Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour 50 Years Old Today

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features, Samland, Universal Hollywood, Universal Studios



Published on July 15, 2014 at 3:00 am with 14 Comments

Today, July 15th, we offer our congratulations to Universal Studios Hollywood on 50 years of their world famous Studio Tram Tour and the genesis of their theme park operations. You provided the masses with a chance to peek backstage at a real movie studio and there is still nothing quite like it. What is even more remarkable is how much change has come to Universal City since 1964.

During the time that I have been trying to get you to buy The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream, I have been writing another book with another incredibly long title. The new book, due in mid-November is Universal Versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to America’s Greatest Theme Park Rivalry.

A Functional Test of the Studio Tour

To get started, Albert Dorskind asked for $4 million to design trams, build a food court, parking lots, and restrooms. He assured his bosses that the tour would fit in with the other branches of MCA/Universal and would appeal to a worldwide audience. He suggested the various technical crafts and studio assets could be mobilized such as art directors, special effects experts, and the props, and the studio already had all the talent they needed on hand to create something memorable.

Lew Wasserman agreed so long as the tour was based on three basic principles. First, the tour could not interfere with studio production. Second, Wasserman wanted the guests who visit to “leave as our friends, thinking well of us and identifying in a positive manner with our products”. Finally, he said, “Although we must charge, it is our policy to give top dollar value in our entertainment.” Dorskind got the green light and preparation for the tour could begin.


Although almost half of Universal City was vacant land, much of that was the hillside that attracted Laemmle to buy the property in the first place. Dorskind needed to find a place to put the tour facilities that did not interfere with production. Back in 1960, he needed to create more room for new production facilities and sold 700,000 cubic yards of hilltop to the State of California at five cents a yard. The dirt was used as fill for the Hollywood Freeway. For the Studio Tour, he did the same thing. MCA removed 50,000 cubic yards to create a nine-acre parking lot with room enough for 1,000 cars. To make room for the future tour center, an additional 450,000 cubic yards of dirt was removed.

The tour’s first general manager was Barry Upson. He said, “My original task was to put [the tour] together physically, staff it, operate it, and oversee it”.

Upson had been working on the 1962 Century Exposition in Seattle the previous five years and was looking for his next opportunity. He had met Buzz Price on a couple of occasions at the fair and Price recommended him to Dorskind as the man for the job. Upson said, “Apparently, [Price] decided I was young and cheap and he could recommend me to Dorskind”.

Dorskind and Upson began to experiment with a single two-car tram in the spring of 1964. Movie publicist Herb Steinberg drafted the first script along with help from Upson. Bud Dardene from Mini-Bus, Inc. built the prototype tram. The tram was equipped with a six-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. The seats faced out toward the side instead of the current configuration of facing forward. If you wanted to see something on the other side of the tram you would be unable to do so.


The secretaries from the MCA Tower were invited to take the inaugural tour. As the tram left the lower lot and slowly crawled up the steep Firehouse Road toward the construction site for the new tour center, it broke down. The tram could not move forward and it could not back up. As a result, 60 angry secretaries had to walk back to their offices on the Front Lot. The six-cylinder engines were replaced by a V-8. Further tests proved to be more successful.

On June 17, 1964, the Universal Studios Tour was opened to the public with the official grand opening on July 15, 1964. Dorskind and Wasserman would not allow any advertising. Barry Upson called the opening in 1964 “a functional test to see whether it was a business or not. Everybody thought it was going to be a good business”.

The new commissary building served as the tour center for the first year while construction for the Studio Entertainment Center took place. Those first guests purchased their tickets at a trailer parked along Lankershim Boulevard. The offices were in a Quonset hut nearby. The opening day staff consisted of a ticket seller, two guides, two trams, and two tram drivers. Admission was $3.50 per adult.

Goodwill For An Industry That Needs It

Tourists boarded a futuristic looking custom-built tram designed by Disney Imagineer Harper Goff, who was responsible for much of the design for Main Street USA and Adventureland at Disneyland. He was also the Art Director for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Captain Blood, and many other films. The attractive trams were called GlamorTrams and had a distinctive profile that gave the impression that they were leaning forward.

Bud Dardene and Mini-Bus, Inc. built three three-car GlamorTrams at a cost of $30,000 each. Each tram was painted orange and white and carried 67 visitors, also known as “rubberneckers”. Learning from the past, the trams were stocked with a more robust drivetrain.


Dorskind joked, “The projections were that we’d be lucky to break even. We built our first three passenger trams with engines that could fit into our regular trucks if the idea didn’t work”. Unknown to many people was MCA was hedging their bets and had feasibility studies under way to determine if Universal City would be the appropriate site for a World’s Fair in 1968 or 1969.

The first Universal Studios tour guide hired in 1964 was Tommy L. Mack, who would set the standard and was named the tour’s personnel director a year later. Mack was also African-American. This was at a time when Disneyland restricted African-American Cast Members to backstage or performer roles. Disneyland’s policy changed in 1968.

When the tour was over, the trams returned to the Commissary. Down in the basement was a make-up show and a costume exhibit. Herb Steinberg suggested the make-up demonstration. Upson hired the legendary Westmore brothers, Bud, Percival, and Wally. Known for their trademark white jacket, white pants, and white shoes, twice a day one of the brothers would select a lucky person whose name was drawn from a glass bowl to sit in a gold chair with a gold cloth around her neck and be made up as a glamorous star. Nearby was an exhibit of costumes by Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head.

According to Bob Rains, a publicist at Universal, on the first day of the tour Jules Stein went to Lew Wasserman and told him that he now believed that the tour would make the company money. “But we do have a serious problem,” Stein added. He removed an admission ticket from his pocket and said, “Look at this! Nobody took my ticket after I purchased it.” He complained, “If something is not done to correct the situation, people will be giving their tickets to others once they leave the tour grounds. Think of the money we will be losing”. Wasserman told Stein he would take care of it right away.

One of the first visitors taking the new tour was the influential syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. After the tour, she hurried back to her office and wrote, “For years I’ve been howling for the [Hollywood] studios to do something for millions of tourists who come to our town expecting to see how pictures are made”. Their only option was “looking at a bunch of footprints in concrete” and she wondered, “It needn’t have taken a great brain to know that giving a movie fan a look inside never-never land could be a money making proposition and also generate good will for an industry that needs it”.

Hopper scolded the Hollywood community for sitting “on their minds and hands”. The only man she applauded was Walt Disney “who up and built himself a Disneyland that turned out to be one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. It must have given Jules Stein food for thought”. According to Barry Upson, her column is what launched the tour in the public’s mind.

Philip Scheuer of The Los Angeles Times was also impressed. He said, “It’s about time – or, better late than never”. On September 28, Universal notified theater owners that they had “been experimenting with an extended tour program at Universal City Studios, designed to give all visitors to Southern California an intimate look into the production and glamour of our industry”. They encouraged the exhibitors to visit as their guests and to tell their patrons about the new attraction. Attendance that first year was 39,000 visitors. The tour may have lost money the first year but that was okay for now.


For Wasserman, the successful launch of the tour meant it could help MCA to avoid the inevitable volatility of moviemaking. Biographer Connie Bruck said Wasserman was “a firm believer in diversification, he had started to follow Disney’s amusement park lead, with the Universal City Tour. He was determined to take advantage of the real estate potential of the 420-acre Universal Studios property”. Buzz Price agreed, “Universal Studios is the giant that woke up some 8 years after Disneyland. It effectively and aggressively leveraged some sleeping assets: a great location, a large interesting site, a great brand name, and a great library of intellectual properties”. Bigger things were just around the corner.

Please join us in wishing Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour a happy anniversary in the comments below with your memories, thoughts and favorite elements over its 50 year run. 

If you enjoyed today’s article, you’ll probably want to pre-order my upcoming book on Universal Studios history:

You may also enjoy my two recent books: 


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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  • eicarr

    Happy BDAY Universal Studios Tour!! Thanks for the fascinating post.

    For me, Universal is still 99% about that magical tram tour. I loved it when the tour was so long it needed a rest stop in the middle(filled with cool props to interact with). I miss the lazars in Battlestar Galactica, the fake rocks rolling down the hill, the spinning tunnel and the Bionic man/woman stuff. Miss the Special FX shows where you had to keep moving down the bench into the next room.

    Lots of great memories too from when they had amazing shows like Conan the Barbarian and the Wild West Stunt Show. Cheesy shows like Airplane Disaster, Star Trek, A-team and Miami Vice were always fun.

    Not a big fan of the lackluster rides they seem to rip out and replace frequently, but they seem to be getting better at them(I’m sure Harry Potter will finally win me over). Citywalk’s groundbreaking success can be seen with its replication at all global Disney and Universal parks.

  • rstar

    Universal Hollywood is unique in that it is the only real working studio/ amusment park. Amusment parks try to pretend to be studios and there is Warner Bros that is a studio without much to do. And It has a great big future in store! Congrats!!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    The Universal Studios Tram Tour has always been magical to me. The first time I remember visiting the park I was about 11 years old. Battlestar Galactica was a highlight, as was the Six Million Dollar Man Testing Center. Somewhere, there’s a photo of me lifting a van above my head like Steve Austin.

    If someone said Hollywood, I wanted to go to Universal. It was always a fun diversion and one of those “DAD CAN WE GO TO UNIVERSAL” kind of places.

    Almost everything in the park is new today from when I was a kid . . . but that’s all part of the magic at Universal. They’ve managed to keep their parks relevant by not allowing things to become nostalgic. There’s always something new on the way . . . particularly under the current leadership which is not afraid to spend big money to keep us all coming back for more. Transformers, Despicable Me, Simpson’s Springfield, Harry Potter . . . Just like that . . . it’s a whole new park with all new adventures for new memories.

    Love Universal and visit frequently, even more than in my conversion van bench pressing days. Happy Birthday Uni!!!

    • ex-wdi

      Hey, Dusty, when are Dave Cobb and I going to do a podcast on our time as Studio Guides? We’re ready to give some dirt! :)

      • Kenny B

        Still waiting on part two (or three?) of “acountineering”………. I know you guys are busy. Love the site

  • M69

    Thanks for the article! Great read! (as usual) Happy Anniversary, USH Tram!

  • gboiler1

    Such a nice tribute and a story I hadn’t heard before.

    I have fond memories of our visits to family in California and how they included the trip to Universal. I think I’ve visited 5 or 6 times over the years and also recall some of the highlights mentioned above.
    I know I have a pic of me as a teen lifting the van one handed and pushing over the palm tree. I also recall those fun shows where studio audience members hammed it up for Emergency and Airport re-makes. That’s what made Uni fun sorry those are the FX show is gone. My daughter got to put on the vest and headgear and make “Fluffy” come to life back in 08.
    Our last trip out was a few weeks before the Kong building fire so looking forward to the new incarnation.

  • Bob Gurr

    When Bud Dardene at Mini-Bus, Inc. got an order for more trams with the bigger Ford V8 engines and the forward facing seats, Bud invited me out to his little shop in Huntington Park, a few miles east of Universal Studios, in October 1964. Bud and I were friends from earlier days on a Tampa Airport tram project – Bud also tried hard to sell Disneyland anything – we were good friends.

    Bud was on such a shoe string waiting for Universal to pay for the trams that he made a deal with the the Ford Motor Company. They’d ship him engines and transmissions up front then wait for their money until after Bud got paid – only after the trams actually worked.

    Bud wanted take the new tram out for a test drive thru downtown Huntington Park in mid-day traffic. While Bud drove, Harper Goff, also a friend, was on the microphone as the tour guide, while I was the sole passenger. It was presidential campaign time, Barry Goldwater being the Republican candidate. “Vote for Goldie Waterberry” Harper announced over and over on the pa system – boy, did we get stares! I was so mortified. Bud was such a good guy – many free lunches over the years trying to sell us Mini-Bus equipment.

    • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

      Amazing stuff. Thank you Bob. I can just imagine you driving through Huntington Park in a big Universal tram! :-)

      And let’s not forget what a HUGE part of the tour your King Kong animatronic was. I still lament the loss of Mr. banana breath. He sure did go out in a blaze of glory.

  • steve2wdw

    Not that I needed an excuse, but since today is also my birthday, I’m going to have to plan to head west next year to wish the tour a Happy 51st!

  • Soulquarian

    As a kid, Universal Studios was my absolute favorite theme park. I always loved the scale of the attractions, especially King Kong! I was in the 3rd grade when Jurassic Park came out and I was beyond thrilled when my parents took me to the see the behind the scenes exhibit behind Backdraft. These days, it bums me out that so much of the park is basically motion simulator/screen based attractions, but the future is looking brighter than before. I went to Florida for the first time this past Feb. and WWoHP BLEW ME AWAY.

    I also never knew that black cast members had to work backstage if they weren’t performing. I had heard rumors, but nothing definite. Very interesting.

  • Amy VandenBoogert

    Wow 50 years for the Universal Tram Tour!

    I remember my first visit to USH in 1985. The tram tour was such a highlight. I was so fascinated with the “Battle of Galactica” scene (have a few photos we took inside the building somewhere) and the “collapsing bridge” actually scared the living crap out of me (I was 10 at the time so… yeah).

    We have a photo of me lifting the A-Team van off the ground. My only disappointment that trip was I got sick from the heat while waiting in line to sit in KITT (the car from Knight Rider – you could sit in the car & KITT would talk to you). It was over 100 degrees that day if I remember correctly. But I did get photos with a couple of the actors from the Conan show nearby, which was also pretty cool.

    Next visit to Universal was 1989 the day after my 15th birthday (we spent my actual bday at Disneyland). My parents weren’t as keen as I was visiting (I had basically whined and begged and pleaded to go to extend my birthday fun), but again the tram tour was the highlight. King Kong blew us all away and we enjoyed the rest of the tour as well. I remember getting a pin at one of the gift shops in the park that marked the 25th anniversary (I still have that pin as well as an old park map/guide too).

  • Haven

    As kid raised in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970′s, Universal Studios was my neighbor and friend. I LOVED the tram tour with those pink and white slanted glamour trams! I always wanted to be a tram tour guide. I appreciated how many of the tour guides were “personalities” in their own right, aspiring actors & comedians breaking into the business who made the staged “disasters” seem truly accidental and real. This made Universal my next favorite place to visit for fantasy next to Disneyland. I think the tram tour is forever unique as there is something about a large group of people “surviving” an earthquake, gorilla or shark attack together that is fun and bonding. It fosters the joy of us all playing together nicely. Happy Anniversary Trams!!!

  • Jabroniville

    Nice stuff! I really like the Universal tram, especially since the Disney Hollywood Studios one is a poor copy, and Universal Orlando doesn’t have one at all.