Check Out the Updated “Earthquake—The Big One” Studio Tour Attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood

June 28, 2024
A hydrogen truck crashes into a subway station on "Earthquake—The Big One" on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.

“Earthquake—The Big One” has long been one of my favorite attractions on the World-Famous Studio Tour. Here’s how it goes: the tram rolls into Soundstage 50, which looks just like a San Francisco subway station. We roll up under the guise that we’re getting a special, behind-the-scenes look at a movie currently in production. It’s a “hot set,” we’re told — there are movie cameras, makeup and wardrobe, craft services — but the crew is on break. All very exciting in its own right, isn’t it? 

But then the real fun starts. 

Guests react to "Earthquake—The Big One" on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.

It begins with a flicker of the lights. We feel a tremor, nothing crazy for Southern California, but quickly, the shaking becomes so intense that this could only be…The Big One. The ground cracks open. The ceiling of the transit station splits open, too — a gas tank truck slides through it, then catches fire. Sparks fly at all angles. A train comes careening into the station. And then — uh-oh — here comes the flooding. For a thrilling two minutes, guests experience a massive simulated earthquake.

“Earthquake—The Big One” embodies what I love so much about the Studio Tour: it showcases the impressive practical effects while creating an absolute thrill for guests. If your heart isn’t pounding as that flash flood comes cascading into the transit station — whew, you’re certainly braver than I. “Earthquake” has been a beloved stop on the Studio Tour since 1989, and now, in tandem with the attraction’s 60th anniversary celebration, it’s gotten an update. “Earthquake—The Big One,” welcome to the 21st century!

“Welcome to 2024,” says Jon Corfino, vice president for Universal Creative. “Fresh audio, fresh systems, fresh everything!”

A flood pours into a subway station on "Earthquake—The Big One" on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Discover Universal got a behind-the-scenes look at the attraction in its final days before it was unveiled to the public, courtesy of Corfino. From fall 2023 to spring 2024, the attraction was closed for about six months for a revamp. Not a gut job — the main story beats of the experience have remained largely the same. Just a refurbishment. “We wanted to refresh the look and say, what if this earthquake were to happen today?” Corfino says. “Between the art direction and just the years, it needed some TLC.”

A lot of that work came in updating the aesthetics of the “Universal Mass Transit” station itself. The color scheme went from an oh-so-’80s beige, green, red and yellow, to a more modern blue and white one complete with white subway tiling. A bubbly “Welcome to San Francisco” lines the subway tile in explosive color. Corfino’s team added ticketing machines and e-bikes, too. The truck that crushes in through the ceiling has gotten a 21st century makeover, too — it’s now a clean burning hydrogen tank. The fonts on the station signage was updated to a sleeker, more modern looking sans serif. And the “film set” got modernized, too, with film cameras going digital. In short: guests no longer feel like they’re going back in time when their tram rolls into “Earthquake—The Big One.” 

A movie set on "Earthquake—The Big One" on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.

But the “Earthquake” refurbishment is more than just an aesthetic shift. “I think 60% of any experience is really the audio,” says Corfino. For the executive producer, the majority of the weight, depth and magnitude in an attraction — or, what makes it actually, fully immersive — is the audio. Updating the attraction’s look gave Corfino’s team the opportunity to install new amps and a completely modern sound system, which provides an even more immersive and intense experience than was possible in the 1980s. 

The posters lining the station walls, which advertise made-up movies, were also given a more modern look. But they also gave the Universal Creative team a chance to put their own little signatures on the project, so to speak. Every poster you see on the wall is a completely original product of the project team — 100 percent original designs. If you look off the left side of the tram, near the lockers, you’ll see a poster reading: “THE UNIVERSAL CITY EARTHQUAKE REHAB,” starring the names of the folks who worked on the project. A poster for the (fictional) Tremor Bar reads, “Where drinks are better SHAKEN!”Another poster advertises earthquake insurance, which — too late. 

Similarly, a map of downtown San Francisco would be of no use to a lost tourist. If you look closely, you’ll see streets (re)named for people who built the original “Earthquake” attraction back in the 1980s. “We felt like it was important to honor the past,” says Corfino. “Not try to change what people love, but rather, try to make it look current and give it the attention that it needed.” 

Guests react to "Earthquake—The Big One" on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood.

“The most popular things on the backlot are the most physically immersive,” says Corfino. The “Earthquake” attraction has long remained popular for this very reason. But modernizing the look of the attraction makes the whole thing feel even more real. Sure, guests roll into a soundstage and are told they’re on a film set. But once the 8.3 earthquake starts, you feel completely transported to this San Francisco train stop. Without the logical jump of, “We’re in the 1980s,” the whole experience feels more immediate and urgent. 

If you love “Earthquake—The Big One” as much as I do, you’ll love to see it in the 21st century. This updated attraction is a permanent addition to the World-Famous Studio Tour, but its debut comes as part of the special 60th anniversary celebration. From now through August 11, 2024, guests have the rare opportunity to step off the Studio Tour at certain designated areas and get up-close-and-personal with some iconic movie set pieces. So hop over to the Universal Studios backlot to get in on the celebratory fun!

What’s your favorite part of the World-Famous Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood? Let us know in the comments below. 

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