Our Fun Day at Universal Studios Hollywood

universal studios hollywood logoAs I mentioned a while back, my kids and I took a mid-Winter holiday in Southern California to beat the snow and visit with my Dad and sister. We just got back. And while there were days just lounging around reading books and playing games, there were also days where we had specific destinations, including a lovely afternoon at the beach and a rather disappointing afternoon at the LA Zoo [see: LA Zoo? Meh.]

Every time we go to SoCal, however, I take my kids to a big amusement park. We’ve historically been stuck in a rut with Seaworld San Diego [as I’ve written: Seaworld San Diego], but last April we had a terrific two day adventure at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure [read about it here: Disney California Adventure and Disneyland]. This time it was Universal Studios Hollywood, and my kids and I had a great time there, though for different reasons.

The team at NBC Universal was kind enough to give us a set of “front of line” tickets, which definitely made the visit a lot easier: These tickets run $129/person for the day. They’re way better than regular park passes ($80 each), though, because they let you skip to the front of the queue. Once per ride. If you love the Transformers 3D ride, for example, Front of Line lets you skip the line the first time you go on the ride. Subsequent rides you’ll have to grab someone else’s ticket (as my son G- did when he went a second time on The Simpsons ride) or you’ll be in the regular queue. It’s a cool idea, and if it’s a busy day, these passes will let you ride 2x the rides and enjoy the park more. Well worth the cost.

Front of Line Passes for Universal Studios Hollywood
Front of Line Passes? Totally worth it!

Universal Studios was originally created to let movie fans go behind the scenes at a major motion picture studio. I can remember the tram tour from when I was a kid, being fascinated by the props, sets, exteriors and visual effects demonstrations that gave us a glimpse of flash floods, movie rain, car chases, stunt men showing off their trade, and much more. There wasn’t much “amusement park” in the place, though, and it was a once every few years sort of destination, unlike Disneyland which I could have happily visited every day if the opportunity had presented itself. 🙂

Zoom forward and Universal has done an amazing job creating some of the best state-of-the-art thrill rides, which is both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. A strength because if you’re into thrill rides, their simulations are second to none, whether it’s Transformers 3D, Revenge of the Mummy or The Simpsons, or rides that actually move along a track or waterway, like Jurassic Park The Ride, they’re all great fun.

Jurassic Park: The Ride
The thrilling ending to the Jurassic Park ride.

Unless thrill rides aren’t your cup of tea, in which case there’s only a very limited number of things to do at the park. And as it happens, I’ve never been able to enjoy roller coasters or simulation rides, thanks to my inner ear. I suppose if I got drugged up first I could give it a whirl, but from experience even a very mild ride that everyone else laughs about when they get off is enough to leave me feeling green for a period of time.

When we decided to go to Universal Studios Hollywood, I figured – correctly – that it’d be mostly me enjoying the beautiful sunny afternoon while my kids (and my sister) enjoyed the rides. And that’s okay, I don’t mind. In fact, I had a chance to prowl around and find some really interesting things tucked into corners that most people wouldn’t bother exploring in their zeal to queue up for the next big adventure ride.

Krustyland, where The Simpsons Ride is found. Very fun!
Krustyland, where The Simpsons Ride is found. Very fun!

As a result, my kids loved Universal. They definitely didn’t inherit a dislike of motion rides due to a susceptibility to motion sickness from me, which is excellent. Instead, they went on every single ride, getting maximum benefit from the Front of Line passes.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t do things together. In fact, we all enjoyed the quite amusing Shrek 4D ride, which was a surprisingly long (and lively) cinematic experience, the Special Effects Stage and, of course, the Studio Tour tram ride.

A funny anecdote too: I’m not much of a Simpsons fan, truth be told, I prefer Family Guy and South Park, but when the Simpsons characters showed up for photo ops at Krustyland, my little one and I marched up and had my sister take a picture of us with Bart and Lisa. Except I kept calling Lisa “Maggie” and wondering why she kept stamping her foot and gesticulating at me. Ah, Maggie’s the baby. I didn’t know that. I’m lucky they didn’t throw me in Simpsons prison, I suppose!

Coraline models and props
I’m a huge fan of the film “Coraline” so seeing the actual shooting models was very cool.

As a movie buff, both the Special Effects show and the Studio Tour were great fun and I particularly enjoyed the tram ride — all these years later! — and the many exterior sets we passed, including “downtown”, a set that’s been used in an astonishing number of movies and TV shows. We also passed sound stages where they record The Voice and CSI, along with a number of unidentified productions.

You can see in the below pic, even buildings are rarely what they seem on screen:

Universal Back Lot Downtown
Backlot on the Studio Tour. The steel and glass building was used in the latest Spiderman movie.

The fact that the flash flood canyon and “Bruce”, the mechanical shark from Jaws are still part of the tram tour was amazing, though I expect both have gone through a number of refurbs since my original visit to the park back in ((mumble, mumble)). The tram tour also includes a few thrill elements, including one 3D-powered tunnel where you’re “attacked” by dinosaurs as part of a King Kong theme (very mild) and a rotating tunnel effect that’s quite disconcerting unless you use the simple expedient of closing your eyes for that short portion of the tour. 🙂

The tram tour was actually the highlight of the entire visit to Universal Studios Hollywood for me, and I was surprised how many of the exteriors I recognized. The downtown area famously features the city hall exterior from the landmark film Back to the Future, which helped me recognize when the same exterior show up unannounced in the film Paranorman that I watched on the flight home. Sneaky, those homages!

War of the Worlds exterior prop 747
They ripped apart a Boeing 747 for this exterior prop from the 2005 “War of the Worlds”

Even with heavy thrill ride emphasis and me not being a huge fan of those sort of rides, we still all had a really fun afternoon, staying until the park closed, and a few minutes beyond that.

We had dinner in the gorgeously themed Universal Citywalk shopping area, immediately adjacent to the park, before we braved the Los Angeles traffic to get back to our condo in Dana Point, far across the LA basin! Actually, that was a good move on our part as it took us about 75min all told when we’d expected almost two hours for the drive. Still a long way, though!

Thanks again to the team at NBC Universal for the tickets. Mucho appreciated. And next time you’re in SoCal, I encourage you to check out Universal Studios, especially if you’re a big fan of simulation and thrill rides or, like me, have family members that live for the adrenalin rush!

Universal Citywalk
Nighttime view of Universal Citywalk. Great use of neon!
Disclaimer: In case it’s not obvious from what I’ve written, NBC Universal supplied us with five Front of Line passes to Universal Studios. We did, however, pay for parking, food and souvenirs. 🙂

One comment on “Our Fun Day at Universal Studios Hollywood

  1. If you don’t have front-of-the-line passes, you can also just go in the “Single Rider” lines on almost every ride. When I went this past weekend, at one point the line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was 1 hour and 20 minutes, and I got in the Single Rider queue and walked to the front of the line and got on without even breaking stride (since there happened to be a 3-person family getting on at that moment and they needed a fourth person).

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