Lovers of movies and thrill rides alike will enjoy visiting California’s Universal Studios Hollywood, the only theme park where you can take a glimpse behind the scenes of moviemaking. There’s enough to see and do to fill an entire day, but here are my favorite not-to-be-missed experiences:
1. Studio Tour, including a Fast & Furious: Supercharged experience
By far the most exciting experience at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Studio Tour is an absolute must. It passes actual working soundstages, visits the back lot, and for added fun takes in several staged experiences along the route. Guests board a tram and head off past movie studios, film sets and movie props.
The most notable sets are those of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the house used in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie set of Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and the Wisteria Lane neighborhood from Desperate Housewives. At the Psycho Bates Motel, a knife-wielding actor portrays Norman Bates, while an animatronic shark looms inside Amity Harbor, a small recreation of the area on Martha’s Vineyard where Jaws was filmed.
At one point, riders enter a soundstage where special effects imitate an 8.3 earthquake inside a San Francisco subway station, with a burning gasoline tank crashing through the ceiling and flood water rushing inside the station. The tram also stops at a movie set where guests get to see an amazing flash flood.
But there is more! Donning 3-D glasses, guests enter Skull Island, a soundstage where fictional species of dinosaurs attack the tram, which is eventually saved by King Kong himself. The 360-degree, 3-D Kong, created by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, is the world’s largest 3-D experience.
The grand finale of the Studio Tour takes place in an 809-foot-long building where the tram is caught in the middle of the Fast & Furious Supercharged car chase.
The tour takes about 50 minutes. Because it takes place on a working movie and TV studio lot, guests on the tram are at times asked to not speak when passing an outdoor movie set where filming is in progress.
2. The WaterWorld stunt show
Based on the 1995 science-fiction flic WaterWorld, the WaterWorld arena show is a major attraction. Guests are seated in an outdoor theater around a small lagoon for a one-of-a-kind 20-minute live stunt show. Be prepared for jaw-dropping explosions, incredible stunts and pyrotechnic effects.
The show takes place several times a day and has a most amusing pre-show in which stunt actors entertain guests by shooting water into the arena. Beware! If you’re seated in the first five rows of seats—dubbed “soak zones”—you’ll be just that: soaked! After the show you can meet the actors for a photo op.
3. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter await many wonders, but the biggest Harry-themed thrill is to be had riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is located inside the massive replica of Hogwarts Castle. Guests begin their journey walking through the gates of the castle, where they then must find their way through the castle’s dungeons, past the green house, and into Hogwarts hallways. The details throughout the castle are stunning. Be on the lookout for the talking portraits, the sorting hat, the Mirror of Erised, and so much more.
After being welcomed by Headmaster Dumbledore in his office, guests meet Harry, Ron and Hermione inside the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” classroom, where they’re invited to join the quidditch match. From here things proceed quickly to the ride vehicles. With the help of some Floo Powder, guests are off, soaring over Hogwarts, where they encounter a Hungarian Horntail before descending into the Forbidden Forest where the giant spider Aragog dwells.
After being whipped around by the Whomping Willow, riders escape the forest and fly over the quidditch game only to be chased by dementors into the Chamber of Secrets. Dementors descend on riders before Harry comes to the rescue using his Patronus. Finally, it’s time to return to the Main Hall of Hogwarts, where Professor Dumbledore sends everyone home.
4. Transformers: The Ride-3D
If you’re a fan of Michael Bay’s blockbuster movie franchise, this immersive thrill ride is for you! Guests are recruited to join the cybertronic war and enlist at the N.E.S.T. Base. While queuing, they’re prepped for their mission: Safeguard the shard. Onboard Evac, the Autobot ride vehicle, and equipped with dichroic 3-D glasses, riders witness epic battles between Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and the villains Megatron, Starscream and Devastator.
The ride blends motion simulation and live effects with the 3-D used in the system behind the famous Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Universal Orlando. After riding, you can meet and interact with one of the giant robots outside the ride’s entrance.
5. Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride
With speeds up to 45mph, at times in virtual darkness, this indoor rollercoaster is based on the Mummy movie franchise. Replicas and actual props from the movies are seen as riders enter a dark tomb and treasure room. Egyptian hieroglyphics on the walls spell out warnings before the ride vehicle rockets full-speed-ahead, twisting and turning in total darkness. Audio-animatronic mummies, strobe lights and scarab beetles add to the experience and prey on those who fear the dark.
*Bonus: The new Jurassic World ride, opening in 2019
The new Jurassic World ride is a boat tour of a dinosaur-filled theme park, based on the Jurassic World movie and its sequel, Fallen Kingdom. It replaces the original Jurassic Park ride, which closed this year. Guests will tour the dino land in a boat on the same river path as before, but gigantic new animatronics and a complete redo of scenery and special effects await discovery before things will, as usual, go wrong. Be prepared to face off with angry reptiles before escaping on an 84-foot waterfall. The big drop at the end of the ride also brings an avalanche of water into the boat, and you will get soaked!
Raptors, however, have already arrived at Universal Studios Hollywood, and you can meet them next to the ride’s entrance.
One-day tickets to Universal Studios Hollywood are $129 for adults and $123 for kids ages 3-9 when purchased at the gate. Online advance purchase saves up to $10. Universal Express, a pass allowing you to skip lines once at each attraction, runs $189-$269, depending on the season for adults and children. The pass includes admission to the park. Check out all ticket options here.