Often overlooked by locals, Universal Studios Hollywood has really been on fire lately. The park looks and feels brand new. I was up in LA for a business meeting last week and popped into the park while waiting for traffic to die down. I’m so glad I did.
In this update, we’ll show you the fantastic Kubo tour, the first signs of Halloween Horror Nights, and take a quick romp through the park. Plus, have you checked your Universal Annual Pass? They’ve JUST added extra available days. Are you ready for your close up? Action!
Getting There Is Half The Fun
When you park at Universal, you end up in one of many structures which surround the CityWalk shopping district. That makes the walk to the park a bit more interesting. There’s also a lot going on right now. Some new restaurants under construction and the major overhaul of the theater.
Universal has cracked the flow of theme park security. These permanent shade structures house dozens of metal detectors. Universal security checks your bags and then has you walk through the scanners. No need to wait in multiple lines. To get you to this point, they use a single switchback line and send you off to the next available security portal. It’s fast, efficient, and the staff even try to be friendly. This is a theme park after all and not airport security.
Once in the park, you’ll find the new entry street has really transformed the first act of the park. The buildings evoke Hollywood’s golden age. The colors are fresh, gardens and hanging baskets brighten the streetscape, and physical props sell this as a themed entry point.
From Coraline to Kubo: A Magical LAIKA Experience
Like many of you, I received a pass holder email telling me to come visit the Kubo tour at the park (even on a blackout date). Unfortunately, my schedule just wasn’t cooperating. Suddenly the stars aligned and I found myself waiting in a long line outside the Globe Theater on the Upper Lot of Universal Studios, just across from Despicable Me (the old Terminator building). A line for a props tour? I thought it was strange that there would be a 40 minute wait for something that was neither a ride nor a show. But I’m SO glad I waited.
First, before you look at my photos below, take just a moment to watch this trailer of Kubo. It will give you an idea of how complex the film is and why I was so blown away by the exhibit.
When you make it inside the theater, you find that your tour is guided. Ah, the lines were starting to make sense. This was a metered experience with an experienced host. And what a tour is was. The small group was lead through a series of rooms housing props, sets and videos from LAIKA’s amazing series of films “From Coraline to Kubo.” That includes Box Trolls and Paranorma. LAIKA is famous for their stop motion animation films.
Stop motion is a labor intensive animation technique. Not only do the characters need to be built in such a way that they can be infinitely posable, but the sets do too. When you watch a LAIKA films, you’ll see the wind blowing through the trees, curtains rustle, and in the case of Kubo, tiny pieces of paper fly through the air, creating characters and set pieces of their own. It’s really quite stunning and beautiful to see how these films come together.
The tour started with the Coraline sets and characters, including a walk down a light tunnel. Next up was Paranorman, one of my favorite animated films. It’s dark and sinister but lovable at the same time. I suppose you could say that about all of the LAIKA films. They all have a dark whimsy about them.
On to the Boxtrolls. This underappreciated film was up for an Academy Award. The story of a little boy being raised by trolls was perhaps too out there for audiences, but I was dazzled by the animation and really enjoyed this movie. It was great to see the sets up close.
Then comes Kubo, which I had JUST seen in a 3D theater a couple nights before. In my opinion, Kubo is the single best animated film of the year and one of my new all-time favorites. It’s a sort of Japanese fairy tale about a boy with a divine heritage who must literally fight for his life as he finds his own inner strength and purpose. The tight story telling and deep character development is matched only by the stunning beauty of this gem of a film. Seeing the sets and characters up close and personal at Universal Studios was a dream, including the two story tall skeleton. Wow.
The entire experience was built to museum quality, with stellar lighting, background visuals, item notes, sound and video vignettes.
And all good experiences end in a gift shop. Although this was a small experience, it justified a small gift wall. 😉
Sadly, last weekend was the end of the run for this experience. However, I sincerely hope that they’ll take this show on the road, send it to a museum somewhere, or perhaps find a semi-permanent location for it somewhere at Universal Studios.
I can just imagine a LAIKA ride in the park. So much creativity and fantasy. Ahhhh, to dream.
Now, on with the show!
I had just enough time for a dusk studio tour.
Universal Studios Tram Tour
The nice thing about showing up to the studio late in the afternoon is that it’s often uncrowded. I walked straight onto a tram with no wait at all, though I was told that the tour had actually been quite busy earlier in the day. The up side of a week-day tour is that there’s a lot of shooting going on in the lot. So you’ll see all sorts of filming and activity going on. The down side of a week-day tour is that there’s a lot of shooting going on in the lot. So you won’t be able to travel through areas where filming is going on. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. Plan accordingly.
There was a lot of filming activity going on. The show “Superstore” was in production when our tram drove by (please excuse all the blurry photos).
But what we’ll see next is indeed an attraction in the making . . .
The Jurassic Park vehicles give way to a little Dino scene.
One of my favorite parts of the tour is the flash flood scene . . .
And just like that, we are in the wild west.
And Murder She Wrote/JAWS
But I was on the wrong side of the tram to capture the big shark.
Oh no, this car can only mean a somewhat forced ending to the Studio Tour is ahead.
The tour wraps up with the Fast and the Furious. In the industry, this is known as an Immersion Tunnel attraction. That means that a screen wraps around the ride experience. While I think the visuals and acting on this attraction are a bit hokey, it is an exciting experience and a movie magic way of ending the tour.
A wait time board stands at the exit of the tour. Take a moment to review the crowd patterns and head toward the least crowded section of the park. On the earlier wait board we showed you, the longest lines were on the lower lot at Transformers. However, that pattern flipped by the time I exited the tour, with Harry Potter on the upper lot having the longest wait.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
A boy’s got to eat, and there’s no better (or more fun) place to eat than the Three Broomsticks (Club 33 perhaps). I’ve now tried everything on the menu and I really love it all. The ribs are great, the bangers and mash, shepherd pie, Sunday roast . . . but my favorite is the fish and chips. Really good. Of course, I wash the whole thing down with Butterbeer. Had to eat fast because I wanted to ride the Forbidden Journey and the park was just 10 minutes from closing.
More than any other attraction, The Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter really rings my bells. The beautiful exterior, the amazing interior queue in Hogwarts Castle, and the industry-leading ride itself.
The park is closing at this point. Time for a few glamor shots before we go.
Hooray, Honeydukes candy shop is still open! Let’s take a look.
And the walk out of the park. I have a hard time leaving theme parks. There’s always a mental game I play with myself figuring out little ways to delay the inevitable.
This fountain at the front of the park is wonderful. The steam blowing off the top of it was really dramatic that night.
The new Dongpo Kitchen Chinese restaurant is doing great business.
Thanks for reading folks. I had such a great time at the park that I’ll be back again soon. In fact, Uni just sent an email to holders of some pass types letting them know that the number of dates available for the passes has expanded. So I should have more opportunity to take photos for you again soon.