Los Angeles Movie Studio Tours, Ranked
Earlier this month, my parents came to visit me and my wife in Hollywood and we all went on a tour of the Sony Pictures lot. I’d been on the lot a bunch of times before to see screenings, but that was the first time I’d taken the official studio tour. Since I’ve also been on the tours at Universal, Paramount, and Warner Bros., I decided to rank them for you in case you plan on visiting Los Angeles and have any interest in checking one (or more) out in person.
Before we get started, here are a few basic tips and pieces of information about these tours in general.
For anyone who already knows the ins and outs of film production, these tours will be covering familiar territory. They’re largely designed for people who come in with little to no knowledge of how a movie is made, and most of the tours sort of take you through a Cliff’s Notes version of the process as you pass certain areas on the lot (covering each stage of a movie’s development, they’ll point out executive’s offices who greenlight projects, sound stages where the films are shot, post-production facilities where the editing is done, etc). But even if you went to film school or otherwise know how the sausage is made, it’s still cool to be there, walking (or riding) around in the places where it actually happens every day.
You won’t always see a celebrity. Certainly there will be a handful on the lot — filming, working in offices, taking meetings, whatever — but actually laying eyes on them is not a guarantee. Don’t bank your entire trip on the idea of seeing a huge movie star in person.
There’s only one studio tour that’s technically in Hollywood, and that’s Paramount. Los Angeles is a huge city, and the rest are spread out all across the area in different sub-cities of their own. Sony is in Culver City, Warner Bros. is in Burbank, and Universal is in Universal City. If you’re not from around here, it’d be easy to assume that these studios would all be relatively close to each other, but depending on where you’re staying and what time of day you choose to go, it could easily take an hour (or longer) to get there in traffic. Here’s a map of where each major studio lot is located:
A quick note about this list: I tried to give an overview of each tour without giving away too many specifics of what you’ll actually see there, because being surprised at what’s around the next corner is half the fun. In addition to pricing information, each tour’s website has a more detailed rundown of what you’ll see if you decide to go. And keep in mind that everything you see on these tours is subject to change depending on your tour guide and what's happening on the lot that day. Your experience may not exactly mirror mine.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get to the rankings.
1. Warner Bros.
For my money, the Warner Bros. tour is the closest to the ideal studio tour experience. You ride around on a cart with a handful of other people, the guide takes you into a sound stage or two (if they’re available), and you get to see the iconic WB water tower (fans of Animaniacs will especially appreciate this). You’ll realize fairly quickly on tours like these that just driving around and passing a bunch of stages that look exactly the same on the outside sort of gets old fast, so thankfully WB has a whole section of the tour devoted to a two-story room with tons of props. When I was there a couple of years ago, they had a special exhibit devoted to Batman that showed off the various Batmobiles, vehicles, costumes, and props from the movies over the years, and there was also a Harry Potter area where you could see costumes and props from that franchise. Their backlot itself is also very nice, though not quite as instantly recognizable as some of the ones you’d see on other tours. Still, I think this is the most well-rounded tour that has a good balance of history, an interesting lot, and cool props.
Good for fans of: DC Films, Harry Potter, The Big Bang Theory, Friends, Casablanca
I actually spent a year working as a studio page at Paramount, but that was back in 2011-2012, and I’ve heard the tour experience has changed a tremendous amount since then. When I was giving the tour, there frankly wasn’t much the guides were able to do for the guests. We drove people around on carts — or walked, depending on the type of tour we were giving on the day — and explained a detailed history of the lot, which was fascinating (there’s some great history at Paramount) but admittedly not exactly the most exciting thing for people who were dying to see cool stuff. One nifty aspect: near the end of my time there, all the guides were given iPads loaded with clips from movies, TV shows, and commercials that were filmed at various spots on the backlot, so when we passed a particular location, we could stop and show the guests a clip of something shot on the very spot where they were standing. Instead of just taking us at our word that something was filmed there, it was great to be able to physically show the guests proof before moving on to the next thing.
Like every other tour, we were largely at the mercy of what was happening on the lot that particular day. Sometimes we’d be able to take the guests to the edge of the huge New York Street backlot and watch a movie or TV show shoot a scene, and sometimes we were allowed to take people inside open sound stages that weren’t being utilized on that day to explore the sets, but other than that, there simply wasn’t much we could offer.
But in the past few years, it looks like the experience has improved dramatically. One of the best additions is all of the daytime tours now have access to the prop warehouse, which I was only able to visit a couple of times as an employee (and back then we weren’t allowed to take tour guests along). There are also two new tiers of tour that weren’t available when I was there: a four and a half hour “VIP” experience that includes a private gourmet lunch or afternoon hors d’oeuvres, access to the archives, the backlot, and more; and a seasonal two and a half hour “after dark” walking tour at night with flashlights, which seems like it’d be a really fun way to experience the areas of the lot that are said to be haunted.
Good for fans of: Star Trek, Sunset Boulevard, I Love Lucy, Glee, NCIS: Los Angeles
This is the most impersonal tour of the big four, because it’s essentially just another ride at Universal Studios Hollywood (it includes a Jaws area with fire effects, an Earthquake section with flooding effects, the King Kong 360 3D experience, and Fast & Furious - Supercharged, all without getting off the tour cart). That means that the only way to take this tour is to buy a ticket to get into the theme park. At the other tours, you’ll be broken up into small groups (usually no more than 20); here, you’ll sit on a massive tour cart with a ton of other park guests. The ability to ask questions to a personalized tour guide is gone, and instead Jimmy Fallon hosts a tour video that plays continuously on screens above you as you ride all around the backlot.
So I’ve listed some of the negative aspects of this tour, but the big positive here is that Universal’s backlot is absolutely massive and you get to see a ton of iconic (and occasionally jaw-dropping) movie locations, from the original Bates Motel and Psycho house to the courthouse square from Back to the Future, and many more. Without giving too much away, there is also a long line of movie-related vehicles you pass during the tour. (Tip: sit on the left side of the cart for the best view of those.) It won’t be the most intimate tour you’ll come across, but if you were planning on going to Universal Studios anyway, make sure you carve out enough time to do this because it’s the best aspect of the entire park.
Update: My buddy Todd Gilchrist just informed me that Universal actually has a VIP experience of its own, which gives you much more access to the lot than the normal ride. The downside? Pricing begins at $359 per person. Find out more info here.
Good for fans of: Fast & Furious, Psycho, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, How The Grinch Stole Christmas
I feel bad putting this one last on the list because if you go check it out, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with it. It’s not as if all the other ones are great and this one is terrible — it’s just that something had to take the number four spot, and that’s how the chips fell. The Sony tour is very similar to what the Paramount tour used to be: you learn a good deal about the history of the lot, but the guides don’t have the luxury of iPads to be able to show you any clips. One advantage they do have is that their lot was formerly the MGM backlot, meaning you’ll be walking around on the same ground where mega-classics like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were filmed. This is also the only tour that can take you into a foley stage (where many of a film’s sound effects are created) and a scoring stage, where composers and conductors like John Williams create the music you hear in the movies. They have some screen-used props you can check out as you wait for the tour to begin, but their selection is a little lackluster compared to some of the other studios.
Good for fans of: Ghostbusters, Breaking Bad, Spider-Man, Men in Black, Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune
Obviously, your individual enjoyment of these tours is going to vary depending on what kind of stuff you like to see. I love movie props, and based on my experience, Warner Bros. has the most (and best) props on display, so that’s a big part of why I ended up giving them the number one spot. If you love history, you may have a better experience with Sony or Paramount. If you really don’t care very much about the actual process of filmmaking and are just looking to see a bunch of cool stuff in a relatively short amount of time, then Universal is probably the way to go.
If you’ve been on any of these tours, we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.