BONUS XOMU: The complete guide to Universal Studios Hollywood with kids
Everything you need to know about planning your visit to this popular Los Angeles attraction in 2023
In early April, we took our 10-year-old and his best friend to Universal Studios for my son’s birthday. I have traveled extensively by myself, both in and out of the U.S. I spent six weeks roaming from Iceland to Istanbul with nothing but a backpack. I am an excellent planner, but Universal Studios almost broke me.
I spent weeks online researching options in what felt like a foreign language. VIP Pass versus Express Pass versus Express Pass Unlimited. Hollywood Studio Tour versus Warner Brothers Tour. Early entry to Super Nintendo World is separate, and does (doesn’t) include the Mario ride, and does (doesn’t?) require a reservation? What even is Super Nintendo World, and why does everyone want to get in?
Long story short, WE DID IT, and it was pretty damn magical, and there were only a few very small things I would have changed in retrospect. So if you’d like to a day at Universal Studios with your tween children and not have to spend daysssss trying to learn the language of Theme Park, then steal my entire itinerary and spare yourself the menty-b.
One caveat: You will bleed money. There is no way around this. We leveled up basically anywhere we could, because we were only doing this trip once. There are certainly far more bargain-savvy ways to do this trip. This itinerary will not be that.
The travel (plus bonus days)
We booked a flight into Hollywood Burbank airport (BUR) for late afternoon on Friday. Burbank airport is so small and easy, and it’s only about 15 minutes from Universal Studios. We rented a car onsite at the airport so we could stop at a grocery store on our way to the hotel for snacks and water, then navigate the rest of the trip more easily.
Bonus activities: We spent Saturday at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach (about 45 minutes south, reservations required), and Monday morning at the nearby Los Angeles Zoo (no reservations needed) before we flew home Monday night. These two adventures—plus lots of pool time—made for the perfect active long weekend.
There are two hotels within easy walking distance to Universal Studios, and I cannot recommend enough staying in one of them. One is the Sheraton Universal Hotel, the other is the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City. We stayed at the Hilton, and it was nearly perfect.
It’s only 15 minutes from the Burbank airport, so we managed to avoid almost all LA traffic over the weekend. Amenities included a pretty extensive breakfast buffet, a lobby Starbucks, a really nice outdoor pool and hot tub situation, a decent fitness center, and suites so the kids can sleep on a pull-out couch in the living room and parents can have your own room.
The Hilton is a 10-minute walk to the gates of Universal Studios, which means you won’t need to pay for or mess with parking, and you can head back to the hotel from the park as often as you need—and you will need this. (Read on.)
We chose to self-park at the hotel because it was cheaper than valet (although still like $40 a day) and it was easier to navigate. Parking in their underground garage was easy and convenient.
The only down side was the suites only had one bathroom, so every time the kids needed to use it in the middle of the night, they had to barge into our room. This felt like a huge oversight in terms of room design, but otherwise the hotel was 10/10.
Breakfast buffet for four at the Hilton: $132 including tip. Worth it, because we all had a hearty meal of whatever we wanted before we started our day (there were plenty of GF options), and didn’t have to go anywhere for it.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Plan to buy tickets at least a month in advance to ensure your best chance of getting any “extras” you might want. Assuming you don’t want an annual/season pass, tickets come in four flavors. Pricing varies by day, but here is an estimate of what it would cost for a family of four on Saturday April 29th:
General Admission, $556: These get you into the park with no frills.
Express Pass, $996: This ticket gets you general admission, plus ONE Express Pass per ride, excluding Mario Kart. That means once for each ride, you get to skip the normal line and enter the Express Pass line.
Express Pass Unlimited, $1,196: This option only appears once you’ve selected the Express Pass option—right before you check out, it will ask if you want to upgrade to Unlimited for an extra $50 per ticket. This means you’ll have unlimited access to the Express Pass line for every ride, all day long, excluding Mario Kart.
VIP Pass, $1,716: This is just as much a ticket as it is an experience. VIP Pass holders experience a guided tour through the park in a small group (up to 18 people). You’ll walk right onto every ride (once) and see every show with priority seating, and stop for breakfast and a pretty fancy lunch. You also get a much more detailed Studio Tour with access to areas regular pass holders can’t see or explore. The tour is about six hours, but guests can stay once the tour is over and enjoy the park with Express Pass Unlimited access to rides. It also comes with free valet parking.
There’s one more add-on for General Admission, Express Pass, and Express Pass Unlimited: The Super Nintendo World Early Access ($20 per person). This gets you into the park an hour before it opens so you can book it ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE PARK to Super Nintendo World before the crowds arrive, and gains you one-time express access to the Studio Tour.
Pro tip: You have to buy and schedule early access to Super Nintendo World separately from your main park tickets—and these sell out faster than park tickets. The good news is, I’m going to give you tips that require arriving at the park at 6:30 AM just for this unnecessary.
Are the VIP tickets worth it?
Though the VIP tickets weren’t that much more expensive than Express Pass Unlimited, we chose not to go VIP. The deciding factor? A VIP ticket means you’re locked into being part of a small group experience, and we’d have to stay with our tour group to reap the benefits. I know my son, and he likes to explore in a chaotic and unencumbered fashion. Having to trail along with a group, move on from rides after just one go, and having to sit through extra “behind the scenes” presentations about the park or studio were not going to be fun for him.
If he were older or if it was just me and Brandon, we would have gone VIP all the way. We found the Studio Tour far more interesting than the kids did, and we would have enjoyed some extra park BTS. But for the kids, we chose Express Unlimited Passes, and it was the right move. (Here’s a great review of the VIP passes, if you want to read more about them.)
A word on the rides
The park is mostly shops, some food, and one to two rides in each “land.” (I thought there would be more rides, but there are only 12 in the whole park.) I also didn’t expect so many rides to be 3D based. Most weren’t traditional roller coasters, but 3D experiences where you “fly” and “fall” in a cart that’s moving in time with the visual effects. If you get motion sick easily, you may want to take some medication or use a nausea band, just sayin’.
Some of the 3D rides were EXHILIRATING, though. The technology was unreal and we all screamed with excitement. They were also way easier on my concussion than a super-fast and jarring coaster.
There were some more traditional “rides”—one small coaster in Harry Potter Land, a water ride at Jurassic Park, and our favorite ride of the whole park, the Mummy. I’ll do a rating of the rides below.
Our day at Universal
I highly recommend downloading the Universal Studios App before you arrive. It holds your tickets, gives you a park map, and tells you show times and ride wait times. It was a little buggy, but ultimately the map was helpful.
You can bring water and snacks into the park. We packed meat sticks, fruit bars, LMNT electrolytes, and empty water bottles hoping they’d have fountains to refill them, but we couldn’t find them. (Rumor is they exist by some restrooms.) The LMNT was a must-have; in the crowds, heat, and with all of the walking, the extra boost of energy from the electrolytes came in clutch.
We hit the breakfast buffet before leaving for the park at 7:40 AM, to arrive right at gates-open at 8:00 AM. (The Super Mario World early entry was sold out when I bought tickets.) Security and park entry took about 15 minutes; you’ll all go through an X-ray machine first, then the attendants will scan and/or print your tickets.
I had trouble getting our tickets to work in the app, so they printed us paper tickets when we arrived. Not wristbands, just tiny paper tickets that we needed to show for every single ride and show. I can’t believe we didn’t lose these, and though the kids wanted to carry their own, I said no way and kept them all in my back pocket.
Pro tip: When you get into the park, there will be official photo takers. Pose, then ask for a QR card. You can scan the card at the photo station after every ride, then buy all of your park photos for $40 on your way out of the park.
Normally I’d have a strategy for getting through the park efficiently, but my son was not open to feedback. We started in Harry Potter Land, which was close to the park entrance and the one he was most looking forward to.
Upper lot—Harry Potter Land
The big draw for this land is the Magic Wand experience. They do a show every 15 minutes or so at Ollivanders where one random kiddo gets a custom “wand fitting” experience. (It’s very cute.) Then everyone is let loose in the shop to choose their SIXTY TWO DOLLAR plastic Harry Potter wand.
The idea is that you can use the wand throughout Harry Potter Land to “cast spells” and watch stuff happen, like getting teacups in store displays to “levitate.” I will say this was disappointing at best, but maybe would have been fun for little kids? The “spells” rarely worked unless a park employee helped, and a few of the “spell” sites weren’t operational. Also, once you get out of this land, the wands don’t do anything except take up $124 worth of space in Mom’s backpack.
The Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster was small and fun, well-suited for younger kids. But the Forbidden Journey 3D experience was a HELL YES—we rode it three times, and each time it just got better. It legitimately felt like you were dropping from the sky, and the effects and visuals were intense. This one was an 11/10, and we would go on to ride it a few more times.
Pro tip: For many rides, you had to leave all bags in lockers, but they make it easy. Lockers were right outside the ride, free, and fingerprint-activated. Brandon brought a small camera bag, I brought a medium-sized sling bag (big enough to hold my sweatshirt, snacks, and those damn wands), and the boys switched off carrying one small backpack with their sweatshirts, snacks, and water bottles.
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We wandered to the Simpsons area next. The line for the head-sized Simpsons donut was three blocks long (and never got shorter!), and the wait for this ride was also long and oddly frustrating—you wait outside, to be moved into a room to wait inside, to be moved into another room to wait some more, and then you hit the 3D ride. It was fine, 7/10. We didn’t do much else in this world, but the sights here were fantastic and made for some fun photo opps.
We thought we’d head towards the Lower Lot (and Super Nintendo World) next, which is a journey—lots of walking and four huge escalators. But there was a sign that said the wait just to get into the land was around three hours, so I asked an employee for advice. They said, “Come back around 4 PM or so, it’ll be much quieter.” This employee was an angel and I wish them nothing but good hair days and ripe avocados for eternity.
Pro tip: When it’s really busy, you also need a reservation for Super Nintendo World—but another benefit of the Express Pass Unlimited is that you can get into the world without one. That doesn’t help when the Express Line is still an hour-plus, though. (Don’t worry—we’ve got a plan.)
Upper lot—Studio tour
We realized the Studio Tour was on the other side of the Simpsons, so we headed down that way instead. Our Express Pass let us climb right into a trolley for the tour. It’s a mix of movie history and facts, driving past movie and TV sets, and includes a few 3D immersive experiences. The kids were bored until the King Kong 3D experience (which was 9/10 wildly fun); they didn’t much care about movie sets or history. There was another 3D Fast and Furious experience that was terrible and amazing (8/10), though the Jaws encounter was lackluster at best. The tour took about an hour, and I think the kids would rate it 5/10—they were ready to get back to the rides.
Lower lot—Jurassic World
We made the trek to the Lower Lot and started in Jurassic World. The ride there is a water ride, and we were told “you will get wet.” Some folks even had ponchos. We stored our bags and jumped in, and yes, we all got a little wet, but not soaked. (I held my kid’s sweatshirt over my head on the final hill.) I’d give it an 8/10.
There was a “raptor show” here too, but the kids weren’t interested. I was, but oh well.
Lower lot—The Mummy
Across from Jurassic World is the Mummy ride. It had been closed earlier in the day and had just reopened, so we jumped in. I assumed this was another 3D ride. That was super duper wrong, and the surprise alone made this ride a 12/10. It’s maybe the best roller coaster I’ve ever ridden, and by the end of the day, we had all been on it four (five?) times.
Pro tip: The Express Unlimited pass helped us skip 45 -60 minute wait times for every single ride. With the exception of the Simpsons (for some reason that one took much longer) we basically walked right on to everything we wanted to do… except Mario Kart. More on that soon. Anyway, we saved hours with this pass, and never would have been able to ride our favorites so many times without it.
We walked down to the Transformers ride, passing an enormous Express Pass line just to get into Super Nintendo World. The ride was another 3D experience and just okay—probably our least favorite in the park, 5/10.
There was another “meet the transformer” show happening when we left, but again, the kids did not care.
Interlude: The food (AKA the best hack in this whole article)
At this point, it was 12:15 PM, the park was packed, and the kids were hungry. I started looking through the app at options, and it wasn’t looking good. The wait just at the Jurassic Cafe was over two hours, the line for $18 corn dogs was longer than the Mummy ride, and everywhere else was just as crowded. We were all hot, tired, and really cranky at this point.
This was when Brandon and I had a spark of genius: We proposed to the kids that we walk back to the hotel to DoorDash lunch, swim, and rest, then head back to the park later after our break.
Pro tip: You can leave the park and come back the same day with your ticket AND a special black-light activated stamp they give you on your way out. However, our kids swam, and my son’s stamp must have washed off in the pool because it was no longer visible on his arm. The guy let us back in, but only after we could show him photos of my son in the park earlier in the day. Take lots of pics, the end.
Though it was a trek back to the hotel, the promise of the pool made it an enthusiastic journey. This decision turned out to be a 17/10. I had burgers for the kids and gluten-free sandwiches for us en route by the time we got to the top of the fourth Lower Lot escalator. The kids were in the pool and we were chilling in loungers by 12:30 PM. We swam for about 90 minutes, ate our delicious not-corn-dog lunches outside, then went back to the room to rest until 5 PM. We saved tons of money, we were well fed, we got out of the heat and crowds, and we have not stopped high-fiving ourselves for this decision.
Upper lot: Minions
We got back to the park around 5:15 PM feeling well-rested, and decided to explore a few more areas before we headed back down to Super Nintendo World. We wandered down the left wing past Secret Life of Pets (skipped that ride—my son’s friend did it last time he was at Universal and he didn’t enjoy it) to the Minion ride.
This was another 3D adventure, but you sat in a huge theater and it was more of a movie than a ride. It was entertaining, though—7/10.
Upper lot: Waterworld
Waterworld is a stunt show adventure that runs a few times a day, on a set schedule. When we left Minions, we realized we were pretty close and the show was starting in about 20 minutes, so we scooted over to catch it.
The arena is huge, but there were some bleachers painted bright green. They warned us when we arrived that if you sat in the green bleachers, you would get wet. For the love of Jesus on a jet ski, take this seriously. I imagined people receiving a light spray from the show stunts, but people had entire buckets of water dumped over their heads and pegged straight in the chest with a literal fire hose in the pre-show. They got WET WET; you have been warned.
The show was really exciting! Great acting, tons of pyrotechnics and special effects, and dramatic stunts. We all loved it, 10/10.
Walking out, we realized we were super close to Harry Potter Land, and the kids wanted to do the 3D ride again, so we jumped in two more times. Delightful.
Lower lot: Super Nintendo World
From there, we booked it straight down to the Lower Lot and Super Nintendo World, and sure enough, like the Park Angel said, we walked right in! Glorious!
The world itself is stunning—a riot of colors and nostalgia. It was so fun to look around and take photos, but I quickly began to ask, “What do people… do here?” There is one ride (the famous Mario Kart), but our Express Passes didn’t work there, and the line was still over two hours long, so we skipped it.
Then we did some sleuthing. It turns out to “enjoy” this world, you need… $40 plastic Power Up bands. They allow you to bump the money blocks, complete games and challenges, and earn digital points in the app. Points that do… nothing, except let you “win” by earning more points than your parents.
We did not buy the Power Up bands (even the kids thought it was dumb) so we enjoyed the decorations in this land and walked right out 20 minutes later. Unless you have a Nintendo Switch (where apparently the bands offer other benefits), your kids are pumped to fight with a thousand other kids to play some short virtual games, or you have the urge to light a Benjamin on fire, you don’t need to spring for early entry to this Land. (I guess one benefit of early entry is you’d have a shorter wait for the ride, but is one ride worth $80 for a family of four?)
On our way out, we did ride the Mummy two more times, though—the best way to end the day.
By 8 PM, we were ready to close out our 12-hour day and go home. (The kids did talk me into buying them churros on the way out—the only food we bought in the park.)
I know we missed a few things—the Kung Fu Panda ride, the Walking Dead experience, and a stunt show somewhere—but we were dunzo. We walked back to the hotel, and after more than 19,000 steps, tucked the kids into bed and called it a very successful day. Although we did forget to pick up our photos on the way out.
I hope my Type A/Enneagram 8/Upholder tendency to plan and prepare family vacations within an inch of my life helps you navigate Universal Studios Hollywood with your kids more easily. What did I miss? Any insider tips to add? Share thoughts in comments.