We are a family of four who jetted down to Universal Studios Hollywood in January this year as part of a big Christmas present for the boys. Zacharie loves his Harry Potter, Charlie loves Jurassic World, The Simpsons, and Jaws, and so Universal Studios Hollywood was the perfect place to visit as part of a whirlwind weekend in LA.
Before I get into the tips to do Universal Studios Hollywood in one day, here’s a bonus tip about picking a place to stay for your park visit.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Los Angeles right near Hollywood and Highland. It made for easy access to Hollywood for visiting the Walk of Fame, the Magic Castle for a fun brunch, Runyon Canyon for a gorgeous hike, and it’s a short 10 minute Uber ride from Universal Studios Hollywood. It was the perfect location for everything we wanted to do on our long weekend in LA.
Now, what about Universal Studios Hollywood? Here’s how you can do it in a day, with 11 easy to follow tips!
1. NO SUCH THING AS FREE EARLY ENTRANCE
Many Universal Studios Hollywood insider tips I read talked about getting to the park early for advance entrance – this doesn’t happen anymore unless you’re a VIP.
For that Universal Studios VIP ticket you get access to rides and attractions before the gates open. So this is the new version of the early entrance, and it costs at least $349 per person.
It does include morning snacks and refreshments and private VIP dining throughout the day. You also get valet parking, and your own private tour guide to shuttle you around the park. On the Studio Tour, you get to disembark to tour sound stages and see areas not open to the general public. For the live shows, you’ll always have the best reserved seats waiting for you.
It’s expensive, but we did see at least half a dozen people drop out of line before the gates open to scoop the tickets. I think the Universal Express Pass is enough of a bonus, more about that down below.
That said, arriving at 830am, about 90 minutes before the gates opened at 10am, did put us right at the front, ahead of all these people.
2. WHEN EVERYONE ZIGS, YOU ZAG
Everyone heads to the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first. Some break off to get a wand at Ollivander’s, others head directly to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Within 15 minutes of the gate being open, the wait for the Forbidden Journey was up to 45 minutes.
Yes, the ride is great and Hogsmeade is beautifully laid out (we’ll get to that down below), but all the guides for Universal Studios Hollywood talk about doing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first, then the Studio Tour, before heading down to the lower level.
With so many following that plan, the line ups follow them. So as everyone heads right, why not hang a left and go down to the lower lot and check out The Transformers, Fast and Furious, Jurassic World, and The Revenge of The Mummy without any Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws in the way?
3. THE BEST RIDE AT UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD
Many of the rides at Universal Studios Hollywood are multimedia thrill rides. You travel around in a pod being whisked from screen to screen where you feel immersed in the action. Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey does this better than any of them. You fly through Quidditch matches, you’re chased by monsters, and it’s just beautifully done.
The Transformers ride has you caught in a battle between the Decepticons and the Autobots, even the Jurassic World ride (with a classic drop into a splash pool) uses video imagery to mimick a mosasaur in a large pool surrounding your boat.
But there’s something to be said for a good old fashioned roller coaster and The Revenge of The Mummy, with it’s 0 to 60 in a second and a half launch into darkness is just that. This ride is fantastic, it’s a classic dark indoor roller coaster that, at the halfway point, has you almost slamming into a stone wall.
Spiders on the screen crawl out of the cracks, and your ankles get tickled while it happens to make it seem like there are spiders in the car. Then you’re flung back to retrace most of your steps in reverse.
It’s over in a jiffy, but it checks all the boxes.
The Revenge of The Mummy, hands down, is the best ride at Universal Studios Hollywood.
4. THE EXPRESS PASS IS WORTH IT (DEPENDING WHEN YOU GO)
The Universal Express Pass gives you a one-time front of the line access to each ride, attraction, and seated show for your admission day. You simply swipe your card to enter the shorter line and you can do it once, and only once for each ride – if you want to ride it a second time you’ll need to go in the regular line.
Whether or not you need the Express Pass depends on which day you’re headed to the park, so check out a site like Is It Packed to see what expected attendance would be for the days you’re going. Our day, a Monday in late January, was listed as “Ghost Town” and it was perfect. There was maybe a 5 to 15 minute difference between the wait times for the regular and Express Pass lines on our visit. Often times we found ourselves not passing anyone.
The Universal Studios Hollywood App is a great tool to help you manage your visit. It gives you schedules and real-time wait times for each ride and show. This helps you decide on the best place and time to use your Express Pass.
If you’re headed on a weekend, or during a busier season (spring break or summer), having the Express Pass in your pocket will help you move around the park quickly and cut down on the wait times.
5. SHOW UP LAST MINUTE FOR SHOWS
We found the best use of the Express Pass was for the shows. We used the app to keep on top of the schedules and only had to show up 10 to 15 minutes before the show started to get great seats.
Express Pass holders not only have a shorter line for the shows, but you get a special reserved section right in the center of the theatre. We had time for just two shows during our visit and caught the Special Effects Show and the Animal Actors show.
The Special Effects Show was ‘okay.’ It has some sound effects demonstrations, some fighting, a bit of flying, and the highlight is a stuntman getting lit on fire. We really enjoyed, however, the Animal Actors show (partially because Zacharie got to take part!).
It featured everything from raccoons to rats, dogs to ducks, pigs to peacocks. Both shows ran for about half an hour and made for a nice break during the day.
6. LUNCH AT THREE BROOMSTICKS
You can grab fish and chips, or shepherd’s pie, but the showstopping deal is The Great Feast. For about $70 you get salad, corn, chicken, ribs, potatoes, and veggies (all shown below) – that’s a fantastic deal at an amusement park and it was more than enough to feed our family of four (and probably could have served up to 7 depending on how hungry or big the kids are).
If you need a better beer selection than what they have on tap here, wander across the hall to the Hog’s Head pub which is attached and has a wider selection you can order right from the bar.
In addition to the Great Feast are all sort of butterbeer treats and, you guessed it, they’re basically very sweet butterscotch and worth sharing. The pumpkin juice tastes like a richer version of apple cider and again, worth a taste and passing around the table.
Now if you don’t need all the butterbeer and medieval feasty things, you can wander around the corner to Springfield USA to eat at Moe’s Tavern, snag a Krusty Burger, get huge Lard Lad donuts, or grab a taco from the Bumblebee Man taco truck.
There was much Duff Beer gear to be found at Universal Studios Hollywood, but I struck out grabbing anything that said Buzz Cola, which was disappointing.
7. ALL ABOUT HOGSMEADE
Hogsmeade is beautifully done and could be worth the price of admission alone if .. there was more to it. The town is basically some random snack carts and souvenir shops along with the restaurants and rides.
There weren’t any character interactions to be had in the area, and I kept finding myself wandering around the alleys expecting ‘something to happen.’ Nothing really did, and most of the storefronts were just that – storefronts, with nothing happening inside.
But it is so perfectly executed, and Hogwarts is absolutely magnificent in the way it towers over the area. Even a muggle will really feel like they’re in Hogsmeade, especially with all the cosplayers running around.
If the line for Harry Potter And the Forbidden Journey is daunting, flip across the way to Flight Of The Hippogriff. It’s a double corkscrew ride that’s over in about 40 seconds, but the view from the top of the first climb is great!
The best way to experience Hogsmeade (apart from the rides and the food) is to be a wizard and practice spells in front of assorted windows. For this, you need a special wand.
We bought our wand in advance from a local Facebook Group, saving about half the price, so we didn’t head into Ollivander’s for the sorting ceremony.
Inside your wand box, you’ll find a map of Hogsmeade with directions to about a dozen different areas where you can perform spells.
Basically this involves saying the incantation while moving your wand in a very specific pattern. Do it correctly and a plant will bloom, smoke will billow from a chimney, or a gate will unlock. It can be tricky, but when it happens small bursts of applause come from the crowds watching the young wizards practice their magic.
We found ourselves wandering back to Hogsmeade three times over the course of the day just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. We went there first thing in the morning, came back for lunch, and then hit it again just before we left.
Part of the reason I wanted to go back was because of the changing light of the day and Hogwarts was just so magnificent and the entire area is so photographable. It’s beautiful but .. not much happened.
8. THE STUDIO TOUR IS STILL A CLASSIC
I first went on the Studio Tour in 1985, and much of it hasn’t changed. There’s still a sudden flash flood, the Psycho house is still there on the hill, and the big sound stages are still cranking out Hollywood hits.
If you want to see Jaws up close, sit on the right side of the tram, if you’d rather feel like you’re in a flash flood, sit on the left.
It was interesting to drive around Desperate Housewives‘ Magnolia Lane and see the old dirt town they used to film Westworld. We drove through a massive plane wreck where they filmed War of the Worlds, and saw the massive green screen that was used for Sully.
A fantastic multimedia ride is done for King Kong where he fights raptors and throws the tram around, similar technology is used to put you in the midst of a street race with the cast of Fast and the Furious, but the highlight of the entire tour was when my wife and kids got to drive through the center square that was used to film The Good Place.
9. BEST SPOT TO RELAX AT UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
Now, we’ve done a lot already, and we’re not even done the day, so if you need a place to find some inner peace, check out where Master Po and his friends in the Furious Five hang out.
Maybe it’s just due to the fact we arrived around the Lunar New Year, but this garden was beautifully laid out with pink blossoms and red lanterns around a relaxing plaza.
Here you could sit and find some inner peace, take lessons to learn to draw Master Po, snack on noodles and pork buns, or even meet the Kung Fu master himself and take a class with him to perfect all the poses and moves of the Furious Five.
We split up during part of the day for my wife and oldest to spend more time in Hogsmeade, and my youngest and I enjoyed a bit of relaxation in this beautiful garden while we waited.
10. BEFORE AND AFTER AT UNIVERSAL CITY WALK
When you arrive before the gates open and leave after they close, you’re going in and out through Universal City Walk and it’s a great place to get something to eat before, and maybe something to eat and drink after a long day of thrill rides.
When we arrived just around 830a, the place was just waking up but Voodoo Donuts was open, so that was breakfast along with a coffee before we headed to the gates.
When the doors to Universal Studios Hollywood closed at 6, we wandered back up through Universal City Walk to catch our Uber, but first dinner!
There’s all sorts of souvenir stands through here, in case you forgot something inside, along with sweet treats and restaurants. Bucca di Beppo, Karl Strauss, and Bubba Gump‘s are some of the big chains you’ll find here. We opted for some tacos and guacamole at Antojito’s.
11. DON’T EXPECT TO DO IT ALL
Even using our Express Pass and with a full 8 hours in the park, from the moment they set the masses free until they locked the gates, we missed out on a few things.
We didn’t see the much talked about Waterworld show, we didn’t do The Simpsons ride, nor the one with Kung Fu Panda. Misses also included the Secret Life of Pets and The Walking Dead. But we did the rest and had a fantastic day.
Do you need two days at Universal Studios Hollywood? Maybe if you really want to see every last inch of the park, or you want to hit a few things multiple times.
You can’t do it all in a day, but you can pack enough in to make it worth it.