I should have mentioned that we’re staying in the Hilton Universal City which is just across the road from the Universal Studios theme park which is one reason for being here and the other is that as a Gold Member with Hilton I want to enjoy the benefits (mainly free breakfast) before my memberships start to fall away as we get into the meat of retirement. It’s not a bad hotel but very cold (the rooms and public areas are all cooled to around 67 degrees). Other than that it’s a fairly pleasant if unremarkable place to stay and if you want some local character I would recommend you stay elsewhere.
As well as being directly across from the park the other advantage of being in a resort hotel is that you get access one hour earlier than the masses which, as we are (unavoidably) visiting on a weekend is definitely worth something. Before we get into the logistics of the park, let’s talk about whether it’s a fun place to be. It certainly is an interesting place with a mixture of experiences. There is not really much of the adrenaline rush of the rides you will find in Magic Mountain although there are some mini-coasters. The main experiences are the graphics and (sometimes 3-D) virtual reality rides as well as live shows and a studio tour. However, what really makes this park is if you have an affinity for the characters and experiences (in this case, the Simpsons, Jurassic Park, Transformers, the Mummy, Despicable Me and the most recent addition, Harry
Potter). The park builds a whole ‘area’ around each theme, for example, the Harry Potter experience has, alongside the ride, the opportunity to kit yourself out as a Harry Potter extra (complete with cloak etc.), eat and drink Harry Potter branded products and even choose your own wand or rather have the right wand choose you (!). It’s all very well done but you really need to be “into it” to get the most out of it. If you’re not then it’s still enjoyable but it won’t be the same as some of the rides are rather short (e.g. “The Mummy” ride clocks in at around 40 seconds from when the action kicks off! If you’re after maximum thrills then this isn’t the place the be but if you fancy propping up a bar with your Duff Beer while eating a huge Lard Lad Doughnut then you will be in your element.
It isn’t just a park for children as some of the characters have a huge cult following with young (and not so young) adults. We met a couple of their late 20’s / early 30’s who had been for a “wand fitting”. Each to their own.
Let talk about logistics and money. This isn’t cheap place to visit as a day visitor (interestingly season passes are not that much more expensive than day passes) clocking in at a discounted $105 per person. But buying the daily ticket is only part of the story as, if you are visiting at any sort of peak you will need to buy a front of line pass (for $169) which gives you a one-time chance to jump the line at each experience and given that the regular queues during our visit were up to 2-hours (for Harry Potter), your $105 might actually buy you very little indeed. I can’t really imagine how disappointed I would be if I queued over one hour for a ride that lasts less than a minute but nobody seemed to be complaining. This is where getting in early is worth it (and therefore worth staying in a park hotel) as you can dash around the park’s main attractions before the crowds arrive and save your fast past for later in the day when the crowds have arrived.
After you’ve finished with the park then there is Universal City Walk attached to the park where you can spend a few more of your hard-earned dollars in some of the boutique shops or restaurants. You can visit the city walk without buying a ticket to the park.
Once you factor in the cost of dining (both in the park and at CityWalk) and buying those obligatory souvenirs I can see that without trying too hard the average family of four could easily leave the park with little change from $1,000 (4 x $169 = $676, 4 x $50 = $200 for meals and snacks, $125 on miscellaneous souvenirs etc.) and that makes it a very expensive day out in my book.
Nevertheless, as a once-in-a-lifetime-never-to-be-repeated-experience, it’s an enjoyable day out and not really comparable with other “theme” parts like Magic Mountain as the target audiences are very different.