It’s one of those "Only in LA" experiences: hopping aboard an open-air tour that promises to drive you to the doorsteps of celebrity homes.
The NBC4 I-Team first exposed many Hollywood tours make up where stars live, leading to some unhinged fans stalking the real homeowners. The I-Team has now found those tours aren’t just misleading, some are dangerous. The investigative team spent months speaking with frightened residents, frustrated law enforcement officers and industry insiders who say Hollywood tour buses are turning the streets of LA into a danger zone.
They’ve been a presence in LA for decades, but with tourism hitting record levels, the number of tour bus operators has sky-rocketed; up from just a few well-known companies to more than 20 operators now crowding Hollywood boulevard, often aggressively hawking rides on sometimes shabby open-roof vans.
The I-Team went on more than 20 tours with cameras and documented drivers driving dangerously. We captured one driver of Superstar Celebrity Home Tours flying through stop signs, without even slowing down.
A driver on LA Scene Tours said “Does anyone feel like racing?” On that same tour, the seatbelts in the I-Team’s seats were rusted shut. We found other drivers looking down at their phones, hands off the wheel, in open vans without working seat belts. On other days, our cameras caught drivers directing tourists to jaywalk across a busy road, on a blind curve.
Some areas have weight limits with signs posted to prevent heavy vehicles from entering the smaller streets. We found many operators ignoring the signs, even making comments about them, like one driver who said, “see it says commercial vehicles over three tons prohibited. We’re over three tons.” Another told us, “It’s illegal for us to go down as tour guide drivers but sometimes we do it anyway and we take the chance of getting a big-time ticket.”
The I-Team spent an afternoon with nearly a dozen Hollywood Hills neighbors. They say the endless parade of tour vans along LA’s legendary Mulholland Drive has them living and driving in constant fear when drivers park illegally to let passengers access the Hollywood Bowl Overlook.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West up here on the weekend,” said Debbie Grollman.
Another neighbor, Bob Mansell added, "There’s tourists that have no idea that Mulholland is a high-speed highway. I see them walking 4- and 5-year-old children across this street and I think 'Oh My God,' it's horrible."
The I-Team cameras caught many buses making sudden stops to point out homes. "We have a lot of near misses. It’s crazy and someone has to do something," said Richard Klug.
Anastasia Mann added, "It’s a very dangerous, life-threatening situation." Neighbors are worried about what will happen. "Death by car. It will happen. It’s gonna happen," said Alex Hardcastle.
The I-Team caught up with LA Scene Tours and spoke with one driver who went into an area with a weight restriction. When we asked, "So why go down them?" The driver replied, "Why not?" When told because he’s not allowed, the driver responded, "there’s a lot of things we aren’t supposed to do."
"These streets were never designed for this amount of volume," said Los Angeles city councilman David Ryu. He represents areas criss-crossed by vans, often dozens of time an hour. "You know, completely unacceptable. It's just frustrating. The tourists who actually go on those vans as well, they, they're probably fearing for their lives as well," he said.
Some tourists are fearful. The I-Team spoke with families who took rides with tour buses on Hollywood Boulevard.
"It was a horrible tour. I was scared for my life," said Holly, a college student.
She was with her parents, visiting from Seattle when they hopped on a Superstar Celebrity Homes Tour van last October. Shortly after the trip began, they got into an accident.
"There weren’t seatbelts. We were sitting on a ripped up American flag, and the driver pulls up on the wrong side of the road and he side swipes this nice looking vehicle."
Her dad, Jeff, added, "A few of us in the tour bus said 'Hey I think you just hit somebody,' and he said 'oh no, curse curse,' and we pulled off into a parking lot."
They say it got worse when the tour company owner showed up. "We said 'Look this is not safe, we are not comfortable with this' and he said no refunds, no refunds at all. The owner even tried to pick a fight with me, he was literally taunting."
California Public Utilities Commission records show Superstar Celebrity had its permit revoked in November 2015. Calls and texts to the company phone number have not been returned.
NBC4 also went along with LAPD and state investigators trying to crack down on illegal operators. In a matter of minutes, they found a van not permitted to operate as a tour bus. The driver also had a suspended license. When we asked
"How long have you been driving around tourists with a suspended license?" he responded, "I’d say one month because they just brought me on board." The van was impounded. Sgt. Wank of LAPD said, "As soon as word gets out that we’re out here doing this, they all start communicating and you’ll see how some of them take off."
Down the street, Star Track was told it didn’t have the proper certification to operate a round-trip sightseeing service.
However, the very next day, KNBC cameras caught the company gathering passengers, including two NBC I-Team members, on the boulevard, then walking them to a van parked nearly two blocks away.
Police pulled them over mid-tour and found not only the permit violation, but that the guide was driving without a commercial license. The passengers were ordered off and the vehicle impounded.
NBC4 asked the owner of Star Track why he continued to operate without the right permit and a driver without a commercial license. He wouldn’t answer but did say "we expect to receive a class A license soon in full compliance with the PUC."
Three weeks later, Star Track was at it yet again. An I-Team member was able to take a tour, with the owner, still driving without the proper permit.
Star Track Tours LLC is proud to offer what many consider the best star tour - and the only video tour - in Hollywood.
Stark Track Tours issued this statement:
"On July 20th we were informed by representatives of the PUC that there was a license problem and we needed to make a change. This came as a total shock and surprise since our original license was obtained through a PUC-recommended insurance company. The next day we closed our office, cancelled most of our tours, and were attempting to learn the scope of the problem and how to address it when one of our vans was pulled over.
Since that day we have done everything in our power to meet PUC guidelines and made every effort to obtain a new Class A license. Currently we have a pending Class A license and are awaiting final approval from the CHP.
We expect to receive a Class A license soon in full compliance with the PUC. We look forward to continuing to provide visitors the best star tour in Hollywood."