Universal Studios Vacation Planning

What’s Your Primary Vacation Objective?

Yes, it’s a mixed blessing that there are so many great vacation activity options in Southern California. On the one hand it means that there is something fun for everybody, and there’s no reason for you to sit around doing nothing on your vacation–unless of course that’s exactly what you want to be doing!

On the other hand, you’d need weeks to really see things and most of us can’t manage 3-week vacations. So, you gotta make some strategic choices. To determine how much enthusiasm you should have for a Universal Studios vacation given your limited budget and schedule, consider the following decision-making logic (don’t worry, it’s simple).

Universal Studios Hollywood Should Be a Prominent Part of Your Vacation If…

  • You are a big fan of the Hollywood entertainment industry and are looking to experience a bit of the real deal. The idea of stunt shows, prop warehouses, behind-the-scene insights and sets from movies like War of The Worlds really rings your chimes. Then no question, USH is for you.
  • You are a big fan of the characters, TV shows and movies brought to life at the park. We’ve listed many of them, but you might want to check out the official web site to see if you’ll find themes that capture your fancy. Do you and/or your kids love SpiderMan or the Blues Brothers? The Flintstones? Betty Boop? SpongeBob Squarepants? Want to feel a part of the mayhem you saw on the screen in the film WaterWorld? Are you a Simpsons junkie? Then come on out! A Universal Studios vacation is for you.
  • you are moderately interested in characters and movies, and also are moderately interested in the industry itself. This is almost the best fit, as you can spend your day between attractions and shows that lean either towards the industry in general, or towards specific characters and movies. And of course if you really love both aspects, you might need to block out part of a second day; more on a possible two-day Universal Studios vacation later.

But, if you aren’t that intrigued by the movie industry and get bored quickly with live shows or don’t find the Universal Studios Hollywood shows/characters to be appealing, or really are looking for roller coasters and other thrill rides, you’ll come away wishing you hadn’t spent the money. In that case, come on out and instead spend a couple of hours exploring CityWalk for next to nothing (and save your money for the other six major theme parks in Southern California). You’ll still get a feel for the Hollywood entertainment industry through the eyes of Universal and its affiliate companies.

CityWalk Sock Market

Universal Studios Hollywood is oriented towards a combination of cool live shows and some actual moving attractions. They do a great job of blending showmanship within the rides, but there’s no King Arthur’s Carousel and Story Book Land boats here like at Disneyland. That is, there are some attractions for very small children, notably the Curious George play area (you get wet), the Flintstones Carnival Games area, the character appearances, the Coke Soak (you get wet here too) and some shops.

But toddlers might find it to be a long day in shows and waiting in lines. This would definitely be an issue on a hot summer day. There’s more on this in our Universal Studios strategies page. This brings us to the topic of your Vacation Objective.

So, you’ve decided to spend a day or two on a Universal Studios vacation. Wise choice, Grasshopper—it’s a lot of fun. Think with me now about what part it plays in your total vacation window, and what you most want to get out of the visit (and in which old TV show the hero was referred to as Grasshopper).

Remember that above we suggested two primary areas of interest that would especially draw you to a Universal Studios vacation. One is a strong interest in the film industry itself, and the other is in the characters and shows brought to life at Universal Studios Hollywood. If you’re big on both, better yet! (Answer:Kung Fu with David Carradine)

Is this vacation oriented towards Hollywood attractions? Or is the Tinsel-town experience a pretty small part of your overall objective? If the latter, you might block out one long day for Universal, including an hour or so at CityWalk and you’ll come away feeling that you got a nice dose of it all. You could spend another half day driving through Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, a short visit to Beverly Hills and/or drive-bys on some celebrity homes.

One to two days of Universal Studios vacation time (including related attractions) out of a week’s trip, might be as much as you want to devote to Hollywood. After all, there’s still a day at Magic Mountain, a couple days at the beaches, Catalina, Orange County, etc., etc.

Bates MotelIf you really would like to take this opportunity to scratch your Hollywood itch in a pretty big way, then get the 2-day ticket to Universal Studios Hollywood. If you have the budget, definitely take the VIP Experience, which will be like a kinder and gentler entertainment “boot camp” experience.

Regardless of whether you spend the money on that, you probably won’t need a full two days exclusively for the Universal Studios vacation (but might well wish you had more than one day). So while you’re in North Hollywood I have three words for you: Warner Brothers Studios!

No, make that four words: Warner Brothers Studio Tour! You see, WB offers its own impressive and somewhat more intimate studio tour and is basically next door to Universal; you can see the WB logo on the stage building in the photo below, taken from the Upper Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Warner VIP tour involves much smaller groups traveling in over-sized golf carts. You stop along the way and have a chance to absorb the experience more fully than the regular Universal tour. That is a 2-hour 15-minute event that costs $45. You might consider doing this along with the Universal admission, which includes the regular studio tour. That would be cheaper than the Universal VIP Experience and would get you into two different studios. The Warner tour schedules every 20 minutes through the day and reservations are required. We give you the link below.

And, because more is frequently better, Warner also offers the Deluxe Tour. Here is a summary from the Warner Brothers Studio Tour web site

The Deluxe Tour is a special five-hour tour that explores in-depth the craft of movie-making and television production. Led by our top tour guides, this very exclusive tour takes you into the craft shops to talk to the artisans at work, onto working production sets to interact with key crew people, and provides an overall experience that answers the questions that you may have about how movies and television shows are made. In addition, your private group will enjoy lunch in the studio cafeteria where you have the real opportunity to dine with the stars.

Warner Brothers Studios
Warner Brothers Studio Tour

This bad boy costs $195 and is very limited in capacity, but will get you a very up-close-and-personal look. If this is a Hollywood vacation, imagine the memories (and movie trivia) you’ll bring home if you go for the Universal VIP Experience and the Warner Brothers Deluxe Tour. If you’d like some additional, independent information on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, check out our friends at Seeing-Stars. For some more details on special tours check out our Packages and Discounts page.

Now let’s consider the scenario where you can block out time for a one-day Universal Studios vacation assault but aren’t going to go for the full VIP treatment. If the lines aren’t long, you can reasonably see everything and also enjoy some time at City Walk in a lengthy day. That will be harder during the summertime. So with time at a premium, what is your primary objective? Do you want to make sure you see the movie industry features or do you want to enjoy the characters and shows? In any event, you should try and arrive at the park about one-half hour before it opens to get parked and check out any last-minute changes to the event calendar for that day.

Say your main interest is in the movie industry stuff. Once they open up, go straight to the Studio Tour, hopefully not elbowing too many people on the way. (This assumes you have not paid for the Front of Line treatment, which might be a good idea if the budget permits.)

Hold on a minute: if you’re a Simpsons fan, it might be worthwhile to hit the Simpsons first thing in the morning if the line is short, before doing the tour. We hope that, first thing, the line will only be 5-10 minutes. The ride itself is not all that long. If the line is longer than 20-30 minutes, I’d probably pass on Krustyland and stick with hitting the tour; start your Universal Studios vacation day with the studio tour to draw you into the world of Hollywood and fire up your juices.

After the tour, check out one of the numerous electronic message boards that show start times for shows, and waiting times for the major attractions. From the Studio Tour, take the mother-of-all-escalators down to the Lower Lot. You hope this area still will not be too busy.

Down at the bottom you can fairly quickly take in the Special Effects Stages, Backdraft and The Universal Experience, a behind-the-scenes interactive activity. While on the Lower Lot, you might want to go ahead and hit Revenge of the Mummy and Jurassic Park. You probably will get wet in the latter as it includes an 84-foot drop that ends as you see in the photograph below. Consider whether you want to grab something to eat at one of the dining establishments such as the Jurassic Café (which honors the All You Can Eat program).

Head back up the escalators and now you’ve got the afternoon and evening for the other shows and attractions. With your interest in studio stuff, make sure you get to the WaterWorld show; this really gets you into the world of stuntmen and special effects. You’ll be near the main entrance at this point, so you might consider checking out City Walk; if you haven’t had lunch yet, that would be a good option, as there are many dining choices at CityWalk.

For a more mellow show, take a break at the Universal’s Animal Actors show. There you’ll not only meet some very clever critters, but also see firsthand the movie magic that helps them seem even a bit smarter.

If, on the other hand, you want to emphasize the shows and characters, your approach should be a bit different. The Simpsons frequently has a long wait, so you’re more likely to want to hit that first in the morning instead of the tour. Be ready to go as soon as they open the entrance gates and head for Homer and family (and Krusty the Clown).

There’s nothing better than the Simpsons first thing in the morning of your Universal Studios vacation. Then jump on the escalator for the Lower Lot. Unless… you have small children, in which case you might want to get to Shrek first. But if you can get to the furthest reaches of the park before most of the crowd, you’ll get some rides in early with shorter waits.

Hopefully this has not been too much information. You may be thinking now that you’d like to know more about some of the specific Universal Studios Hollywood attractions. Here is fast access to the most helpful Universal Studios web pages , with great information on the ride attractions and shows. They include some short videos and other background material to get you in the mood, and to further help you prioritize your Universal Studios vacation options.