Universal Studios Hollywood Planning Guide

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Universal Studios Hollywood is one of the best theme parks in Southern California, and a great side trip if you’re planning a vacation to Disneyland. This guide offers info, tips & tricks to 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 Los Angeles.” (Updated October 4, 2019.)

Even if you’re an LA local, Universal Studios Hollywood has changed a lot in the last couple of years. The largest of these is the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (read all about it in our comprehensive review & tips post). There’s also the newly-redone Jurassic World area, which includes Raptor Encounter, DinoPlay, Isla Nu-bar, and Jurassic World – The Ride.

In 2020, the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash ride will debut. That trackless dark ride, along with Super Nintendo World, are both currently under construction and should further transform Universal Studios Hollywood. Huge areas of USH already have been dramatically transformed from how they were just a few years ago when we first bought our Universal Studios Hollywood Annual Passes…

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! (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.

Park Tickets

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There are a couple of good options for saving money on Universal Studios Hollywood tickets, both via Get Away Today. The first is buying a Disneyland + Universal Studios Hollywood combo pass. If you don’t plan on doing Disneyland, Universal’s “Second Day Free” ticket option allows you to spread your visit over multiple days.

Two full days is overkill, but we love doing an evening one night followed by arriving for rope drop on day two. Even if you do every single show, attraction, 2 meals, and spend time exploring, you should be able to accomplish everything in a single full day if you are reasonably efficient.

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. (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.)

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.

Strategy

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
  • Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (if wait time: <30 minutes)
  • The Simpsons Ride (if wait time: <30 minutes)
  • Transformers: The Ride 3D
  • Jurassic World – The Ride
  • Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
  • Lunch
  • Shows
  • Studio Tour
  • 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 World, 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.

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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.

To save money, check out the Universal Studios Hollywood hotel + ticket packages offered via Get Away Today. They have several hotels from which to choose, but our top pick is definitely the Garland. It’s a great resort-style property with a ton of personality, great rooms, and posh amenities. The Sheraton is also chic and nice, but it’s the kind of hotel you could find anywhere.

Transportation

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.

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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.

Dining

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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.

Seasonal Events

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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 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.

If you’re visiting Universal Studios Hollywood in addition to your Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

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.


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