I’ve been lucky enough to get to visit the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park in California several times in my life. Each time I’ve gone had been an amazing, fun experience that always leaves me looking forward to my next visit. Since I’ve been attending Comic-Con in San Diego for the last few years, I make it a point to unwind from my five-day hectic Con coverage with a few days of fun at Los Angeles-area theme parks, my first stop always being USH.
When I talk about visiting theme parks, a lot of people get confused, not knowing the difference between Disney and Universal. Let me straighten all that out before I get into my USH trip report.
There’s Disney World in Orlando, FL, which had four main theme park areas: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney-MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom. It’s the MGM park that typically gets confused with Universal Studios — but they are totally separate parks owned by different companies.
Disneyland is in Anaheim, CA, and had two theme park — Magic Kingdom and Californialand — along with Downtown Disney (there’s also a Downtown Disney area at Disney World).
Universal Studios also has cross-country counterparts: Universal Studios Orlando in Florida has two theme parks — Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure — and Universal Studios Hollywood in California, which only has one Universal Studios park. Both locations have a Citywalk area.
Ok, now that I’ve gotten out of the way, I’ll move on to my trip report for Universal Studios Hollywood.
Rides, Attractions, and Shows
This leads me to my round up of rides, attractions, and shows at Universal Studios Hollywood, which begins with Universal’s House of Horrors attraction, which is to the left after you enter the park. Figuring I’d lived through Halloween Horror Nights (see Special Events section), a little house of horrors won’t scare me. WRONG. I think I nearly had a heart attack walking the labyrinthine corridors of the low-lit attraction, which has — you guessed it — horrific figures jumping out at you. The best part — and by that I mean the part where I didn’t nearly die of fright — was the laboratory, where Frankenstein was hiding out trying to scare everyone (I can’t help it, I love Frankie too much too be frightened by him, no matter how hard he tried; Note – this is the one part that Dave3 jumped at.) If you want a friggin’ awesome, scary as hell house of horrors, this is IT people, I kid you not.
After having the hell scared out of me I decided to calm down with a little Terminator 2: 3D which is a stage show based on the popular film that combines a live-actor stunt show with 3D filmed footage. If you like the Terminator franchise (and we all know T2 was the best), you’ll love this show. I never miss it.
By this time, I could no longer wait to get to my favorite ride Revenge Of The Mummy: The Ride. If you’re wondering why I don’t go there first, it’s because it’s located on the Lower Lot, which takes some time to get to, so I usually try to do a lot of the Upper Lot before making the journey down (see section below on Upper and Lower Lots). Anyhow, off to the Mummy ride I went; flash the Priority pass; skip major line; bam! I’m on the ride. This is a rollercoaster ride combined with set pieces and special effects. You’re coaster car is slowly brought through several areas — including one where Imhotep himself threatens you [love it!!!] — before you’re sent plummeting down. End of ride, clap, clap, clap, back around I got, through Priority entrance, 5 minutes later, BAM! I’m back on the ride. Yup, I think we went on about four times before hunger set in and we stopped to go eat. It just doesn’t get any better than this ride. Of all the rides in all the theme parks ever, this one is my all-time favorite.
The new ride on my last visit was The Simpsons Ride, which is located in an area of the park that was converted to look like a carnival — there’s carnival type games all around here. This ride was the only one where even though I had the Priority Pass, I still had to wait along time, as it seemed like a lot of people had this pass as well.
The Simpson Ride was converted from the old Back To The Future ride; it’s a simulator ride that’s intense. It’s theme is adorable, but truthfully, the ride itself is wild. Even though you’re technically not going anywhere, you are moving around in your ride car, and there’s even a part that simulates a rollercoaster ride, and does it quite well. Very fun!
Another newer addition to the park when I went was the Creature From The Black Lagoon: The Musical. We covered the news when the musical was first announced. The indoor air conditioned (yay!) theater was designed to look like a darkened Amazon jungle, with neon green accents and is based on the Universal horror classic Creature From The Black Lagoon:. Popular themed tunes like “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Jungle Love,” and “Jungle Boogle” play as the audience waits for the 25-minute musical to begin. We got through the first 15 minutes before technical difficulties set in and ended the performance. There’s a lot of wire work and other technical effects, and it appeared that there was something wrong with the wires, which would put the performers in dangers, so I understand why they couldn’t go. Plus, the show was in its infancy, so technical difficulties are excepted, but I was disappointed, because I was really enjoying the show and digging the music. On my next trip to USH, I’m definitely making it a point to see the entire show.
Some other fun shows to attend are:
- Shrek 4-D: Based on the Shrek franchise (the kids will LOVE this one).
- Studio Tour: A behind-the-scenes narrated tram tour of the studio’s backlot, where you’ll see the Bates Hotel from Psycho, Desperate Housewifes‘s Wisteria Lane, and JAWS (yup, the shark actually comes out to attack!).
- Universal’s Animal Actors: See trained animal “actors” in action in this stage show. Beyond adorable, as you can imagine.
- Special Effects Stages: This is all about how movie magic is made and you’ll learn the special effects secrets behind some blockbuster movies.
- The Blues Brothers: This is a live concert performance by “Jake” and “Elwood” doing the songs from The Blues Brothers movie. This is held periodically throughout the door at a band shell, so you can watch close up, or if you are walking around the park, you can stand and watch from the periphery. I always stop for this one.
- Waterworld: This outdoor amphitheater show is based on the Kevin Costner movie, and let me tell you, you really don’t need to know anything about the movie or even like the movie to enjoy this water-filled stunt show. It’s to the left when you’re about to exit the theme park, so I always catch the last show of the day. And even though I’ve seen this show countless times, the amazing action in it never ceases to amaze me. If it’s a hot day and you need some cooling off, there’s “splash zones” in the front rows where you will get wet (don’t worry, the areas are clearly marked, so you can also avoid them if you so choose).
Aside from the main Universal Studio Hollywood theme, there’s also the CityWalk entertainment strip, which does not have any entrance fee. At hopping CityWalk there’s plenty of places to eat, including the Hard Rock Cafe Universal City, and shop. There’s also night clubs, bars, and a movie theater to see the latest movies. Over at the Gibson Amphitheater there’s live concerts by major acts (tickets required). The establishments here are all open later than the theme park.
For more information on CityWalk, including a listing of all shops, restaurants, stores, and more, plus hours, visit the CityWalk page.
Character Meet & Greets
If you’re going to USH with children, chances are they’ll want to meet some famous characters and get their picture taken. Throughout the park are some famous faces like Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey from Shrek; Dora the Explorer and Diego; SpongeBob SquarePants; Alex the Lion and the Penguins from ‘Madagascar’, and more! More recently, the park has seen The Simpsons family (Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Bart) as well as Scooby-Doo and Shaggy. Typically, there’s a make-shift line that forms, so just wait on it for a picture with your favorite characters.
Navigating The Park
Upper and Lower Lots
Universal Studios Hollywood happens to be located in the mountains, so there are two levels: The Upper Lot and The Lower Lot. The entrance to the park is located on the Upper Lot, which houses the bulk of the attractions. To get to the Lower Lot, you have to ride a multi-level outdoor escalator, which give you some breathtaking views of the city. If you’re afraid of heights, you might be a little nervous about this escalator ride, which is a major journey. If you’re afraid of escalators, there are stairs (also outdoors) which run parallel to the escalator (good luck) — there are plenty of people who use them, god bless ‘em. Music from Universal movies plays during the ride (when I was last there is was the music from Mamma Mia! movie). There are floor landings, each having something you can stop and do something, whether it’s to get a drink or snack; or look through one of those big viewfinder things you put the quarter in and look out to the landscape; or pause to grab a photo with the Apollo 13 actor standee (I had to do this my first time there – c’mon, it’s Tom Hanks).
The ride down (and up) also takes quite, so you have to calculate travel time into your day. For instance, if it’s 2pm and you want to attend a show at 3pm on the Upper Lot, it’s probably not safe to head to the Lower Lot, unless it’s to get a quick bite to eat. Otherwise, you probably won’t make it back up in time. An obvious strategy here is to try and get all of your activities done first in the Upper Lot, then make your way down to do the Lower Lot — or visa versa, since you might not want to take the elevator ride back up at the end of the day. Remember – you still have to get to the front of the park to exit and then to your car, which could be several stories up in the multi-level parking garage.
Dining isn’t easy for me on a good day, the reason being I’m a vegan. Yup, no meat, no diary (that includes eggs), no fish, no honey — nothing that comes from another living creature. Living in a city like New York City, it’s easy enough to keep a vegan diet while I’m at home or at work. Not so much when I venture into the rest of the work, and definitely not easy when I’m in a place like a theme park where I’m stuck there with limited menu options. In this circumstance, I’ve learned to make some concessions if necessary (because otherwise I end up with a meal of lettuce and French fries everywhere I go), but always keep it vegetarian (for instance, the vegetable fried rice has egg or the breadstick has grated cheese on it).
Luckily, USH has plenty of vegetarian options on the menus of their restaurants, counter-service establishments, and snack bars. There’s lots of pizza, pasta, salads, and more. I love to go to Louie’s Pizza & Pasta for some pasta, and enjoy the atmosphere of the outdoor seating areas, which has umbrellas over the tables. I always go to the Panda Express as well, as the Asian menu is veg-friendly. There’s also several places to go for a quick dessert, like Cinnabon, Ben & Jerry’s, Sweet Liberty (for candied apples, cookies, and fudge), and Hollywood Grill for funnel cakes.
Here’s my one grip with USH dining areas — most of them are outside… in the heat! Um, it’s friggin hot, why do we have to sit outside instead of in an air conditioned indoor area? I noticed this about California in general, like when I went to Disneyland’s parks and to the San Diego Zoo — there’s so many places without seating. When you go to the Florida parks, they all have nice cool indoor seating, but not so in Cali. Ugh.
If you want to venture right outside the park to eat, you can go to one of the 25 dining areas at Universal’s CityWalk (see more about CityWalk below).
If you’ve ever been to Florida theme parks, you probably understand that you have to protect yourself from strong sun and heat in these outdoor environments. Well, let me explain to you that East Coast sun has nothing on West Coast sun. The sun in the West will burn you and you won’t even know it — it’s insidious! You’ll be wondering, “What’s burning?” and then you’ll realize, it’s you! There’s less humidity in the West, which is why you won’t realize how bad your are burning or how overheated you really are. So, 1) seriously, wear at hat; 2) keep hydrated; 3) take frequent trips to the “misting fans” which are located all throughout the park. These misting fans are a lifesaver and of all the good things I can say about USH, this would be aspect I’d give them the biggest thumbs up for (Disneyland should really think about adding these to their parks). Whenever I saw one of these fans, I went right up to it and got cooled off.
Another way to keep cool is a little more extreme, but worth it when necessary: site in the splash zone at shows like Waterworld. Some areas you’ll only get spritzed, while other seats will get you soaked. If you wanted bathsuit shorts, you’ll be super-prepared for a major splash. Sometimes the weather is so hot, your regular shorts will dry in no time.
Lastly, hit a water ride! You will absolutely get wet on the Jurassic Park River Adventure water ride. Riders take a boat through waters where man-eating dinosaurs roam. Over the Falls you go, Splash! Wet! Cool!
When planning a theme park visit, the first thing to find out is always the Ticket Pricing. Since I usually only have one day to attend USH, I splurge a little and get the Front of Line Pass. With this 1-day admission ticket, you wear a pass on a lanyard that gets you priority access to ALL rides and attractions, and reserved seating at ALL shows. Each attraction has a special “priority” entrance that allows you to skip the main line of people [think Disney's "FastPass" if you know what that is]. I can’t tell you how many times I rode The Mummy ride because of this. Oh, wait, I can tell you, check out my report on that ride. This pass is currently $99, but you’ll save $5 if you order online bringing it to $94. I had one issue with the pass being on the lanyard is that it’s not a laminated pass and can rip easily. Halfway through the day, mine got ripped off while I was on a ride, which made my early priority line skipping a big more difficult.
Understandable, not everyone wants to or is able to pay more for a one-day ticket; therefore, you can go with the current offer of 2 Days for the Price of 1 for $69, given two TWO days at the park, which is a really great deal. There’s also various annual passes and multi-park passes (for entrances to other area theme parks) to choose from. For more about information on tickets, visit the Tickets page.
Ok, before you buy the tickets, maybe you want to check the park hours, to make sure you’re going at the right time and that there aren’t any special events happening on your day of choice that would close the park early to the general public. You can go online to USH’s Park Hours page to check in advance. The park typically opens at 9 or 10am and closes between 5pm and 7pm daily; when I go near the end of July, it’s usually 9am – 8pm, which are great hours.
As I mentioned, sometimes the park will close to the general public for special ticketed events. The biggest special event at USH (and USO) is Halloween Horror Nights (you can see the 2009 page here; 2010 information is not yet available). This event happens over several days at the end of October/early November, and as the name implies, it’s a Halloween-themed horror event, and it requires a separately purchased ticket. I’ve been to this event several times and I can tell you, if you love horror, there is NO haunted house walk-through or theme park event that tops the ones at both Universal Studios locations. On these specific days, the park is transformed into a horror wonderland, where zombies chase the attendees with chainsaws and rides that provide harmless fun become a nightmare at night. There’s also “fun” fun stuff going on, like concerts by popular performers. Each year, Universal brings on more horror icons as well like Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Jigsaw, and more! Listen, I’m telling you straight out — IT IS SCARY and a must, at least once in your life. [Warning: The Chainsaw Zombies go after clusters of scared girls and women who fall a step behind their boyfriends/husbands.]
This leads us to parking: There’s various ways to park your car at Universal Studios Hollywood. There’s a General Parking lot, which is a huge multi-level garage which costs $10 or $14, depending on when you arrive. If you want to park closer to the exit, you can pay $20 for the Preferred parking lot. Lastly, there’s Valet Parking, which can cost from $2 to $25, depending on your length of stay and whether you have your parking validated. Visit the parking page for more details (and there are plenty).