Our 2024 Universal Studios Hollywood planning guide offers tips & tricks to help you save money & time, avoid crowds in Super Nintendo World, and what else to do at the “Entertainment Capital of Los Angeles.” USH is one of Southern California’s best theme parks, and a great side trip if you’re visiting Disneyland. (Updated January 7, 2024.)
The last year has been a huge one for Universal Studios Hollywood. Last year started with the debut of Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, a new restaurant and confectionery in Universal CityWalk. This is a good spot for crowd-pleasing fare and fun, like Cheesecake Factory but in a highly-themed setting. So long as you have the proper expectations about what it is and isn’t, you’re likely to have a good experience.
In addition to that, Universal Studios Hollywood’s world famous studio tour has a new scene featuring Jupiter’s Claim from Nope. That, plus other little additions and closures are paving the way for USH’s star to shine even brighter. However, all of this is relatively insignificant as compared to the 800 pound plumber in the room…
Super Nintendo World is now open at Universal Studios Hollywood! This marks the official arrival of Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and other iconic Nintendo characters to the United States theme park scene. It’s the second of three versions of the land; with the first already open in Universal Studios Japan.
We’ve had the chance to experience Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood several times, and it’s truly something special. Super Nintendo World features the groundbreaking Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge ride, as well as many interactive activities designed to engage the entire family within the captivating Mushroom Kingdom.
If you’re planning a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood and Mario and friends are your main motivation, you should consult our comprehensive Strategy Guide for Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood. That offers tips & tricks, how to beat the crowds, and a ton of other advice for making the most of your time in this incredible new land.
The biggest thing to know about Super Nintendo World is that it’s insanely popular and crazy crowded. This should not come as a surprise given the popularity of Super Mario Bros., but suffice to say, you really need to have a plan of attack. Whether that mean buying Early Access, rope dropping the land, staying late, etc. The above guide has you covered with all of those options–we just want to reiterate their importance.
You absolutely should not arrive late and hit Super Nintendo World midday. That’s what the majority of guests do, and they encounter triple-digit wait times for Mario Kart, get shut out of Toadstool Cafe, and fail to finish all of the minigames as a result. Just a fair warning–don’t make the same mistakes as the majority of guests!
It should go without saying, but Super Nintendo World has drawn colossal crowds to Universal Studios Hollywood. Attendance exploded last year after the new land opened, and aside from a few pockets of off-season dates, it hasn’t really let up yet–a year later. We expect that to die down to some degree in 2024, but not entirely.
For one thing, Mario is more recognizable than Mickey Mouse, and millions of kids and adults are undoubtedly eager to step into their favorite video games. This is going to turn Universal Studios Hollywood into a vacation destination for visitors from around the country.
For another thing, Universal Studios Hollywood is a popular vacation destination for visitors from around the world. Especially in the summer, the park is popular with international tour groups. Those started to come back last year, but not to the same degree as 2019. With China fully reopening and other countries in Asia being slower to recover, we’d expect those demographics to bounce back in 2024.
Compounding the crowd issue is the size of Super Nintendo World. As a result of that compact footprint coupled with high demand, Universal uses a virtual line system for accessing Super Nintendo World on busier days. The good news is that the land does not require advance reservations. Guests are able to enter Super Nintendo World as usual, so long as it is not at capacity. If it is at capacity, make reservation from the USH app while inside park, or kiosk on Lower Lot.
In our experience, so long as you arrive early or late, the virtual line is a non-factor. It’s usually only in use on weekends, holidays, and other peak season days when school is out of session. Even then, so long as you arrive before 10 am or after 4 pm, you typically won’t have to deal with the virtual queue.
Universal Studios Hollywood has improved tremendously in the last several years, so there are a ton of fun things to do beyond Super Nintendo World! The Studio Tour, WaterWorld Stunt Show, and Jurassic World: the Ride (featuring a new Indominus Rex) are all awesome.
On the family-friendly front, there’s the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. We reviewed this in Universal’s New Dark Ride Rivals Disney’s Best!As the title suggests, that article is full of effusive praise, as this family-friendly dark ride based on the hit film franchise is absolutely fantastic. It’s a great change of pace from the usual thrill rides at USH!
Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash also uses Virtual Line on busier days, so be sure to score a spot in the virtual queue so you don’t miss this awesome attraction!
Beyond that, Universal Studios Hollywood has changed a lot in the last 5 years–and for the better. The biggest recent addition is the aforementioned Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. Prior to that, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was added to the upper lot. On the lower lot, there’s the newly-redone Jurassic World area, which includes Raptor Encounter, DinoPlay, Isla Nu-bar, and Jurassic World — The Ride.
Huge areas of USH already have been dramatically transformed from how they were about a decade ago when we first bought our Universal Studios Hollywood Annual Passes. The future is also bright, with replacement stage shows and other entertainment, and rumors that USH is trying to figure out some way to expand Super Nintendo World.
In terms of concrete additions, the next big thing is the Fast & Furious: Hollywood Drift roller coaster (name not officially confirmed). In fact, nothing has been confirmed about this coaster except for its existence, but it’s expected to start on the Upper Lot and continue on the hillside above the Lower Lot, even looping around the top escalator to the Lower Lot. It’s expected to open by the first half of 2025, which could mean there’s a possibility it debuts in late 2024. (Based on construction progress, this year seems unlikely.)
In the lead-up to the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, there are other long-term plans to add more rides to this hybrid of a theme park and working film studio. That ‘hybrid’ nature of the park is critical to Universal Studios Hollywood’s success, and what makes it distinct from both other theme parks in Southern California and other studio tours at Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony.
This also makes it significantly different from Universal Orlando Resort, with far fewer attractions (and only one park), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a pale imitator or inferior substitute. Much like Disneyland is smaller than Walt Disney World but offers an excellent, albeit different experience, so too does Universal Studios Hollywood. And part of this is because of its hybrid nature, not in spite of it.
With that said, here’s what you need to know about visiting Universal Studios Hollywood, where you can ride the movies!
When to Visit
Very few people are probably planning a trip to Los Angeles solely for Universal Studios Hollywood. Most of you are probably adding on a day as part of your Disneyland or Southern California vacation, so the answer to this is easy…whenever you’re coming to California.
In this regard, crowd patterns at Disneyland translate pretty similarly to Universal Studios Hollywood. The busy season at one is the busy season at the other, and vice-a-versa with slow seasons. Crowds at both are primarily based upon school schedules–primarily those of Los Angeles and Orange County, California (but to a lesser degree, the western United States). You can basically refer to our When to Visit Disneyland post to determine when to visit.
As for when to visit California, we’re partial to the fall and winter months. Summer doesn’t get humid like Florida and many other states, but it can be hot. More importantly, that’s when everyone else comes to California–meaning crowds.
Now that Super Nintendo World is open, there are far fewer ways to save on admission to Universal Studios Hollywood. Demand has skyrocketed, which means deals have dried up. Nevertheless, there are still a couple of good options for saving money on Universal Studios Hollywood tickets.
The first is simply buying an Annual Pass. If you live in Southern California, this is pretty much a no-brainer, as the lower tier is cheaper than multi-day tickets to USH. As noted, we are Universal Studios Hollywood Annual Passholders even though we live much closer to Disneyland and don’t visit USH. (We have two different tiers for the sake of perks and free parking–a smart option for families.)
If you’re not local of view the AP as overkill, the other option is buying discounted multi-day tickets via Get Away Today. To be clear, we do not think USH is a 2-day or 3-day park if you strategize well. But if you don’t–or are a huge Harry Potter or Mario fan–spreading your visit over multiple days is really smart. Universal Studios Hollywood sells both 2-day and 3-day tickets with a fairly low incremental cost (versus single-day tickets). We recommend doing 2-day tickets, rather than 3-day ones.
Three full days is overkill, but we love doing an evening one night followed by arriving for rope drop on day two and staying the entire day. If you still haven’t had your fill, get the 3-day ticket and do rope drop again on day 3 and leave early. Or simply do mornings and evenings, skipping the middle of the day, and taking the Metro into Los Angeles to avoid the longest lines during the midday rush at USH.
Spreading things out over a night and the following morning makes things a lot more pleasant, and means far less waiting in line. Plus, it gives you a chance to experience both day and night in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Super Nintendo World. (Speaking of which, huge Harry Potter fans who want to spend an entire day in Hogsmeade, and then elect to spend a second day doing the rest of the park. Ditto Mario maniacs and Super Nintendo World.)
If you’re considering doing more than a couple of days, you might consider an Annual Pass. This mostly applies to Californians who might want to revisit later in the year. We have the lowest tier (the “Season Pass”) and it cost us slightly less than a 2-day ticket. There are blockout dates and this pass doesn’t include parking, but it has been a great value for us.
You might also find discount offers on 1-day tickets or Annual Passes at Costco, Ralph’s, Vons, and other California grocers. Sam’s Club and AAA sometimes offer discounts on tickets for their members, so be sure to check that out if you’re eligible.
If you’re driving to Universal Studios Hollywood, add 30 minutes to whatever Google Maps estimates as your drive time so you can arrive before park opening. If you’re trying to make it from your Disneyland-area hotel to Universal Studios Hollywood for rope drop, there’s a reasonable chance you will be driving during at least part of rush hour. When you sit at your computer and plan this all out at 11 p.m., this traffic won’t be accounted for.
The plus side to leaving early and arriving to USH at rope drop is that few other people will do it. Los Angelenos are unfamiliar with the concept of being “on time” since the traffic gods more or less preclude that. Crowds tend to show up about 1-2 hours after park opening, and tend to tour the park in a predictable manner. If you can get ahead of the wave of crowds, you can really come out ahead at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Upon arrival, here should be your priorities, in order:
Super Nintendo World
Transformers: The Ride 3D
Jurassic World – The Ride
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
The Simpsons Ride
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Okay, a bit of explanation for all of that. First, we strongly encourage all but the most hardcore Harry Potter fans to skip Ollivanders. It’s basically a pre-show for buying wands, and takes valuable time early in the morning. Likewise, Flight of the Hippogriff is a waste of time if you’re over the age of 5.
Your main goal should be getting down to the Lower Lot attractions (Super Nintendo World, Transformers, Jurassic World, and Revenge of the Mummy) as early as possible. This area of the park, separated by a series of escalators and stairs, used to start slower in the morning. Super Nintendo World has changed that, but you should still attempt to beat the rush down there.
Secret Life of Pets, Forbidden Journey, Simpsons, and Despicable Me are the 4 attractions that are going to draw long waits early-on. This is because they are the popular rides near the front of the park. If you can ride these before the “crowd wave”, awesome. If not, save them until the end of the day when lines will taper off.
Honestly, the above itinerary works about the same forwards and backwards. You either want to beat the crowds or outlast them. Crowds peak at Universal Studios Hollywood in the late morning and early afternoon, and decrease after that. We highly recommend staying until park closing and then doing dinner afterwards in CityWalk.
With that approach, not only will you experience lower crowd levels at the end of the evening, but you’re also less likely to be stuck in traffic in the parking lot that is the Hollywood Freeway during rush hour. Park opening and closing times vary based on season, but it’s always our goal to not leave USH until after 8 pm. Any time before that is a recipe to be stuck in traffic on the 101.
If you’re willing to use it, Single Rider will save a ton of time during busier times. Single Rider is available at the following attractions:
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Jurassic World – The Ride
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
Transformers: The Ride 3D
While we like (and recommend) doing all of the shows, the biggest can’t miss at Universal Studios Hollywood is the Studio Tour. Do not confuse its placement on the itinerary above as it being of low importance. It is the must-do at USH. (We only place it later in the day as lines tend to get shorter later in the day.) Do not miss it.
If you’re visiting during a season when the Nighttime Studio Tour is being offered, we highly recommend doing both the regular Studio Tour and the Nighttime version. Every ride on the Studio Tour is different, but night brings a new element to the attraction.
Seriously, we cannot stress it enough: do the Studio Tour. This is the defining attraction of Universal Studios Hollywood, and the only thing we make a point of doing each time we visit. (Just don’t get your hopes up about the Fast and the Furious sequence…it has more cheesiness than the movies, but without the redeeming charm and heart.)
Gate A/Front of Line Pass
“Gate A” is Universal Studios Hollywood’s “Front of Line” pass, which is like FastPass at Disneyland, except that Gate A costs money. In some cases, a lot of money. Prices for Gate A start at +$100 the cost of single day tickets and increase in cost depending upon the season (the busier it is, the more you pay).
We are not proponents of purchasing Gate A unless you are going during the height of tourist season (think summer, spring break, or any national holidays), and even then, we would advocate taking advantage of Universal Studios Hollywood’s many Single Rider lines or arriving at park opening and utilizing an efficient park touring strategy like the one above.
If you follow our plan above, the Front of Line/Gate A pass is just not necessary the vast majority of the time. Maybe it would be on like the 10 busiest days of the year, but we have never had an issue doing everything in USH during a single day without Gate A.
Where to Stay
There are a number of variables that play into this. First, are you visiting Universal Studios Hollywood as a day-trip from Disneyland? Is the visit part of a Southern California vacation? A California road trip? Let’s address each of these…
Disneyland Day Trip – Stick to your hotel in Anaheim and just drive there and back. Traffic aside, this is pretty simple. Universal doesn’t open at the crack of dawn, so you’ll have a reasonable amount of transit time while still being able to make park opening.
Southern California Vacation – If you’re doing this and don’t mind changing hotels once–which is what we recommend–we’d suggest doing (at least) a split stay, having a hotel in Orange County/Anaheim for the Disneyland, beach, and whatever else in the O.C. portion of your trip, and then a separate hotel in Los Angeles or near Universal Studios Hollywood.
California Road Trip – If you’re doing a road trip down/up the state (let’s say flying into San Diego and flying out of San Francisco with a one-way car rental), we would recommend Universal Studios Hollywood being what you do on your last day in the Los Angeles area before heading north.
The night before, stay in L.A., but the night after, drive up to Santa Barbara. It’s a little over an hour drive, but getting back to your (much closer, distance-wise) hotel in L.A. could take just as long that night. Staying in Santa Barbara gets you away from the city and prepared to enjoy sunrise over the ocean the next morning without having to fight traffic to head north.
When it comes to specific hotels near USH, we like the Garland and Sheraton Universal Hotel. Both are really close to the park, with the Sheraton being a short walk and the Garland being a short (free!) shuttle ride. You’ll also find the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City “on-site” at Universal Studios Hollywood.
There’s also a Metro Red Line station at Universal Studios Hollywood, making anything along the Red Line super convenient to the park, including options in Downtown LA. Rather than going for a bland chain, you might consider something eclectic or with old-Hollywood charm, like the Safari Inn.
When booking in Los Angeles, be mindful of neighborhoods, parking charges, and resort fees. If you find a “too good to be true” price, it probably is. If you are picking a hotel specifically for USH, we recommend looking north of downtown Los Angeles. Burbank and Glendale can be better options than Hollywood/Los Angeles. Neighborhoods like North Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, and Los Feliz are also smart picks.
There are no two ways about this: driving in Los Angeles sucks. And, if you’re visiting Universal Studios Hollywood, there’s a good chance you’ll drive through L.A. to get there. However, that doesn’t have to be the case!
As noted above, there’s a Metro Red Line station located at Universal City, which is a short walk from both the park itself and CityWalk. The Metro Red Line is a subway running between Downtown Los Angeles and North Hollywood, with stops in or near the Civic Center, Financial District, Wilshire Boulevard, Hollywood & Sunset Boulevards, Koreatown, and the San Fernando Valley.
Even if you’re staying in Orange County near Disneyland, you can get to Universal Studios Hollywood without driving. Simply take the Pacific Surfliner from Anaheim to Union Station in Los Angeles, where you can then catch the Metro. We only recommend this for the most traffic-averse, as it is a bit of a hassle.
Most people will want to drive themselves from Disneyland to Universal Studios Hollywood. There aren’t any good shuttles, Uber is too pricey, and public transit can be convoluted and inefficient. Unfortunately, traffic can be bad too, and should not be underestimated. Plan on at least an hour, and potentially closer to 2 depending upon traffic.
For the most part, if you’re visiting California and plan to go anywhere off Disneyland property, you’ll want to rent a car. Traffic can be intimidating, but if you drive between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm or 9 pm and 7 am, you’ll be absolutely fine. We’ve done a lot of one-day rentals from rental car agencies within walking distance of Disneyland, and then have just done after-hours drop-offs.
As for airfare, rental cars, and other basics, here’s my standard info: for finding cheap airfare, we recommend ITA Software by Google. It’s the most robust airfare search engine out there, although you can’t book through it. It offers latitude in choosing multiple airports, flexible travel dates, and more.
Once you ride the movies right into the gift shop and buy the movies with your American Express–official credit card of the Entertainment Capital of L.A.–it’s time to dine (at?) the movies.
If you’re fine with counter service dining, Universal Studios Hollywood has several solid options inside the park. As a whole, I do not think the culinary experience is on par with Disneyland’s, but the highlights are more than serviceable. The best options, in my mind, are the counter service restaurants in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Three Broomsticks) and the Simpsons restaurants in Springfield.
The food at Three Broomsticks is pricey, but it’s near-table service quality. The Simpsons food is mostly guilty pleasure stuff, but the burgers and waffle chicken sandwich are excellent. Don’t knock them until you’ve tried ’em!
Then there are the snacks. Universal Hollywood’s snack game is strong. Holy cow. Obviously, you’re going to want to try Butterbeer–perhaps all three varieties.
At Three Broomsticks, snacks deserving of your attention are the potted cream and sticky toffee cake. Both are incredibly delicious, and although you should share them, you probably won’t want to.
Then there are the donuts the size of your head in Springfield, deserving of another holy cow. There are some interesting varieties, but these should be split. After eating the maple bacon one pretty much by myself, my teeth hurt.
One thing you might want to consider is purchasing a refillable Coke Freestyle mug. Depends upon whether you want a lot of Coke or the souvenir mug. Coke Freestyle machines located throughout the park’s restaurants, and normal drink purchases in restaurants are not entitled to refills. Unlike in Florida, there is no Universal Dining Plan at USH.
Universal Studios Hollywood does not do much in the way of seasonal events. The one exception to this is Halloween Horror Nights, which you might make an effort to see or to avoid, depending upon your perspective. This is a hard ticket event in which you step onto the set of some of your favorite horror movies, and walking through those sets as actors attempt to scare you. This event is not for children under the age of 13, and is definitely adult in tone.
Halloween Horror Nights are a huge draw for Universal and they definitely attract an adult crowd. If you have no young kids and like horror movies, you’ll probably enjoy this event and find it worth the cost of the ticket. If you have a younger family, you’ll want to avoid it. If you’re traveling during the months of September and October, be mindful of the Halloween Horror Nights schedule. Christmas is celebrated with decorations and Grinchmas entertainment, but there’s nothing that requires advance-planning or around which you should schedule.
I think this is probably covers just about everything most people will need to know when planning a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood as an add-on to your Disneyland or Southern California vacation. If you would like to see some of these topics covered in greater depth, please let me know in the comments.
Are you considering visiting Universal Studios Hollywood? If you are a USH veteran, can you fill in any of the ‘gaps’ here or add tips of your own? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Chances are if you have questions still, so does someone else! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.