If you’re planning a vacation to Disneyland, you might be thinking about those other theme parks in Southern California. Namely, Universal Studios Hollywood. This post covers our planning tips and tricks that will help you save money and time, avoid crowds, choose where to eat, which rides to do, and fully plan your visit to the “Entertainment Capital of L.A.” where you will “Ride the Movies!”
Even if you’re a Los Angeles local, Universal Studios Hollywood has changed a lot in the last year (parts of the park look dramatically different even since we bought our Annual Passes last fall) so if you haven’t been in a year or two, there are changes of which you should be aware.
That ‘hybrid’ nature of the park is critical to it. 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.
In addition to my opinion on Universal Studios Hollywood here, I’d also recommend reading a few other USH sites, including: Inside Universal, World of Universal, and California Informer. There aren’t a whole lot of Universal Studios Hollywood planning guides out there, but part of that is because it doesn’t require a ton of planning.
With that said, here’s what you need to know about visiting Universal Studios Hollywood, where you can ride the movies! (USH really reiterates this tagline with several attractions being [Movie Name] – The Ride!)
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.
How Many Days?
We really cannot envision a scenario that would require more than one day at Universal Studios Hollywood. Even if you do every single show, attraction, 2 meals, and spend time exploring, you should be able to accomplish everything in a single day if you are reasonably efficient.
About the only exception to that is 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. Even the most avid Potterhead should be able to accomplish both in a single day, though.
With everything there is to do in Southern California, it’s very difficult to justify spending multiple days at Universal Studios Hollywood. The park is well-rounded and definitely worthy of a visit, but 2 days is excessive for 98% of visitors.
Since Universal Studios Hollywood stopped participating in the CityPass, this is a pretty easy one now. If you’re going for just one day, the best option for a Universal Studios Hollywood ticket is simply going to be buying tickets online on their website. You’ll save $5-16, by pre-purchasing, depending upon the date. Universal tickets purchased online can be printed at home and used at the turnstiles–meaning no waiting in line to purchase tickets or exchange vouchers.
If you’re considering doing more than one day (this mostly applies to Californians who might want to revisit later in the year), you might consider an Annual Pass. We have the lowest tier (the “Season Pass”) and it cost us slightly more than an 1-day ticket. There are blockout dates and this pass doesn’t include parking, but it has been a great value for us.
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:
Ollivanders Wand Shop (skip this entirely if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan)
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (second time)
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.
Second, your main goal should be getting down to the Lower Lot attractions (Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Revenge of the Mummy) before lunch. This area of the park, separated by a series of escalators, tends to be dead in the morning. In fact, if you skip everything above those attraction and go straight to the Lower Lot, you will be able to walk-on to these attractions with no wait multiple times.
Forbidden Journey, The Simpsons, and Despicable Me are the 3 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.
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 Park – 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. Fortunately(?) most days 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.
We don’t have any recommendations with regard to specific hotels. 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.
Rather than going for a bland chain, you might consider something with old-Hollywood charm, like the Safari Inn or The Garland. (We’ve also stayed at the Saharan Motor Hotel, which was…interesting. Sunset Blvd. is probably not a location most families should consider, but it worked well for us.)
If you book a Universal Studios Hollywood Preferred Hotel Package, you’re eligible for access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter 1-hour before the park opens to the general public. That’s a nice perk, especially for Potter fans. It is not a strict necessity for beating the crowds, though.
There are no two ways about this: driving in Los Angeles sucks. And, if you’re visiting Universal Studios Hollywood, there’s really no way around L.A. traffic. It’s located north of the city, meaning that you pretty much have to drive through L.A. to get there unless you helicopter in to Pasadena or something.
If you’re staying in Orange County (near Disneyland) the amount of time it will take you to get to and from Universal Studios Hollywood should not be underestimated. Plan on at least an hour, and potentially closer to 2 depending upon traffic.
One thing you might wonder if you’re trying to get between Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood is whether there are any shuttles, public transit, or if Uber is a suitable option. Unfortunately, these are all less than ideal. Uber will be uber-pricey, and public transit (the Metrolink) is inefficient.
Simply put, if you’re visiting California and plan to go anywhere off Disneyland property, you need 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.
In the past, the best option we’ve found for those who don’t have rental cars the duration of their trips is renting a car from the Downtown Disney Alamo for the day.
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.
When it comes to rental cars, check out our Tips for Renting a Car at Disney post for money-saving tips and more when it comes to renting a car (that’s written from a WDW perspective, but it applies anywhere).
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. Here’s some more info about Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
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 or shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ 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.