Tips from one family’s magical Los Angeles theme park jaunt

Ascending the Hogwart’s staircase, sipping Butterbeer, picking a wand at Olivander’s (or does it pick you?), and buying a chocolate frog at Honeydukes have all been the stuff of my daughter’s dreams since she began her journey deep, so very deep into the world of Harry Potter. But finally going to the Hogwarts of Hollywood was one of the many 2020 plans we cancelled because … well you know. But then early this summer, after much pleading by my kids and some great vaccination work by the CDC, that dream became a reality and we made our way to Universal Studios Hollywood.  

Sure, an advanced placement course in Harry Potter’s Wizarding World was our reason for going, but this blockbuster franchise-themed park has an impressive variety experiences for movie fans of all stripes. There’s the splashy Jurassic Park ride, the very 3D Transformers experience, and even a hilarious Krusty the Klown Simpsons ride. Also, as the only working movie-studio-plus-theme-park in the world, one of the highlights is the old-school, hour-long tour of the working backlot that includes sets from War of the Worlds, Psycho and Jaws, along with wacky thrills like a the simulation of the San Francisco earthquake and Peter Jackson’s King Kong 360 — billed as the world’s largest 3D experience. It’s certainly huge, and while it’s not really frightening, it is impressively disorienting!  

Just 20 minutes from most of the city’s landmarks, Universal Studios Hollywood fits easily into any trip to Los Angeles. If you are traveling for the park specifically, consider flying into the compact and close-by Bob Hope Burbank Airport.  

California has reopened, and theme parks are expected to fill up quickly with pent-up demand. But COVID rules are frequently changing, so be sure to check the park’s website for up-to-date guidelines before you go. 

Author’s daughter drinking butterbeer

Here are some tips for maximizing the day:  

Get the Express Ticket: How often do you go to these parks? If the answer is infrequently, spring for the extra fee. It’s not nothing, but you can skip the line once for each ride. This will pretty much guarantee you can ride each ride once with time left over for a second go at the ones worthy of a long wait.  

Go during the week: The obvious advantage is smaller crowds, but weekdays are also when filming happens on the Universal lot, so you are more likely to see a star (or two!) and general movie action.  

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Start from the bottom: The park has an upper and lower area; the lower park has some more popular thrill rides. Head straight there when you arrive, get all the rides done, get a corn dog (see next tip), do the studio tour, and then spend the remainder of the day in the upper lot — in our case in Harry Potter World, where much of the time was spent selecting the perfect wand.  

Get a corn dog: Food at Universal is as underwhelming as at any theme park, so for a solid option, get the corn dog — Korean-style, if you want a new twist — and be on your way. They are also much easier to eat in line.  

Studio tour after lunch: Whether traveling with kids or not, you’ll need a break, and the tour of the working film lot is a great way to see the inner workings of an active studio while sitting down for a solid hour. Your feet will thank you.   

Exit through the gift shop: You will want to travel light through the park, so save the shopping until the end (unless you buy a wand to be used for numerous spells around Hogsmead). There are a few large gift shops on your way out for that perfect souvenir Simpsons mug, transformers T-shirt, or Despicable Me Girl Scout Cookies. 

Dinner at Universal CityWalk: This outdoor mall of sorts keeps the theme park feeling going outside the park and offers more dining and shopping options — from pizza to steakhouses to Mexican. Stuck with a group that can’t decide? The Cowfish offers the improbable yet so Californian combo: sushi and burgers.