The City by the Bay: Dive deep in the themes & inspiration for USF’s San Francisco backlot
San Francisco, the City by the Bay, is the final part of my backlot series that represents a real U.S. city. This portion of Universal Studios Floirda (USF) is smaller than the other two U.S. city backlots, Hollywood and New York, but it still holds a plethora of details!
Perhaps the most iconic building in the San Francisco backlot is the Ghirardelli factory. A real icon in the Bay area itself, its Ghiradelli sign towers atop the building, visible from locations throughout the park (unfortunately, in more recent years, trees have grown to cover much of it). The sign has been replicated multiple times in many Ghirardelli chocolate shops throughout the country, and yet USF’s sign does not adorn any shop at all — it exists on top of a facade, purely to represent the famous Ghirardelli Square and one-time factory.
After entering the San Francisco area, and being greeted by the Ghirardelli clock tower, the Richter Burger Co. is hard to miss. This quick-service location really lays on the theming to match the area in which it is located. In fact, the entire San Francisco area heavily pulls from the 1974 movie “Earthquake” and the natural phenomenon itself. The movie “Earthquake” is considered to be one of the very first movies in the natural disaster genre, inspiring a linage of films that seems to grow every year. The menu at Richter Burger Co. has straight-forward selections named to match the theming, such as “After Shock” and “the Fault Line”. But the theme goes beyond cheesy names for cheeseburgers and such. Indeed, guests must only step one foot inside the doors and look to the right, and they’ll set eyes on a replica of the fallen statue of geologist Louis Agassiz. This statue became a favorite landmark when it tumbled down during the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, landing headfirst into the ground.
Located across from Richter Burger Co. is the Wharfside Cannery. This brick beauty is a replica of The Cannery on San Francisco Bay, which in the early 1900’s was recognized as the largest fruit and vegetable canning plant in the world. Along with The Cannery, many other less famous canneries also occupied the city, allowing the fresh catches of the day to be preserved, canned, and shipped efficiently. Many of the canneries no longer operate in the real San Francisco area and have been repurposed as dining and retail outlets.
You will also find the area’s public restrooms here. Restrooms aren’t always a big talking point, but these are. As you approach the area, take time to notice the props and theming here. Resembling a break area for the cannery, there are details on the bulletin board, such as a newspaper clipping from 1974, the year the movie “Earthquake” was released. Take time to check out the time cards as well, marked June 23, 1974, the day the San Francisco Giants battled the Dodgers in the aforementioned newspaper clipping. The time cards also have names of Universal Studios’ members of management.
Next to the Wharfside Cannery, you will be in the heart of the San Francisco area. This is where the various modes of transportation, particularly the cable car, become a very strong presence. Throughout this area you can find references to Ferries & Cliff House Railway. This company was one of the largest cable car and transportation companies in San Francisco.
What would a representation of the City by the Bay be without a lovely waterfront? That is exactly what you’ll find here in the San Francisco backlot. Whether you chose to grab a cold beverage at Chez Alcatraz, bravely get a picture with Bruce the Shark (formerly of JAWS attraction fame), or dine al fresco at Lombard’s Seafood Grille, the waterfront of this area is a very lovely spot. In particular, the exterior of Lombard’s Seafood Grille replicates the buildings in San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf, while the restaurant’s interior is designed to have the look of a 1980’s laboratory used by a fictitious San Francisco-based marine biologist, Louis Lombard. (The name Lombard most likely comes from Lombard Street, another famous San Francisco landmark.) And of course, you can’t miss the replica of the famous Fisherman’s Wharf sign.
Cruising along the waterfront, it’s difficult to ignore the watercraft docked here. Some these boats are used for maintaining and accessing the elaborate machinery that brings Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular to life; others harken back to the 1990’s Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular end-of-day show at USF; and yet others promote a relatively new partnership between Universal and Donzi. While enjoying the breeze coming off the waterfront, be sure to look up. On the top of Richter’s Burger Co., you can spot the San Francisco Cordage company sign. This refers to Tubbs Cordage Company, founded in San Francisco as the first manufacturer of rope on the Pacific Coast (rope being an essential tool for the burgeoning commercial fishing industry in San Francisco’s early history).
While exploring the San Francisco backlot, I noticed something with a significant date on it; something I never noticed before. A rusty red control valve near the marina, with the year 1989 on it, sits unassumingly. The valve caught my eye because it is one of the few objects openly visible in the park that shows the year the park was built. I also took a moment to notice the cable car tracks and the circular turnabout. Sure, there aren’t any actual cable cars in the park, but this detail adds more richness to this area.
One of my favorite San Francisco landmarks is not as prominent as it was during the park’s early years. In actual San Francisco, The Buena Vista opened in 1916, on the first floor of a boarding house. In 1952, it became famous for creating the first Irish Coffee (hot coffee with Irish whiskey topped with cold whipped cream) served in the United States. This cafe and bar still operates today in its original location, serving classic cocktails, coffee drinks, and simple food. Unfortunately, the replica of The Buena Vista has now been taken over by a beer, pretzel & flavored nut cart, which blocks the window display depicting the cafe scene. During my research visit, I snuck behind the cart to peer into the windows to see the cafe scene and the Irish Coffee neon light (which is no longer lit). You too can view these sights by going behind the cart, as long as you’re willing to get a strange look or two.
As my visit to the San Francisco backlot came to an end, I sought out signs of the former Amity Island (this area, prior to January 2012, was labeled as “San Francisco / Amity” in USF’s guidemap). The most visible feature is the Amity Island Lobster Company tower.
As the new London / Diagon Alley area comes to life, it is easy to wonder what will happen to the few remnants of the Amity area. I walked along the waterfront and around the side of the San Francisco Pastry Company. In almost perfect symbolism, I snapped a picture of a lovely, little window labeled “Amity Shipfitters and Riggers”. Caught in the reflection was construction of the London / Diagon Alley area.
As Universal Studios Floria continues to evolve, the San Francisco backlot area sits in quite a unique position. One of the park’s original areas will now neighbor the park’s newest and most innovative area, a perfect comparison of the park’s past with its brilliant future.
Did you enjoy this article? Then you’ll definitely want to see all of the UOR history blog posts on Orlando Informer, including:
- Hooray for Hollywood: A fascinating exploration of the themes, facades & history of USF’s Hollywood backlot
- Empire state of mind: Tour the incredible treasures & history of USF’s New York backlot
- From MEN IN BLACK to Springfield USA: The sci-fi & silly details of USF’s World Expo
USF San Francisco backlot – photo gallery
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