Universal Studios Hollywood

IMG_1779_LUCiDWhen Brian needed to head to Los Angeles for a work trip, I tagged along so we could spend a little extra time together.

We were able to spend our travel day exploring Hollywood and Santa Monica Pier on our drive to Long Beach, and I spent my first solo day at the happiest place on earth–Disneyland!

The second day we both needed to make our way north toward Burbank as we had an early flight home the next morning.

Brian was planning to be at the conference all day so we agreed to go our separate ways and then meet at our hotel near the Burbank airport around dinner time. I had given some thought to a few different studio tours but ended up deciding to spend my day at another amusement park–Universal Studios Hollywood!

The park comprises several areas that have rides, shops, and restaurants themed around different major motion pictures. The films currently featured include:

  • Harry Potter
  • Jurassic Park
  • Fast and the Furious
  • Walking Dead
  • King Kong
  • Springfield USA / The Simpsons
  • Transformers
  • The Mummy

I’m sorry to admit I haven’t seen Jurassic Park or Fast and the Furious since the originals came out back when I was a kid and teen. And I have never seen Walking Dead, King Kong, The Simpsons, Transformers or The Mummy.

That didn’t keep me from wanting to explore those areas of the park or riding some of the rides, but I was fairly certain much of it would be lost on me since I didn’t know the story lines. The two experiences I was truly excited about were the Studio Tour and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

I had been wanting to experience one of the Harry Potter worlds ever since the first park opened in 2010. Several friends and family members had been to the Harry Potter world parks in Florida and had nothing but amazing things to say about their experiences–regardless of whether they went with kids or simply set out to enjoy the parks as adults. I was fairly confident I would be able to enjoy myself there as well and was really excited to finally experience it!

The park didn’t open until 10 a.m. so I slept in a little, packed everything Brian didn’t need for his day at the conference, and headed off. After arriving and parking, I followed the signs toward the entrance.

To get there, you have to walk through the Universal CityWalk Hollywood, which has just about every store and eatery you can imagine. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Portland-based VooDoo Doughnuts right across from a Hard Rock Cafe! Most places were still opening as I made my way toward the park entrance through what truly felt like a large, bustling city.

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I knew I was there when I saw the amazing globe and iconic entryway to Universal Studios Hollywood! I had pre-booked my tickets so I was able to get through security and the ticketing booths quickly. Once inside, I had to make my way to the Ticket Office in the middle of the park to get my VIP/front of the line pass.

I was a little suspicious of whether or not it would prove to be worth the cost of upgrading to the front of the line version of the pass after my experience the previous day at Disneyland, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made all day!

Unlike Disney where you have to go into the app and reserve a window of time, and can only reserve one ride at a time, at Universal Studios each ride has two separate lines–one for general admission and one for VIP. You simply go to the VIP line for the ride you’ve selected and they weave you into the line of people who have been waiting near where you board the ride. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be, and I had no trouble getting on every single ride I wanted to experience!

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I had downloaded the mobile app so I could see where everything was in the park, but I honestly didn’t find the Universal Studios app as helpful as the Disneyland one. The Universal Studios app had a map but it was a little hard to navigate. And while you could select certain rides to learn more about them and add them to your itinerary, I couldn’t figure out how to mark them complete–I just had to delete them after I went on the ride.

I went old school and used the printed park map to find out where things were and then used the mobile app more for the times things were open, like the shows, which were only scheduled for certain times throughout the day.

Given I really only had two must-do items on my list, I thought I should try to get on one of the first Studio Tours of the day and then relax and enjoy Harry Potter world. Anything else I had time to do would be a bonus.

This proved to be a great decision. The line for the Studio Tour was huge, but with my VIP pass, I was able to go through a separate line that led me straight to the ride. The girl working let me through to grab one of the final seats along the window of the trolley, and no sooner had I boarded than we set out for the day’s first Studio Tour!

On the way to the trolley I had some awesome views out over the historic studio lot, which we then experienced via our trolley during the tour.

There were so many things going on during the tour. There was a woman sitting at the front of the trolley who was narrating and providing information about Universal Studios and the history of certain films as well as pointing out things to our left and right as we rode along.

There were also TV screens in each car of the trolley that featured additional video and footage narrated by Jimmy Fallon. This was somewhat helpful to me because you would be looking at a set design and hearing from the woman about how it was built and used, and then the TV screen would flip on and you would watch a clip from the actual movie to see it in action. I didn’t know all of the films she was referencing, but I could easily see what I was looking at in person and how it came across on the film, which was really neat.

Finally, there were 4-D experiences along the way where our trolley drove into a building and hooked into something on the ground that could tilt our whole vehicle every which way like we were on a ride. Everything would go dark and then we would be surrounded by screens where a movie was being acted out, and air and water would be blown at us to create even greater effect! Never a dull moment during the tour!

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We initially drove along all of the buildings where they are currently filming. I know some of the studio tours take you through the internal sets, which would have been amazing. This tour does not do that–you remain in the trolley the entire time and you don’t see anything inside any of the buildings.

Instead, we headed to the outdoor sets and drove in and around several of those. We would come around a corner and see an incredible cityscape with huge buildings, only to turn and drive behind it, realizing they were all fake exteriors!

We also drove through the neighborhood settings where I learned that hundreds of movies and television shows are all filmed along the same street. The just switch out paint color or a few memorable elements of the houses, like their front doors, etc. and reuse the whole neighborhood or sometimes just a house or two for different films or TV shows.

In addition to seeing some familiar houses and neighborhoods, we were able to see some memorable vehicles from different films. This part of the tour was actually quite relevant to me because Brian and I had recently watched a documentary on Hulu called Outatime: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine about how they restored the car from the Back to the Future movies. (It was a great documentary–I recommend it even if you don’t like cars or Back to the Future!)

At one point the DeLorean was among the Picture Cars on display in the very area I was passing on my studio tour! While the DeLorean is no longer there–having been restored and put on display elsewhere–there were still a few of the futuristic cars from Back to the Future 2. There were also vehicles from Jurassic Park, the Flintstones, the Fast and the Furious, and more. I’m not much of a car person, but even I recognized a few of them!

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Probably my favorite part of the tour was getting to see how they do some of the special effects. One of the examples they showed us was how they do rain and flash floods. We drove through the set design for a Mexican village and came to a stop in between some buildings. Suddenly, it was raining! I hadn’t even noticed the tall sprinklers overhead that twirl around, creating an effect that really does look like rain.

As our driver was explaining the rain, we heard rushing water and a flood suddenly came flying around the corner and straight for our trolley! Water was coming out of the building windows–it was crazy! Here’s a video someone took on a different tour but that shows exactly what we experienced. Our driver said all of the water drains back into the system and is pumped back up to the top so they can do it all again.

A couple of the other stops included going by a lakeside setting many people seemed to recognize from some TV series that is currently out (does it look familiar to you? I didn’t recognize it). We were able to watch the water techniques as well as see the mechanical shark, similar to what they used in Jaws. We also drove through an airplane crash scene complete with smoke and fire. Apparently it was recently used for scenes in a Tom Cruise film.

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After the tour I headed back to the main area of the park and headed for the attraction I was most anticipating–Harry Potter world! It’s amazing how the atmosphere just seems to change as you enter the snowy streets of Hogsmeade. It didn’t matter that it was 80+ degrees and sunny in California, I quickly became immersed in Harry’s world thanks to the thorough and incredible park design.

I entered Hogsmeade through a stonework archway and immediately saw the train station to my right. Unfortunately the station itself was under construction while I was there, but even so, tons of people were taking pictures with the conductor who was standing next to the train engine welcoming everyone who walked by. Unlike the Florida version of the park, even when the station is open there is no actual train ride. It’s just a static display but still the perfect welcome to Hogsmeade.

I spent well over an hour walking around all of the shops, stopping to see what was in each window display and enjoying the magical moments when kids who had collected their wand at Ollivander’s could stand in front of certain windows and cast a spell to make something happen!

I also thought all of the digital displays were incredibly impressive. There were ‘Wanted’ pictures and newspapers in the shop windows and, just as they described in the books and as you see in the movies, the pictures accompanying the articles are actually moving. Despite knowing they use a small video screen, it was so well incorporated in the design that it did seem to be magical!

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There were two main rides in this section of the park–the tame, family friendly Flight of the Hippogriff and the part coaster/part 4D experience called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes place inside Hogwarts.

I was able to use my VIP pass to sneak to the front of the Forbidden Journey ride and was almost sorry I missed the opportunity to wait in line! The regular line wove through the castle grounds as well as different rooms inside Hogwarts. My line led me past the talking, animated portraits, which were very well done, and the sorting hat, which gave last-minute instructions before I boarded the ride.

After my adventures on the rides I spent some time enjoying one of the shows in this section of the park, which featured Hogwarts students performing various songs a capella. They were really good!

While I was taking my break to watch the performance, I decided I needed to purchase and try the infamous butterbeer beverage! It came as a cold drink or an iced version–I opted for the former. I took a few swigs of the butterscotchy beverage but that was about all I could do–it was way too sweet for me!

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As I had anticipated, the rest of my time at the park was really just a bonus after I completed my two main activities. I headed to the lower level of the park for lunch and to check out the Jurassic Park water ride. I was watching people getting off and I didn’t see anyone drenched so I thought I would give it a try.

Bad idea! Because I was a solo rider, I got added to the last empty seat in the very front row. I, along with the Australian family I was sitting next to, got soaked clear through and while it felt good given the 80+ degree weather, it took me the next couple of hours of walking around to dry out!

I made it to almost every single ride ,and I also made it to all three major shows that afternoon–the Special Effects Show, Animal Actors, and Water World. Each one was very entertaining, and I recommend checking out the times they are performing and carving out a little bit of your day to check them out. If you have a VIP pass, you get preferential seating AND after some of the shows, you get to stay for some VIP activities once the audience has exited!

My day concluded with a leisurely walk around the areas dedicated to Westminster and Paris. By the time I had walked through the final area of the park, I was ready to head back to my car and meet Brian.

Overall I was really happy with my day at Universal Studios Hollywood. I thought the VIP pass was worth it, and while I didn’t think their app was that great, I do have to give them props on the character sightings! I saw costumed characters around every turn throughout the park and hundreds of people taking pictures with their family and friends.

I can’t wait for our next trip to LA and the opportunity to check out some of the other studio tours. If you’ve been to any, I am open to recommendations!

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