Let’s Plan Your Trip to Universal Studios!
Visualize with me…
You’re strolling through the busy theme park, watching kids excitedly meeting their favorite characters, the melodies of classic movies wafting through the candy-scented air. Attractions draw you into the make-believe worlds from beloved stories that have been brought to life from the Silver Screen. This could be Disneyland…
…except the song from the sound system that won’t leave your head is Spider Pig, sung by that madcap crooner Homer Simpson. And the princess up in the marquee on that building is none other than Betty Boop. And the funny character with the big ears is not a mouse but a donkey named Donkey. The friendly character from under the sea is not a little mermaid but good ol’ Spongebob Squarepants! And that beat up old van with the Danger: Biological Hazard sign was apparently abandoned by the GhostBusters technicians in a hurry. But you don’t care about any of that! Mostly you’d do anything to get your mind to stop dwelling on the haunting melody and poignant words:
Spider Pig, Spider Pig!
Does Whatever a Spider Pig does…
Make it stop! Must…replace..melody…with…other…music..!
As sweat breaks out on your forehead you look around for relief. It’s too far to the stage where the Blues Brothers are singing Sweet Home Chicago. Instead, you jump on the nearby covered escalator down to the Lower Lot because on it they play songs from the hundreds of Universal movies that were created at this historic hillside movie studio. They will clear your mind! And thankfully, by the time you’re at the bottom, Homer’s singing is just a dim memory (…to be re-kindled when you get back to the top).
Yes, folks, you’re at Universal Studios Hollywood. The new Simpsons Ride has become one of the most popular attractions in the park since its opening earlier in 2008. In fact, it was declared the Best New Attraction by ThemeParkInsider.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) was a very entertaining and historic destination long before Homer got his sticky grip on the place. First, realize that the place was humming as one of the premier movie and television studios for decades before the existing theme park was created as an enhancement.
Universal Studios really has played a major role in the film and TV industry and in our American culture. Its history is quite interesting and involves a Who’s Who of Hollywood movers and shakers. We were going to write about the history, but there are some specialty web sites out there with great summaries of the movie and television world, leading back to the early years of the last century. One of those sites is thestudiotour.com.
So this is not only a legitimate studio, still very much in operation, but is one of the premier studios anywhere in the world. The number of movies and TV shows created here is mind boggling. It’s no surprise then that one of the most prominent attractions within the theme park is the 45-minute studio tour, taken on large trams. The studio sprawls over 400 acres, much of which is the Back Lot with permanent outdoor sets. The Front Lot includes the offices and indoor sound stages. The tour takes you through portions of each side of the studio, returning you back to the theme park.
Your entrance pass gives you access not only to the tour, but to a very clever concoction of rides and shows oriented either towards the motion picture industry or the famous characters gestated under the creative and protective influence of Universal: Marvel comics heroes like the Hulk and SpiderMan (no direct relation to Spider Pig that we know of), the Flintstones, Curious George, SpongeBob Squarepants, Shrek, Woody Woodpecker, Scooby-Doo and many others.
With the tremendous popularity of the Fast and Furious movies, the studio tour has added a state-of-the-art new attraction that takes the trams on what feels like a 120-mile-per-hour blast through Los Angeles. Huge HD screens, high-tech gadgetry and participation from most of the film stars makes this a very cool way to end the tour.
The theme park is apparently smaller and somewhat less imposing than its sister park in Florida, but the access to a real studio in Hollywood, CA makes all the difference (by the way, there is also a Hollywood in Florida but it is not home to a studio).
The split-level design is visually interesting but requires that you take an escalator down to the Studio Tour entrance. You take an even longer series of escalators down to the Lower Lot to visit Jurassic Park, Revenge of the Mummy and other attractions.
You do lose some time during the trek down to the Lower Lot, but the escalators move pretty efficiently and it gives you a chance to consult the park map and discuss strategy with your group. Also the views are a nice distraction; you get a good birds-eye perspective of the studio facility below. Universal entertains you on the way down with quizzes and other features over the sound system. This multi-tiered layout requires some strategizing to make the most of your day, as you can see in some of our other discussions.
Universal CityWalk Entertainment District
As the frosting on the proverbial cake, there is CityWalk, an admission-free retail, dining and entertainment center adjacent to the main entrance to the park. This is a heck of a commercial district, hyperactive with many tenants trying to outdo each other in the design of their stores and restaurants (watch for the gargoyles and spaceships having crashed into storefronts). As with Downtown Disney in Anaheim, it is a great way to expand your experience without spending for another admission ticket.
Universal CityWalk offers a wide variety of specialty retailers and major brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Billabong and Guess? You’ll find cool smaller shops with food, gifts and many other items. There are restaurants such as Hard Rock Café, Bubba Gump’s and the Saddle Ranch Chop House. You can also find sushi and visit a nightclub or two after dinner.
There’s a 19-screen theatre complex that includes an 8-story IMAX theatre. If you’d like to go flying, there’s a place where you can engage in indoor human flight called iFly (818)985-8234. (No, I’m not kidding.) Out in the courtyard stage they hold concerts and other entertainment events and street entertainers add to the energy level. CityWalk is definitely worth visiting while you’re at Universal Studios, even if for a brief stroll. You could easily make an evening of it, as a great many locals do throughout the year. Although there are a lot of tourists to be found, this is definitely a hangout for locals. For additional details on Universal CityWalk and its many interesting “residents” click here.
Decide Your Vacation Objective
Hopefully you’re getting the idea that USH is a worthy destination to be considered in your summer travel plans. You may wish to include it in the agenda right along with Disneyland Resort and the Southern California beaches. And if the admission was $29 we’d say everyone should carve out time for this very cool destination. However, the entrance fee is more like twice that and we have seen some vacationer reviews that offer mixed reactions. Most of the reviews tend to be very positive, but some folks have been disappointed and felt they would not spend their money on the park again. Others felt you can fit the entire theme park easily into one day, and maybe not even a particularly long day.
So wanting to level with you, but at the same time not wanting to throw cold water on your enthusiasm, we’ll help you apply some very simple decision-making logic.
Universal Studios Hollywood should be a prominent part of your vacation if… (click on the really angry mummy below to continue the discussion about fitting a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood into your overall vacation strategies and objectives!)
Getting To and From Universal Studios or Universal CityWalk
Universal Studios is built on, and at the base of, a good-sized hill in the Hollywood Hills, and alongside the Hollywood Freeway (Route 101). To the south is Hollywood proper and to the north, interestingly enough, is North Hollywood. The world-renown Hollywood Bowl is just a mile or two south, in the Cahuenga Pass; in fact there are famous landmarks all over the place, but we won’t get into that here.
Being on a hill has its pros and cons. The actual studio facilities are at the bottom where it is mostly flat. The entrance, CityWalk and most of the theme park are up the hill. Portions of the Upper Lot were built on a large parking structure and provide beautiful views of North Hollywood, the San Gabriel Valley to the northeast (shown in the photo above), and the San Fernando Valley to the northwest. The hillside location makes parking and access a bit more of a challenge. Click here for further discussion about reaching the park by public and private vehicles, and how to park if you drive yourself.
Food, Glorious Food
One thing we noticed is that USH seems to have more moderately priced eating choices than Disneyland. There are some name-brand food establishments within the park, such as Mel’s Diner, Panda Express, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Cinnabon.
The park offers the All You Can Eat program that gives you meals all day long for $19.40 (adults) and $9.68 (folks of any age under 48 inches; they seem to correlate your appetite with your height, not your age). You might find a 10% online discount but this price does not include beverages. You can probably eat two meals for less than that amount, but if you plan to be in the park from morning to night, it might be worthwhile. They recommend that you visit the participating restaurants, identified on the park map, just before noon to avoid the worst crowds. Click on the sign below for detailed information on dining options at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Another dining option would be to eat a big breakfast before you come, and bring some fruit in with you; fruit and water bottles are permitted through the entrance gates but other food is not. Eat the fruit to hold you over, perhaps with a purchased snack in the afternoon, and then have a big dinner in the evening. You might also wander over to CityWalk where you’ll find lots of dining options. It’s not that far from the Upper Lot in the park over to the CityWalk restaurants.
Where To Stay in the Universal City Area?
You may be wondering where to stay for your trip to Hollywood and Universal Studios. There are two great hotels within a stone’s throw of the park entrance, and many others nearby. But you’ll naturally be considering the rest of your Southern California vacation when you pick your hotel. Click on the hotels below to think about lodging options.
Halloween Horror Nights
Once upon a time Knott’s Berry Farm down in Orange County had the clever idea to make a big deal out of Halloween; thus was born the Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt. Over the years it has proven to be such a success—imagine selling out the park for many nights in October—that USH and other theme parks have caught the bug. Speaking of bugs… (if you’d like to know about the bugs and other creepy stuff to be found at the Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights click here!)
Packages and Discounts
It won’t surprise you that, like any good capitalist venture, Universal offers a variety of package deals and an occasional discount, usually if you buy early or get extra features. Click here for some good insight into packages and discounts.
Universal Studios Theme Park Tips, Wisdom, etc.
We’ve got some tips, warnings, wisdom and suggestions based on our own experience and from others on how to enhance your Universal Studios experience. Some are worth considering before you come, and others will hopefully come in handy during the trip, having seen them ahead of time.Click on the wet guy in the boat below to see our tips and other stuff.