When my family and I decided to go on a Sunday morning the temperature was expected to reach 95 degrees and we were debating whether to go or stay at home in the pool. I am glad we decided to go.
In spite of the high temps, we had a great time. Universal created an environment in which high temps will not be a hindrance to having fun. There is a lot of shade everywhere and a lot of fans blowing cool and wet air (mist). It feels like they created their own weather.
What made our experience even more memorable is the “Express Pass”. Every ride and show has a special line for pass holders where there is little or no waiting. Just look for Express Gate signs everywhere. Also, most shows have special reserved seating for “Express” pass holders.
Universal Studios Hollywood is actually the longest-running still active movie studio in the world. If you are lucky on your visiting day you will see crews filming some of the new movies or your favorite TV shows. While we were visiting, the Nickelodeon Kids Awards were filming. Of course, we couldn’t get in – you have to have an invite long before the filming.
The park has three distinct sections: Upper Lot; Lower Lot and the Studio Tour. I recommend that you start with the tour to get acquainted with the park and to see the main reason for its existence: Making movies and TV shows.
You ride a tram and start driving down the hill to the various locations in the back lot. The back lot is where the actual filming happens. The backlot experienced a large and destructive fire in 2008 that left many buildings burned to the ground but soon was rebuilt and modernized.
The tour will take you through generic towns and buildings that can morph into any major city like New York or London – or a Mexican sleepy town. You may see crews filming a scene from an upcoming movie. You will also pass by many sound stages where some of your favorite movies or TV shows are being filmed.
Some of the tour highlights are:
- City streets and buildings
- Courthouse Square from the "Back to the Future" movies
- A sleepy Mexican town with a sudden thunderstorm and a flash flood
- Desperate House Wives neighborhood with all the nice manicured houses
- A scene from War of the Worlds – a Boing 747 airplane crash in a suburban neighborhood
- The "Bates" motel from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho – Watch out for Norman trying to stuff a corpse in the truck then attacking the tram riders with a knife
- Amity Island from Jaws – where you are the bait
- Fast and Furious 3D chase
- King Kong 3D
- Picture cars: Vehicles used in movies.
Some of the films and shows filmed at the backlot: The Sting; The Great Outdoors; How The Grinch Stole Christmas; Bruce Almighty; CSI; Battlestar Galactica and Transformers.
The most impressive part of the tour is King Kong 360 3D. The tram will take you into “Skull Island” where you get trapped in the middle of a fierce battle between King Kong and T-Rex. Unlike other 3-d movies or attractions, the action is all around you (360), and your tram rattles and shakes like a toy in King Kong’s clutches.
This show is based on the 1995 Sci-Fi movie Waterworld. If you are a Sci-Fi fan you probably already watched it. If you haven’t, here is a short synopsis (my very short take): Planet earth is covered in water due to global warming and polar cap melt. Humanity tries to survive in floating cities (Atolls). Everyone is looking for dry land. The heroine (Helen) and a young child know the way. A warlord (the Deacon) and his gang (called Smokers) want to be the first to find it so he can control the destiny of the human race. And, of course, the hero (the Mariner) will stand in his way – and saves the day. Find more details at IMDB.
The show picks up where the movie ended. Helen returns from "Dryland" to get her friends from the "Atoll". The Deacon captures her, but the Mariner shows up in time to save the day again – after an intense sea battle.
The show is full of stunts, pyrotechnics, flying jet skis, powerboats, gunfire, splashing water, hot flames, and a crashing seaplane. Actors from popular shows usually participate in the action. The first (blue) rows of seats are designated as the “soak zone”. If you sit in the soak zone you are guaranteed to get wet from the boat and Jet Ski splashes. If you really want to avoid getting wet, head to higher ground.
This is another show based on a very popular movie series. Universal created another short movie with the main characters (and voices) from the original – with a twist. Now you can be part of the fairy tale with stunning 3D, moving seats, wind puffs, and sprays of mist timed to the movie action.
The Simpsons Ride
The fun starts while you are waiting in line and in the staging area. You are supposed to be visiting Krustyland for a fun-filled day with the Simpson family. While you are waiting for your ride to start, the villain Sideshow Bob appears and takes over the park and causes all kinds of destruction and mayhem – and you are caught in the middle.
The big HD dome screens and the motion simulators make your ride on the extreme rollercoaster seem very realistic. And, of course, you can’t watch a Simpsons movie without coming across giant baby Maggie - “Walking” through Springfield. Just when you think you and the Simpsons are safe at their home all hell breaks loose again.
Kung Fu Panda
Set and relax in comfortable seats while watching a cute cartoon about the famous Panda - that is until you are jolted into the action.
The show uses the latest special effects and sound technology, including motion simulation seats, to keep inside the action.
In one scene, you feel a real drop as the boat carrying Panda drops over a waterfall - even though you are still sitting comfortably in your seat.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
This latest addition to Universal opened its doors in April 2016. The area is on the upper lot, close to the entrance and Waterworld. It is dedicated to the Harry Potter series of books and movies.
Step through the portal at the train station and into the world of wizards and muggles at Diagon Ally. Along the ally, you can visit Ollivander's to be outfitted with your wand then go to Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment to buy your house robe. If you are thirsty stop by a vendor to have a mug of butterbeer.
If you are looking for that special item for someone special, go to Filch’s Emporium™ of Confiscated Goods to find all kinds of interesting souvenirs.
The main attraction at this world is the imposing Hogwarts Castle home to the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride. On this ride, you take flight on your magic broomstick through the castle grounds while being chased by a dragon and a few nasty spirits. Harry Potter will guide you through this maze back to safety after you unwittingly join a Quidditch match. Watch out for Lord Voldemort.
Tip: No bag, purses or any loose items are allowed on the ride. If you have any of those you will be directed to a longer line for the free lockers before you get to the ride. So if possible place your stuff in a locker ahead of time and use the shorter line. Also, this ride offers single rider line.
At night a spectacular special effects show is projected on the castle walls celebrating the house spirit with music and laser lights.
Tip: The first show of the night gets very crowded. You can avoid the crowds by going to the last 2 shows instead.
Across the street from Hogwarts, you can find the Flight of the Hippogriff rollercoaster. This is a mild adventure good for families with small children.
Special Effects Stage
They film the movie at the Sound Stage, but it is not a movie yet until they add the sound and special effects (during post-production). At this stage, you can witness how those effects are created using various mechanical devices and more modern digital techniques.
The performers present some interesting sound effects and cinematic tricks. In one presentation we got to see how to film a burning man - with real fire. In another presentation, we got to see how a floating astronaut's image is superimposed on a solar system background.
Where to Eat
There are quite a few dining options at Universal, but for a better selection, you can visit restaurants on Universal Walk.
If you are at the upper lot, you can try:
- For a variety of Pizza pies, go to Luigi's Pizza
- For burgers or hot dogs, try Krusty's Burgers
- For a treat or snack go to Phineas Q. Butterfat’s Ice Cream
- For sandwiches and salads go to French Street Bistro.
The only dining option at the lower lot is Jurassic Café. You can also find a few snack and drink stands throughout the park as well.
Jurassic Café is cafeteria-style dining. Pick your main entrees from the display (roasted chicken, burgers, salads, personal Pizzas, or Turkey legs). Grab deserts and drinks – if you like – then pay at the end of the queue. There is a large seating area next to the queue, but it gets full very quickly. So, if you can’t find a place, head upstairs to an open dining area that is mostly empty.
The raft you are riding gets attacked by parasaurolophus which diverts the raft from its intended course into the Raptor containment area. You will know that your tranquility is over when you pass by destroyed vehicles, damaged electric fences, and a Dilophosaurus eating the remains of a poncho. Then, the raft goes into a series of mishaps and dinosaur attacks culminating in an 85 ft. plunge into the water.
If you didn’t already get wet while dinosaurs and waterfalls try to get you on the way, you are guaranteed to get wet at the end of the ride. Automatic Cameras will try to catch you during your plunge. Check them out as you are exiting the ride.
Revenge of the Mummy
As with all the rides at the lower lot, this is not your average rollercoaster. The ride will start with an accelerated and sudden takeoff taking you through tombs and treasures while you are getting attacked by scarab beetles and worrier mummies - all while you are twisting and turning, rising and falling through a maze of caves.
Cinematic special effects and bursts of air at the right time and place make this experience even more thrilling and creepy.
Just when you think you survived the experience, everything starts over – in reverse.
Transformers: The Ride-3D
When you first get into the ride it is obvious to you that you are entering a simulator. But you will soon forget that fact and become immersed in the non-stop action. YourAutobott (EVAC) will take you from one intense battle to another while actually moving between streets and buildings. You will actually feel like you are flying next to Optimus Prime or the Devastator or crashing through buildings. You will basically join the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons and help in achieving the final victory over Megatron.
This ride was so exhilarating and realistic, I am left wondering how great it would be to watch a full-length movie using this technology.
The Walking Dead
For fans of this popular TV show, this attraction is a must. Get in at your own risk and face your fears.
This is basically a haunted house with zombies (Walkers) jumping at you when you least expected it.
The walk through this apocalyptic world ends too soon, so take your time and walk slowly and try to spot the 18 hidden artifacts from the hit TV show.
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
This series of movies is very popular with the whole family. The minions are so cute and dangerous all at the same time. If you aspire to be a minion and assist Gru with his nefarious schemes, then line up and prepare to be converted.
As a new minion, you will undergo training and then be launched into a series of adventures and mishaps. The 3D simulated ride will put you right into the mayhem.
Universal Grinchmas (Holiday Celebration)
Starting from the front gate you will be delighted with classy Christmas decorations. As you walk through the park you will encounter the Grinch and all his Who-Ville friends. Some characters will approach you and interact with you, but in most cases, you have to wait in line to take a picture with your favorite character.
The main attraction is “Grinchmas Winter Wonderland”. Kids of all ages (yes that means me too) can enjoy playing in real snow, building a snowman, and having a snowball fight – without having to drive to the mountains. If you prefer to stand back and watch, you can sit on the bleachers surrounding the play area.
Looming high above the snow is a huge Christmas tree filled with large and beautiful ornaments. This is also where the tree lighting ceremony is held. There are five tree lighting ceremonies to choose from – starting from 4:45 PM. If you don’t have a "front of the line pass", get there early to reserve a spot.
Right at the Grinchmas Winter Wonderland, you can also enjoy your favorite celebrities reading Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
If your main goal is to enjoy the Christmas spirit then you can skip the lower lot and get on the tram for the Studio Tour. Along with all the great tours and exciting King Kong 3D, you will also enjoy sing-alongs at Who-Ville.
Universal City Walk
What are you into? If you like live music, clubs, movies, or great food - You will find it here. If you prefer shopping, choose from 30+ unique shops.
This is also a good alternative for dining inside the park. You can find many casual dining places like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Johnny Rockets, or Hard Rock Café. Or if you prefer you can go to a fast food place like Panda Express, Antonio's Pizzeria or Subway.
For a great adventure go to iFly where you can actually fly. This is an indoor skydive place. You will go through some basic training, get outfitted into your jump gear, and then launch into the flight chamber.
Walking around at night, you can enjoy the lights, the dancing waters, and the street performers.
The best parking option is Valet Parking. For $23 you get to park in the covered parking structure – very close to the entrance. General parking is $20, so for an additional $10 you can avoid long walks or tram rides.
100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608