Spotlight: Universal Studios Hollywood
Movie magic, mega attractions—if Hollywood is the land of make-believe, then Universal Studios Hollywood is your chance to step into that fantasy world. On a sprawling site on the eastern side of the Hollywood Hills, this film-studio-meets-theme-park blends a studio tour with rides that swoosh, swoop and dive through film-and-TV-themed worlds.
Step inside the park’s front gates, for instance, and you can choose from the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, the zombie-filled Walking Dead Attraction or the popular WaterWorld show, which features real-life stunt actors. Head to the right from the box office at the centre, and you’ll soon arrive at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, complete with a re-creation of the village of Hogsmeade. Towards the back of the park, you’ll find the Springfield of Simpsons fame, including an irreverent simulator ride and branches of Moe’s Tavern and Krusty Burger.
Take the escalator to the park’s lower area and you’ll encounter rides based on Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers. The Jurassic World is now open.
Look out for the digital signs in the park that highlight the current waiting times for all of the rides, as well as the schedule for daily shows. Want to skip most queues? Upgrade to a Universal Express ticket that lets you bypass them, or at least buy your ticket online, which gives you access to the park an hour earlier. To plan your whole day, download the Universal Studios Hollywood Mobile App, which helps you track ride waiting times (and pings you when your favourite ride reaches an ideal queuing time), reminds you about show times, and even takes you back to your car in the car park at the end of the day. Staying the night is easy, too: see the list of preferred hotels located near the park.
Make sure you save time, though, for Universal CityWalk. The park’s adjacent, neon-lit complex offers a wide range of shops and dining options, such as branches of Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and the first California VooDoo Donuts.
Read on to map out your exploration of the theme park.
HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR. (s17)
The Walking Dead Attraction
Die-hard fans of The Walking Dead—or simply those who love a good scare—can now live through a zombie apocalypse at Universal Studios Hollywood. The theme park’s Walking Dead Attraction was once a seasonal event during the park’s annual Halloween Horror Nights, but it has now received a major upgrade and a permanent year-round location near the park's entrance.
The aim of the attraction is to make the TV show come to life for park visitors, who will have to 'fight for survival' as they navigate through the post-apocalyptic world. To achieve a realistic feel, Universal Studios Hollywood partnered with the show’s creative team, executive producer and director Greg Nicotero, and his special effects company, KNB EFX. They worked to 'make the attraction as 100 per cent authentic as possible,' Nicotero said in a behind-the-scenes video from Universal.
That meant using original moulds from familiar Walking Dead characters (such as 'Bicycle Girl', seen in the pilot episode) and designing sets to replicate some of the show’s most famous scenes. Guests unfamiliar with the series will love the intense, haunted-house-like adventure, while dedicated Walking Dead fans will feel like they’re getting an exclusive tour of the set.
The hungry walkers are a mix of real-life actors in elaborate makeup and animatronic zombies made from moulds and hours of detailed work—down to their flesh-tearing silicone teeth and the broken capillaries in their acrylic eyeballs.
'We’re getting a chance to do animatronic characters that we’ve never done before,' Nicotero said. 'We’re utilising moulds that were created specifically for the show and translating them into parts of the attraction. It’s one-of-a-kind and state-of-the-art.'
The effect is so vivid—and perhaps even shocking—that it’s best for children to skip this attraction: Universal Studios Hollywood does not recommend it for visitors younger than 13.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The idea of 'Hollywood magic' takes many forms at Universal Studios Hollywood, but it seems especially apt in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With rides, shops and no shortage of Butterbeer, fans will find themselves transported into the world of the beloved boy wizard.
Even if you don’t know all of the nuances of the bespectacled kid with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar, there is an abundance of whimsy and fun in the six-acre attraction. The village-style setting has, as its focus, the iconic Hogwarts Castle, home to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Inside, underneath its soaring ceilings, you can wander the hallowed halls lined with portraits that—just like in the books and film—talk. Peruse the office of headmaster Albus Dumbledore, look around the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom and visit the Gryffindor Common Room, where Harry and his fellow housemates have been known to complain about those sullen Slytherin students.
Ride your own broomstick for thrills that combine robotics, elaborate action sequences and immersive visceral effects.
The signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, lets you ride your own broomstick for a set of thrills that combines a robotics system, elaborate filmed action sequences and immersive visceral effects. Outside the castle, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is also home to the first outdoor rollercoaster at Universal Studios Hollywood, the family-friendly 'Flight of the Hippogriff'.
The rest of the attractions focus on the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, with its cobblestone streets, snowcapped roofs and electic locals, from the train conductor welcoming arrivals to the merchants offering various wizarding wares (including wands at Ollivanders, screaming yo-yos at Zonko’s and chocolate frogs at Honeydukes).
Don’t miss the Owl Post, where resident owls hoot as you pass by. Children can learn about the old days, when people actually used to send snail-mail messages to one another (or, in Harry’s case, owl-mail messages). Send a postcard from this location (written with actual pen, or quill, and paper) and it will get a Hogsmeade postmark.
The immersive wizard experience extends well into dining, too. The Three Broomsticks restaurant in Hogsmeade offers hearty English fare such as fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and bangers and mash, as well as classic desserts like sticky toffee pudding. You’ll be tempted to start your Wizarding World of Harry Potter day right here: the Three Broomsticks does a proper full English breakfast, featuring eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans and even black pudding. (American staples are available too.)
And here’s good news for Muggles over the age of 21: the adjoining Hog’s Head pub has original draught beers and spirits created exclusively for the attraction, including Dragon Scale, Wizard’s Brew and Firewhisky. At the pub, and all around Hogsmeade, you can also order an all-ages-friendly Butterbeer (think cream soda, with a twist), along with Pumpkin Juice, Pumpkin Fizz and gently flavoured Gilly Water. After all, fending off the Dark Arts works up quite a thirst.
HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR. (s17)
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
This colourful section of Universal Studio Hollywood is an instant hit with kids—and anyone else who has a soft spot for the banana-coloured stars of the Despicable Me films. Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem is a motion-simulator ride: you sit, buckled into your seat, while the floor lifts and tilts and you seemingly hurtle about inside a 3-D film. The ride lets you into the home of the seemingly villainous (but otherwise hapless) Gru, where you bounce, plunge and plummet through a Minion training mission. And all that excitement ends with a wild dance party. Even waiting to board the ride is entertaining, with multiple screens showing bits of wisdom from Gru and his right-hand Minions Dave, Stuart and Lance.
Keep the Minion theme going by visiting the adjacent Super Silly Fun Land, which brings alive the carnival from the first film with fountains, wet and dry play areas, and the classic-style Silly Swirly Fun Ride, which gives you a full view of all of the high jinks below. Try to win one of the film’s famous stuffed unicorns in a game, or shop for them—along with character dolls and a 'fart-gun' that really smells like bananas—in the Minion Mayhem gift shop.
With a behind-the-scenes look at film-making magic, plus blockbuster-themed detours along the way, the world-famous Studio Tour that snakes you through the back lots at Universal Studios Hollywood ranks as a must-do ride in California. Yes, it’s primarily a theme park ride, so you’re probably not going to see Brad Pitt strolling past, but you really do get to see the sets and learn about classics ranging from Frankenstein to Jaws. Then slip on 3D glasses as you drive into wraparound action, especially the technologically advanced Fast & Furious—Supercharged thrill ride—where make believe becomes reality as you’re placed into the action during a high-octane scene. The ground-breaking attraction, presented as the grand finale to the Studio Tour, catapults you into the high-stakes underground world of street racing at perceived speeds of more than 120 miles per hour.
Another detour takes you into a 360-degree, 3D jungle that feels startlingly real, especially when King Kong emerges to battle dinosaurs—with your tram car rocking and rolling in the middle of the brawl. Mellower sections of the tour wind through the real sets of the make-believe towns, cities and suburban neighbourhoods used in hundreds of films and TV shows, as well as the original sets from major films such as Psycho, Jaws and War of the Worlds. Live guides and onboard videos featuring late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon add entertaining insights along the way.
Insider tip: queues can be long here, but don’t worry—the trams depart almost non-stop, so they move fairly quickly.
VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood
Feel like a film star yourself when you book the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. First there’s that valet parking—not bad. Then there’s that private entrance leading you to an exclusive lounge, where you can relax with snacks and refreshments, in your own A-lister’s inner sanctum. Next, you meet your expert guide for the day, who will go out of his or her way to find out what kind of insider tips and film facts you’d like to know more about as you tour the back lot and soundstages. They’re also very helpful when the urge to take a group photo in front of your favourite film set strikes.
Unlike the standard back-lot tour, this tour lets you get out of your group’s private trolley and walk around. You’ll be able to wander around and get up-close looks at sets, learn about lighting and camera angles, and see where current TV shows and films are being shot. Pose for a selfie on the steps of Norman Bates’ house from Psycho, or wander through the Bravermans’ living room from the long-running TV series Parenthood. A popular stop is the massive prop warehouse, which houses an impressive collection of film paraphernalia, from vintage bowling bags to full suits of armour. The tour includes a gourmet lunch prepared by the studio’s executive chef and served in a private dining room, as well as queue-jump privileges for all rides throughout the day, prime seats secured by your guide for all shows, and meet-and-greets with featured performers.
For a concentrated dose of nightlife, dining and oh-I-want-that shopping, make sure you visit the bustling, pedestrian-only Universal CityWalk complex. Actually, you can’t really miss it—walking routes from Universal Studios Hollywood’s main car park take you right through CityWalk. Plus, there’s no admission, so you can visit CityWalk even if you don’t have tickets to the theme park. Don’t miss the dancing water-fountain display at its centre, designed by the same people who created the Bellagio's fountains in Las Vegas. And keep an eye out for the camera crews and hosts of the TV show Extra, who regularly film segments around the theme park and CityWalk.
Not surprisingly, films are well represented here: grab one of the plush recliner seats at Universal Cinema, a 18-screen multiplex, or at the IMAX cinema, which projects films seven storeys high. And for thrills of a different kind, experience the sensation of free-falling while skydiving in a vertical wind tunnel at iFLY Hollywood. Free outdoor concerts feature light shows and plenty of room for dancing—though you might have to find someone to hold all the shopping bags you’ll be carrying with stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Fossil and Billabong lining the squares and avenues.
You won’t go hungry either. Choose from LA icons, such as the branches of Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs, Vivo Italian Kitchen and LudoBird (the Provencale fried chicken created by celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre), or have a craft beer at San Diego-born Karl Strauss Brewing Company. CityWalk is also home to some notable transplants from outside the Golden State too, such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Dongpo Kitchen (an offshoot of China’s popular Meizhou Dongpo) and the first California branch of Portland’s VooDoo Doughnut.
Step into the fantasy world of America’s loudest cartoon dad, Homer Simpson, in this crayon-bright recreation of Springfield, which now fronts the popular The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Designed to make you feel as if you’ve stepped through your TV into the re-created hometown of the witty Simpsons clan, the outdoor experience gives you the chance to visit Bart's favourite places. Call in at Moe’s Tavern, Lard Lad Donuts or Duff Brewery, all in the shadow of show-inspired landmarks, such Stu’s Disco, where the marquee reads, 'Closed until disco comes back'. Other familiar Springfield restaurants come to life here too, so you can get a 'Genuine Clown-Endorsed Meal' at Krusty Burger or order a cheesy delight at Luigi’s Pizza, all while Homer’s workplace, Mr. Burns’ Nuclear Power Plant, lets loose with a (whoops, did someone push the wrong button?) make-believe meltdown.
The Simpsons Ride
Step into Universal Studios Hollywood ’s crayon-bright recreation of the cartoon town of Springfield, then board The Simpsons Ride , a simulator ride that celebrates the bizarre animated world of Homer, Bart, Lisa and the other motley characters from The Simpsons.
Designed to make you feel as if you’ve stepped through your TV into the long-running series, this section of Universal Studios Hollywood invites you to visit many of Homer’s regular haunts—which also make up a good portion of Universal Studios Hollywood’s inside-the-park dining options. Call in at Moe’s Tavern, Lard Lad Donuts or Duff Brewery, all in the shadow of show-inspired landmarks, such Stu’s Disco, where the marquee reads, 'Closed until disco comes back'. Other familiar Springfield restaurants come to life here too, so you can get a 'Genuine Clown-Endorsed Meal' at Krusty Burger or order a cheesy delight at Luigi’s Pizza, all while Homer’s workplace, Mr. Burns’ Nuclear Power Plant, lets loose with a (whoops, did someone push the wrong button?) make-believe meltdown.
Then board the ride, which takes the experience to another level. Technically, the Simpsons scenes are just projected around you while your car lifts and tilts, but the feeling is all real—as if you are zooming through a psychedelic animated universe. You star in a carnival mid-way through, then rocket through Krustyland, the fantasy amusement park created by creepy-and-cranky Krusty the Clown. With the show’s real actors voicing the characters and offering plenty of subversive humour, the ride effectively captures the unique essence of the show—so if you’re a fan, it’s a must-ride experience.
Live Shows at Universal Studios Hollywood
For all of the movie magic and animation at Universal Studios Hollywood, you can also catch plenty of live shows, which offer their own behind-the-scenes explorations. If you see one of these shows you’ll get a nice reminder that, beyond the theme park rides, this is still a vibrant working studio.
At the Special Effects Show, for instance, you’ll see live demonstrations of how digital and 3-D technology—as well as old-fashioned pyrotechnics—creates vivid illusions for films. Or, watch jet-ski stunts, perilous plunges and a simulated seaplane crash at WaterWorld (the top-rated live show may now be more popular than the 1995 film that inspired it). Children and animal lovers, meanwhile, won’t want to miss the Universal’s Animal Actors show, which highlights the talents and charms of a variety of dogs, cats and birds who have starred in Universal films—including a few of the owls who have winged their way into Harry Potter films.
Download the Universal Studios Hollywood Mobile App to track the times for the various shows during your visit. Or, ask staff about character meet-and-greets around the park, offering the chance to pose for a pic with the Minions, Shrek, the Simpsons and Scooby Doo, among others.
More Rides at Universal Studios Hollywood
What are you in the mood for? Heart-pounding adventure? Light-hearted fun? From warring extraterrestrial robotic life-forms and lurching mummies to the big, lovable Panda named Po, rides at Universal Studios Hollywood transport you to a wide range of film-themed worlds. Get swept up in the jaw-dropping, multi-sensory adventure that is the Dreamworks Theatre featuring the Kung Fu Panda attraction, which uses state-of-the-art visual effects and the first-ever interior projection mapping to place you smack-bang in the middle of the action. On Revenge of the Mummy–The Ride, rocket through impenetrable darkness and fiery pyrotechnics as an eerie, ancient world unfolds in front of you, and get heckled by particularly disgusting (were they actually hissing?) mummies. On Transformers: The Ride-3D, flight simulation technology blasts you into the future to battle for the survival of humanity against towering Decepticons. With Optimus Prime by your side, you might just stand a chance.
But not all of the giants on Universal’s rides are so likely to make your heart skip a beat from the intense adrenaline surge. Little children will love Super Silly Fun Land, inspired by the whimsical seaside theme park in the first Despicable Me film. Let them run around and cool off among the 80 water playground features, ride the old-fashioned (and not too intense) Silly Swirly Fun Ride, or test their water marksmanship at the Super Silly Space Killer arcade game—if only for the chance to win one of the soft-toy unicorns and shout the film’s famous line, 'It’s so fluffy!'
From the heart-warming to the heart-stopping, events at Universal Studios Hollywood jazz up seasonal celebrations throughout the year.
The theme park does some serious celebrating in September and October with its Halloween Horror Nights, a scare fest that’s not for the squeamish (nor the little ones—too scary for them!). Follow creepy mazes that bring classic horror films and TV series to life, taking you through gloomy spaces and set re-creations—you never know when werewolves, vampires and zombies might jump out at you. Even the clowns are psychotic, and the whole thing is set to awesome music by guitarist Slash. Be terrorised by Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, and experience The Shining, The Walking Dead and The Purge, to name just a few of the attractions featured. And the 2018 addition? A Halloween Horror Nights maze inspired by the first season of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. Oh, and the signature back lot tram ride? Get ready for an apocalyptic journey with yes, more zombies. (The seasonal festival is so successful that it has inspired the year-round Walking Dead Attraction.)
Winter holidays are another big draw, with Cindy Lou and her Who friends reading the Dr Seuss classic book during Grinchmas. There’s also a nightly tree-lighting ceremony complete with a picturesque evening snowfall—and Hogsmeade will offer holiday-themed foods as well as a yuletide version of the summer light show across Hogwarts Castle. Universal CityWalk marks the Christmas season with concerts, nightly snowfall of its own and a giant tree during CityWalk Holiday Season.