Universal Studios Hollywood: Touring the Land of Movies
My family not only loves a good blockbuster, we’re fascinated by what goes into making one. So when we had the opportunity to visit Universal Studios Hollywood, the place where many of our favorite movies and TV shows are filmed, we jumped at it!
Universal has been in the business of movie making for about a 100 years, eventually panning out into television, and then amusement park-style entertainment that puts riders in cinematic scenarios pulled from Jurassic Park, Transformers, Waterworld, and more.
The Studio Tour
Visitors see some of Hollywood’s most iconic sets and adrenaline pumping special effects experiences in the studio tour — and it jumps right into them! Minutes into ours, the tram was “caught” in a flash flood in what appeared to be a small town south of the border.
While a lot of the sets on the tour look familiar, there are some that are immediately recognizable, like Amity Island, the small beach town terrorized by a shark in Jaws. Oh wait…where is that shark? Has anyone seen him lately? OH NO!!!
There’s also the perfectly manicured neighborhood from the ABC hit series, Desperate Housewives. The eerie presence of the house from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is difficult to miss perched atop a hill with the Bates Motel below it. As our tram passed by, I got the chills as I saw a man who looked very much like Norman Bates stuffing what may have been a body into the truck of a car parked outside the main office.
One of the things that my family found particularly amusing about the movie studio tour was the placement of the sets. Whoville is located right next door to Norman Bates place of business. I seriously doubt poor Norman could be saved by the spirit of Christmas!
Just when you think the thrills are over and you can relax on this tour, think again! We experienced an earthquake in a subway and drove through a massive plane crash from the movie, War of the Worlds. The ghostly sight of smoke and steam effects, scattered debris, and trashed building structures sent an impressive hush over the crowded tram. It really looked like we happened upon this scene minutes after the crash! In fact it looked so realistic, that I’m sure many in the tour group had to remind themselves that they were seeing the magic of movie making at work!
Universal Studios Hollywood does an artful job in carrying out the themes of movie magic in their amusement park rides. Riding through the Jurassic Park was exciting, the Revenge of the Mummy gave my daughter a rush that lasted through three more rides, and The Simpsons ride left us all with the slightly psychotic feeling that comes with watching an episode of the show. If you’re looking for a more relaxing and sweet experience, my son would advise checking out the Shrek 4-D experience.
While enjoying the park we met many classic Hollywood legends, among them: Scooby Doo, Marilyn Monroe, Beetlejuice, and Shrek himself! We stumbled upon many performances playing out and in one case we became accidental players, like when two New Yorkers who could have been out of the sitcom, The Honeymooners, broke their dialogue to comment on my daughter’s Stanford sweatshirt. We also enjoyed opportunities to do things we wouldn’t dare without the help of movie magic, like stick our heads in a shark’s mouth!
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for Universal Studios hotels, my family recommends making a stay at Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City part of your visit. Despite the fact that this hotel has throngs of people moving through it daily, the hotel staff never appeared overwhelmed. They were personable and helpful.
We also enjoyed not having to deal with parking at the park. Because the hotel is so close by, we took advantage of the frequently running hotel shuttle and even walked to the park. And let me tell you, after you’ve spent the day walking through years and years of movie making, there is nothing like a soak in a steamy hot tub as soon as you can get to it!
Other attractions near the hotel include:
- Universal City Walk: A hub of live music, movies, restaurants, shopping and entertainment just outside the gates of the theme park. On the evening we arrived, we dined at Wasabi, a terrific sushi place and enjoyed some fun shopping experiences when we fed our family sweet tooth at IT’SUGAR and stocked up on souvenirs at the Universal Studios Store.
- The Hollywood Walk of Fame: Less than a 10 minute drive away is the walk of fame that winds its way through several of old Hollywood’s landmarks including the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater. While my kids recognized quite a few names on the walk of fame itself, once we got into the area in front of the theater the familiar names became fewer but the handprints and footprints were interesting. “Wow Mom! Women had much smaller feet in the old days!” exclaimed my daughter as she compared hers to Gloria Swanson’s.
- La Brea Tar Pits: Less than 20 minutes from the Hilton, you’ll probably smell the La Brea Tar Pits before you spot it. It emits a pungent asphalt-like scent and it’s black tar like ooze has snared many animals in it over time making it one of the richest fossil sites in the world. The only active excavation site in the country, paleontologists have found over three million specimens that include mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Today it’s part of a 23-acre park primarily dedicated to natural discoveries in the tar pits.
- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Just down the street from the tar pits, the LACMA is a visual feast from the moment you arrive at the front of the building. While there are more than 100,000 pieces in the museum, my kids enjoyed chasing each other through Urban Light an installation comprised of 202 vintage LA streetlamps.
A few final words of advice if you’re planning to visit:
- Buy your Universal Studios tickets before you arrive. There’s no reason to wait in a ticket line at the park! My family secured a two-day pass to the park for the price of a one-day ticket at our local Costco. Tickets can also be purchased online.
- Is there a person in your party with special needs? Universal Studios Hollywood is accommodating to guests with disabilities. Just visit their guest services office when you arrive and be clear about the assistance you need. My son has autism and is unable to wait in amusement park lines. The park staff kindly offered us guest assistance passes. These allowed us to wait in an exit area of a ride until seats became available. If you have any questions about accommodations for disabled guests, visit the FAQ on the Universal Studios website.
Kristine lives in Mountain View, California, where she is the mother of a gifted girl athlete and a special needs charmer. Like almost everything in her house,…