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Justine Valdez, 26, takes guests behind the scenes at Universal Studios Hollywood
» “If they say ‘I’m going to watch a movie or TV show a little bit differently now,’ that’s the greatest gratification I can get.”
» Valdez, who grew up in San Diego, has always loved movies: “I learned how to operate a VCR when I was about five years old.” She watched “kid movies” (Beetlejuice, Batman) as well as classics (King Kong). She also sang in bands as a teenager. “I kinda grew up learning to hold a microphone.”
» During the 75-minute basic studio tour, a tram winds through the Universal Studios back lot, where visitors experience an “earthquake,” get splashed by the shark from Jaws, and are rattled in King Kong 360 3-D, among other attractions.
» In 2003, Valdez moved to L.A. to pursue an acting career. About a year later she took a studio tour with her then roommate and applied as a guide soon after. “I thought, ‘I can do that. I love to entertain people.’”
» Tours incorporate a variety of elements, including movie clips, music videos, and sound effects (clapping, booing, camera flashes). Although they work with a script, guides can inject their own personalities. Valdez favors a conversational style, mixing history, trivia, and musical theater touches. “Usually when we go down New York Street, I’ll bust into ‘New York, New York.’
Everybody loves it. I get applause.”
» Guides can’t get too creative, however. “Supervisors approve of what we can and cannot say. They tell us not to make it a stand-up comedy routine tour.”
» Prospective tour guides attend an open-call audition (in April 1,000 people vied for 40 positions). Those who pass participate in a group audition, showing off their skills through improvisation and script reading. Candidates are then interviewed individually, and they must demonstrate their abilities in a tryout aboard a tram and in a written exam.
» On average, Valdez leads four tours a day, five days a week. The park employs about 200 tour guides during the year, increasing their hours for the summer crush. Tours are offered in seven languages, including German, Japanese, and Korean.
» Celebrities frequently walk by Valdez’s tram on the lot. Her most memorable sighting was Johnny Depp, in costume as Jack Sparrow during the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean II. “I just froze—he’s one of my favorite actors. Everybody in the tram was screaming.”
» Valdez won’t say how much she earns, but guides start at minimum wage (compensation varies based on experience). She can’t take tips.
» Each tram holds 170 people and is outfitted with leather seats and HD monitors. For the best views, Valdez recommends sitting in the third car. Sometimes guests stay in touch with her by e-mail.
» Universal debuted its “Studio Tour” in 1915 during the silent film era, when guests could watch filming and even heckle actors. The modern-day version began in 1964, when “Glamor Tours” showed guests the Dracula set and Doris Day’s dressing room.
» Ideally Valdez wants to keep working for Universal Studios, as did the company’s creative director John Murdy, who started as a guide. (Saturday Night Fever director John Badham and comedian Wayne Brady were guides, too.)
» Valdez is often told she looks like a young Liza Minnelli. “She’s still up there singing and sweating and putting on a show. That’s exactly what I do. No matter what kinda pain I’m in or how hot it is, I gotta give a performance.”
Photograph by Dustin Snipes