Samland visits the new Universal Plaza

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Samland, Universal Hollywood


Published on September 12, 2013 at 3:00 am with 15 Comments

Universal Studios Hollywood’s greatest strength has also been its greatest weakness. Since 1964, the old chicken ranch had always been a working production studio first with a studio tour, theme park , and shopping mall shoved in between. Universal has slowly been turning its back on its heritage of taking you behind the scenes and is now going directly at Disney’s lead on creating fantasy spaces.

So it has been with great interest that I have watched what they have been doing with the center of the upper lot (the former The Studio Entertainment Center). For decades that central location has been the home to a variety of Western Stunt shows. When the stunt show was sent to pasture the abandoned arena was used for special events, Halloween mazes and employee barbecues.

Back in 1989, architect Jon Jerde presented a plan that would make Universal as legible of an environment as Disneyland. The only component of that plan to get implemented was City Walk. And even that sector of the project was not fully realized as planned. My hope was the new “Universal Plaza” would become a unifying element.

Universal has done some amazing things lately, mostly in Florida. With Springfield, they were able to turn an ordinary food court into a familiar, immersive environment that you want to visit over and over. It doesn’t hurt that the menu items support the story. I can’t imagine how many Flaming Moes have already been sold. And I appreciate the gusty move of showing what the Clogger burger will do to you while you are eating one. Genius.

So I had high hopes for Hollywood. Like any other development project or planning issue, I ask myself the following questions. Does the new act of construction repair, enhance or embellish the public realm. If so, how? If not, why are you doing the project? Finally, is the result Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable?


What I look for is evidence that the space has that Higher Degree of Life. What do I mean by the Higher Degree of Life? Here is an explanation from Walt and the Promise of Progress City:

Perhaps you have witnessed how a carefully designed, immersive environment can make a significant impression on the individual and can quickly change one’s mood and behavior. Walt had the vision and desire to create such a place. As a result, he changed the way we look at the public realm. How did he do this? Why are some places filled with life while other places seem so lifeless?

Architect Christopher Alexander suggested that, “What we call ‘life’ is a general condition, which exists, to some degree or other, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city.” Alexander added, “The key to this idea is that every part of space—every connected region of space, small or large—has some degree of life.” Most importantly, “This degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measurable.” A space that demonstrates a high-quality, positive experience for the majority of people is one that has a “higher degree of life.” Understanding what these measurable qualities are can help to unlock the riddle of how to create wonderful places.

Recently, the new Universal Plaza opened, so I went to checked it out. Form follows function and Universal Plaza (not to be confused with Universal City Plaza, the big office building at Lankershim) was meant to be a flexible space that could be quickly reconfigured to serve multiple functions. At times it would be a performance space with a stage. During Halloween it could be integrated into that hard ticket event. At Christmas, snow will be on the ground and during the hot months, fountains will bubble up from the ground and splash children.


What most people will notice first is the new tower. Until now, the first thing visitors saw after pushing through the turnstiles was a huge pole sign with the words “discount tickets.” Not a good first impression. With the new construction, that pole sign has been replaced by a New York style Art Deco tower. The tower lights up with changing colors and has a shop (not yet in operation) at its base. One side is an arch. On the other side is…a snack stand. The language of Art Deco thrives on symmetry and this seems to be lopsided.

Architect Louis Sullivan said of towers that they “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.” The new tower at Universal Plaza reminds me of an elegant element just above the canopy of a suburban shopping mall cineplex. Or that somebody tried to snip the top off the Chrysler Building in New York and put it on the ground. Kind of stumpy. Always looking to see the deeper meaning in someone’s design choice, I wanted to learn if it is a reflection of something else. For example, the front arch was inspired by the Paramount front gate. It is not representative of anything in Hollywood that I am aware of and my requests to learn more from the Universal Publicity Department has gotten me nowhere.

With all of that said, its success will be measured in the number of people who pose in front and then send those photos to their friends. Right now it is in competition with the globe out front and the entry arch with the red carpet. And the King Kong sign in City Walk.


Surrounding the plaza is a beautiful pergola that provides something that Universal never really had before – a place to sit. Movable chairs, small tables, seating walls around the planters all add up to a resting space that was sorely needed. Vines have been affixed to the walls, with the hope that the structure will be covered in flowers in a few years. They worked around a few of the mature trees and the result is an almost relaxing people watching space. That is a brand new attitude and a reflection of Universal’s shift toward serving local guests and not relying just on those from outside the region. Universal has never been a locals park. This area is the first step in changing that perception. For Disney fans you can thank Walt. He knew people needed a place to gather and figure out what they were going to do next. This takes a lot of room.

The structures surrounding the open space were dedicated to food. In addition to the small stand in the tower building, another very colorful whimsy building is just outside the boundary of Universal Plaza to capture the millions aiming for the Despicable Me ride. The big new addition is the massive Pink’s hot dog stand. Order over here. Walk past the show window kitchen where you can watch the chefs prepare your hot dog. Luckily they are not showing how the hot dogs themselves are made (it’s always better to eat a hot dog than think how it’s made).


Using the tests stated above, while not perfect by any measure, Universal Plaza has repaired what was broken. The abandoned stunt show arena was ready to go. The plaza is an enhancement. What is most interesting is how it will be embellished.

Speculation time.

What if Universal Plaza is meant to be a hub just like the one at Disneyland?

While talking with a senior Universal employee, they told me what I was seeing would all make sense in three years. What this suggests to me is that the entrance will be realigned and that the Streets of the World section in front of Minion Mayhem days are numbered. This is reinforced by the awkward theming of the food stand in front of Mel’s. This is either a temporary structure or a sign of things to come. Whatever it is, it is outside the boundaries of the plaza. Could the success of the Super Silly Funland expand in front of Cru’s house? Or some other kid friendly property? Perfect for the families with young children to turn left.

Straight back are anonymous studio buildings. Look at the subtle transformation of the animal show and the Castle Theater (Special Effects Show). These two theaters will remain as the only examples on the upper lot of Universal’s former mission; taking you behind the scenes. If it weren’t for the Studio Tour these would be recycled. Next door will be Springfield with Krustyland as the backdrop. One tick over will be the tour entrance. But the direction most guests will aim for will right, straight toward the Harry Potter project. Say goodbye to Shrek and the Panasonic Theater. Waterworld will remain. . . for now.

Need to disperse the early morning crowds of the future? Kids to the left, Potter people and locals to the right, and Hollywood tourists straight ahead.

As I said. Speculation. Your thoughts?

About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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  • Dusty Sage

    I’ve got to say that I REALLY like the look of the new Universal Central Plaza. While not ornate, it does presents a more unified look with the entry buildings which helps solidify the feel of the upper lot. To me, it feels very Hollywood Art Deco, I didn’t get a New York vibe. That’s how the movie palaces looked back in the day – often times one or two story buildings with a tower or some other visual hook over the entry. Usually not tall like the Carthay Circle but rather just visually appealing or reminiscent of a real place. They’ve created a mixed use space that actually looks nice even when it isn’t being used for a special event. Incurious to see how they transform it for Grinchmas.

  • BradyNBradleysMom

    I thought I read somewhere that they are building a Carthay Circle theater at Universal too. This is the same building that was built at Disney California Adventure. I thought it was so weird that Universal would build a version too. Do you know if they are still doing this and where it will go?

    Also, is all Shrek stuff going to be removed from the parks? I read that Universal did not renew the deal with Dreamworks so all Dreamworks characters are leaving. Does anyone know the timetable on that?

    Any news on what the Potterl section will include? Will it have the restaurant that guests can eat “inside” the banquet hall at Hogwarts? I heard that as a rumor many months ago and am excited because I always wanted to eat at the House tables in the banquet hall at Hogwarts.

    • Primogen

      BradyNBradleysMom, when Univeral started building the Universal Plaza tower, it was originally thought it was going to look like the Carthay Circle tower at DCA, but as you can see in the photo at the top of the article, it doesn’t.

      Presumably the Harry Potter section will include some or all of the Potter-themed attractions found or being built at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Certainly it will have Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Possibly the upcoming Gringot’s coaster. There isn’t a Hogwart’s banquet hall at Universal Orlando, although they do have a Hogsmeade Tavern where you can get fish & chips, sheperd’s pie, pumpkin juice and butterbeer.

      • jkh1978

        You mean that information was misreported previously on a Disney fan website?

    • MickeyFickey

      Rumors are pretty scarce on Potterland West coming to USH. Be that as it may, the most common rumors I’ve read from numerous sources (rumors are merely rumors until confirmed by Universal) are stating that the Hollywood version of Wizarding World is going to be smaller than the Orlando version at Islands of Adventure. There is expected to be a LARGE Hogwarts castle built–bigger than the one at IOA, with not only a clone of the Forbidden Journey ride in it from Orlando, but also the Great Hall dining experience, and an interactive show based around the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. There is expected to be a smaller version of Hogsmeade outside of the castle, though likely missing the Hogshead Pub. There is also expected to be a small family coaster installed as well, likely a clone of the Flight of the Hippogriff coaster. I don’t expect Diagon Alley to be included at all…rumors are that it may be an expansion in the future.

      Also, everything I’ve heard has pointed to Waterworld being removed and Shrek 3D staying put for a few more years.

      How true are these rumors? I guess we’ll find out in a few years when this all opens!

  • eicarr

    Glad some order is being brought to that confusing mash up of themes and the maze-like layout. However, the tram tour, the biggest reason for going, still sounds hidden.

    I wish they added some new spectacle shows like Conan or even the old Star Trek. Waterword was amazing the first eight times or so… I guess they’re letting the shows die off for cheap attractions cloned from global theme parks. Harry Potter looks up to DL audience standards though.

  • jedited

    Sam, can you tell us more about this plan from 1989? I would love to hear more.

    I still think that the strength of Universal Studios Hollywoodand what sets it a part from any other theme park in the world. Is that it is a REAL working film studio and it has REAL history in the movie and TV business. It has a reality that NO other theme park in the world has.

    It is an exciting time for Universal Studios (both in Cali and Florida). I’m excited to see what happens over the next few years. Thank goodness someone finally owns NBC/Universal that truly cares about the theme parks (or at least cares about the money that they bring in).

    As much as I would like to see it go, I’ve heard that Shrek 4D was going to stay for now.

  • Sparky

    I’ve seen Universal evolve a lot over the last 30+ years that I’ve been in Southern California. Sounds like this will be the biggest evolution so far. I haven’t been to the park in probably over a year, so the change is going to be a big shock to me! The Upper Lot has long been kind of a hodgepodge. So, it’s nice to see it becoming more organized and unified. I do feel a twinge of nostalgia, though, for some of the things from the past that have been lost. The place did once have a certain charm and appeal, even if it wasn’t as unified as it could have been. My favorite thing about the place is still the backlot. Backlots have always been “magical” places to me. (Last night I just happened upon the old episode of The Six Million Dollar Man where Steve Austin ends up in the Avalance Tunnel. That was a fun “blast to the past”!)

  • DisWedWay

    Sam, I’m sitting here drinking my morning white mocha coffee out of my 1980′s Universal Studios Victoria Station glass mug and reading your current update. That is my only souvenir from Universal Studios I own. I do have a whole cupboard full of Disney mugs from Special Editions over the years with John Hench’s Mickey limited edition being a favorite. If they do a Carthay Circle Theater I will be interested if they put the neon sign on the roof. If they do I will buy a mug from it. Thanks again for the update.

    • DisWedWay

      I do remember when a new D23 Disney Legend, came back from the New City Walk at Universal and was so excited about it. I did go several times to experience it, while visiting Victoria Station there with friends and guests, but it just wasn’t in my interest much like Magic Mountain. I do enjoy walking around Tokyo and Paris. I have not been able to visit their other parks in Florida or Singapore which I hear about. I did like Lake Buena Vista and Pleasure Island at Walt Disney World, and especially Bob Snow’s Church Street Station complex. WED Imagineers always said Bob did Disney better than Disney.

  • Not My Real Name

    The last time I was at Uni, Shrek 4D wasn’t there. Maybe I should go back?

  • DobbysCloset

    I grew up next to Disneyland; as an adult I lived walking distance from Universal Studios during the 1990′s, in Toluca Lake and Studio City (not that we ever walked there) and CityWalk was a regular destination on a sultry summer evening, but I went to the park just once circa 1994. None of the kids seemed very excited about it. The rides were good, the shows were fine — it was the in-between that lacked in excitement.

    Spending millions of dollars to create an attraction themed to a movie that people will completely forget in ten years seems like such a short-term strategy compared to building a ride people like for itself. We’ve completely forgotten Disney’s ground-breaking True-Life Adventure documentary series; Big Thunder stands on its own as a ride. Ditto Pirates, Jungle Cruise, Matterhorn, Space Mountain.

    Thanks, Sam, for keeping up the urban design concepts. I volunteer for my city’s Housing and Community Development sub-committee and I bring all your pointers (Walt’s, really, of course) about designing community space to every meeting.

    • Ryan120420

      JK Rowling, today, just announced a new film series set inside the Wizarding World. Universal has nothing to be worried about when it comes to the Wizarding World being relevant 10 years form now.

      Question. When was the last time you saw Song of The South on sale in your local store on on the Disney channel?

      Splash Mountain is a testament that if you build a quality attraction, people will flock to it regardless weather the IP is relevant or not.

      The Wizarding World is going to be a MAJOR game changer for this park. I’m exited more about what happens after the Wizarding World opens.

      • MickeyFickey

        Agreed. Once Potterland West opens at USH, it’s going to flip the SoCal theme park market on its head, just like it did the Orlando market. And keep in mind, the version coming to Hollywood is going to be SMALLER than the one in Orlando!

        Very exciting, can’t wait to see it once it’s open or see how Disney reacts to it.

  • MickeyFickey

    Sam, I must have missed it: is the end result of Universal Plaza Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable in your eyes?

    I think it looks great and as you mentioned, it provides a nice place to sit and relax. The tower looks wonderful…while I was at first frustrated that Universal was wasting valuable real estate in the middle of the upper lot on something so silly as Universal Plaza, I now understand why they did it and applaud them for doing so. It’s a much-needed addition to the Upper Lot.