We survived, we are not yet bankrupt and we had fun! Not the most positive intro for a post that is supposed to be about a great family adventure, but truly that is the reality of Universal Studios Hollywood. Yes, it can be a great experience, but one must definitely temper expectations and plan ahead. That is what we are here for. Mellow out and let us go Universal with the Cole Family Universal Studios Hollywood Survival Guide.
In this post we focus more on a general park strategy. For our full description and ranking of Universal Studios rides and attractions go here.
To set matters in perspective it is important to realize that Universal Studios is first and foremost a movie/TV studio with a theme park added-on. I first ventured to Universal in 1976 when they had the studio tour, an animal show and a stunt show. That was it and it was a huge attraction. Forty years later that doesn’t cut it and like Hollywood, Universal is always changing with the times.
So from 40+ years of visiting we thought we would offer our most current guide circa, October 2017. This guide was written to last, but beware this park changes a lot,. Old favorites disappear on a regular basis and it is always about the glossy newcomers. Bigger and better is the rule of thumb at Universal and while we mourn some classics we can say this is a park that just keeps to continue to impress.
Step one to visiting is to take out a bank loan. Oh, you are already rich, congratulations, Universal will happily take all your money and donate it to charitable causes. Seriously though, Universal Studios is expensive. Living in Southern California we are able to buy the annual $129 pass that lets us in most non-busy days (over half the year). Frankly, I would NEVER go on a “busy” day so this pass is perfect. We buy this pass about once every 4-5 years and use it 2 to 3 times. This allows us to explore the park at our leisure, sort of. Even on “slow” days Universal can feel crowded.
Note that you can save significantly by buying your tickets online instead of waiting until you are at the park. This also means one less line you need to wait in. Believe us, you will appreciate that because Universal means a lot of waiting in line. The other big advantage of buying online is you get to enter the park one hour early to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
You can see Universal in one day if it is mid-week off season, but it will be tight. Summer, weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas and much of March and April (spring break) are crowded and if you must go during those times we suggest a front of line pass unless you don’t mind waiting in long lines. A two-day ticket is not much extra and two days would allow you to take things at a more leisurely pace.
|At the Park Ticket||$120 ages 10+, $114 for age 3-9|
|One-Day Online Ticket||$105-116, ages 10+, $99-110 for age 3-9|
|Front of Line Ticket||$179-254|
|California Neighbor Annual Pass||$129 (good 175 days)|
|Silver Annual Pass||$169 (good 250 days)|
|Gold Annual Pass||$299 (good 340 days); includes parking and 15% off food and merchandise|
|Platinum Annual Pass||$599 (good 365 days); includes parking and 15% off food and merchandise, front of line pass, entry to Halloween Horror Nights|
It is often possible to find discounts on tickets and it is usually worth doing a little searching to see what is available. One of the best sites we have found for this purpose is MouseSavers.com. As the name implies this site was designed for Disney Parks, but they have a section devoted to California attractions, including Universal Studios.
If you are in the LA area for three days or more you should definitely consider a Go City Card pass.
A 3, 5 or 7-day pass gets you into multiple attractions including Universal Studios. This also includes some attractions in the San Diego area such as Legoland and the San Diego Zoo.
Note, if you are only staying for a day or two, Go City Card gives you the option to buy 2 or more attractions and gives you a discount of 20%.
Universal Studios is pretty much in the heart of Los Angeles, but this is a city with limited public transportation. For what it is worth, Universal Studios has a subway stop on the red Metro line, but in spread out LA many hotels are nowhere close to the subway. So most likely you will be driving here and parking and this means hitting the parking garages. You have the choice to pay $25 for parking, $35 for closer parking or $50 for super close parking. We are cheap so we can’t say what the more expensive options get you, put $25 gets you parking in a massive themed garage about 5 minutes from the entrance.
The walk through the park will take you through City Walk, Universal’s version of Downtown Disney with expensive restaurants and novelty stores. Do Not Let This Distract You….Focus on the Amusement Park Ahead! REPEAT…KEEP WALKING. Opening hours vary but hard core park heads will want to be in line an hour beforehand. Ourselves we saunter up an hour after opening and things are fine, except Harry Potter already has an hour plus wait. This is because this ride opens an hour before the rest of the park for people that bought tickets online.
Obviously, if you got in an hour early you are hitting Harry Potter first. We are going to assume you are arriving at normal opening hours or later. The front gate area will be pretty crowded the first two hours of the park opening. As a general rule, you don’t want to follow the masses and this starts at the entrance gate. Keep walking past people until you can’t walk anymore and the lines should be shorter. Yes, there is a long line to enter the park!
Universal Studios is interesting in that it is built into the California landscape and was never designed to be a theme park. You start on the upper level with the lower level about 200 feet below. The lower level is all the original movie studio and it has several rides. However, normally it opens an hour after the upper level and unless you are late you should hit it as your second stop.
Once you are in the park you have several options:
- Follow everyone else and head to Harry Potter Land
- Bear left and go to Despicable Me and the kids water world play area
- Go straight ahead to Simpsons Land/Springfield and the Studio Tour
We have tried all options and recommend option 3 if you are arriving at regular park opening hours or shortly afterwards. Of course, conditions change frequently and you should definitely download the Universal app which updates wait times at the attractions (you can also check the regularly updated park boards for wait times).
The Studio Tour is the must do, but we find lines for the Simpsons ride can vary greatly based on how many people Universal wants to let in. The Simpsons ride has 24 vehicles, each of which holds 8 people, but sometimes they only operate 6 or 12. If there is a short wait (under 20 minute) go on the Simpsons first. As a sidenote, if your kids get scared during the Simpsons you may have some frustration ahead. This park has a lot of “dark” attractions where visuals provide much of the sense of motion. The Simpsons is one of the tamer rides. Once done get out and head next door to the Studio Tour. If it is really crowded the Studio Tour is the first must-do and early in the morning is best. Last time we went at opening the wait for the Studio Tour was 20 minutes while Harry Potter was an hour wait. Later in the afternoon, it was flipped with an hour wait for the Studio Tour and only 15 for Harry Potter.
After finishing the hour long Studio Tour you may be ready for lunch. There are all kinds of places to eat, most of them expensive and mediocre. If you are a Simpsons fan there are several themed places from the show, most notably Krusty Burger. Krusty Burger is huge, but basically a mediocre fast food joint. It appears Eater had a better experience. Our experience was more similar to the one Timeout had. The one treat in Springfield we definitely recommend is the massive $6 donut from Lard Lad. These things are huge and come in several flavors.
In our opinion the best place to eat in Universal is Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Sites like Eater Los Angeles have solid reviews for most of the dishes. We really liked the Bangers and Mash and Fish and Chips. Our daughter was not so keen on the Shepard’s Pie as it had mushrooms. The Great Feast sounds good, it feeds four people ribs, chicken and salad for about $65, but really it is not much of a savings over ordering the dishes ala carte. Three Broomsticks is extremely popular so it can be crowded. However, it holds over 400 people and they churn the food out really fast.
After lunch, or before, if you are not hungry, we recommend heading down to the lower lot. There are 3 big attractions here, Transformers, Jurassic Park and the Mummy ride plus a kids play area. Check the wait times to decide what to ride first. After finishing you ride back up the escalator to the upper lot, or to get some exercise climb the stairs, equivalent to a 20 story building.
At some point you are going to want to take in one or more of the 3 shows: WaterWorld, the Special Effects Show and Animal Actors. WaterWorld and the Special Effects Show are very well done. Animal Actors is okay, just not very exciting. Show times vary so you need to plan ahead to work them into your schedule.
Of course, at some point you will want to ride Harry Potter The Forbidden Journey. This is the most popular ride in the park but, assuming you didn’t get in early, we find wait times go down considerably later in the day. In our mid-week October trip from 3 PM on waits were only 15 minutes versus one hour earlier in the day. However, during our mid-week spring break trip, wait times for Harry Potter were consistently at 90 minutes throughout the day. The only other ride in the Harry Potter area is the small Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster. This very tame ride loads very slow and we would only go on it if the line is less than 15 minutes.
The final two attractions are the Walking Dead, walk through horror attraction based on the zombie TV show, and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem which is very similar to the Simpsons Ride. Next to Despicable Me is Super Silly Fun Land kids park and wet zone and some small kids rides. As of late 2017 the Shrek attraction has been closed down and will be replaced by a new Dreamworks 4D theater to open in 2018.
Naturally there are lots of stores to visit. The most popular is Ollivander’s which sells Harry Potter themed magic wands. This is actually an attraction itself and we admit we have never been because the wait to get into the store has always been a half hour or more. Also in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are Honeydukes candy store, Owl Post where you can send postcards with a Hogsmeade postage stamp, Zonkos Joke Shop and a bunch of stores selling all types of Harry Potter merchandise. Springfield has a replica of the Kwik E-Mart and Jurassic Park, The Mummy, Transformers and Despicable Me all have their own themed stores.
Like most themed amusement parks, Universal has lots of characters walking around. The difference here is the characters are a little hipper and can appeal to adults as much as kids. You can see Sideshow Bob, Homer and Marge from the Simpsons, a raptor from Jurassic Park, Transformers, Spongebob Squarepants, Minions, the Donkey from Shrek and so on. In the New York area there is often a man and women leaning out a second story window yelling out to people below in a thick NY accent. There are also areas themed on Paris and London near Despicable Me and Walking Dead.
When you leave Universal you can head through CityWalk which has a whole bunch of restaurants and shops. We will plan to do a separate guide for CityWalk but we can say most of the restaurants are overpriced and mediocre chain restaurants. After many years coming here we have learned to just head back to the hotel (or start driving home) and stop at one of the many great neighborhood LA restaurants. For a guide to finding a hotel in Los Angeles be sure and see this article.