Flight of the Hippogriff ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Courtesy Universal Studios
A day at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles is expensive. But with its unique combination of thrilling rides, great live-action shows, Harry Potter magic and a studio tour that's all about the movies, it makes for an awesome family destination. We've rounded up our top 10 tips for making the most of your visit.
1. Stay at a nearby hotel for easiest access to the park
Unfortunately, booking a hotel through the Universal Studios website no longer gets you a bonus extra hour of early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But some of the nearby hotels, such as the Hilton Universal City and the Sheraton Universal Hotel, are within walking distance of the park, which helps you avoid parking fees.
Some hotels in nearby Burbank, such as the retro Safari Inn motel and its neighboring Coast Annabelle Hotel, offer a handy free shuttle to the park that drops you off (and picks you up) right at the entrance.
For a fun option located just a few minutes' drive away from the park, try Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel. This retro-cool resort was a favorite of Hollywood stars of the past and has a large, heated outdoor pool and is close to Jerry’s Deli, popular for its New York-style deli fare.
2. Buy your tickets online to save a few bucks; splurge on Universal Express admission to skip the lines
Buying tickets online will save you a few dollars on each ticket. Ticket prices vary depending on the season and the day of the week you want to visit. Expect general admission tickets purchased online to cost in the range of $109–$129.
While I'm generally budget-minded, for a Universal Studios visit we splurged on the Universal Express ticket, which costs a good chunk more at $179–$279. The Universal Express ticket provides one-time express access to each ride, attraction and seated show. With this ticket option, you can easily do everything in the park in a day and never have to wait in a line.
A Seattle family who visited Universal Studios the week of Thanksgiving in 2019 was very glad to have opted for the Universal Express ticket, waiting only about 5 minutes for rides, while regular wait times were 45–90 minutes. A Seattle-area family that visited the park on a weekend in late February 2019 did not find they needed the Express ticket and did not encounter long waits. (Check a website such as Undercover Tourist for guidance on busiest times at the park.)
Want to go all out? For a premium price, get the VIP Experience, which provides unlimited express access to all rides, shows and attractions, an expanded expert guided tour of the studio (including areas where the tram tours do not go), a gourmet lunch and valet parking.
3. Remember: This is not Disneyland
Universal Studios Hollywood is different from Disneyland in several important ways that are worth keeping in mind.
There is no FastPass system, so unless you pay extra for the Universal Express option (mentioned in tip no. 2), you’ll spend considerable time standing in lines. There are few places to rest or sit in the shade.
Also unlike Disneyland, all of the park’s attractions can be done in one day, especially with a Universal Express ticket and early admission if you are a guest at a preferred hotel.
If your kids are younger than 10, consider an extra day at Disneyland rather than splurging on a day at Universal Studios just yet. Universal Studios has several fast and pitch-dark rides (with height restrictions) that may not work for younger kids. Tweens and teens who've been to Disneyland before may prefer Universal Studios.
If you plan to visit both Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood on the same trip to Los Angeles, note that the parks are a solid hour's drive apart, or more, depending on traffic.
(Want our best Disneyland tips? Try these on for size.)
4. Download the Universal Studios Hollywood app
The Universal Studios Hollywood app will provide you with a map, approximate wait times for rides and other helpful information.
5. New Jurassic World and timing your rides
When the park opens, many people go straight to the attractions and shows on the upper level, including Harry Potter World. Wise visitors head instead for the lower level lot, home to the new Jurassic World ride (splash alert!) and the Revenge of the Mummy ride. Or take the studio tour, as it is less crowded earlier in the day.
We find that some rides do not mix well with a full stomach, including the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and the motion-sickness-inducing Revenge of the Mummy, which jolts guests around at high speeds, often in darkness. Plan your meals accordingly.
Some rides may not warrant a long wait in line. On our recent visit, we did not care for the newer DreamWorks Theatre Featuring Kung Fu Panda ride.
6. Do not miss the studio tour
Hop in the tram for The World-Famous Studio Tour — it's still the best ride at the park. Don't miss this iconic attraction, which showcases movie-making magic. If you're lucky, you might roll past a "hot set" with real filming in progress, or a catch glimpse of actors and crews on break.
7. Make time for spectacular live-action shows
In addition to the studio tour, my family loves the WaterWorld show, which is full of awesome action. We’ve seen it multiple times and still gasp when (spoiler) a full-size seaplane flies in and crashes on the large, water-filled set in front of the audience. Don't miss the show, which also features amazing stunts and actors who clearly are having a great time delighting their audience. Note: If you don't want to get soaked, pay attention to the color-coded seating system and choose a "dry zone" seat.
8. Bring sunscreen, a water bottle, snacks and an extra outfit for those wearing Hogwarts robes
My family members each carry a small backpack with a few essentials: sunscreen and a hat; a water bottle (we use the BPA-free Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle); snacks and Ziplock bags for our phones in case we get splashed. We also each use a lanyard and ID holder for our tickets.
Your bags will be searched by security before you enter the park, and glass containers are prohibited. Once inside the park, several of the rides — including the Mummy and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — require you to store all of your belongings in a small free locker before riding. You can also rent a day-use locker (prices vary depending on the size you need).
If your Harry Potter fan is wearing Hogwarts robes and the colors of their favorite House, consider packing an outfit more suitable for the rest of the day of sun, heat and rides after taking some great photos in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
9. Vet your options for meals and souvenirs
One of the best options for a meal at the park is Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You can enjoy fish and chips, a chicken platter, Cornish pasties with salad, smoked turkey leg, shepherd's pie with salad and other items that have not been fried beyond recognition.
Our teens also enjoy having one of the super-sweet butter beers here, available in several variations, including our favorite: frozen. It's best to enjoy this popular restaurant for an early lunch or later in the afternoon to beat the crowds.
In addition to shelling out for a meal, you will no doubt want a souvenir or two. You can purchase very cool Harry Potter-themed stamps at the Owl Post shop, which you can use as actual postage, as well as stuffed owls. Buy a wand from Ollivanders and you can use it to perform lots of "magic" by pointing it at objects in Hogsmeade’s shop windows. You’ll find lots of merchandise in each of Hogwarts' four house colors, including scarves perfect for your next Quidditch match.
10. Don't miss fun before and after at Universal CityWalk
Universal Studios Hollywood is adjacent to Universal CityWalk, a collection of shops, restaurants and a movie theater that opens earlier than the park does, and stays open after it closes.
Here you can grab a coffee and a treat at Portland-based Voodoo Doughnut on your way to the park, or have dinner and catch a movie after you leave.
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Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for 2019.