It's an early November afternoon in southern California - not exactly the height of the tourist season - and yet today, like every other day, hundreds of sightseers will meet and mingle with Bruce the Shark and the Phantom of the Opera, while getting a peek behind the magic curtain called Hollywood.
Where? At Universal Studios.
Universal tours are a bit like ''Disneyland Goes to the Movies,'' which is appropriate considering Disney is also a studio. The basic two-hour tour goes by quickly. Those who take it are kept moving: There's a tram ride, a visit to a museum showing costumes designed by Academy Award winner Edith Head, a show on special effects, another show on special effects, and yet another special-effects film (all narrated by Robert Wagner). Then there's another tram ride. After that, there are still four minishows (each taking about 30 minutes) to choose from. You can go to all of them if you wish. The current selections are ''The Adventures of Conan,'' ''The Screen Test Comedy Theater'' (where you, too, can be a star for a day), ''The Live Action Western Stunt Show,'' and ''The Animal Actors Stage.'' From the first tram ride to the last animal track, the entire experience takes about five hours.
The group I was in was pretty well divided (there were about 100 of us) between in-towners and out-of-towners. A Los Angeles resident was once considered declasse if he or she took the tour. Until Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney showed up as tourists, that is. Now it's considered ''cool'' to go to Universal - even to volunteer to take part in one of the special-effects displays. My reporter status kept me from raising my hand. But it didn't prevent my girlfriend from becoming part of the show, along with an eight-year-old boy from Australia.
My friend helped demonstrate the rotating room used by Fred Astaire in ''Royal Wedding.'' (You didn't think he was really dancing on the ceiling now, did you?) There sat my friend in a specially designed desk that was in fact attached to the wall, and there was our guide (whose voice and manner were oddly reminiscent of Kermit the Frog) standing on the ceiling. No, not really; we were seeing the scene through a tilted camera. He was on the ground; she was on the wall. (And I always thought she was off the wall.)
The eight-year-old Australian boy demonstrated the ''matte'' process, or in layman's terms, how Eliot flew on his bicycle in the movie ''E.T.,'' which was made by Universal. Not all the film clips shown in the special-effects show are from Universal films, and they are credited to the studios that made them. This keeps the tour from turning into a daylong commercial for Universal.
Laser effects were displayed, if not explained, when the tour was ''captured'' by a group of outer space bad guys called Silons (from the now-canceled Universal series ''Battlestar Gallactica''). The tram also got stuck on a collapsing bridge and traveled through the parted waters the way the Hollywood Israelites did in Cecil B. de Mille's ''The Ten Commandments'' (only they weren't in a tram). Then there was the too-close-for-comfort look at Bruce the Shark's dental work, as we passed through the water. Most fun was the trip through the Doomed Glacier, which proved that the most special effect is the willing suspension of disbelief. When the tram enters the glacier you know it is the glacier that is turning around you - not you in it. And yet, once inside, all cling desperately to the sides of the tram to keep from falling out, even though it's on just as even a keel as it was outside. That's entertainment. In between all the effects, was a tour of Universal's massive front and back lots, including a Texas town, a New York street, the house from ''Psycho'' - even the house where June, Ward, Wally, and Theodore (the Beaver) Cleaver lived.
The charm of the tour is that it explains some of the wizardry of moviemaking while still keeping it mystical. It's kind of like a trip to the Emerald City. You soon forget the green you see is in your sunglasses.
Admittedly, I went on this tour as a skeptic, which just proves that even a skeptic can enjoy it. It's rumored that because of the success of the Universal tour, other studios will soon have their own versions of a day in the ''dream factory.'' Which may mean that someday touring a studio will be considered as glamorous as touring any other workplace - from an auto plant to a shoe factory. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
The Universal Studios tour is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours vary, depending on the season. Admission is $10.95 for ages 12 and older; $7.95 for ages 3 through 11. Children under 3 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult (even in Los Angeles, it's hard to imagine a two-year-old going alone). Senior citizens pay $8.25. There is an enormous parking lot that charges $1.50, as well as two restaurants to choose from (refreshments can also be bought inside). A great deal of planning went into the tour, and the result is an enjoyable time for movie lovers of all ages.