UNIVERSAL CITY -- A small sign stating "VIP Experience" hangs above a rather nondescript door just left of the will call window outside Universal Studios Hollywood. It's for a service at the Southern California tourist stop that for years has been a bit of a secret. That is, until recently.
This amped-up version of the studio's regular tram tours has been used by celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Now it's available to anyone who wants a hands-on look of the movie studio.
Universal Studios Hollywood's newly revamped "VIP Experience" tour puts fans the closest to the industry they can get without having to go through a casting director. To create more availability, the studio has added four trolleys this year, and it plans two more next year.
"Even with the additional trolleys, we are talking about only hundreds of people who take the 'VIP Experience' compared to the tens of thousands who take the regular tram tour," says Xiomara Wiley, Universal Studios Hollywood senior vice president of marketing and sales. "We are striving to make this the ultimate behind-the-scenes experience."
The tour starts early with a continental breakfast in a VIP Lounge that overlooks the main gates. Visitors are separated into small groups of 20 for each trolley, which has two tour guides.
The idea is to have the "VIP" guides be as knowledgable about the 100-plus years of the studio history. At various stops along the way, the guides divide the trolley riders into smaller groups to give them more one-on-one attention.
Unlike the regular tram ride, those on the "VIP Experience" can get off the trolley and walk along the standing sets that have been used in the more than 8,000 movies and TV shows that have filmed on the lot.
Much of the tour follows the route of the standard tram ride, which takes visitors through such attractions as "King Kong 360 3-D" and "Earthquake: The Big One." But it also makes special stops, including at the Edith Head Prop Department -- a 130,000 square-foot, four-story structure packed with thousands of pieces of clothes, furniture, jewelry and other items that can be used in productions. There are more than 400,000 items to dress a set from almost any time period. The costume department has more than 800,000 pieces.
Bobby Machlin, who has worked at the park for six years, recently guided a group away from the main door to show off props that are too big to be stored inside the massive facility.
"That is a chariot from 'Ben Hur,' and over here are some of the giant Easter eggs used in 'Hop,' " he says, and then explains that the only time a prop gets thrown away is when it begins to fall apart.
Even when things on the lot get destroyed, there can still be some use in them. Machlin points out how that when a fire destroyed numerous sets on the lot, a camera crew was called before the fire department to collect footage of the burning buildings that could one day be needed for a film.
There's no way to see all of the props in the building, but Machlin points out items that were used in certain movies.
"Anyone watch 'Big Bang Theory?' " he asks. "This desk is the one used by Raj. They rent it from us when they need it for a scene."
The tour winds past rows of chairs, phones, necklaces, cookie jars and other props before heading back to the trolley. Machlin talks about the attractions in English, but there are "VIP Experience" tours available in Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish.
As the trolley makes its way past the house in the Hallmark Channel series "Home & Family," Machlin stops talking. If Universal were only a theme park, such silence wouldn't be necessary. But it's a working studio, and quiet is needed when cameras are rolling.
Just before moving past the house, "Home & Family" co-host Christina Ferrare walks over and waves. Celebrities working on the lot have been known to approach the smaller vehicles -- not as intimidating as the large crowds who travel on the regular tram.
The "VIP Experience" tour moves on to one of the most famous landmarks on the lot -- the courthouse facade used in the films "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Back to the Future." Machlin explains how the clock had been removed from the top of the building because it connected the location so closely to "Back to the Future."
Stops on the tour also include a visit to sets of television shows currently in production, such as NBC's "Parenthood," FOX's "The Mindy Project" and "Chelsea Lately" on E! Entertainment Television. The stops depend on which sets are being used. On this day that means a chance to walk through the main house from "Parenthood."
Machlin points out how the rooms have no ceilings to allow for lights, how the food is all fake and how pieces of the room can be moved to allow for the camera to move.
After the tour, guests zip to the front of lines at rides such as "Revenge of the Mummy -- The Ride," "Jurassic Park -- The Ride" and "Transformers: The Ride 3-D" before a midday break for lunch.
The midday meal is a gourmet spread at the Parisian quarters, and it is prepared exclusively for "VIP Experience" guests by Universal Studios Hollywood's Executive Chef Eric Kopelow.
The ever-changing menu includes penne pasta with garlic Alfredo sauce, shrimp scampi, beef sirloin with demi-glace, Portobello mushrooms with barley, soft shell crab with lemon butter, and ahi and yellowtail sashimi. Gluten-free and healthy, child-friendly menu items are available.
The "VIP Experience" costs $299 per person, but you can find some deals online. That price includes the more exclusive tour, gourmet meals and unlimited front-of-line privileges and reserved seating at Universal Studios rides and attractions. It also covers the cost of valet parking.
Xiomara Wiley says that all of this goes into making, for those who can work the "VIP Experience" into their budget, a once-in-a-lifetime visit to see, feel and experience the world of TV and film production.
Private "VIP Experience" tours and gift certificates are also available.
IF YOU GO
What: Universal Studios Hollywood "VIP Experience"
Reservations: UniversalStudiosHollywood.com or (818) 622-5120
See a gallery of photos from the "Vip Experience" at fresnobee.com.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.