We first go to the Brooklyn Brownstones – a group of the archetypical NY brownstone buildings, because the doors on these buildings are always open. If you find an open door, and follow the stairs up, you’ll end up on the connected roof of the sets, which has a great view over Universal. That’s where we are in the featured image. You can also get down and up to this roof via a fake (but working) fire escape that comes up the opposite side of the building.
From there, you can see the Courthouse Square – most famous for being the building struck by lighting in BACK TO THE FUTURE. That’s another building you can go inside of – but there’s not much to see, it’s mostly hollow. You can see it here in BACK TO THE FUTURE:
It’s also fun to explore the fake shops in New York, which are filled with fake props, like bottles of alcohol that are really colored water, and teabags filled with sand.
From New York, if you continue on the main road, Jimmy Stewart Ave, you’ll get to the Western section of the backlot. This has been closed off for a bit for renovations, but is fun to explore when it’s open. If you turn right and go through the Western section, you’ll get to one of the main attractions here: Jaws Lake.
Not that it was actually used in JAWS, or in any other movie. But if you park there and wait for a tram to pass, there is a fake animatronic shark and crazy fireballs that are incredibly fun to watch.
Back down in the Western area, if you wait for a Studio Tour tram to pass, you can also witness a terrifying flood (as seen in BIG FAT LIAR).
If you keep going on Jimmy Stewart Ave, you’ll hit Europe, and if you keep going up past Jaws Lake, you’ll find a nice Cul De Sac of houses called Colonial Street. Elon Musk just did an event showing off his new solar panels there, and you may recognize some of the houses.
If you continue up the hill, you’ll drive past one of the original Deloreans from BACK TO THE FUTURE. Past that are three great attractions: Whoville, from THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a huge simulated plane crash – and the original Bates Motel from PSYCHO.
Whoville is a fun place to take photos, same with the plane crash. The Bates Motel consists of both the lower motel section, and the upper, iconic house, which you can go inside (but is mostly hollow and filled with dirt). The lower motel section often has an actor who pretends to be a murderer, and jumps out at the tram. In between trams, he’ll go back and hide (and he’ll get made at you if you try to enter his room like we did once).
Finally, up further you get to an enormous bluescreen, in front of a lake. This is where the ending of the TRUMAN SHOW was filmed, as well as numerous sea battles over the years. Every once in a while there’s a fake ship floating in the water there. It’s also been used in APOLLO 13, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, JURASSIC PARK III, THE ITALIAN JOB and more.
Overall, the Universal backlot is a very fun place to explore, and most of the fun lies in discovering tiny secrets, and hidden pockets of the old sets, which are now mostly left there to rot, now that most films shoot on location. If you’re a movie buff, it’s great looking up the building you’re in – often times, you’ll be surprised by how many things have been filmed there.
You never know what you’re going to find when you visit.
COST REPORT: $-$$$
IF YOU HAVE A UNIVERSAL FRIEND: $0
VIP UNIVERSAL PASS: $349-399/person