Tourists got a mix of reality with their make-believe as the Universal Studios theme park reopened on Monday while investigators searched for the cause of a huge fire that destroyed back-lot sets and buildings.
The smell of smoke hung in the air when the gates opened midmorning, a day after the fire broke out. Guests applauded firefighters as the movie studio-theme park’s tram briefly rode past the smoldering thick, twisted piles of girders.
“We were a bit shocked,” said Danish tourist Morten Jull, 20. “We were like, can this be?”
Fire investigators examined the ruins to find the cause of the blaze, which has been ruled an accident, that started at a sound stage featuring New York brownstone facades at the 400-acre property early Sunday. It then destroyed a King Kong attraction, the courthouse square from “Back to the Future” and a streetscape featured in “Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers.”
The spectacular blaze burned for more than 12 hours, but was contained to the back lot, which straddles a pass through the hills between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Low water pressure forced firefighters to tap lakes and ponds at Universal, a working studio with streetscapes and sound stages as well as a theme park. About 25,000 tourists visit on a typical weekend day.
Damage estimates were expected to total millions of dollars. Another fire at Universal Studios in November 1990 caused $25 million in damage and was started by a security guard who was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to arson.
On Monday, the tram also drove by undamaged sights, including sound stages, the “Jurassic Park” area where dinosaurs spray water at visitors, the Bates Motel from “Psycho” and Wisteria Lane, scene of TV’s “Desperate Housewives.”
Later, on a viewing platform overlooking the back lot, several people surveyed the destruction.
“It’s sad for Hollywood,’ said Ismael Garza, 53, a stage manager.
Universal Studios President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer said the blaze also gutted a building housing an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels in a video vault. But he said there are duplicates of everything stored at a different location. The videos included every film Universal has produced and footage from television series including “Miami Vice” and “I Love Lucy.”
Art director Francois Audouy helped shoot the final battle scene of “Transformers” on the New York streetscape, and said it was the longest and widest of its kind in southern California.
“It’s a real shame,” Audouy said. “There’s a New York street at Warner Bros., and Paramount, as well. But Universal’s was considered a very unique option for filmmakers to create that New York look.”
The set was held up by telephone poles and wood, and a fire crew was standing by at all times over the four days of shooting, which included many explosions, he said.
Audouy said he hoped Universal would rebuild the set with a less-flammable steel skeleton.
“It’s too big of an asset for Hollywood. It’s too great of a resource,” he said, noting production companies paid tens of thousands of dollars a day to rent the space. “Plus, it’s one of the highlights of the Universal back lot tour for tourists.”
The destroyed streetscape had recently served as a backdrop in television shows like “Monk,” “Crossing Jordan” and “House,” said NBC Universal spokeswoman Cindy Gardner.
A set used for the Clint Eastwood-directed movie “Changeling” featuring Angelina Jolie also was destroyed, Meyer said.
Universal Studios spokesman Eliot Sekuler said it was “too soon” to say whether King Kong and other attractions would be replaced by new attractions, but that the theme park plans to rebuild.
Sunday’s fire sent an acrid plume of smoke into valley neighborhoods to the north. Results of air samples taken by the South Coast Air Quality Management District were expected sometime Monday.
Universal is in county territory and operates and maintains its own water system, which is fed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. But the city’s involvement stops at Universal’s property line.
“Yesterday we had adequate water supply feeding their system and were in fact asked by the Fire Department to attempt to increase water pressure and we did so,” DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said Monday.
“However that action had a negligible effect because of the area in which Universal is located and the fact that the water system that runs throughout Universal Studios is private and operated by the park,” he said.
Nine firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy suffered minor injuries. The deputy and a firefighter were injured in an explosion in the building where the videos were housed, authorities said.
Universal City, nine miles north of downtown Los Angeles, was founded in 1915 by Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. Laemmle created the first studio tour, which consisted in its earliest days of people standing on a platform or on bleachers while filming took place below.