For theme park enthusiasts, Southern California is home to more than just Disneyland. Legoland, SeaWorld, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain all reside within a few hours of Anaheim. The true second option to Disneyland Resort is Universal Studios Hollywood. This post will cover a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood, including our favorite times to go to USH, places to stay, park tickets, FastPass and attraction guides, itineraries, dining, and more.
The goal of this post is to give a brief overview of each subject. If you have other questions please let us know in the comments! Near the end of this guide I’ll talk about whether 2023 is a good year to visit Universal Studios Hollywood, although I don’t think this is a destination to plan an entire trip around. If you’re interested, we also have guides to Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disney Resort.
When to visit Universal Studios Hollywood?
The short answer is to visit whenever you’re taking a trip to LA or to Disneyland! Keeping those ideas in mind, then staying away from the heart of summer and vacationing during cooler times in other areas is a win. The crowds will be less at all of the tourist activities and the weather will be a nice respite from wherever you call home, assuming it is cold there.
Looking more specifically at Universal, the answers mirror each other. The park is less busy during the school year because not as many kids are there. I’m here to lay out the obvious! Staying away from summer, winter and spring breaks will usually lead to a manageable park crowd. I would recommend going on a weekday if at all possible.
Universal doesn’t do a ton of seasonal activities, at least relative to Disney Parks or the neighboring Knott’s Berry Farm. What they are known for is Halloween Horror Nights which are held in September and December as an extra ticketed event. This is definitely for adults and quite scary, as there are mazes/haunted houses for guests to go through that are based on popular films or shows.
Along with the fright, Universal has a few Christmas celebrations in place as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter gets extra festive and the Upper Lot portion of the park has a fairly elaborate Grinch celebration. While I wouldn’t say that’s reason alone for a visit, it can be a nice perk.
With all of that in mind, my favorite times of year to visit the park are January-early March, staying away from Presidents Day, and mid-September-early December, staying away from Thanksgiving. Those typically have a nice blend of good weather, low crowds and some festivities.
Airfare & Transportation
Los Angeles has plenty of airports to consider. Burbank is the closest one to Universal Studios Hollywood, at only about 6 miles away. If you’re starting or ending a trip at Universal, then flying out of there makes some sense. Of course, there’s also LAX, Ontario, Santa Ana and Long Beach Airports. The latter two are the closest to Disneyland. LAX is fairly close to downtown LA and some prominent beaches and Ontario is often cheap if flying from the west coast.
When looking for a flight, we generally use Matrix ITA Software to find the best fare. That site includes all major airlines outside of Southwest and doesn’t involve additional windows or pop-up ads. While you can’t book directly on that site, it will show the cheapest option.
Far more difficult to organize than flying to one of the Los Angeles airports is ground transportation to USH. There are so many cars in LA! With average public transportation, the most direct and easiest options are renting cars or taking an Uber/Lyft. Honestly, those options aren’t going to be that much more expensive than some shuttle options.
If you want to give public transportation a go, there is a metro station at Universal City and then a free shuttle from there to the park’s front gates. Coming from Union Station in LA or Hollywood will give you a direct line and is fairly cheap. I’d go that route if you are staying near one of those locations.
Finally, if you’re coming from Disneyland or vice versa, there is a train station in Anaheim. It’s a short bus ride away from DL. That train will also stop at Union Station in LA which will then lead to the Universal City Station. Frankly, that’s quite a bit of work but it’s a more interesting way to travel and cheaper than paying for gas and parking at either place. The drive between the two parks will take at least an hour and probably more thanks to traffic, while that train route will be just under 2 hours.
Ultimately, your transportation will depend on the rest of your trip. I think a mix of ride shares and public transportation is the best way to go, as driving in Los Angeles isn’t exactly fun unless you hit the few hours per day that there isn’t any traffic.
How Many Days?
While the park and resort continue to make improvements, you only need one park day there. If it’s an extremely busy day, there’s a chance you won’t get everything done but if you get to Universal at opening and put in a full day then that’s enough time for everything.
The broader questions of how much time do you need for a trip to Southern California is far more difficult. I would say at least a week, if you want to go to Disneyland Resort, Universal and get a feel for Los Angeles and Orange County. There is so much to do and something for everyone, regardless of if you’re a beach or city person, if you want to go to museums or see live entertainment or just hit every touristy thing possible.
Where to Stay?
There are three hotels on property – Hilton Los Angeles – Universal City, Sheraton Universal Hotel and The Garland. The first two are just a short walk to the park’s gates (as well as a complimentary shuttle) and The Garland has a complimentary trolley. All of these hotels are solid and an easy place to stay before or after a park day.
The drawback here is that I wouldn’t recommend staying in this location for touring LA or going to Disneyland. As I’ve mentioned, the commute is long! If you’re happy to jump around hotels during your vacation then I’d be all for recommending one of these, or staying close to the park in Burbank. But if you’d rather stay in the same spot for the whole trip then I’d recommend elsewhere. Let me know in the comments if you’d like more suggestions!
Buying tickets for Universal Studios Hollywood is a pretty straight forward experience. We recommend buying through Park Prodigy to receive a discount! I would recommend buying them in advance. Tickets begin around $100 for a single day ticket. The price for a second day is significantly cheaper, although not overly necessary.
If you are planning to make multiple trips to Southern California over the course of a year, USH offers much cheaper annual passes than Disney. I have the cheapest non-Californian AP and it comes in at $219. Going more than 3 times in a year pays for the pass. We’d recommend this route if you are a theme park junkie and know you’ll visit the area more than once in a year.
What to Pack?
Universal is no different than visiting a Disney theme park in packing for a day. We cover this topic in-depth in a singular post, with a list of necessities to take to the park each time we go. Okay, maybe not all of them are necessities but we like having them around! On top of that, we do advise everyone to bring a great pair of shoes and start with light layers that you can add to.
Packing some breakfast snacks and stuff for sandwiches to bring into the park is an easy way to save money, as well. Taking food into the parks is not a problem at all as long as it’s not stored in glass containers. We enjoy protein bars and trail mix as a quick snack while standing in line. There’s always candy too. It’s never a bad time for candy.
Park Strategy for Attractions & Entertainment
Universal Studios Hollywood has an interesting attraction roster, even if it’s a little short on actual rides. We’ve ranked all of those rides and would plan an itinerary largely based on those rankings, with a few caveats. The biggest caveat in 2023 is that Super Nintendo World is opening and will be the most popular place in the park for the foreseeable future. In fact, the area will be popular enough for guests to need reservations to enter the land more often than not. You can get those through the app, once inside of the park. I’d recommend getting to Universal as close to opening as possible if you want to get reservations. By reservations, there will essentially be a virtual queue which is not a foreign concept for Disney fans.
On one hand, it’s a bit stressful to get all of that done. On the other, it’s nice that it won’t interrupt the entire park itinerary for the day. Speaking of getting there at park opening, that’s the real key for Universal Studios Hollywood anyway. For whatever reason, that park just doesn’t draw a huge crowd at opening unless it’s a busy day. If guests get there about 15 minutes before park opening, I’d expect a very productive day in terms of rides!
How to go about that productive day? I’m so glad you asked! The park is broken into two lots – upper and lower. Separating them is a very long sting of escalators. If you’re not in a hurry, they’re a ride in their own right!
Guests enter at the upper lot and that’s where we’d recommend checking four rides off the list as quickly as possible. Those four are Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Simpsons Ride. I would likely do them in that order, although you could put Harry Potter first on that list and move the animated movie inspired rides to second and third.
Following the upper lot, race down those escalators and knock out Jurassic World – The Ride, Transformers: The Ride 3D and Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride. If you can complete all of those attractions before lunch then you’ve already won the day! Super Nintendo World will also be sprinkled in there but I’d advise just trying for a spot in the virtual queue. If you notice that the land hasn’t hit capacity by the time you’ve reached the lower lot, then go there instead.
After lunch, make sure to check out WaterWorld! That just leaves the Studio Tram Tour as the main activity for the afternoon. Depending on the day, that may have a long wait at that point but it’s well worth it. The ride itself will last nearly an hour and it’s one of the main selling points of visiting the park. There are other shows that are worth attending, as well!
If you’re so inclined, Harry Potter, The Mummy, Jurassic World and Transformers all have a single rider line that will save you some time waiting. We like to ride Harry Potter in the morning together and then come back and ride it via single rider throughout the day, as I’ve never experienced more than a 10 minute wait in that line.
Universal Studios does offer an Express Pass which amounts to a ‘skip the line’ pass. We do not think it’s worth the cost but if you’re throwing money around then it would be a good amount of fun! There may be better splurges at Universal than that though.
2023 is a big year for Universal Studios Hollywood in a lot of ways, chief among them is expanding their dining options. Along with Toadstool Café in Super Nintendo World, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is open in Universal City Walk. Both of those places will be among the top choices to eat because, well… I’m not overly fond of the pre-existing options.
Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the best option in the park, at least in terms of atmosphere. The food is solid too but overpriced. I’ve enjoyed various meals at Cletus’ Chicken Shack, Minion Café and Hollywood & Dine. Other times I’ve been underwhelmed by all of the places I just mentioned. There’s no absolute standout but there are decent options.
Outside of the Park
I’ve already discussed being outside of the park a little bit but I’ll list a few places in LA to go to. Before that, City Walk is right outside the gates and has a variety of restaurants, shopping and a large movie theater. This is Downtown Disney but with some better options, honestly. Catching a late movie here after the park closes is a good way to go!
Moving outside of the Universal property, there is so much to do. Some of my favorite locations in LA include Dodger Stadium, Griffith Observatory, The Getty, El Matador Beach and The Hollywood Bowl. On top of that, the city has a massive dining scene with some of my favorite restaurants in the world. There’s so much to explore here that a paragraph won’t suffice. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts about Los Angeles, let me know in the comments and I’ll commit a full post to it.
And of course, there are theme parks. You could start in northern Los Angeles County at Magic Mountain and do a full week going south with Universal, Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, California Adventure, Legoland and SeaWorld. That would be a very expensive week! Some of those places are more worth your time than others but there’s no shortage of options.
Should You Visit Universal Studios Hollywood in 2023?
Simply put, yes. Not only is this the best year to visit the park since it’s been created, the resort has leveled up to at least be within shouting distance of California Adventure’s quality. No, it’s not touching Disneyland. But with two marquee lands in Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Super Nintendo World along with an incredibly unique attraction like the Studio Tour, this is a place to be!
If you are planning a visit, there may be something to waiting out Super Nintendo World’s initial rush. I think that area of the park will be busy throughout spring and summer. If the land is really a hit, it will be busy for the next year. That should empty out the rest of the lands though as a huge attendance boost is hard to predict while school is in session.
Between the additions this year, Wizarding World and The Secret Life of Pets attraction, Universal Studios Hollywood keeps improving. I’m eager to see where they go next as there’s just not a lot of space to work with. For now, the park is well worth a visit!
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Categories: Trip Planning Guides