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

The Warner Bros. Studio water tower.
The Warner Bros. Studio water tower.Courtesy of Getty

By: Julie Tremaine/ SFgate

I never could have known it when I booked my ticket for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, but the day I visited was the final day of filming for “The Ellen Show.” The show, which ended its 19-year run this week, culminated 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 television stars of all time, and singers who have embodied the spirit of their generations.

To me, that’s what makes visiting a Hollywood studio so exciting, and what keeps me going back to places like Universal Hollywood over and over. They’re the creative center of the entertainment I’ve been consuming my entire life, and the tours are different not just every day, but from minute to minute. You never know who you’re going to see, and you never know what’s going to happen when you’re there.

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

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

You’ll also see the road from the famous scene in “Jurassic Park” where Dr. Ian Malcolm was attacked by the T-Rex and is driven away on 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 road, right?” my guide asked while she was describing the scene. “Well, it’s not. It was this road,” gesturing to the 150 yards of dirt we were driving on. Though most of that movie was filmed on Kauai, a hurricane ruined the sets during production and they had to move to Oahu for some filming, then back to Los Angeles for the rest. 

The road from the "Jurassic Park" scene where Dr. Malcolm's Jeep is speeding away from the T-Rex.
The road from the “Jurassic Park” scene where Dr. Malcolm’s Jeep is speeding away from the T-Rex.Julie Tremaine

“Steven Spielberg filmed that little Jeep 200 times and edited it all together,” she said. Imagine how many times and how many different ways Jeff Goldblum had to deliver those three words, while pretending to be terrified of a not-actually-there CGI dinosaur. And they say actors have it easy. 

After the jungle, you get to the small town “Midwest” set, a place where I die of happiness a little bit on every single visit. In the middle of that small town, there’s a grassy, tree-filled town square. On one side of the square, there’s a row of shops that could be anything from a small grocery store to a bookstore to, say, a diner with really good coffee. On the other side, a tree-lined street with homes that could work in any time period. In the middle of the square: a white gazebo. 

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

The Stars Hollow gazebo from "Gilmore Girls."
The Stars Hollow gazebo from “Gilmore Girls.”Julie Tremaine

There are a lot of different tours you can take, like the standard tour, a classics tour, a studio tour plus and a massive, six-hour deluxe tour. The standard and classics 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 one to three hours.

While the tour route remains largely the same, the information the guide gives you varies widely. On the regular tour, the guide generally focuses on newer projects. Last time I did that, earlier this year, my guide talked a lot about “Young Sheldon,” which was currently in production on the lot, and about projects that have filmed there in recent years like the Netflix show “You” and movies like “Oceans 13.” She also brought us to a tiny back alley that was 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 Fair 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, Virginia, in “The Waltons” and the town square from “The Music Man” where 76 trombones paraded through. 

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

“Unfortunately, they didn’t always write down what these houses were for,” my guide said on the classics tour. “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 on display.
Jack Warner’s phone book, with Walt Disney’s number on display.Julie Tremaine

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

On the way to that backlot, we drove through “the landing pad,” so named because Frank Sinatra’s private helicopter would land there when he’d commute from his Palm Springs home to work on the lot. 

The last stop on all the Warner Bros. tours is a show building that has 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 puts you in the world of “the boy who lived,” where “Harry Potter” movie magic comes to life. You can visit Hogwarts: mix a cauldron of ingredients in Potions Class, harvest screaming mandrakes in Herbology Class, even get sorted by the Sorting Hat — but I know it’s not the real one. It sorted me into Gryffindor when, as I will tell you even if you don’t ask, I’m a Ravenclaw.

The "Harry Potter" section of the tour includes potions class and sorting writers (like me) into Hogwarts houses.
The “Harry Potter” section of the tour includes potions class and sorting writers (like me) into Hogwarts houses.Julie Tremaine

Will you see a celebrity while you’re at the studio? I would love to tell you that I ran into Jennifer Aniston that day, and that I subsequently joined the “Friends”-aissance global rewatch party that’s been happening for the past couple of years. I didn’t. But I did sit in a Central Perk set, pretending to drink a comically oversized latte, right there on the same kind of couch where Rachel Green plopped down in her wedding dress and launched a decade of sitcom history. 

Maybe a tour like this isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I love the energy of a film set. I love being immersed in the environment that created the formative entertainment of my life, that shaped my childhood and my interests and laid part of the groundwork for the person I am today. I grew up going to historic battlefields and national parks, and I know the history that made our country. Every time I visit one of these studios, I’m learning more about the history of the pop culture that made 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 "Annie."
The “New York” street on the Warner Bros. lot. The gray facade was the orphanage in the 1982 version of “Annie.”Julie Tremaine