The Grown-Up’s Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood
This iconic L.A. theme park isn’t just for kids. Check out the legendary attraction’s top draws for adults, and insider tips on how to make the most of your visit.
The Best Universal Studios Hollywood Attractions
Like generations of kids before me, the defining movies of my childhood were the Universal horror flicks of the 1930s and ’40s. From Frankenstein to The Wolf Man, these classic monsters were my introduction to the magic of the movies, with an appeal that seems to have been not only universal (pardon the pun), but also timeless.
Those very films put Universal Studios on the map, their success paving the way for future classics, from Psycho to Jaws—and ultimately, a theme park that’s become one of the top tourist attractions in Los Angeles.
Universal Studios Hollywood has sprung up around the soundstages where the likes of Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein were filmed, providing visitors with a chance to experience movie magic firsthand through pulse-pounding rides and thrilling live shows. It’s an essential day trip on any traveller’s L.A. itinerary; and not just those travelling with kids, either. In fact, there are plenty of perks in visiting Universal Studios Hollywood without little ones in tow, and more than enough adult-geared attractions to keep a grown-up under its spell for a full day.
Here are 10 of the best Universal Studios attractions for adults.
The Studio Tour
Even if Universal Studios Hollywood only consisted of the Studio Tour, it would still be worth the price of admission. The park’s signature ride since opening day in 1964, this hour-long tram tour takes you on a journey through the studio’s fascinating history, as well as the Universal Studios Backlot—with a few genuinely unexpected surprises along the way.
Although many of the soundstages along the route now host TV productions like The Kelly Clarkson Show, they’re steeped in cinematic lore. These vast, barn-like structures have housed the sets for everything from The Sting to The Thing, and it boggles the mind to imagine sprawling productions like Jurassic Park (and its sequels) taking place under their roofs.
On the Backlot, you’ll find yourself transported from a tony New York streetscape to the Wild West in the blink of an eye. If you experience a sense of déjà vu on this part of the tour, it’s with good reason—some of the open-air sets in the western village date back to the silent movie era, although you’ve seen them more recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The creepy house from Psycho—complete with Bates Motel—is another highlight for classic movie buffs, who will also want to keep an eye out for the bungalow that served as Alfred Hitchcock’s HQ during his stint at Universal Studios.
Of course, you can’t have a Studio Tour without a few celebrity sightings, and that’s where this ride delivers its knockout punches. Courtesy of 3-D glasses (and some incredible CGI), you’ll be treated to close encounters with King Kong and Vin Diesel—one of whom engages in an incredible battle with a dinosaur on top of the tram itself.
Insider tip: The Studio Tour is where you’ll want to start your day at Universal Studios Hollywood. Lineups only get longer throughout the day.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Your ticket to Universal Studios Hollywood also serves as your acceptance letter to Hogwarts, and you’d have to be a pretty miserable Muggle not to be wowed by Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The level of detail that’s gone into this ride, the crown jewel of the park’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is truly breathtaking. The magic starts long before the ride begins, as the line weaves through meticulous recreations of Hogwarts Castle sets, with specially filmed footage of the series’ stars setting the stage. The ride itself is an exhilarating flight through Harry Potter’s “greatest hits,” as you soar through a Quidditch match, and face-off against dastardly Dementors and giant spiders. Whether you’re a die-hard Potterhead or only know the series by name, you’ll want a Time-Turner to ride it all over again.
Insider Tip: The next best thing to a Time-Turner is the Universal Express Pass. This upgrade to the general admission ticket includes one-time express access to each ride, saving you tons of time on attractions that tend to have longer lines, like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. (If you know there’s a ride you’ll want to do twice, use the posted wait time to gauge whether you’ll use your Universal Express pass now or later, as it can only be used once per ride.) It’s roughly double the price of general admission, but highly recommended.
Psst—this is the best Harry Potter movie, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
Theme park food tends to get a bad rap (often with good reason), but Universal Studios Hollywood boasts a notable exception to the rule. In fact, grabbing a bite at the Three Broomsticks restaurant is one of the park’s essential experiences. I’ve enjoyed fish and chips throughout the U.K., and the version that’s served up here in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is right up there with the best of them. A nice light batter, golden-brown, paired with fresh-cut fries (and a Butterbeer, of course)… There’s simply no better way to refuel. I’m not alone on this either: Everyone from the seasoned travel vets at Fodor’s to The Potter Collector have singled out this dish as one of the highlights of a park visit. Bon appetit!
Insider tip: There are no fewer than three forms of Butterbeer on the menu at Three Broomsticks: hot, cold or frozen. Having sampled all three, I’m firmly in the cold camp—sweet, creamy and refreshing—although your preference might depend on the weather of the day.
Duff Brewery Beer Garden
For something a bit stronger than Butterbeer, head over to The Simpsons’ Springfield, where Homer’s favourite watering holes beckon. It’s a bit surreal to see the famous cartoon town realized in three-dimensions, and even more mind-blowing to find yourself ordering a Duff beer at Moe’s Tavern. If you don’t want to miss a second of that spectacular California sunshine, opt for a pint at the Duff Brewery Beer Garden instead. The open-air bar is the perfect place to savour the suds—specially brewed for Universal Studios, and so tasty, it could pass for Canadian.
Insider tip: If you don’t snag a selfie with Barney, were you even at Moe’s? The Seven Duffs are also on-hand at the Beer Garden, so you have your choice of photo opps with Dizzy (above), Tipsy, Queasy, Surly, Sleazy, Edgy or Remorseful.
Waterworld – A Live Sea War Spectacular
It’s rare for a sequel to live up to the original, and the case of Waterworld is rarer still: a theme park attraction that outshines its namesake in every conceivable way. As unlikely as it might seem, the infamous Kevin Costner flick proves the perfect jumping-off point for a high-octane stunt show, packed with thrilling live-action sequences, awe-inspiring pyrotechnics, and yes, the ever-present threat of getting absolutely drenched. From the pre-show warmup (which had the audience in stitches) to the fiery finale (which left us gasping), this is the park’s top-rated show for a reason.
Insider tip: If you’re dead set on staying dry, avoid sitting on the green benches. They’re directly in the path of jet ski spray and bear the brunt of the water cannons.
Check out the best action movies on Netflix right now.
Jurassic World – The Ride
You’d think the investors backing Jurassic World would’ve got their acts together by now. I mean, two trilogies in, and they’re still putting theme park guests in harm’s way—except this time, the guests are… Us. Jurassic World – The Ride taps the film franchise’s endlessly entertaining central premise to spectacular effect. What starts off as a soothing boat cruise alongside the safely-contained prehistoric critters ends up with a rampaging Indominus rex—realized so convincingly, you might just think mosquito DNA was involved after all. This theme park within a theme park is one of the best Universal Studios attractions, and a fantastic place to kick-off your exploration of the lower lot.
Insider tip: Universal Studios Hollywood consists of an upper and lower lot, with attractions divided fairly evenly between the two. Travelling from one lot to the other involves riding a chain of outdoor escalators—the “StarWay”—that stretch up the hillside, providing impressive views of the San Fernando Valley. To save yourself unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing, try to tackle all the lower lot attractions (including Jurassic Park and the next two items on our list) in one fell swoop.
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
Considering 1999’s The Mummy was the cinematic equivalent of a roller-coaster ride, its reinvention as a theme park attraction was a no-brainer. Just like the film that inspired it, this adrenaline-pumping dark ride delivers laughter and screams in equal measure—to the extent that I actually lost my voice somewhere in its inky depths. It would be a shame to give away too much of Revenge of the Mummy’s stomach-lurching surprises, so I’ll refrain from any spoilers. Just accept my highly enthusiastic (and somewhat hoarse) endorsement: You’ll be riding this coaster twice.
Insider tip: Although there’s no Brendan Fraser on-hand to deliver witty quips, the line for this ride is littered with enough bugs and bandaged horrors to conjure up the film’s frightfully fun atmosphere while you wait. Spend your time exploring the cracks and crevices lining the tunnels—you’ll find there’s very little in these tombs that’s resting in peace…
Transformers – The Ride 3-D
Never seen a Transformers flick? No problem. All you need to know before having your mind blown by Transformers – The Ride is that there are good robots and bad robots, and somehow, you’ve ended up on the front line of their duel to the death. Boasting special effects from the legendary Industrial Light & Magic, this flight simulator ride delivers eye-popping spectacle as you soar, dive and smash through a cityscape that’s being levelled by a robotic battle royale. Mass destruction has never been so thrilling.
Insider tip: It’s never fun to double-up on eyewear, so if you’ve got contacts, be sure to wear them to the park. This ride, along with certain sequences on the Studio Tour, require the use of 3-D glasses.
An often overlooked element, but one that really brings the streets of Universal Studios Hollywood to life, is the live performers. From Beetlejuice to Marilyn Monroe, you never know who you’ll encounter as you wander between the park’s rides and restaurants, and the actors beneath the incredible costumes and make-up are masters at working a crowd.
Take, for example, my meeting with “Marilyn.” What started with a simple request for a photo ended up being one of the most magical moments of my day—and one that made me feel as though I was in the presence of the blonde bombshell herself.
After revealing that I was from Canada, Marilyn and I had a lovely chat.
“Did you know that I filmed two of my pictures in Canada?” she asked, in a perfect facsimile of Marilyn’s breathy, baby-doll tones.
“I did,” I replied.
“But have you seen them?” Cue exaggerated pout, and a photo that’s now one of my favourites from the trip.
Insider tip: Photo opps with the live performers are one of the perks of park access, but don’t try to pull off anything similar in Hollywood itself. The costumed buskers you’ll find along the Hollywood Walk of Fame insist on hefty “tips” for photos. Consider yourself warned!
Don’t miss our countdown of the 10 best Marilyn Monroe movies.
Round out your day at Universal Studios Hollywood with a stroll down Universal CityWalk. Situated next door to the park, this outdoor complex is packed with restaurants, entertainment and shops, making it the perfect place to grab some last-minute souvenirs and even some dinner before heading back to your hotel. (Many of the nearby hotels use CityWalk as a pick-up point for their shuttle services.) For one final taste of movie magic, you might even be tempted to catch a flick at CityWalk’s Universal Cinema, one of L.A.’s most popular movie theatres.
Next, check out 20 New York City filming locations worth visiting.