Dodge dinosaurs, hang with Homer Simpson and morph into a Minion on the sometimes hair-raising, always entertaining attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood. More than an amusement park, this is a multisensory immersion into the world of TV and movies on the grounds where filmmaking still takes place. Hop on a ride that drops you inside an iconic flick, explore movie magic at a Special Effects stage show and feast on the same food as your favorite characters. (Chocolate frog, anyone?) Universal Studios parks now exist in other parts of the world, but Hollywood is the original.
History of Universal Studios Hollywood
How did a working production facility become a major tourist destination? That answer dates back to 1915, when Carl Laemmle opened the studios at Universal City and, for a fee, invited the general public to watch as movies were made. Spectators gathered in stands above the actors’ dressing rooms and cheered for the stars while they worked. A rowdy crowd was no problem for production as this was the silent film era. Though once sound was introduced to movies in the late ’20s, the spectators had to go.
The studios once again invited the public in 1964 with the opening of Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. Though visitors today aren’t allowed to hoot and holler during active filming, they are given a peek at real production sites on the Studio Tour.
Tickets and practicalities
Save time and money by purchasing tickets in advance through Universal’s online ticket store. This is also where California residents can buy discounted tickets. Annual and season passes are available online at a lower price, too.
Want to make sure you hit every ride in one day? Invest in a Universal Express ticket, which includes one-time express access to each attraction. Want to hit rides more than once? A VIP Experience ticket will give you unlimited express access, plus an exclusive set tour, valet parking, snacks and a meal in the VIP dining room.
Universal is open 365 days a year. (Yes, you can spend Christmas with King Kong.) Hours vary depending on the day and season, but opening is generally either 9 or 10am and closing is often 6 or 7pm. Check the park’s calendar before your visit.
Maximize your day by arriving about 20 minutes before opening. That’s about how long it will take to walk from general parking to the front gate. General as well as preferred parking are available for a fee.
Located in LA, Universal is about 25 miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The park is divided into two areas: the Lower Lot and the Upper Lot. For a more detailed lay of the land, check out the map on Universal’s website.
Exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Hollywood’s ode to Harry Potter is a themed area of the park featuring two rides – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff – plus special entertainment, souvenir spots, snack stands and a restaurant.
Top rides at Universal Studios Hollywood
With 11 rides (and two play areas for little ones) the park is doable in a day, especially if you splurge on a Universal Express ticket. But if you're pressed for time, here are three top rides to keep on your radar:
The World-Famous Studio Tour
A must-do, this one-hour tour, video-hosted by Jimmy Fallon, gives you access to four acres of studio backlots. For the finale, you’ll cruise into the world of the Fast & Furious franchise for a high-speed chase.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this ride mixes motion simulations and 3-D projection to make muggles feel like they’re truly at Hogwarts. Lines tend to be longest for this ride, but even the queue keeps guests engaged with castle scenery.
Jurassic World - The Ride
As your raft winds through Jurassic World and takes on the occasional dip and splash, you’ll come face to face with the aquatic Mosasaurus, plus see Indominus rex and T-Rex in action.
One of the biggest shows here is WaterWorld, which includes acrobatic Jet Ski maneuvers, firefights and cinematic explosions. At Universal’s Animal Actors demonstration, furry stars flaunt their talents, and the Special Effects Show spotlights more tricks of the trade.
Like most theme parks, Universal has both snack stands and sit-down restaurants. But what makes dining here exciting is that much of it is inspired by beloved movies and TV shows. For example, lunch at Krusty Burger will transport you to Springfield and a snack at Minion Cafe might make you feel mischievous. Though piña coladas didn’t really factor into Steven Spielberg’s vision, nobody’s complaining that they’re served at Isla Nu-Bar, a tiki spot in Jurassic World.
Best time to visit
Midweek visits are best for shorter lines and cheaper tickets. While holidays bring larger crowds, they also include extras, like fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. But the biggest seasonal draw is Halloween Horror Nights, which takes place on select dates in September and October. Haunted mazes, live entertainment and spooky character encounters are all part of the frightful festivities. Plus, this specially ticketed event is open late, sometimes till 2am.
There are two hotels within Universal City (the area that includes the theme park, studios and CityWalk): Sheraton Universal Hotel and Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City. Both have outdoor pools and free shuttles to the park (which is walkable, but travel-weary feet might appreciate a ride). Outside Universal City, hotels in North Hollywood (like The Garland) and Burbank (like Residence Inn Los Angeles Burbank/Downtown) are still conveniently close.
Covering three blocks, Universal CityWalk is a pedestrian-only shopping and dining zone just outside the park. That means you’re free to visit, plus catch a movie at the 18-screen IMAX Universal Cinema, regardless of whether you have a ticket for the park.