Hollywood in the Desert

Take your grandchildren back in time to an Old West movie set

By Elizabeth L. Blair

Cowboy gunfights, stunt shows, panning for gold, the scent of mesquite-grilled barbecue wafting in the air. No, you haven't stepped back in time; you've entered Old Tucson Studios, Hollywood in the desert.

Since 1939 Old Tucson Studios has been bringing the Old West to the big screen. Today it’s still an active studio set of an 1880s Western town, along with a thriving amusement park.

When Ron and Cheryl Chamberlain of Indianapolis arrived in Tucson to see four of their grandchildren, their daughter Amy knew they would appreciate anything with ties to the Western movies the family watched when she was a child. And she was right. In fact, the visit excited all of the Chamberlain generations. The biggest hit was the ten-minute ride on the historic C. P. Huntington narrow-gauge train, which loops around Old Tucson Studios and provides an impressive view of the Sonoran Desert.

Experience the Old West

While most theme parks are geared toward the young, Old Tucson Studios really appeals to every age. Grandparents appreciate the history and familiar settings of many of the Western movies they grew up with, while grandchildren of all ages enjoy the rides, games, and authenticity of the frontier-themed park. Every family member, regardless of age, can enjoy a ride on the train and the old-fashioned carousel.

[photo set max-width=150 align=left]Part of the lure of Old Tucson Studios is the number of interactive games and rides throughout the park. The antique cars were the highlight when my folks, Rex and Rita Pilger, took my two preschoolers to the Studios. Anyone who meets the height requirements can sit in the driver's seat of the miniature cars. While the little folks may not be able to reach the gas pedal, they can steer the cars among the desert wildlife marked with classic Route 66 signs. My son, Jeb, said, "I loved driving with Grandma Rita in the old cars. We went really slow, but it was still fun."

The horses were the biggest hit for my kids. My daughter, Madeline, said, "I love the horses."

"Me, too," Jeb chimed in, "the real horses and the horses on the merry-go-round. I rode them all just like a real cowboy."

Western-dressed guides led the full-size horses as both grandparents walked alongside, while my kids proudly sat in the saddle, holding the horses' reins. The entrance fee covers most of the attractions, but the adult trail rides cost extra. A nominal donation is suggested for the "pony rides" for the grandchildren.

Behind the sheriff's office and down an alley, treasure-seekers can pan for "gold." Novice prospectors swish to bring the bright, shiny metallic crystals to light. For a dollar, they can take home a little glass tube full of "gold" (actually iron pyrite, according to geologist Grandpa Rex) as a souvenir.

The Iron-Door Mine Adventure is a spooky mine with surprises around every corner. This adventure is best for older children and teenagers who will enjoy daring their grandparents to "take on" the scary mine. A guide with a flashlight leads the tour, occasionally leaving those in the back of the pack in complete darkness. While the tour is wheelchair-accessible, there are some steep grades along the way, making a helper necessary.

Linda Schmidt, grandmother of 16, took seven of them to Old Tucson Studios and says their visit was a fun way of going "back in time." What stands out most in Schmidt's memory is how much the family enjoyed the shows. Gunfights, stunts, song and dance, and comedy shows are held indoors at the Grand Palace Hotel & Saloon and outdoors throughout the park.

Taste of the Old West

When it's time to get some grub, Old Tucson has plenty of choices. Higher prices are expected at such attractions but this is one place you get a lot of bang for the buck. My mom was impressed with the serving sizes at Big Jake's Bar-B-Q. She said, "One children's meal was more than enough for both grandchildren to share."

For dessert, you can choose between the Big Scoop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, or Phoebe's Café, which sells homemade fudge.

A Bit of History

Grandparents wishing to catch a glimpse of the legends who once walked these famous dirt streets will enjoy meandering through the Old Tucson Story Museum. Vintage movie posters and carefully preserved costumes are on display. The children will be fascinated with the "old time" film equipment and other movie props.

[photo fam max-width=50 align=right]Classic westerns filmed at the Studios include James Stewart's Winchester '73, Ronald Reagan's Last Outpost, John Wayne’s Rio Bravo, and Paul Newman's Hombre. The Studios also served as the backdrop for episodes of TV series such as Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. Other silver-screen stars who appeared in movies filmed at the Studios include Harrison Ford, Gene Wilder, Steve Martin, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The museum offers an opportunity for grandparents to share what was cool in their day. As Cheryl Chamberlain points out, "The kids today are more likely to want to play video games than watch Westerns."

Her husband, Ron, agrees and says, "I think it is important that grandkids spend time with their grandparents, for the things the kids can learn from the grandparents — and what the grandparents can learn from them."

Read our articles on Tinseltown for Teens and Mesa & Desert: Exploring New Mexico’s Pueblos.


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