It's a familiar scenario for those of us who live in Southern California: out-of-state friends and family are planning to visit and they want us to play tour guide. Where we may be comfortable leading our long-lost relatives on a whirlwind tour of Disneyland, the game changes when they want to head north and visit Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, Adventures by Disney introduced a new one-day tour option that combines the traditional Hollywood tour with some exclusive Disney touches, offering a tour ideally suited for Disney fans visiting SoCal for the first time, or those who want to venture beyond Orange County.
I recently had an opportunity to take the Lights...Camera...Magic! tour as part of a media group. Disney has made a few changes to the tour since it debuted last January, but the tour as described here is current as of August 2012.
The Lights...Camera...Magic! tour begins at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, a convenient starting point for anyone staying on Disney property, but also accessible to visitors staying at other resort-area hotels. I arrive a bit early for our scheduled 8:30 a.m. departure, and chat with other invited writers while we wait for our guides to arrive. Every Adventures by Disney tour is led by two Adventure Guides, and Hanneke and Natalia are our hostesses for the day.
After checking my name against the list, Natalia invites me to order a beverage in the Hearthstone Lounge while we wait for the rest of the group to arrive. The official description says the tour includes breakfast, but you should plan to eat before you arrive if you want more than a pastry and glass of orange juice to start your day.
After a quick introduction, we board the bus and meet Don, who is a driver for both the Lights...Camera...Magic! and five-day Backstage Magic Adventures by Disney tour, and has worked as an L.A. tour guide for over 20 years.
Don eases the bus onto the freeway for the trip to Hollywood as Hanneke and Natalia introduce themselves again and share a bit about their history with the company. When not leading Adventures by Disney tours, both work in the Guest Relations department, and are trained as VIP tour guides. Our media hosts give us a preview of the brand-new Adventures by Disney marketing video, and our guides pass the time with stories about Anaheim's history and the construction of Disneyland, at one point taking the opportunity to promote the new Cultivating the Magic horticulture tour at Disneyland.
Los Angeles traffic being what it is, it's no surprise that we quickly find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam behind a multi-car accident—and I am instantly grateful that it's Don who's behind the wheel and not me. Our guides offer us the choice of listening to Disney music or watching Disney cartoons to pass the time. I have packed my Kindle book reader "just in case," and settle in to read while we make our way to Hollywood. As we near Downtown Los Angeles, our guides point out some notable landmarks, including the Hollywood sign (which we get a better view of later), Staples Center and L.A. Live, the University of Southern California campus and Coliseum, and some of the towers of the Los Angeles skyline.
Our first stop of the tour is the Hollywood and Highland Center, where we park at the Renaissance Hotel, one of the properties Disney uses for the five-night Backstage Magic tour. Hanneke and Natalia give some history about the Hollywood Walk of Fame and ask trivia questions, passing out candy for correct answers. They also caution us about some of the "interesting people" we might meet on Hollywood Boulevard, advising us that the various costumed characters would expect a tip if we took their photos, and warning that the "free" CDs aspiring musicians might try to give us aren't really free.
This is as close as we got to the El Capitan Theater during this trip, but the six-day Adventures by Disney tour includes a backstage tour and visit to the neighboring Soda Fountain. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
Once off the bus we make a quick stop at the restrooms at Hollywood and Highland Center, then Hanneke and Natalia lead us upstairs to see the Hollywood sign. Rather than jockey for position on the crowded observation bridge, we continue around the corner into a little-known alcove, where we gather for a group photo. Continuing on, our guides explain some of the movie references in the Hollywood and Highland Center, pointing out replicas of the elephant statues from the movie Intolerance and noting that another pair of replicas once stood at the entrance to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot in Disney California Adventure park.
Next, we walk out onto Hollywood Boulevard for our first real surprise of the tour: Each of us is invited to pose for a souvenir photo with a personalized star on the Walk of Fame. The guides help the line move quickly, holding purses and jackets as we kneel to pose with "our" star, and then lead us to the grand staircase leading to the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre. Here, Natalia tells us we have about 10 minutes to visit Grauman's Chinese Theatre next door and see the famous handprints and footprints in the concrete of the theater forecourt. Some opt to take a quick look while others stop into a nearby bakery for a snack. When we regroup, Natalia leads us up to the Dolby theater and distributes our tour tickets.
Adventures by Disney arranges for private tours whenever possible, and our visit to the Dolby Theatre was no exception. Tour guide Greg conducts the 50-minute, no-cameras-allowed tour of the theater, taking us into the private Dolby Lounge to see an Academy Award statue up close, and relating how Walt Disney came to help popularize the statue's nickname, "Oscar." Much of the tour focuses on how the theater is used for the Academy Awards, with Greg explaining some of the logistical challenges posed by hosting the annual event, and telling a few stories about various entertainers who left an impression during their visit. We are ushered into the mezzanine to see the stage set for the Cirque du Soleil production of Iris, but do not have the opportunity to step onto the stage. Our visit concludes with a souvenir postcard from the theater, as Natalia leads us out of the theater complex and across the street to board our bus.
Driver Don is waiting with a large cooler of bottled water as we arrive, and I accept his offer gratefully as I climb onboard. Once underway, Natalia and Hanneke offer a selection of snack bars and chips from a well-stocked basket as Don narrates our drive through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, across the Sunset Strip and down Rodeo Drive, pointing out all of the usual tourist spots like Whisky a Go Go, the Comedy Store, and the Rodeo Drive locations where the movie Pretty Woman was filmed. This is the section of the tour where the Disney facade slips, and we're left with a standard tourist tour of Los Angeles.
Don points out The Viper Room, the club where actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose, and Chateau Marmont, the hotel where John Belushi died of a drug overdose. I share a surprised look with another writer—did he really just say that? On a Disney tour? Don also misses a few opportunities to point out some locations of possible interest to Disney fans, skipping the obvious tie-in to Cars Land when mentioning Route 66, and driving past the former May Company Department Store building on Wilshire Boulevard without pointing out one of the inspirations for the Elias and Company store on Buena Vista Street in DCA.
We stop for lunch at the Original Farmer's Market, a collection of food stalls, counter-service restaurants, and shops. Hanneke and Natalia distribute $15 gift certificates as we exit the bus, and advise us that we have about 90 minutes to explore the market and The Grove shopping center nearby.
After lunch we board the bus to begin the 40-minute drive the Walt Disney Studios, and this is where the Adventures by Disney tour departs from the standard Hollywood tour. Where other tour companies might head to Olvera Street and Venice Beach, we head somewhere only Disney can take us. Along the way, Don, Hanneke, and Natalia take turns pointing out various landmarks, including the Warner Bros. Studio where the ABC television show Modern Family is taped. Hanneke slides a DVD into the player, and we spend some of the drive watching sections of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD, Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio. As we approach the Studio, Natalia points out Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, the hospital where Walt Disney died in 1966.
Once on the lot, I'm excited to see production signs for the ABC show Body of Proof. A friend works on the show and I'm a big fan of actress Dana Delaney—but alas, taping has not yet begun, so we won't have any opportunity for star-gazing. Hanneke and Natalia lead us into the campus, stopping for the obligatory photo opportunity a Pluto's Corner before taking us into the Animation Building. I've been here before, but never had the opportunity to walk through the underground tunnel to the Ink and Paint building, so that is a special treat.
Following our too-brief look inside the two buildings, we walk across the lot to view some of the sound stages. Hanneke and Natalia give a bit of history about them but it's unclear if we're going to be allowed inside—there seems to be miscommunication with the lot representative. While they sort it out, our guides take us to the Studio Store, where we have about 10 minutes to shop for souvenirs. The Studio Store offers a mix of Disney Store items with Studio-exclusive merchandise, with the adjacent Team Center offering Studio employees unusual items like desk plants and office supplies. Nothing calls my name (OK, the $150 "it's a small world" purse was tempting), so I wait outside while others shop.
Good news—we have permission to visit Stage 2, the set of Body of Proof. I'm thrilled to see it, even if they're still rebuilding the set after the summer hiatus. We meet a production operations manager, who tells us about the four ABC productions being taped on the lot, and points out some elements of the Body of Proof set—like the wrap-around backdrop that sets the show in Philadelphia, the storage rooms that serve as makeshift offices for various technical crew, the hot lights that ring the set. Being familiar with the show, I can pick out some of the sets, including the office for Dr. Megan Hunt, Dana Delaney's character.
All too soon we're ushered out of the sound stage to make our way across the lot to the Frank G. Wells building, home of the Disney Archives (not included in this tour), the multi-plane camera used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—and a Starbucks. After we ooh and ahh over the lobby displays, Hanneke and Natalia guide us to the Disney Legends Plaza for our evening reception.
The Disney Legends Plaza, in the shadow of the Michael D. Eisner Building, features replicas of the Partners statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, and the Roy O. Disney and Minnie Mouse bench found at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom park. Pillars around the Plaza are covered in plaques honoring the Disney Legends, some bearing the handprints and signature of the recipient; others (where the award was made posthumously) bearing the image of the Legends Statue, which sits in the middle of the Plaza.
Here, we're treated to a light buffet of fresh fruit, vegetarian appetizers like Walt's favorite grilled cheese sandwiches, and even a vegan spring roll. An open bar offers soft drinks, beer and wine. Our guides have set each place with our souvenir photo from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a cupcake from a Hollywood and Highland bakery. Some on the tour sit and enjoy the view, while others tour the plaza taking pictures or looking for the plaques of favorite Disney Legends. We get a chuckle out of Ward Kimball's handprint with the extra finger he pressed into the wet cement, and take advantage of the rare opportunity to get a photo standing right next to the Partners statue.
As the sun sets behind the Michael D. Eisner Building, Hanneke and Natalia lead us back to the bus for our trip home. Once again, Don has bottled water waiting for us, and Hanneke and Natalia come along with the snack basket as we join the rush hour traffic to head back to Orange County. Our guides present us with one last gift, an Adventures by Disney pin, and pop the Cars DVD into the player for the return journey.
Having lived in Southern California most of my life, I readily admit that I am not the target audience for this tour. Still, I can easily see how attractive this offering is for locals forced into the tour guide role, who welcome an opportunity to leave the planning, driving and entertaining to professionals while they sit back and enjoy the day with their friends and family. For first-time visitors to Southern California, this tour combines elements of the typical "Welcome to Hollywood" tour with an experience tailored for Disney fans.
That said, the detour to the Disney Studios means that the Los Angeles/Hollywood portion of the trip is abbreviated, so tourists looking to see all the sights in L.A. might be disappointed that there is no time allotted to stop on Rodeo Drive to pick up an overpriced souvenir, or drive through the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, or visit Santa Monica and see the ocean. Likewise, this isn't exclusively a Disney-focused tour, so you won't visit the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the guides only briefly mention the El Capitan Theatre and Disney Soda Fountain and Studio Store, which are both right across the street from the Hollywood and Highland Center. Not only does Disney need to keep the tour within a reasonable 11 hours, but Adventures by Disney needs to hold some of those experiences for the six-day Backstage Magic tour of Hollywood and the Disneyland Resort.
If you call Southern California home but really want to visit the Walt Disney Studios, the Lights...Camera...Magic! is one option. Personally, I'd opt for the longer Backstage Magic tour and enjoy all of the other elements of that tour, including the visit to Jim Henson Studios. But the next time out-of-town friends and relatives ask me to play tour guide, I'm calling Adventures by Disney and booking a Lights...Camera...Magic! tour.
Adventures by Disney Lights...Camera...Magic! tour