Celebrites as Tourist Attractions: Jackie Chan, Britney Spears, and More

Millions of tourists visit Los Angeles every year in hopes of spotting a celebrity, but rarely see anything more than gated homes and unemployed actors in character costumes on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Some enterprising celebrities are finding ways to become tourist attractions in their own right, with live performances and theme parks for fans to see their favorites (or at least their stuff) live in person.

-Britney Spears just announced a two-year residency at Las Vegas‘ Planet Hollywood starting in December. Over 1,000 fans gathered in the Nevada desert for her helicopter arrival and performance on GMA. Tickets for the pop star’s first 16 shows this winter go on sale tomorrow.

Action star Jackie Chan is opening his collection of historic sandalwood houses to the public in Beijing with a new theme park. The proposed park will show different cultural experiences with no admission, with some ticketed attractions to help maintain the antique buildings.

Film and TV actors on Broadway have become de rigueur in recent years, a way to prove their serious talent and break away from roles they’ve become famous for. This season, you can catch Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig and Patrick Stewart on stage in New York City.

-Fans of Michael Jackson have been hoping that his Neverland Ranch in California might be turned into a park or pilgrimage spot like Elvis Presley’s Graceland, but part of the property was sold off in 2008 and has since fallen into disrepair. Hearing that his children would like to buy it back, Lady Gaga was rumored to offer to help with costs or open it to the public.

Monument Valley, Utah: Hollywood’s Wild West

The road unfolds downhill, straight as an arrow, and appears to dead end at an otherworldly collection of sandstone buttes and mesas. We’ve all been here before, even if we’ve never stepped foot in the state of Utah. If you find yourself driving south on Utah Route 163, you will feel a strong sense of déjà vu about 12 miles north of Monument Valley. If the vista seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before in dozens of movies, commercials and music videos. When a producer is looking for a symbol of the American West this is where they come.
The story of how Hollywood discovered Monument Valley starts with Harry Goulding, an audacious entrepreneur with a fifth-grade education who established a trading post in the area with his wife in 1924. During the Great Depression, Goulding and his wife, “Mike” loaded up their Model A Ford and drove to Hollywood with a suitcase full of photos of Monument Valley. Goulding turned up unannounced at the office of John Ford, a legendary Hollywood producer and was reportedly asked to leave.

Goulding supposedly went out to his car, grabbed his bedroll, and laid it out in the waiting room of Ford’s office, announcing that he wasn’t going home until he was allowed to see Mr. Ford. The secretary called security, but the person who came to escort him out happened to be one of Ford’s site coordinators, and he was enthralled by the photos of Monument Valley that Goulding had spread out on a table.

Within weeks, Ford’s team was in the area filming “Stagecoach,” and he went on to shoot six more films in the area. John Wayne and other Hollywood luminaries were in the area so often that Goulding’s Lodge became their home away from home. Wayne, Ford and Goulding gave English language names to many of the area’s buttes and mesas, and hundreds of westerns have been shot in the area over the decades, not to mention scenes from a host of other movies including “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Back to the Future III,” “Windtalkers,” and “Mission Impossible II” to name just a few. It was also the place where Forrest Gump got tired of running, and last year Johnny Depp was in town to film scenes from “The Lone Ranger,” which comes out in July.
Even if you haven’t seen any of these movies, you’ve surely seen Monument Valley in a Road Runner cartoon, in a commercial or a music video. But even though the place seems immediately familiar, I wasn’t prepared for how awe-inspiring the scenery is. Everywhere you look, there are towering buttes and mesas, with every shade of red imaginable, and the panoramas are completely untarnished by tacky development. There is no Starbucks, McDonald’s or any other chain within many miles of this magical place.

The area gets just a fraction of the tourist trade that the Grand Canyon gets and, at least in the winter and summer, most of the travelers are from overseas. I was glad to have the place practically to myself in early January but I couldn’t help but think that Monument Valley deservers a lot more visitors.

If you want to get a taste of Monument Valley’s Hollywood connection, consider staying at Goulding’s Lodge, which has comfortable rooms with great views, not to mention John Wayne movies every night. Either way, definitely check out their free Trading Post museum, which is filled with interesting movie memorabilia and trading post artifacts. I also highly recommend their guided backcountry tour, which gives travelers an opportunity to see areas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park that are off limits to non-Navajos and offers insights into Navajo culture and traditions.

According to Rosie Phatt, my Navajo tour guide, locals never get tired of Monument Valley’s breathtaking vistas, but they have gotten used to all the celebrities who descend upon the area.

“Johnny Depp was here in April when they were filming scenes for The Lone Ranger,” she said nonchalantly. “He stayed in his own RV and nobody bothered him.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Hiking To The Hollywood Sign (No GPS Required)

I studied abroad in Ireland but I never kissed the Blarney Stone. I visited the Great Pyramids at Giza but refused to pony up for the classic photo on the camel. And I went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, but didn’t bother to put a wish or prayer in one of its crevices. I don’t have an interest in checking off travel cliché to-do boxes or even making bucket lists, but for some reason that I can’t really explain, I wanted to hike up to the Hollywood sign while in L.A. last week.

In many ways, I hate everything Hollywood represents and rarely spend money on the kind of mindless, big budget movies that are produced there. But I love hikes that have some goal at the summit and, well, I wanted to see the damn sign up close. Don’t ask me why.

Earlier this year, there was quite a bit of press about how people who live near the foot of the Hollyridge Trail that leads up near the sign are sick of lost tourists following their GPS’s onto their dead-end streets in search of the trailhead. So rather than use my GPS, I Googled “Hike to the Hollywood” sign and was surprised to learn that there are a few ways to see the sign.

I drove north on Beachwood Drive in Hollywood until the street came to a dead end. There I found hand painted signs that pointed towards a horse stable to the left and the Hollywood sign to the right. It was a warm Thursday afternoon and there were only a smattering of people on the dusty trail, most of them speaking foreign languages and clutching cameras.

The wide path leads you on a gradual ascent through the scrubby, camouflage-colored landscape of the Hollywood Hills. After about 15 minutes, the trail split – to the right was an uphill path and to the left the terrain was level. There was no one around to ask, so I went left and in another 15 minutes came to a little rocky plateau where some French and Russian tourists were posing for photos with the sign as a backdrop.

It felt like a dismal letdown. We were relatively close to the sign but, in honesty, the darn thing looked more impressive from a distance when seen from Beachwood Drive. I headed back in the direction I’d come from and when I got back to the fork I asked a woman who was jogging down the hill from the other direction what was up that way.

“A great view,” she said. “Just follow the trail up and you’ll end up right on top of the Y and W in the sign.”

I followed the path up for about 20 minutes and eventually arrived at the top of Mt. Lee, where a 10- to 12-foot fence stops tourists from trying to hike down and actually pose with the sign itself. I stepped on a rock in order to snap off a few photos and was joined by a couple from Wisconsin that was irate when they saw the fence.

“We can’t even take our photo with it,” the woman complained. And her male companion was annoyed that only half the sign would fit in his camera frame. Nonetheless, they asked me to take their photo standing in front of the fence and I gladly obliged. It may not have been exactly what we imagined, but it was a little piece of Hollywood for us to take back to the Midwest.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

Universal Once Again Transforms Blockbuster Movie Into Attraction

It seems the Universal Studios is making a second trilogy out of the popular “Transformers” movie series.

Florida’s Universal Orlando Resort has just announced the amusement park will unveil the third Transformers-themed ride in summer 2013. The ride, which is already attracting fans at Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Hollywood, takes the hugely successful toy line and movie and makes it into a simulator ride that pits the Autobots and the Decepticons against one another, with riders as an audience.

Universal said constructing the ride in Florida is one of the company’s “most ambitious projects ever,” pointing out that the attraction will have one of the shortest build times in Universal history.

“The attraction combines the larger-than-life Transformers characters and an exciting storyline with life-like HD CGI media, state-of-the-art 3D technology and amazing special effects to place riders right in the middle of an epic battle between good and evil,” Universal said in a press release.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported the ride – which is simply called “Transformers: The Ride” – cost $100 million to create. It opened in Singapore in 2011 and earlier this year in Hollywood, and was done so under license from Hasbro, Inc., with close supervision of Michael Bay, the award-winning director of the “Transformers” film series.

Three blockbuster films released by Paramount Pictures have so far grossed more than $2 billion under the Transformers name: “Transformers” (2007), “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009) and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011). The films were all directed by Michael Bay and executive produced by Steven Spielberg.

Guests who haven’t experienced the Transformers ride in Singapore or Hollywood but have ridden the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction located in Islands of Adventure in Orlando have an idea of what to expect from the new ride, in which thrill seekers watch a film while moving through the attraction.

Other films and film franchises made into amusement park rides include “Dumbo,” “Wayne’s World,” “Terminator,” “Indiana Jones,” “Shrek,” “Twister,” “Police Academy,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” What’s your favorite movie-turned-attraction?

[Photo credit: NBC Universal, Orlando]

Marilyn Monroe exhibit opening in London

A new exhibit in London is dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, the icon of beauty from an era when “beauty” meant something other than “built like a fourteen-year-old anorexic junkie.”

Marilyn opens today at the Getty Images Gallery and will feature iconic photographs and original dresses from Monroe’s many films. It also tells the story of how she rose as an aspiring actress to become one of Hollywood’s most unforgettable faces.

London’s Getty Images Gallery is one of the largest image archives in the world, with a collection ranging from the very earliest days of photography in the 1850s right up to the latest news stories of today. Their gift shop has an amazing variety of books on photography and high-quality photographic prints. In honor of the exhibition, numerous images of Marilyn Monroe will be for sale.

Marilyn runs from today until Sunday, May 26, 2012. Admission is free.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]