Disclaimer: I am no expert! And, this was actually my first trip there in 21 years (ouch!)…. I am calling it the first time because it is NOTHING like it used to be and is practically a whole new park! I have received a LOT of questions about our quick, spontaneous trip to Universal Studios Hollywood so I thought I would share my thoughts while they are fresh on my mind.
We were supposed to go camping over Spring Break, but, since we are a family of total wimps and feared the cold, we cancelled the trip on Friday, purchased Universal Studios Hollywood annual passes on Saturday, surprised the kids on Sunday morning and drove down to LA for a quick trip. I did my research on the way down by searching “Universal Studios Hollywood tips” on Pinterest. This was very helpful because I knew what to expect and I was warned that it is a relatively small park. I read that most of the rides were virtual, 3D, dark, and scary so we previewed the big rides on YouTube (this was helpful as it determined that some rides, like The Mummy and Transformers, were a little too much for my 8 and 10 year old kids, and other rides that I was worried about, like Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey, were not so bad when the kids knew what to expect). The park was crowded but manageable. The park hours were 9am-7pm, so it seems that this was not a common Spring Break week.
What I learned:
- BUTTERBEER TRULY IS MAGICAL. Yes, this is the number one thing I learned on this “first” trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We started with the frozen butterbeer and we were not willing to try anything else because it was so, so good. It is $7.50 good, actually. The girls went with the non frozen option on Day 2 and loved it as well. It is kind of like a butterscotch rootbeer float and it is insanely delicious.
- UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD IS VERY SMALL. They have several different “lands” but a each “land” consists of maybe 3 or 4 buildings – a ride, a store, and a restaurant. Some had games and some had multiple food options, but they are all quite small. Having that said, I was truly impressed with how well they used such a small space. Almost all of the rides are indoor and virtual, so it used a very small amount of space. You sit in theater like seats with a large screen and usually 3D glasses (think California Soarin’ in California Adventure). The entire park is on a hill, over Universal’s actual studio lots where people really are filming. There are huge, long, steep escalators that separate the upper lot from the lower lot. It takes about 10 minutes to get from one to another. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is bigger than the rest and it is absolutely amazing, but it is also very small. There are 2 rides (Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff), 1 experience (Ollivander’s Wands), 1 main restaurant (The 3 Broomsticks – Hog’s Head Pub is in there as well), and maybe 5 stores. There are several Butterbeer carts.
- THE TARGET AUDIENCE APPEARS TO BE A 14-17 YEAR OLD MALE. As in, this park is not for the little ones. Rides are dark and scary. And they have a LOT of action. Some of the action may be inappropriate for little viewers. Even the Studio Lot has some very intense scenes. They still have the old Jaws and Bates Motel mildly scary bits but now they have full on 3D 360 experiences where you drive into a lot and are surrounded by screens while your tram is moving around all over the place, making you feel that you are right in the middle of a huge battle. You have to be at least 48″ to get on most rides, so it would be very smart to check out the height requirements for all of the rides before you go. Having that said, my 8 and 10 year old girls LOVED it and had a blast. They can’t wait to go back. I can’t imagine what they would do all day if they were younger though.
- EVERYONE DOES THE SAME THING AT THE SAME TIME. There seems to be a very predictable pattern at the park. Everyone gets there around 10:30-11 (they probably left at 8am but hit LA traffic…), and they all head to Harry Potter World. The first thing they do is Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest, we got there before it opened both days and the line was already 45 minutes by the time we got to it (at least that’s what it said – we believe it was under 30 minutes because it went very quickly). They then do the rest of Harry Potter World (The Flight of the Hippogriff – cute, small, fast little roller coaster) and Ollivander’s Wands (very long line for a very short wand presentation to ONE selected person in a group of about 20). They then do the rest of the Upper Lot (Despicable Me Land and Simpson’s Land) and head down to the Lower Lot just after lunch. They all then come back up to the Upper Lot to do everything again about an hour or two before closing. The key is to work around this predictable behavior and work around the wait times (you can’t miss them, they are posted everywhere, including their website and app). We got there just before it opened, went on Forbidden Forest and Hippogriff before 10, and then went on Despicable Me. We had little to no lines for all 3 rides. If I had older kids, I would then go to the Lower Lot and walk right on to The Mummy, Transformers, and Jurassic Park. Since my kids and I did not plan on going on The Mummy and Transformers, my husband did these on his own in the Single Rider line in the afternoon of Day 2. We all waited in the long line for Jurassic Park because it was hot and that is when we were there (it was about 45 minutes). I would then go back up to the Upper Lot just after lunch while everyone is in the Lower Lot and repeat all of our favorites, before everyone heads back (lines were about 15-20 minutes long at this time). You can squeeze in the Studio Tour at anytime based on the wait time. There was NO line during lunch, around 12:30. There is no line for The Walking Dead Experience (because it is TERRIFYING – I saw a young adult girl crying and crying when she got out), so you can do that at anytime. If all of the rides are long, then grab a live show – Animal Actors and Special Effects play around 4 times a day.
- YOU CAN DO IT ALL IN ONE DAY. The entire park is doable in one day. You would have to get there before it opens, stay on top of the wait lines, and leave when it closes, but it is completely possible. There really isn’t enough to do there for 2 days, but it was nice to take our time and repeat all of our favorites. We were there for 2 days, during a fairly crowded week, and managed to go on the Forbidden Journey a total of 5 times, The Flight of the Hippogriff 6 times, Despicable Me 3 times, and the Studio Tour and Animal Actors show 2 times.
FOOD: There are a TON of food options, possibly more than other theme parks. The food is expensive, but they seem to serve a lot. They do not allow outside food, but they did not stop us from bringing water bottles and snacks in. I saw people with home-made sandwiches too. I did not care for my pizza or salad at Luigi’s in Simpson Land, but the sandwiches and fries at Krusty’s Burgers were not bad (just pricey) and the food at The 3 Broomsticks was very good. We ate dinner in the City Walk (shopping/restaurant area at the park entrance).
OVERALL IMPRESSION: The park was very, very clean. It is well managed, the lines are smooth and there is entertainment while waiting in most (the Hogwarts castle is nearly as interesting as the ride itself for the Forbidden Forest).
ANNUAL PASSES: We bought the Annual Passes from Costco (currently $129). A one day pass varies from $105-120 depending on the date, so we figured we could go 2 days this first trip and then stop by for a one day visit the next couple of times that we are in SoCal. The Annual Passes have a LOT of black out dates so you will need to double check the dates if you are going this route. You can go on any date, even a black out date, for your first initial visit, but you will not be able to return on a black out date after that. You can also purchase the California Neighbor Pass on the Universal Studios website. This pass is also $129 and it gets you an early entry (one hour), but is also have a lot of black out dates and is only valid for 9 months.
WAYS TO SAVE: Bring in your own food. Bring in your own water. Do not spend $3.50 on sodas and $10 on beer – save it for the $7.50 butterbeer! Purchase HP merchandise before you go (Target, Hot Topic, and Kohls usually have several things to choose from). We did not buy the $50 interactive wand. It just didn’t seem worth it. All of the wands are PLASTIC, btw, which was quite disappointing, considering they start at around $45. We told the girls we would buy a couple souvenirs. One wanted a robe and the other wanted a house tie. After learning that the robe was $109.95 and the tie was $31.95, I looked on Amazon while still in the store and showed them that we could get each for $8-$20 online. They both chose a chocolate frog from Honeydukes instead. I balked at the $10.95 price tag, but, I have to say, the frogs are HUGE, SOLID, and the girls LOVE the character cards inside so I do think it was worth it in the end.
IF IT’S A SURPRISE: I recommend downloading these awesome Hogwarts Express train tickets and Hogwarts Acceptance Letter from Get Away Today here. We placed them on top of the girls suitcases along with brand new Harry Potter shirts and socks so they would see them as soon as they woke up the morning we left.
RIDES & ATTRACTIONS: *SPOILERS* There are 14 main attractions at the park. As I mentioned before, almost all of the rides are virtual and will require 3D glasses (think Star Tours at Disneyland). Your seat moves around A LOT (much more than Star Tours), so these rides are not for anyone that gets motion sickness, dizziness, or vertigo, or has any sort of back or neck issues. The rides are also very dark and scary. I have ranked the rides in order of what I believe is mildest/not scary, to the scariest (Water World was closed for refurbishment so it is not included, so I included the Ollivander’s Wands Presentation instead).
- Universal’s Animal Actors – Live show with animals that act. Upper Lot. Very cute, very mild, nothing scary.
- Ollivander’s Wands – Live presentation of a wand choosing a wizard. Upper Lot. That’s one wand choosing one wand in your group of about 15-20 people. I suggest warning your child that not everyone gets a wand (and the wands are very expensive). It is very cute and they really get into the presentation of it all, but not worth standing in line for more than 20 minutes. The wait time is not posted, so just keep checking throughout the day.
- Silly Swirly Fun Ride – Cute ride in Despicable Me (Super Silly Fun) Land. Upper Lot. Very cute, goes high, similar to Dumbo in Disneyland.
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – Virtual ride in theater with moving seats and 3D glasses. Upper Lot. Very cute and very fun. This is the mildest of all of the virtual 3D rides.
- Special Effects Show – Live show with demonstrations of stunts and special effects. Upper Lot. Shows some graphic/scary images from famous horror/suspense films. Demonstrations include how to make it look like you are chopping off an arm with a volunteer from the audience and they light a stuntman on fire.
- Shrek 4D – Virtual show with 3D glasses along with scents and air blowing on legs and neck from chair. Upper Lot. It is as dark as the Shrek movies – not bad, but it starts in a torture chamber, continues into a cemetery and there are ghosts and dragons. The air blowing on your legs during a spider scene caused many people to scream and jump out of their seats. Overall cute and fun show. Might scare little ones.
- Studio Tour – Tram drives through the actual Universal Studios Backlot. Access from Upper Lot. Ride is about 60 minutes. It combines the old original tour with Jaws (a shark jumps out at the tram while driving by a lake) and Norman Bates from Psycho (actor places a body in his car trunk and then comes towards the tram with a large knife) with new 3D 360 Experiences (King Kong and a T-Rex battle all around you and then there is an intense chase and battle with the Fast & Furious characters). There is also an earthquake and flash flood that seems, very very real. Small kids can go on this ride but I would suggest warning them of what is to come so they can be prepared.
- The Simpsons – Virtual ride with 3D glasses. Upper Lot. The girls and I skipped this one. We previewed it online and while it did not look too scary and they totally could have handled it, they did not like the images in Krustyland where evil Panda robots lose their heads… My husband said it was fun and not that intense.
- Flight of the Hippogriff – Small outdoor roller coaster. Upper Lot. Really fun, really fast, very short roller coaster ride (like less than 30 seconds). A lot of people complain that it is too short and not interesting but we loved it. Hagrid’s Hut and Buckbeak are only seen from the queue.
- Jurassic Park – Water ride with large drop and scary dinosaurs. Lower Lot. Fun water ride (think Splash Mountain at Disneyland). Like the movie, everything starts nice and peaceful and soon turns dark and scary with dinosaurs jumping out at you. Very large T-Rex directly over drop at the end of the ride.
- The Transformers – Virtual ride with 3D glasses. Lower Lot. The girls and I skipped this one as well. We previewed it online and they just didn’t seem interested in Transformers. There are a lot of battles and fighting. My husband thought it was great.
- The Revenge of the Mummy – Indoor dark roller coaster. Lower Lot. Large, fast indoor roller coaster (think Space Mountain) that goes backwards at the end. The girls and I skipped this one. Husband thought it was fun, especially the backwards part.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – Indoor dark part virtual part roller coaster. Upper Lot. This ride was fascinating. I still haven’t fully figured out how they made it. You move in and out of rooms, some with screens, some with animotronics, all while moving around all over the place, sometimes even almost upside down. Very very dark with super scary scenes. We previewed the ride on YouTube first and prepared the girls. They have read the first few books and seen those few movies so they knew what to expect (big fire breathing dragon, Aragog and his family of giant spiders, and the Dementors). I am a wimp and covered my eyes through at least 75% of the ride. All 5 times that we rode it….
- The Walking Dead – Indoor interactive haunted house. Upper Lot. Walk through pitch black rooms with scary things and people jumping out at you the whole time. People were screaming and crying through and after it. Takes about 8-10 minutes to walk through. You couldn’t pay the girls and I to do it, but husband is a fan of the show and loved it.
Have you been to Universal Studios Hollywood? What did I miss? Do you have any tips of your own?