Are you considering a trip to Universal Studios in Hollywood? I recently took my daughter to visit Universal and wanted to come back and pass along some tips, tricks and highlights from our trip.
This particular trip was something new for our family. I have two little girls that are very close in age and I have been trying to spend time one on one with each little lady. This trip was a special Mommy-Daughter trip to visit her favorite place on Earth, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We have been to Universal Studios Florida twice but this was our first visit to the Hollywood location, which is considerably smaller. This was also a very quick trip- we flew down Wednesday afternoon and returned Friday afternoon- but all in all it was an incredible trip- packed with fun and quality time with my favorite nine year old. We went with another Mom friend and her 10 year old Harry Potter- obsessed daughter and my hope is that this was a trip that the girls will never forget.
So if you have been considering something like this I can’t encourage you enough to give it a shot. This particular park is perfect as it is fairly small yet still fun for kids of all ages. It is affordable to visit and the hotel is a very quick walk. No real need for a rental car on this trip. You have everything you might need in the CityWalk just outside the park, making Universal Hollywood an easy vacation spot.
So let’s get down to business- the best tips and tricks I have for you:
There are a few ways to go with purchasing your tickets. You can buy direct from Universal, purchase a package deal from a hotel or agency or buy tickets from third parties. We actually found the absolute best price for our needs by purchasing tickets from Costco. Costco inventory does change regularly but as of posting, my store had an annual pass available for $109 each. The annual pass allowed us to maximize the time we had as we visited the park for (3) days- just two hours on Wed evening, the entire day Thursday and then in the morning on Friday. The pass does have black out dates for returning later in the year so be sure to check all the fine print carefully.
You can also click here to check out the packages offered by Get Away Today. If you want to book a package, are visiting for one day only, want front of line tickets or you don’t have access to a Costco, the prices hard to beat. Use coupon code Adventures and save $10 off your purchase.
Universal does offer early park admission when you book certain hotel packages through the web site directly. That allows you to enter the park one hour early. Normally I love early admission to theme parks, you can really avoid the crowds and hop in line for popular rides quickly or get a chance to take photos and look around before the park gets crazy. In this case we found the packages to be crazy, crazy expensive.
We decided to book our stay at the Hilton Hotel Los Angeles/Universal City directly and I was very happy with the Hilton. The hotel impressed me for a few reasons- convenience, proximity, price and overall cleanliness. The hotel was about a $6 Uber Ride from Bob Hope/Burbank Airport and once we arrived, we found it was about a 5 minute walk to the City Walk and the park. Basically across the parking lot from the hotel puts you right into the CityWalk and park entrance. Convenient for sure. The hotel is up on a hillside and has stunning views of Los Angeles and it is a very quick drive or uber ride to many other attractions in the area. You will be close to Pantages theater to catch a musical, the Warner Bros set tour, Santa Monica Pier, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Bowl and so much more.
Cleanliness is a big issue for me and I am very particular about hotels. The Hilton was neat and tidy and I had no complaints at all. The room felt airy and spacious and even more important (since I was traveling alone with my little girl) we felt very safe.
There is a pool that is modestly sized and offers Cabanas and a little bar/dining area if you want to soak up the sun. This isn’t so much a kid friendly pool like some resorts, but really intended more for adults that want to relax. My 9 year old was perfectly happy with the pool and I found it a nice change of pace from the chaos of other theme park hotels. There is a little coffee stand/cafe inside the hotel and a full service restaurant.
During our stay, the Hilton felt very relaxed despite being under construction for some lobby renovations. I didn’t feel packed in or find long lines and a crowded lobby. There are tons of conferences and conventions in the area and you want to book hotel reservations early! The hotel was completely and totally sold out the week we arrived.
If you aren’t familiar with the CityWalk, it is a large outdoor shopping center packed with restaurants, souvenir stores and chain stores to pick up anything you might need. This particular CityWalk also has a large movie theater for nighttime entertainment and it is just a cool place to hang out.
We stopped here for breakfast in the morning before hitting the park (Starbucks, yes please!) and ate dinner, did a little shopping and ice cream eating at night. The park has surprisingly limited hours for part of the year so the CityWalk is a perfect way to spend the off park hours.
(In case you are wondering, we ate at Wolfgang Puck (wood fired pizzas all around) and it was really delicious)
Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice are all over Hogsmeade but head into the Hogshead Pub and try the Fizzy Pumpkin Juice- it is nonalcoholic and my favorite drink
If you prefer to eat inside the park, you will find typical fast food options and a few restaurants. Inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter you will find the Three Broomsticks, which is a fun place to grab a cold drink or breakfast or lunch. They serve traditional English foods and the portions are enormous- family style food for sure. Butterbeer is by far the most popular drink- you can get it on ice or frozen and it is basically cream soda with butterscotch. I find Butterbeer to be way too sweet for my taste and much prefer Pumpkin Juice which is like an apple cider with a hint of pumpkin and cinnamon. Delicious!
You will find more dining options in Springfield USA (the Simpsons portion of the park) with burgers, pizza, a taco truck and so on. The portions are big and the food is meh in my opinion. A lot of calories and not a ton of flavor but if you are starving it will be just the ticket.
We somehow missed the dining options in the Despicable Me area and now I am disappointed as a Chocolate Banana Shake sounds fantastic. You can find more info on the dining options in the park by clicking here.
Views walking from upper to lower- really stunning at Sunset
There are two sections of the park, an upper level with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Simpsons, a waterpark area, Shrek and Despicable Me. You will take a series of escalators down to the lower portion to see Jurassic Park and Transformers and the Mummy. It is a bit of a hike to get from one spot to another but the views on the way are lovely.
Far and away our favorite ride is Jurassic Park. It is a water ride that starts out quite calm and ends with a big plunge into the water. Depending on your seat, you will get totally soaked or barely a drop on you. Buying a parka ahead of time isn’t a bad idea or get them at the gift shops in the park.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is just amazing with a moderate roller coaster (Flight of the Hippogriff) and big attraction, the Forbidden Journey. This one is really cool because you get to walk through the castle with all sorts of fun things to see.
I am not a big theme park ride person. Give me a standard roller coaster or log ride and I am in but anything that swirls, spins, has lots of 3D images popping out at you and I don’t really want any part of it. I went on the Forbidden Journey once in Florida when my daughter was 7 and she totally freaked out (screaming and begging to get off) and it was a bit jerky for my taste so I wasn’t in love with the experience either. If swirling/whirling doesn’t bother you the special effects on this ride are truly something else.
This time around my daughter went on with her friend and had an amazing time. I waited in the child swap area which is a wonderful feature of Universal parks. (Child swap is a spot for parents to wait with children that are too small to ride so one parent can go on the ride, then swap spots so you don’t need to stand in line twice.) Note- if you aren’t into the ride you still want to go through the castle as it is just so wonderfully detailed and magical. Just let the employees know you don’t want to go on the ride and you can skip the end turn styles and go out directly into child swap or the little gift shop area. You will need to check all bags and purses and such if you do want to go on the ride.
Another highlight is the Despicable Me ride which is a 3D attraction that is very cute and makes you fall in love with the Minions. The gift shop for the Despicable Me ride is also very fun. We loved the Minion caramel apples in particular.
Super Silly Land. Yup. They got wet.
Super Silly Fun Land is a giant water area for kids to play and expect them to get totally and completely soaked! We didn’t plan for this and the kids went in and got drenched down to their shoes and then they were a bit uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon. Next time I would bring a change of clothes and water shoes in a Ziploc bag for this section of the park or plan to make it the very end of your day and maybe just bring a hotel towel with you.
Overall we really enjoyed our trip. Compared to Universal Studios Orlando, this park is significantly smaller. I was a little disappointed that Hollywood doesn’t have some of the really fun experiences like E.T., the Hogwarts Express, Dr Seuss, Escape from Gringott’s and Doctor Doom’s Freefall (the log ride) that you find in Florida. But the major plus to visiting Hollywood is that it doesn’t seem as overwhelming as Orlando and the weather is much more cooperative (this CA girl can do without the regular afternoon rain storms of FL and the humidity).
We went to the park in early November on a weekday and we were so lucky to find the park was really quiet. The off season is fantastic to avoid the crowds. Our girls went on Jurassic Park four times in a row at one point- just staying on the same boat. We walked right through the castle and waited maybe 5 minutes to get on the Forbidden Journey and were able to really experience Hogsmeade. In Orlando, the Harry Potter world is significantly bigger (with both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade) but it is just so darn crowded it is hard to take everything in. Plus the wait for the rides is really long and miserable in the heat. In Orlando we spend the extra money to stay in a hotel with Early Access and get the front of line passes. I would definitely encourage visiting the park in off peak season if at all possible- we had no need to spend the extra money on front of line passes. (Note: Our main day was Thursday and that was the best experience. On Friday the park was significantly busier and the wait times were much longer.)
One last little note is to check the hours for your visit. We expected normal theme park hours on our trip- 8am to 9pm or so and were really surprised to find the park opening at 10am and closing at 6pm! This does allow for a more relaxed day as you aren’t racing to get to the park in the morning. We found one full day (again in the off season so there were no lines for the rides) to be ample time to go everywhere and see everything. We spent about 90 minutes in the park before closing on Wednesday evening and 2 more hours on Friday before our flight and got to do a lot of picture taking, leisurely walking, shopping and the kids spent a ton of time using their wands in Hogsmeade.
Free shows inside Hogsmeade are fun and run all day
There are a bunch of fun gift shops for souvenirs from Springfield, Harry Potter, Transformers and more. The prices are not cheap by any stretch so I outlined a budget for my daughter in advance and we totally blew the budget 😉 . A few souvenirs that we did find worthwhile- the magical wand from Harry Potter.
Ollivanders Wand Shop (she is bursting with excitement)
Inside Hogsmeade you will find Ollivander’s wand shop. The shop has a little magic demonstration inside and one lucky person will be selected by the wand master to do magic with their own wand. This is one attraction to be sure to catch- we did this three times in Orlando and my children were never selected by the wand master. In Hollywood we went into Ollivander’s twice and both my daughter and her friend were chosen and thrilled would be an understatement. Once the show is over, you go into the wand shop and can select a wand. The wands do magic tricks at designated spots around Hogsmeade and are really special and fun for kids. The wands aren’t cheap- around $50- but the kids enjoyed them so much I thought it was worthwhile. Ollivander’s will get busier and busier and busier so you might plan to do this one early in your day.
Fancy robe, fancy wand- Performing magic in Hogsmeade
The robes. Oye the robes! In Orlando the robes are a thicker felt material which is crazy to wear in Florida heat so we never did buy one. They are pricey too- about $100. You will see tons of kids walking around in them. My daughter has an old set of robes that were a Halloween costume a few years back that she wore for this trip. Her friend got the actual Gryffindor robes and the difference in quality is really something else. The robes in Hollywood are lightweight and drape beautifully and you could just see the pleasure and the pride on their little faces when they tried the robes on. We wound up tossing out our old robe and bought the nicer one and my daughter felt like a million bucks. Expensive but for a serious Harry Potter fan these might be worth it.
Honeydukes is another major spot of temptation with all sorts of candy that is crazy expensive but so fun! I always grab a treat for the flight home in Honeydukes- one year we did the amazing caramel apples and this year I bought a package of Fizzing Whizbee candy which was delicious! (Think pop rocks meet milk chocolate).
One last little fun stop is the Owl Post. You can pick up postcards for $1.00 and get them stamped with a Hogsmeade stamp for free. Bring your own postage and mail your postcard right from the owl post or you can buy postage on the spot (I believe it was $20 for a book of stamps).
A few other tips.
Just outside the park there is a red carpet and a TV area where Extra Hollywood often broadcasts. If you are into the Hollywood glitz and glamour this is a fun spot.
We didn’t plan to do much besides Universal but had I known in advance the park was only open from 10-6, we would have definitely looked into tickets to Pantages and the Warner Bros Lot Tour came highly recommended by hotel staff.
I was really surprised that there isn’t a fireworks or light show at Universal. This particular park is right in the middle of an affluent, suburban area and apparently the local residents put an end to the nightly shows.
And one last tip- I didn’t see water as readily available as it is in Florida. You might consider bringing in a bottle and then making a mental note of the refill stations as they seemed to be fairly spread apart.
I hope this article helps you to plan your trip and that you have as much fun as we did at Universal!
Here are a few fun things we bought for our trip- just in case you want to pick some things up for your trip too.
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