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Sundae in the Park

Universal Studios Hollywood

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FINALLY got to go to Universal Studios Hollywood! We missed the window early into our move here because we were maxing out our season passes to Six Flags and then were busy with babies for a while. I'm glad we went later, however, because it meant that we got to see the relatively new Wizarding World of Harry Potter during the Holidays!!! Which is great because we probably won't be back until the boys want to go. We had a wonderful time but when the ride descriptions say that they are not for folks subject to motion sickness, they mean it. I was prepared with a bucketload of mints because stronger meds make me sleepy and dizzier, and still spent most of the day at least slightly queasy. That said, no one forced me to get on all of the rides (including the HP Forbidden journey X 3) and I enjoyed each and every one.

Almost every ride has at least some component of a virtual reality, most shake, rattle, and throw mist/water at you, and several had a 3-D component. Oddly enough, I did better on the 3-D rides, as the more immersive experience seemed to help my equilibrium, but my husband felt the opposite, so YMMV.  Also, the park isn't all that large and there aren't that many rides, so the proportion of nausea-inducing rides is quite high. Even though the park is smallish, the lines can be long, so getting into all the rides and attractions might not be possible unless you strategize. We bought our tickets online, which come with a early admission (an hour, sort of). This, coupled with the fact that cold (for LA) winter mornings seem to be a less popular time for attendance, was essential in getting to see everything. We were ready to go as soon as they opened the gates for us at 8:30 AM and had fun walking around the HP area with such a reasonable crowd. Note that HP is pretty much the only thing open that early, so only go for the early admission if that is what you want to see. Hogsmeade is gorgeous and cobbly and atmospheric and adorable dressed for the holidays, complete with "snow" falling gently a few times each night. Because we got there so early, we were able to ride the HP Forbidden Journey ride twice with essentially no line (which, incidentally, set me up for hours of queasiness), as well as the wee roller coaster (very gentle). We had a short wait (<10 mins) to get into the Simpsons Ride, and then raced down to the lower lot just as they opened at 10 AM. That left us again, with very short waits for Transformers and the Mummy, which finished us out for the lower lot as Jurassic Park is currently closed for renovation. We hopped on the studio tour with no wait after that, so managed to get all the rides/experiences that typically have longer waits all done by noon and still didn't get to see everything until the last tick of 7 PM, when the park closed. This all a very long way of saying that, if you have limited time, want to see everything, and not as much luck/will to hustle, buying into the express passes or VIP tours might very well be worth it. 

More later..

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I recommend bringing a bag/backpack. The rides are mostly gentle enough that you can keep your stuff with you or in the room (when you don't actually leave) and any time you are absolutely required to divest there are free lockers that you can use to stow bags and such. While we like to run through roller-coaster-heavy parks as unencumbered as possible, cargo pockets are not ideal for holding a whole day's worth of wallets, phones, etc. Also, the Universal food/water carry-in policy is very generous. The FAQs state that acceptable items include: 

  • Bottled water (maximum 2 liters)
  • Small snacks
  • Any food required for special dietary needs
  • Any food required for medical purposes and medically-indicated nutritional supplements
  • Baby food/baby formula
  • Soft-sided insulated bags no larger than 8.5” wide x 6” high x 6” deep.

While all bags are searched upon entry, we had a few bottles of water, a couple slices of pizza in a zip-lock, a few granola bars, some fruit, and a big bag of mints, all of which passed with no comment. While we did buy things throughout the day, having supplemental food/drink with us was really nice, and would be essential if we had been with our kids. They especially recommend having munchables for the studio tour, as the line can get long and the tour itself is an hour long. (For The Good Place fans, at the moment you get to drive through the neighborhood during the studio tour!!! I saw the chowder fountain and the train station with my own eyes!!!)

Another note about scheduling/timing - we didn't expect that nighttime would be the busiest part of the day, but apparently that is common during the holiday season (basically December, though certain events take place only on specified days), as thousands of people descend around nightfall to see the lights (per a staffer manning an extra line that popped up at night who confirmed our impressions).  There is a holiday light show that plays on the Hogwarts Castle several times each evening, with "snowfall" on Hogsmeade before and after the show. The Wizarding World gets incredibly crowded at this time and a whole new set of barricades/lines to enter this area goes up just before dark. We lucked out and timed it perfectly, so if you want to see the show (it's pretty neat!) I would recommend going back to Hogsmeade before dusk to wander, getting settled as close to the Castle as possible just before showtime, and catching the first show. Then you're free to take in the rest of the park and hit your remaining attractions while many visitors are in line.

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OK, finally onto food. The Lard Lad donuts in SimpsonsWorld really are as big as a dinner plate and look lovely, but we couldn't imagine eating the whole thing. We mostly wanted to sample the wares of the Wizarding World, so had a couple butterbeers from the dedicated carts. That's in succession, not at the same time. Although it's $7 for basically a cream soda, the artificially sweet/buttery foam is interesting and tasty and cheering and does make you feel like you're trying something different/special. Or maybe the feeling comes from sipping the drink while wandering Hogsmeade. Regardless, we liked it enough to get another later in the day. Also, in case it wasn't clear, butterbeer is non-alcoholic (there has been some debate among my circle). Butterbeer-flavored ice cream, however, is a terrible flop, IMO. It's a (mercifully) small quantity of low-quality (icy, sandy) ice cream with some weak-tea butterscotch flavoring. Skip. If you ask around the park and read reviews, many folks will direct you to the Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World to eat. While the menu and pictures look like tempting English pub fare in cinematic setting, the wait can be very long (such that there is line-fencing outside the restaurant). We thought to the fried chicken and waffles at Cletus' Chicken Shack, but didn't feel like waiting in that line, either.

We decided to bag eating in the park and left briefly to eat on Universal's Citywalk, which is the outdoor mall leading into the park (you have to walk through it to get to the park from the lot). Because the park is small and Citywalk is right outside, it's not really going out of your way to grab something to eat or take a break from Park crowds. I wanted to try LudoBird, which is one of the fast-casual outposts to get Chef Ludo Lefebvre's (of Trois Mec, etc.) fried chicken. I loved the chicken from his (late 😭) Ludobird food truck, and I've tried it from the location at the Staples Center and enjoyed it there as well. Unfortunately, at Citywalk there was no option for fried chicken in whole pieces; just tenders, a chicken sandwich, or popcorn chicken. We tried the tenders and the sandwich, which were both good (crispy, well-seasoned coating, juicy meat) if not exciting. The tenders are actually a much more generous portion than the sandwich (and the large chunks of breast meat are unexpectedly juicy), but the sandwich comes with a gentle slaw (not much mayo, with a hit of something acidic - quite good) and some jar pickle slices.  Overall, it's a very slightly more upscale version of a Chick Fil-A sandwich. They have the famous lavender biscuits onsite, though we didn't order any. We enjoyed our meal and feel confident it was at least equal if not better than the food/value to be found in the park, but it wasn't anything I'd seek out on its own merits (unlike the truck, which I missed for years after it stopped circulating). 

After a long, tiring day, we still didn't want to settle for any of the Citywalk chains, so hit Lum Ka Naad on the way home for Northern Thai food and it was glorious.

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