Your guide to Universal Studios Hollywood rides, savings and beating the crowds
Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, and there’s no better place to celebrate film history than Universal Studios Hollywood.
One part theme park and one part studio, the experience offers whimsical fun and a real, live look at how television shows and movies are made.
AAA contributor Matt Villano has visited the park six times over the last decade with his three children and has learned more than a few tips to help you get the most from your trip.
Hit The Most Popular Rides Early In The Day
Even on its busiest days, Universal doesn’t start to get crowded until around 11:30 a.m. If you arrive when the gate opens, you usually stand a good chance of getting on at least one (if not two) of the busiest rides relatively quickly. The theme park is split into two distinct areas: the Upper Lot, which has most of the attractions, and the Lower Lot, where the actual studios are. If you start on the Upper Lot with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, then go down to Jurassic World and everything else on the Lower Lot before heading back to the Upper Lot for the Studio Tour, you can knock out the rides and attractions that get busier as the day goes on.
Use The Lockers
Stash non-essential stuff so you don’t have to schlep bags with you on the rides. It’s best to experience the excitement unencumbered.
Get Set To Get Wet On The Jurassic World Ride
The park’s newest attraction, Jurassic World – The Ride, is a boat-based experience that opened in July 2019 and quickly became a fan favorite for its 84-foot drop. While the plunge is exhilarating, many boats and their occupants get totally soaked when they reach the bottom. If you’ve got valuables you want to keep dry — such as a reporter’s notebook or a spendy camera, hypothetically — remember to use those lockers.
Enjoy The Ride To The Lower Lot
Getting between the Upper Lot and the Lower Lot is a ride unto itself; four escalators and landings with great views connect them. Especially if you go with kids, take the time to make this transit part of the fun. With older kids, mix it up and take some of the 345 stairs for part of the journey; they might enjoy the exercise.
Consider Parking Off-Site
General parking starts at $27 per day, preferred parking costs $35 and the parking closest to the front gate costs $50 (which might be worth it if you roll in with a bunch of kids who want to keep walking to a minimum). If you’re feeling particularly thrifty, try to snag a meter spot on Cahuenga Boulevard for $4 for the day. It’s about a 15-minute walk along Universal Studios Boulevard and over the Hollywood Freeway to the entrance of the Universal CityWalk complex.
Be Smart About When You Go
Universal, like just about every other theme park, is busiest on weekends or holidays when school is out. To avoid the biggest crowds, go during the week or the fall and winter off-season.
Linger In The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter
Hogsmeade comes to life in the area of the park that pays homage to J. K. Rowling’s books and movies. Snow glistens on rooftops, stone chimneys curve from old age and kiosk vendors sell a panoply of magic wands. Harry Potter fans in your family will swoon over the attention to detail, and even Potter plebes might exclaim, “Gulping gargoyles!” There are only two rides here — Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey uses enhanced 4K-HD ride film projection, while Flight of the Hippogriff is a more traditional roller coaster — but allow time to marvel at the Hogsmeade train station and storefronts, including some with the goods you’d get in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. For lunch, sample British fare such as bangers and mash at Three Broomsticks.
Indulge In Iconic Beverages
No visit to Potter land is complete without sampling butterbeer, a non-alcoholic butterscotch drink that is most refreshing frozen. Elsewhere, in the middle of the Simpsons-themed area, hit the bar at Moe’s Tavern and order a Duff beer, which is surprisingly hoppier than the Budweiser-style suds you might expect Homer to imbibe (remember to plan a safe ride home).
If You Have An AmEx, Check Out The Lounge
Visitors who purchase a VIP Experience or Universal Express ticket with their American Express card get exclusive access to the American Express Lounge above the Starbucks on the Lower Lot. The lounge is stocked with cold drinks and snacks and has ample space to sit and relax. Especially on hot or rainy days, it can provide refuge for a while.
Don’t Miss The Studio Tour
The oldest ride at Universal is the World-Famous Studio Tour, which carts visitors via tram around parts of the original lots that date back to 1915. The tour is about an hour, rolling past the current sound stage for “The Voice,” a replica set from “Jaws” and an actual set from the 2005 remake of “War of the Worlds” as tour guides regale audiences with fascinating trivia. The journey also includes two motion simulation rides: King Kong 360 3-D and Fast & Furious – Supercharged. Don 3D glasses for the full effects on both rides.
Upgrade To Cut The Line Like A VIP
Beyond general admission, different ticket categories yield varying perks. Universal Express ranges from $179 to $279 before discounts and includes general admission and one-time express line privileges for most rides, attractions and seated shows. VIP Experience tickets start at $349 before discounts and are even more indulgent, including a personal guide, unlimited express line access, and a catered lunch with options such as salmon medallions and Cuban-style pork.
Save Room for a Giant Doughnut
If you have to indulge in one sweet during your visit, make it a Lard Lad Donut in the Simpsons-themed area. These iced goodies are about the size of a Frisbee disc, which means they’re perfect for sharing.
Book Tickets Through AAA For Savings
AAA members get discounted tickets for a variety of theme parks, including Universal Studios. Depending on the day, the discount can be as much as 10, 20 or 30 percent. I bought my $122 general admission ticket for $100 through aaa.com/universalhollywood.
Build In Time To Explore Citywalk Before You Leave
Located between the front gates and the parking garages, the open-air shopping, entertainment and dining complex is a great spot to end the day. Pick up merchandise at an outpost of the Universal Studio store or buy flip-flops at Havaianas. For dinner, try Blaze Pizza, where you can feed a family of seven for less than $50. Of course, the best way to cap the adventure is with a movie at Universal Cinema AMC at CityWalk Hollywood. You can’t get much closer to the source than that.
— Written by Matt Villano, a veteran of spending long days traveling with young kids. He and his three daughters visit at least six theme parks every year; Legoland California and Universal Studios Hollywood are among their favorites.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.