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Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park Review
by Dawn

When we visited the Universal Studios in Hollywood I was expecting a quaint backlot tour with maybe a peek into some studio currently filming. Boy, was I wrong. This is a full-on theme park complete with a shopping/ entertainment area before even reaching the park. The Universal Citywalk alone could occupy a day – or even better, an evening – complete with shops, fun restaurants, movie theater, a comedy club, and free live entertainment on the weekends. But we were on a mission to get to the Studios and didn’t stop at the Hard Rock. In our party were four adults and three teenagers.

Universal Studios

Although the park seems a little smaller and the lines shorter than other area theme parks, we spent an entire day of fun at Universal. We started off going to the back – actually lower lot – of the park for three mega-rides. This seemed to help as far as wait time in lines. One handy feature that helped us know this was that we could use our smart phones to check line wait times. All theme parks should do this.

The first ride we went on was Transformers The Ride: 3D. It’s a flight simulator combined with 3D technology. Although several others in our party thought this was the best ride of the day, I did not. It was good, but I found it to be like Michael Bay’s movies – the plot got in the way of the enjoyment of the effects and thrills. Believe it or not, we loved waiting in line – they had decorated the waiting area as a set where we could press buttons and turn levers and watch a video setting up “our mission” for the ride.

Next we rode Revenge of the Mummy The Ride. Another fun wait in line – and this ride was much more fun and straightforward. It was a coaster with lots of plot elements from the movies.
Revenge of the Mummy - The Ride

The last ride we rode on the lower lot was Jurassic Park The Ride – the water ride. It was almost like a combination of the old-fashioned boat rides with the dinosaurs and other story elements from the movie, except that the dinosaurs came at you and the ride was much more exciting. Jurassic Park gives plenty of opportunity to get wet – not drenched, but certainly splashed a good number of times.

We lunched at the Flintstones Bar-B-Q, which was quite delicious and gave a unexpectedly large amount of food. We were all pleasantly surprised. It was tough to get tables for seven people together, even at 1pm and we ended up having two people hold two tables while the others stood in line for food so we could sit together.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Our party then went to stand in our longest line of the day at The Simpsons Ride. Again, it didn’t seem long because of the entertainment. Be warned: If you are offended by the Simpsons show, the line itself will probably be distasteful to you too. The ride itself was perfect – just the right amount of thrills and show details on this virtual rollercoaster. This was my favorite ride of the day.

We watched two shows throughout the day: the Special Effects Stage and Universal’s Animal Actors. Both shows were a mix of pure entertainment and actual information about special effects and how they train animals for shows. Both shows included audience participation. The animal show featured several actual movie stars, such as the dog used for “Marley and Me,” and some animals still in training. Each show was short and a nice break from standing in line.

The last thing we did was take the Back-Lot Tour – a must when coming to Universal Studios. They’ve got tours in several different languages: they had a separate line for tours in Spanish and the last Mandarin tour had just finished when we got in line. Again, waiting in line was easy as they had TVs playing movie clips and there were lots of posters featuring all sorts of different movie aspects, stars, and facts. The tour itself was as only Universal could do it – it was a mix of facts about the sets we were seeing and some experiential 3D rides. The ride part was mild compared to the rides we had already taken, but if you’re not expecting them, they can be quite surprising. We had to stop a few times and have some “quiet time” while we rode past several sets where the studios were still filming shows such as CSI, but that was cool as it reminded us that we were on a real working studio. In fact, when you walk in the park, you can look to see which shows are being shot that day. So while we were on the tour, we kept an especial eye out for those stars from the shows we knew were on set.


If you do bring children, there are plenty of rides, shows, and play areas for them as well. The studio also has a feature for lines called Child Switch where everyone can wait in line together, then one adult can stay with the child while the rest of the party rides, then switch places so that the remaining adult can ride also. We saw several taking advantage of this.

We did not make it to the Shrek 4D show nor the WaterWorld as they looked a little more mild nor did we make it to The Blues Brothers show. Only a few in our group went to the House of Horrors. I didn’t go, but the four who did said it was very good. Even the most seasoned haunted house guy was “gotten” a couple times, which speaks well for their set-up.

Universal Studios offered close parking, which we did not take advantage of. I assume this would mean not walking through the Citywalk, which wasn’t that far. They also offered front-of-the line Priority Access passes. We did not purchase these either and I’m not sure that I would have wanted to at the price. We were there the week before Easter – when many people have spring break. It was definitely crowded, but the lines were not nearly as long as at some other theme parks. The longest we waited was just over an hour and as stated above, the wait did not seem long because of the entertainment provided in line.

Altogether Universal Studios is quite an interesting mix of thrills, film history, and fun and we definitely recommend it!

Adult’s Guide to Disneyland (for First Time Visitors)
By Mark & Dawn

Nostalgia can play a big role when visiting Disney. If your family visited Disneyland (or Disney World) when you were a child, it’s likely that returning as a middle-aged adult will be a more gratifying experience. The other family we vacationed with certainly had this nostalgia factor going for them, and I think they got more “magic” out of their time at Disneyland, as they got to re-live their childhoods, while introducing the experience to their children.

The Disneyland Castle

We had fun, too, but Disney California Adventure was more our style (see our DCA review). As children, we grew up near Cedar Point, where the focus is on world class roller coasters. We’ve been conditioned to expect that a long wait in line will be rewarded with a major thrill ride. The slow-moving, dark rides are fine if the lines are very short, but we went on a busy day. For attractions like Pirates or Haunted Mansion, the payoff wasn’t nearly worth the time we spent in line.

Space Mountain
We absolutely loved this ride. It was nonstop thrills, magnified by the fact that you have no idea where you’re headed next at any given time. The fields of stars (LEDs, we hope) fly past in every direction like stars in a hyperspace launch. The ride is much longer than we ever expected it to be, which is a big plus. At the end, bright flashing lights and the sound of explosions put a final grin on our faces as the coaster made its final exit back into the loading area. Unfortunately, we went on a busy day and did not have Fast Passes, so the wait was brutal. There is virtually nothing of interest to look at while standing in line for this ride, making the wait seem a little more boring, compared to rides like Indiana Jones, where the scenery is amazing. If this were an outdoor coaster, it would probably not impress. But not being able to see the track in front of you changes everything and makes this a ride every coaster enthusiast should experience.


Indiana Jones Adventure

Along with Space Mountain and Star Tours, Indiana Jones is the other attraction that you absolutely must experience while at Disneyland. It’s took 100 million dollars and 7 years to complete. As you wait in line, you are surrounded by statues, ruins, and jungle landscape. There is plenty to look at, and even some things you can interact with.

Indiana Jones Adventure

As you get closer to the ride, the line moves indoors, and becomes more like a secret passage or underground tomb. Eventually, you’ll take a seat in a “Jeep” which takes you on a wild ride through various scenes and different terrain. You narrowly escape giant beetles, snakes, mummies, lava, poison darts, rats, and more. We don’t want to give away too much, but the big finish at the end involves narrowly escaping a very large, round object. We all loved this ride and wanted to do it again.

Matterhorn Bobsleds
Sometimes, a rough, jerky coaster can be a lot of fun. But this ride was a disappointment to us. It’s a very jarring ride that requires you to sit in an uncomfortable position on what feels like an unpadded plywood seat. Instead of enjoying the ride, we were holding a tense, uncomfortable stance to try and lessen the impact on our backs and tailbones from each forceful slam back down into the seat. We think this coaster is probably more fun for a child or smaller (and lighter) person than it is for a full sized adult. The animatronic yeti creatures with glowing red eyes added little to the ride. The annoyance of the ride’s harshness made it difficult to be immersed in the scenery.

Pirates of the Caribbean
The two mild drops near the beginning of this water ride gave us hope that we were in for something spectacular at the end (like Universal’s Jurassic Park ride). Not so much. This ride is all about the pirate scenes. There are many of them, and they’re loaded with animatronic characters. Lots of money was spent creating this ride, and the visuals are quite remarkable. If you’re into that sort of thing, there is little out there to compare with Pirates. But after waiting in line for almost an hour, we were a bit “ho hum” about the experience. “Oh look, another scene with more drunk pirates having more fun than we’re having. Hey, that pirate has rum – can we get some of that?”

Star Tours – The Adventures Continue
This is definitely one that you’ll want to do more than once – if you can. This 3D spaceship “ride” is built around military-grade flight & motion simulators. You’ll be taken to different planets and scenes, get attacked by Darth Vader, participate in a podrace, and narrowly escape various other dangers. The adventure is partially randomized so you won’t necessarily get the same ride every time. On our ride, we were attacked by a sea monster underwater in Naboo.

Splash Mountain
The ride broke down while we were in line, so we decided to have lunch instead. The food was pretty good.


Haunted Mansion
If there is no line, or a very short line, this is one you might want to check out. The entire mansion is very artistically crafted, and there are some very interesting visuals. You will start off in a room that mysteriously changes dimensions, and the paintings on the wall get longer. On the ride portion (it’s not much of a ride – it just takes you through various scenes), the most memorable part for us was a large room below where ghosts or spirits seem to be having a party. We’re not sure if they used mirrors or images reflected off angled glass, but whatever the trick, it makes for an interesting effect. Look for hidden Mickeys on the dinner table.

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
This ride is basically a mobile shooting gallery with laser-sensing targets everywhere you look. You can spin your car to face the direction you wish to aim. The guns have red laser sights so you can tell when you’re on target. The challenge with this game is to compensate for the fact you’re constantly in motion with respect to the target. Many of the targets will react when you hit them. Some of the targets are already moving, making them even harder to hit (and worth more points). Yes, it keeps track of your points so you can have bragging rights at the end if you get the most hits. It’s a fun round of drive-by laser tag, and if the line isn’t long, we think you’ll enjoy it.

Jungle Cruise
On the day we went, the line for the Jungle Cruise was over an hour. Normally, this is not the sort of thing we’d even stand in a 10 minute line for. But we were with friends who wanted to do it, so we tagged along. We kept an open mind and hoped it would exceed our expectations. It did not. The tour guide had some mediocre jokes. A few people got splashed by things. Fake hippos came out of the water. We wished we were back on Space Mountain.

Enchanted Tiki Room
This attraction had mixed reviews from our party. The room was a small dark theater of talking and singing animatronic birds and flowers. The show continued to surprise with different parts of the room coming to life to entertain. If you don’t have children or have dear nostalgic memories of seeing this show when visiting Disney as a child, you may want to skip this attraction. Those in our group who did not like it found it corny and out-dated, while the others thought it filled with child-like wonder and sweet reminiscence.

Fantasmic! & Fireworks
If you enjoy the Disney characters, animated movies or any dancing water fountain shows, the Fantasmic! show will not disappoint. If it is cool, don’t stand too close to the water as you will get wet from the mist. Otherwise, the best places to stand are close to the water or further back. If you are in the middle of the crowd, you are likely to have difficulty seeing anything through all the parents holding children on their shoulders. The show is an amazing mix of music, characters, animation, dancing fountains, boats, and pyrotechnics.

Fantasmic! at Disneyland

It was loosely tied together with a plot, but even if you come late or are distracted, the show is worth watching. Interestingly enough, in our group the people who were into the Tiki Room were not as into this show and vice versa. Perhaps it was the late hour or just the type of show it was. Even if you do not have children or if you haven’t followed all the latest Disney offerings, this show was so well put-together and technologically advanced, everyone should find something to enjoy. The fireworks show follows this one, but at another location – it centers around the castle, which is impressive. You could stay where you are to watch Fantasmic!, but you will miss some of the lower pyrotechnics and the views of the castle. Both the Fantasmic! and the Fireworks shows happen every night. We were able to see some of the Fireworks from our hotel, but the closer you are, the better, obviously. Just like the Fantasmic! show, the Fireworks are set to a heart-warming Disney soundtrack. They are definitely worth staying in the park to watch.

Disney Food
Eating in Disneyland was very easy. Although the prices were a bit high, they did have many good options, including fruit in the morning, sweet potato fries, and even gluten-free burgers and other options at the burger place we ate for lunch. Of course, there were plenty of food carts throughout the park with plenty of fun options as well as the restaurants. Disney is definitely keeping current with food trends.

General Tips
If you’re staying in a nearby hotel on or near Harbor or Katella, you may want to consider walking or taking a shuttle. Our group drove, parked in the parking garage, and took the Tram from the garage to the park entrance. We felt that this was an unnecessary waste of time and money, and that simply walking to the park is less hassle, frustration and expense.

Booking your hotel:

We suggest calling the hotel directly to book your rooms, instead of using a 3rd-party travel website. These discount purchases come with a lot of fine print and disclaimers that protect both the hotel and the website from being responsible if something isn’t right. And when you prepay, they already have your money so you have no power to cancel and take your business elsewhere. Our friends were treated very poorly by the hotel they stayed at near Disneyland, and the hotel kept telling them that if they had a problem they should take it up with the travel website. The travel website did nothing to help them out.

We’ve stayed in four hotels in Anaheim (near Disney and the Convention Center). We had great service at the Hyatt Regency, and also at the Candy Cane Inn on Harbor. For a family trip to Disney, we’d probably go back to the Candy Cane as a good value that is a short walk to the park entrance.