Universal Studios Hollywood

Amusement Park in San Fernando Valley

Image by Tim Richards Lonely Planet

Although Universal is one of the world’s oldest continuously operating movie studios, the chances of seeing any filming action here, let alone a star, are slim to none. But never mind. This theme park on the studio's back lot presents an entertaining mix of thrill rides, live-action shows and a tram tour.

First-timers should head straight for the 45-minute narrated Studio Tour aboard a multi-car tram that drives around the sound stages in the front lot then heads to the back lot past the crash site from War of the Worlds, vehicles from Jurassic Park and the spooky Bates Motel from Psycho. Also prepare to brave a flash flood, survive a shark attack, a spitting dino and an 8.3-magnitude earthquake, before facing down King Kong in a new 3-D exhibit created by Peter Jackson. It’s a bit hokey, but fun.

Newly opened, the phenomenally popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the park's biggest attraction. Climb aboard the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster and the 3-D ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Buy wizarding equipment and 'every-flavour' beans in the fantasy-themed shops then dig into a feast platter with frosty mugs of 'butterbeer' at Three Broomsticks restaurant.

Elsewhere in the park, the Jurassic Park ride is a gentle float through a prehistoric jungle with a rather ‘raptor-ous’ ending. Revenge of the Mummy is a short, but thrilling, indoor roller-coaster romp through ‘Imhotep’s Tomb’ that at one point has you going backwards and hits speeds of up to 45mph. A ride based on The Simpsons sends guests rocketing along with the Simpson family to experience a side of Springfield previously unexplored. You can also get a flight-simulated thrill on the new Transformers 3-D ride. Another 3-D ride certain to get the kids smiling is the delightful Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.

Try to budget a full day, especially in summer. To beat the crowds, get there before the gates open or invest in the Front of Line Pass (from $199) or the deluxe guided VIP Experience (from $359). Some rides have minimum height requirements. Buying online tickets usually yields discounts and coupons.

Snack food and drinks, including beer and margaritas, are available throughout the park, although you’ll have more choices at the adjacent Universal CityWalk, a promenade of restaurants, shops, bars and entertainment venues. Be sure to get your hand stamped for re-entry. General parking costs $10 to $18. Opening hours vary by season.