The SAMLAND Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood Part One
by, 11-02-2011 at 08:13 PM
SAMLAND GUIDE TO UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD – Part One
Although I generally write about the Disney theme parks, I have been known to stray on occasion. This time I thought it might be fun to try and create a guide to Universal Studios Hollywood (USH). For a few months I worked as a minion in Show Control department as well as a few days as a Stage Manager for Terminator 2:3D (T2:3D). During that time, I learned a lot of great tricks and tips that might make your next trip to Universal Studios Hollydood more enjoyable and I thought I would share the info in a series of articles called, "The Samland guide to Universal Studios Hollywood."
Welcome to the Samland Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood.
For almost 50 years, Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) is where local Southern California residents took out of town guests to see “Hollywood,” instead of visiting the very real, sometimes scary, places along Hollywood Boulevard. Since 1964, millions of visitors have boarded the world-famous Harper Goff designed custom built trams. Along the way, the tourists get to see a clever blend of the Hollywood myth mixed with dose of movie-making reality.
USH is unique because it is built with a different DNA than the Disney parks and Universal parks in Florida (Universal Studios Orlando or Islands of Adventure). All of the other parks are based on one of Disneyland’s organizing principles; by eliminating the visual contradictions that are contrary to the story and might unsettle you, the environmental design lulls you into conformity and comfort.
Basic park map of Universal Studios Hollywood.
USH doesn’t care. It primary mission is to remain a profitable working movie and television production studio that features the largest backlot in Hollywood. It just happens to have an almost 50-year old studio tour and theme park shoved inside its borders. Visual contradictions are less important then efficiency and the ability to “redress the set.” USH is as random as the creative process. It is a hodge podge of disconnected environments with everything turned up to 11. Like an actual movie set, everything seems temporary. That is the charm of USH. It does “hip” and “edgy” in a way Disney really can't.
As you visit, you will quickly learn that the park has been cobbled together over many years with seemingly no real rhyme or reason. The park has grown organically over the years in a seemingly random fashion and it is easy to get yourself lost. Visitors get lost so often the management has started to specially train employees to look for people staring at a map with glazed eyes and try to assist them.
This is the real deal.
Even though USH is within a working studio, I noticed that they did not adopt the use of the theatrical language that is at the heart of the Disney parks. For example, Disney has attractions and adventures while USH has rides. Disney has Cast Members while USH has employees (sometimes called Team Members).
A Universal character actor.
Cast Members wear costumes and play a role “in the show” while employees at USH were uniforms and do their assigned jobs. One difference that I found emblematic was the policy at Disney to force its Cast Members to go “backstage” and use the restrooms while USH figures what is good enough for the guest is good enough for the employees.
A walk through a Disney park is an invitation to find a bench and take a rest. At USH you won’t want to be sitting in one place very long. You will be bombarded by very loud music, sometimes with more then one soundtrack. One day, somebody asked me where there was a quiet spot to make a phone call. I paused. I asked my co-workers. We could not think of one spot where you won’t have to plug one ear. USH doesn’t really have those quiet spots that you find at other parks by design. However, there is one area that comes close. If you head back toward the smoking area behind the T2:3D building you will have one of the most spectacular views of the San Fernando Valley. This is a view worth seeking.
I believe USH works best when it is doing one of two things; creating an illusion that completely immerses you as if you have entered a scene from a movie or peeling back the tinsel to let you see the real Hollywood structure underneath.
One thing you will quickly learn is that USH is constantly giving you upgrade options that offer real or perceived benefits. Working through these options can make or break a trip.
You first decision is how you plan on getting to USH. The facility is right in the middle of a very dense part of Los Angeles and is a truly urban theme park. One transit option is the METRO Red Line subway. The station is just across Lankershim Boulevard from a shuttle bus that will take you up the very steep hill where the USH entrance is located.
If you plan on arriving by car you will be offered to upgrade to the Preferred parking section at the tollbooth. Preferred parking allows you to park close to the entrance of the theme park - generally in a surface lot that is adjacent to the mall (CityWalk) or into the top levels of the Frankenstein parking structure. The regular fee will relegate you to one of the parking structures that flank CityWalk. Remember, you have to make this decision while you have dozens of other cars lined up behind you. No pressure. In my opinion, CityWalk is a shopping and entertainment center that is a key part of the USH experience. Therefore, save the money and use it as an excuse to visit Sparky’s Donuts or Popcornopolis before your ride home. There is also valet parking available.
You have many options when it comes to buying your admission ticket. Of course, the easiest way is to purchase your ticket online. With the online ticket in hand you can proceed straight to the entrance turnstiles.
If you must buy your ticket at the front gate then I suggest you look for any ticket booth that has a flashing light and a short line. They are usually to the right after you have gone through the security check. Often, there is a roving employee who can help you find the shortest line in the morning. Most people are not listening so you can quickly get the edge and get your day started like a theme park pro.
Now you have to figure out which of the many ticket options will best serve your needs. If you are a collector of Coke Rewards points they currently have an offer for a free ticket. The one-day ticket can be upgraded to two days or an annual pass with block out days. Annual passes are inexpensive and there is one level that gives front of the line privileges for the Studio Tour. There are even options for prepaid parking.
Gate A entrance at The Simpsons
If you've got enough money, you can buy a pass that lets you skip the lines or to gain special access. The USH Front of the Line pass allows you to enter virtually every show or ride through a specially marked door (Gate A), usually located near an exit. Keep in mind that there is a limited number of Front of the Line passes allocated every day. For the shows, you will be the first to enter the venue and you will receive preferred seating. During the busy months the Front of the Line option can save a guest a lot of time and waiting. There are times when the Gate A section really attracts a crowd but it is better than the stand-by line. On a really busy day, it is the only way you can really see everything. The preferred seating areas are the best in the house.
During the slow season, USH realizes that cutting to the Front of the Line is a pretty weak incentive when everything is a virtual walk on so they plus the pass with a backstage peek at three shows; Universal Animal Actors, T2:3D, and Waterworld. Members of the cast from each show are your hosts. The backstage talks give guests a better understanding of the complexity that accompanies each of the shows. The post-show for T2:3D gives you a peek at the virtually invisible mechanical effects used to integrate the performers and the movie. You also get a chance to have your picture taken with one of the robots. You will learn about sound effects, stunt fighting, and fire diving during the Waterworld post-show. The post-show for Universal’s Animal Actors is an upclose look at some of the stars of the show including a chance to take a photo of your kids with a dog!
Is the Front of the Line Pass worth it? On a very busy day, if you are trying to see everything once, then yes. On a slow day the package is most worth it only for folks who consider the backstage experiences to be important. For example, it might be worth the extra money if you are entertaining out of town relatives and want to make an impression. Just having the pass around your neck and entering the shows and rides through the back door may make you feel extra special.
For the high rollers there is the VIP tour. If you can afford it, I highly recommend the VIP tour. The tour will be customized toward your interests. You will have somebody at your beck and call. That guide knows the park inside and out and will make your experience seamless. You will be treated like a VIP, have a nice lunch, and get to see things that the average guest would not be able to experience. To learn more, you can find a complete run down here on MiceChat.
THE BASIC USH TOURING PLAN
What is the most efficient way to tour USH? Like any theme park, I recommend getting there early. Arrive at least one half hour before the scheduled opening time. Sometimes they will allow guests through the gates and queue just inside the park. This is very important. Be sure you pick up a map and show schedule guide. The park has a high number of shows that you have to navigate so you cannot just wing it. If you forget to grab one at the turnstile, you can find both documents at a display board just inside the park.
Here is a fun fact. Usually 90 minutes or so before the park opens, they really do roll out the red carpet in front of the entry gate!
Here is the Samland tour in brief: Go to the Studio Tour first. To get to the entrance for the Studio Tour take the righthand path and aim for the giant shark that is hanging from its tail. Just across from the shark is the entrance to the tour. Remember the tour is 45 minutes plus wait time so best to visit the restroom at the base of the escalators at the Studio Tour entrance.
Then head over to the Lower Lot and enjoy the two (soon to be three) thrill rides (The Mummy and Jurassic Park). After you are done with the Lower Lot head back up one of the world’s longest escalator systems with a tremendous view to the Upper Lot for the rest of the day.
While the environmental design for the Disney parks and Islands of Adventure goes to great lengths to create an arrival experience that allows the guest to decompress and transition from the real world to the fantasy that lies ahead. That is not the case at USH. You enter a compact courtyard surrounded by all sides with things shouting at you. Guest Relations and lockers are to the right, a big store is to the left, and then you make your way through a gauntlet of people peddling photos and credit cards. The architecture is uninspiring and for background only.
The entrance plaza to Universal Hollywood.
At the end of this short corridor is…well it is a giant sign for a “value” ticket booth. Unlike the other theme parks, there is no “wienie” or beckoning hand to draw you into the park. However, there is a digital display with show times, wait times, and early in the day, a helpful employee who can answer questions.
The display board is part of the central plaza area. This undefined space acts as the distribution center for the entire park. Originating from this space are multiple paths that lead to every destination. What the area lacks are spots where families could comfortably gather themselves to figure out what they are going to do. This space represents a fundamental difference between USH and the other theme parks. Characters and performers constantly bombard this area and during certain times of the year shows are scheduled pretty much back to back. The area can become very congested. There is an opportunity to create a meaningful and functional space at relatively little cost by just paying attention to the details.
Any Samland reader will know that I tend to go on and on about the way the Disney parks are physically organized. Heck, I just wrote a book on the subject. So how do you make sure that you won’t get lost at USH?
USH follows the “hub-and-spoke” pattern of distribution pioneered at Disneyland. For example, there is only one way in or out of the park and that corridor leads to a central space where all of the pathways radiate out toward the rides and shows. Now this may seem logical but it isn’t. Like cow paths, the walkways just meander and it is easy to get lost. Remember, this is a movie studio and everything is temporary so USH is not laid out in an intuitive way. You may find the park map to be of limited help. Of course, you can always ask for directions.
However, I think I have figured out a way to make sense of the random chaos that seems to be part of the physical plan of this park. USH is divided up into three major areas. There is the Upper Lot, the Studio Tour escalator and the Lower Lot escalator. Everything is accessed via the Upper Lot.
Think of the Upper Lot as a giant loop with the entrance plaza as the starting point. Just stick to the perimeter and avoid the middle paths unless you want to get lost or explore.
The best touring plan tends to take you in a counter-clockwise direction. Once you enter go straight and stick to the right. To the right you will pass the Waterworld entrance, Shrek 4-D, The Adventure of Curious George, and the Studio Tour entrance. Continue around the loop and there is The Simpsons Ride, the escalator to the Lower Lot, Special Effects Stage, Universal Animal Actors, T2:3D, The House of Horrors, and the exit.
The map again for reference
Of course, your touring will vary due to the show schedule. There is only one “ride” in the Upper Lot and that is The Simpsons and The House of Horrors is a walk through. Everything else is a show with a scheduled start time. For T2:3D and Shrek showtimes can vary from one show per hour to three. With so many shows, usually running at the same time, you can see why the show schedule is so important.
Waterworld Stunt Spectacular
The one must-see show is Waterworld and it worth organizing your Upper Lot visit around one of the performances. I prefer CityWalk for lunch instead of the in-park options. Be sure to get your hand stamped.
Next week the tour will continue and we will actually go on some rides and see some of the shows. What do you think when you walk through Universal Studos Hollywood?
Continue to Part 2 HERE
New Book Explores Walt Disney and His Prized EPCOT Project
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