Believing that filmmaking itself is a bona fide attraction, Universal Studios began offering tours to the public in 1964. The concept worked: Today Universal is more than just one of the largest movie studios in the world—it's one of the largest theme parks as well. By integrating shows and rides with behind-the-scenes presentations on moviemaking, Universal created a new genre of theme park, stimulating a number of clone and competitor parks. The big addition is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Hogsmeade Village, a very close facsimile of the version in Orlando that includes the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and all the Butterbeer your care to buy.
The other main attraction continues to be the Studio Tour, a nearly 1-hour guided tram ride around the company's 420 acres that's "hosted" (via video screen) by Jimmy Fallon. En route you pass production offices before visiting the most extensive backlot reconstruction in Universal's history, including the new New York Street, plus classic stops by the plane crash set from War of the Worlds and Whoville from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Along the way, the tram encounters several staged "disasters," which I won't divulge here, lest I ruin the surprise (they're all very tame), and a staged street race special effects sequence echoing the action in Universal's Fast and Furious movie series. Though the wait to board might appear long, don't be discouraged—each tram carries several hundred people and departures are frequent, so the line moves quickly. The "Front of the Line" ticket option renders it moot.
Other attractions are more typical of high-tech theme-park fare, but all have a film- or TV-oriented slant. The newest of which will be Transformers 3D: The Ride, which opens in the spring of 2012. The Simpsons Ride allows guests to join Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as they soar high above the fictional "Krustyland" theme park in a "virtual roller coaster," creating the sensation of thrilling drops and turns and a full 360-degree loop. Revenge of the Mummy is a high-tech indoor roller coaster that whips you backward and forward through a dark Egyptian tomb filled with creepy Warrior Mummies (it's not as good as the Orlando version). Jurassic Park—The Ride is short in duration as well but long on dinosaur animatronics; riders in jungle boats float through a world of five-story-tall T-rexes and airborne raptors that culminates in a pitch-dark vertical drop with a splash ending. Terminator 2: 3D is a high-tech cyberwar show that combines live action along with triple-screen 3-D technology, explosions, spraying mists, and laser fire (Arnold prevails, of course). Shrek 4D is one of the park's best attractions, a multisensory animated show that combines 3-D effects, a humorous storyline, and "surprise" special effects -- the flying dragon chase is wild.
Waterworld is a fast-paced outdoor theater presentation (surprisingly, one of the best theme park shows in America) featuring stunts and special effects performed on and around a small man-made lagoon (arrive at the theater at least 15 min. before the show time listed in the handout park map to ensure seating). Straight ahead of the park's main entrance on Main Street is the Hollywood Ticket Office, where you can obtain free tickets (subject to availability) for TV shows that are taping during your visit.
Universal Studios is an exciting place for kids and teens, but just as in any theme park, lines can be brutally long; the wait for a 5-minute ride can sometimes last more than an hour. In summer, the stifling Valley heat can dog you all day. To avoid the crowds, try not to visit on weekends or during school vacations. If you're willing to pay extra money to skip the hassle of standing in line, the park offers a "Front of Line" pass with—obviously—front-of-the-line privileges, as well as VIP passes (essentially private tours). You can also save time standing in line by purchasing and printing your tickets online. Log on to www.universalstudioshollywood.com for more information. Another ticket option is the "All You Can Eat" pass, which allows guests to dine all day at selected in-park restaurants for one price.
The Southern California CityPass (www.citypass.com) offers admission to five So Cal attractions including Universal Studios Hollywood and the Disneyland Resort.
Located just outside the gate of Universal Studios Hollywood is Universal CityWalk (818/622-4455; www.citywalkhollywood.com). If you have any money left from the amusement park, you can spend it at this 3-block-long pedestrian promenade crammed thick with flashy name-brand stores (Billabong, Fossil, Skechers, Abercrombie and Fitch), nightclubs (the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club, Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar, Rumba Room Latin dance club, and the Saddle Ranch Chop Club), restaurants (Hard Rock Cafe, Daily Grill, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Pink's Hot Dogs), a six-story 3-D IMAX theater, the 18-screen, state-of-the-art CityWalk Cinemas, a 6,200-seat amphitheater, an indoor skydiving wind tunnel, and even a bowling alley (take that, Disney!). Entrance to CityWalk is free; it's open until 9pm on weekdays and until midnight Friday and Saturday, and parking is discounted with validation. Fun fact: The vintage neon signs overhead are genuine midcentury relics that were saved from destruction by the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. Tip: The sushi at the Wasabi at CityWalk restaurant (818/763-8813) was surprisingly good and very reasonably priced.
Parking is $18 for the theme park, but you can save that by taking the Metro's Red Line to the Universal City station, which is connected to the complex by walkways.