Universal Studios, Hollywood

Some friends of ours suggested hitting up Universal Studios this summer. It had been many years since my last visit (I was 15!) and quite frankly, I was not impressed at the time. However, a lot has changed since the ’90s and I was willing to give it another shot.

There were six of us and we all splurged on the ‘front of the line’ pass. I thought it was pricey at $149 per person and it actually made me a little pissy. I already had a low opinion of this park and now I am paying almost $300 for the two of us to get in the door. Yet, we all agreed it was the way to go and thus, we ordered the passes online.

When we arrived on this June Saturday morning, it was insanely crowded. Every other family in Los Angeles decided to come. It is a Saturday during summer, so I really should have expected this. Still, this was just the line to get into the park! But before I could get more old lady grumpy, our ‘front of the line’ pass allowed us to walk right past everyone. We were given formal badges for our special you-paid-a-lot-more status and off we went.

Ultimately, our badges served us well. There is a separate line at each attraction for front of the line folks. Just look for the Hollywood star and head in that direction. We waited maybe 15 minutes at each attraction and did almost everything on the map. There is a bar code on the back of the pass which is scanned when you enter. You only get to use the pass at each attraction once. This makes sense because it could get out of hand if you had free reign. It was truly VIP and now I don’t think I can do it any other way. We saw lines that were 100 minutes long and I strongly doubt that we could have seen and done everything without paying the extra fee. The only place this badge did not help you was in the restroom. Expect long waits and untidy conditions, ladies.

As for the attractions, the tram studio tour will always be the top of my list. It is about an hour long and gives a nice overview of the entire Universal site. The way I see it, the tram offers three things: a view of the sound stages, a really cool view of the outdoor sets, and a few “ride” experiences. The sound stages are mostly giant warehouses with the real magic hidden inside. Still, you pass all the crew members and trailers which gives you a sense of what a typical day on set would be like. You also get to pass by Stage 28 where the original Phantom of the Opera was filmed in 1925. According to our tour guide, the original opera boxes built for the Paris Opera House are still intact. Not only that, the sound stage is supposedly haunted. There are stories of a crew member who died while shooting Phantom and there is the actor himself who died a few years later. Even if there are no ghosts, it is still pretty creepy that a portion of the original 1925 set is hiding in the back of the stage. The outdoor sets are pretty cool. You will see New York, an old western town, and an old European village, to name a few. As of this moment, all of Wisteria Lane is still intact and the tram takes you right down the street. My favorite outside set was the one for the War of the Worlds. You pass by an entire section of land completely destroyed. The coolest part is the giant airplane which “crash-landed” into broken sections. As for the “ride” experiences, I have to say that King Kong 360 was intense. I screamed out loud. I don’t want to spoil the punch line, but you are literally surrounded by another world. You will want to hang on, too. The tram moves around a lot more than you would think possible.

After the tram, we ate lunch and I am happy to say that the food was pleasant. I had the chicken tacos at the Mexican spot. Quick tip – use your AAA card for a discount on your meal. Later, our group snacked on garlic bread from the Italian spot and the consensus was a thumbs up. Amusement park food can be mediocre, but I thought Universal did a decent job in that department. You can also scoop up a giant Cinnabon, which is good no matter where you get it.

As for the rides, I highly recommend checking out The Mummy and Transformers. The Mummy is a genuine indoor rollercoaster with a lot of twists and turns at high speeds. The Transformers ride is a mix of 3D technology with actual sets. You face one direction for one scene, then get thrown in another direction to participate in another scene. Very cool. We also did the Jurassic Park ride, but I was too busy trying to keep dry to enjoy it. While there is water squirting at you in various locations, most everyone succumbs to the tidal wave caused by the final drop. Speaking of water, a lot of the attractions included water. Even the tram had sprays of water at certain locations. On a very hot day, that might be inviting, but I am generally not so keen on that. Be especially mindful of where you sit when seeing the show Waterworld. Some sections were completely soaked.

As for the shows – or “experiences” as they like to call them – I loved seeing the trained animals. All of the animals are rescues, which hits a warm place in my heart. You will see the typical dogs and cats, as well as the more unusual animals such as a pig, raccoon, and chickens. They were all choreographed well and got plenty of treats, too. I recommend checking out the behind-the-scenes experience. Some of the camera secrets and movie trickery are revealed. The aforementioned Waterworld was cool and the Terminator experience was also fun. Just outside of the Terminator experience is something I will definitely stop by again – a British pub with fresh brews on tap. While you can pick up beers and mixed drinks at a couple of stands, this full bar is a hidden gem. Take a seat and enjoy a pint while the crowds hustle by. You will also find one of the cleanest restrooms near the pub, still within the “British” area.

After a great day of skipping lines, we headed to Citywalk where we dined at the Karl Strauss Brewery. I normally think of brewery menus as being well-rounded but nothing really special. Karl Strauss had a stellar list of fine foods and great service to top it off. The guys took advantage of the free tastes and tried a couple beers before picking one for the meal. Our group ordered a variety of items – chicken sandwiches, burgers, flat iron steak, and fish – and everyone raved about their choice. The brewery is also one story above the main walk, so you are a little more secluded from the business below.

I am really glad that Universal Studios proved me wrong. The attractions were great, the food was pretty good, and the front of the line pass was the ultimate ticket to amusement park happiness. And with Citywalk just outside the entrance, we got to top our day off with good brew and a fantastic meal. Talk about a great Saturday. If only we had the energy left to ride the bull at the Saddle Ranch…….

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  1. If you don’t have the additional money to spare for a “front of the line” pass, you might try what my granddaughter & I did last August, 2012. We bought our tickets on-line, arrived at the park 15 minutes before it opened, got a parking spot right at the entrance to City Walk (the parking garage was practically empty), and were amongst the first guests to enter the park. We didn’t dilly-dally….We bee-lined it right down to the lower level and began our day with the most popular rides. At that early hour of the morning, there were no people, no lines, no waiting, and we fortunately got to enjoy each ride at least twice before taking the escalator back to the upper level, where we then leisurely got a bite to eat after a previous franatic couple of hours. We took in a few more “experiences”, but by noon, the park was becoming jam-packed with people, it was hot, and it was becoming increasingly unpleasant. Fortunately we had accomplished all that we set out to do, so we called it a day, drove back to Redondo Beach and spent the remainder of the afternoon at the beach!

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