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BLAZE ON THE BACK LOT

It's business as usual, studio officials say

Universal keeps tours rolling a day after back lot fire, inviting visitors to take photos of the devastated sets.

June 03, 2008|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Footage from Universal Studios Hollywood's fiery back lot blaze beamed out over cable news channels and fueled sensational "inferno" headlines, but theme park officials tried to make one thing clear Monday: "We're not burned down to the ground."

"Everything is operating normally; it's business as usual," said Eliot Sekuler, the park's spokesman.

By Monday morning, tourists were once again streaming into the theme park, undeterred by the blaze that had swept through the back lot the day before.

And, just to be sure, Sekuler and other Universal executives were hopping a plane to Las Vegas, where they planned to spread the news to thousands of tourism officials and travel writers gathered for the Travel Industry Assn.'s annual convention, one of the largest industry events of the year.

The fire destroyed the "King Kong" attraction and a New York street scene, two highlights of the tour that takes guests on a 45-minute tram ride through movie sets and onto the studio back lot.

In all, 3.5 acres -- or less than 1% -- of Universal's 391 acres were destroyed, Sekuler said, noting that the tour would remain 45 minutes long.

In fact, during tours Monday, tourists got an up-close look at charred lumber and rubble with firefighters still on scene mopping up. Visitors were encouraged to snap pictures and roll their video cameras to capture the devastation.

Tourism analysts said they did not expect the fire to have any lasting effect on theme park business.

"Traditionally theme parks have been very adept at bouncing back from losses, whether it be through fire or loss of life or rides breaking down," said John Robinett, senior vice president of Economic Research Associates, a theme park consulting firm.

Universal is unlikely to see any major drop-off in attendance because there has been no significant reduction in the visitor experience.

"You still have other experiences like "Jaws," "Earthquake" and "War of the Worlds," said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer of Thinkwell Design & Production, a theme park design company.

"I highly doubt that a guest is going to say, 'A little piece of the back lot is burned, so we shouldn't go to the park,' " Hanna said.

In addition, on May 19 the park opened the $40-million "Simpsons" ride, which is expected to help boost attendance.

Still, shutting down the park Sunday will cost Universal in the short term. On a typical weekend day, Universal Studios draws an estimated 25,000 visitors who generate more than $500,000 in revenue.

Rebuilding the damaged sets could cost tens of millions of dollars. Universal executives declined to give damage estimates or say when the sets would be rebuilt. A much bigger fire on the Universal Studios back lot in 1990 caused about $25 million in damage.

Sekuler said the New York street-scape would be rebuilt, though a timeline had not been determined. After the set burned down in 1990, Universal took three months to build another one.

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this report.

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