Over a two week period during the first two weeks of August 2014, my family of four (including my wife and two sons, 8 and 10 years old) visited 7 theme parks in Southern California. It was our first visit to SoCal since 2009. We lived in the area for two years, from 2006 to 2008, and visited some of these parks many times during that period. These reviews recount our impressions of the parks, the changes made, and challenges faced by them. There are no photos included in these reviews as others (including MiceAge itself) do a much better job in this area than I do, and I want to concentrate solely on written review and critique. The reviews will go in reverse order of which parks we, as a family, had the most fun and enjoyment in (from 7th to 1st).
Ranked 7th of 7 parks: Universal Studios Hollywood
We had never visited Universal in Hollywood before, but we went to Universal Studios Singapore in summer 2012 for two days and loved it. We looked forward to the Hollywood visit, but have to say we came away disappointed. There were some fun attractions in the park, but overall the experience was wanting, especially in comparison to the more cohesive and organized design of the Singapore park.
I will always begin my review with the parking and entrance to a park as it sets the tone of the rest of the day to come. Parking was relatively easy in spite of the construction. We parked in Curious George and easily made our way to City Walk, which was our first time there. I prefer Downtown Disney for its family atmosphere, as City Walk seems designed more for teenagers and young adults. City Walk also felt more metallic with few trees or other natural attributes. But we walked briskly through the Walk to the main gate. I had bought the tickets in advance on the website and printed them out in order to save time at the gate. I quickly spotted the line with the least number of people/groups and lined up. There was only one ticket agent per gate, with no employee doing prescreens for others on the line (unlike Disney). Of course, we got stuck in the line with people having a problem at the front. For some reason, each member had to sign documents at the turnstile one by one, and then swipe the ticket. It took over five minutes to get them sorted, which is unacceptable. These kinds of problems should be sorted out off-line, not with many people lined up. And by the time we got to the turnstile, an employee shift took place, and the new ticket agent had to log in to the system, which took another couple minutes. Finally we used the preprinted tickets and were in the park in seconds after almost an over 10 minute wait. This just leaves a bad impression right at the get-go. All the parks could take a lesson from Disney in how to do this right as this was a big strike against Universal Hollywood (note: Singapore Universal was smooth at the gate).
After entering the park, there isn't much of an opening act. There is hardly any foliage or nature in the park. It all felt so concrete and sterile. But we moved ahead and put this all behind us to enjoy our day. We came to a central area providing photo-ops with Marilyn Monroe, Frankenstein, Shaggy with the Mystery Machine, etc. This was nicely done and the actors looked and acted their parts well. We decided to head to the studio tour first as Singapore does not have this attraction and it is much vaunted on MiceAge and other sites. Our visit was on a Sunday, so the park was crowded and the line was long. We could have bought front-of-the-line tickets (we did in Singapore), but since Universal Hollywood has so few attractions, it didn't seem worth it. In the end, that estimation proved correct as we were able to go on everything we wanted at least once, though the lines were at times long. Finally we boarded the tram tour and the guide was quite good. She was energetic and lively, but... the tour itself was just okay. Maybe it was hyped too much online and I had too high expectations, but a good part of the tour is looking at the outside of soundstages and never seeing the inside. I guess I should have paid more for the VIP tour to get off the tram and be able to look around (note for next time). King Kong looked like a bunch of screens, I would have vastly preferred the animatronic version. Bates Hotel with the actor was cool, War of the Worlds wreckage was cool, Jaws was fun, the flood was nice, but the rest was simply the outside of soundstages or facades that I would have liked to have gotten off the tram, looked around, and taken some pictures. I guess the VIP would have been better for me.
After that, we went back upstairs, and then back downstairs to the lower lot for some of the main attractions. The view from the escalators and levels is spectacular. On the lower lot we headed to the Mummy. A big difference from Singapore is that the lower lot is just a collection of rides, while Singapore has a detailed and themed land around each major attraction. What a difference this makes! Jurassic Park in Singapore feels like you really enter the movie. In Hollywood, you just have the ride without the land to go with it. Mummy in Singapore is surrounded by an Egyptian themed area, but in Hollywood, it's just the ride. And the Mummy ride is a big disappointment compared to the Singapore version. The queue is nothing compared to Singapore, and the special effects in Singapore are much, much better. Also, the story is much better in Singapore. We went once on Mummy and didn't go again, it couldn't hold a candle to Singapore's Mummy.
Next we went to Jurassic Park to ride the flume version (Singapore's JP ride is a rapids version), and had the opposite experience from Mummy. Hollywood's JP is vastly superior to Singapore's. Spinning in a rapids vehicle takes away from enjoying the scenery and set pieces. The spinning is an unneeded distraction, and I preferred the boat instead. And the ending of Hollywood's version is way better with the T-Rex practically on top of you, and then a sudden drop. Just fantastic! This was the best ride of the park, and we went on two more times. Having paper towels to dry oneself at the end was also a nice customer service touch.
Then we headed over to Transformers, and waited 90 minutes on line. The queue is quite good though, and the ride is to my eyes identical to Singapore. I'm not a big fan of riding in a vehicle to look at screens, but the kids loved it. That said, the ride is well done, and we were satisfied doing it once.
Finished with the lower lot, we made our way to the upper lot. Obviously Simpsons and Potter construction takes up a good part of the area. We were hungry but we couldn't find any table-service restaurants in the park. I guess we could have gone to City Walk but with the memory of the debacle at the gate in the morning, I didn't want to take any chances. We headed over to Louie's for pizza and pasta as a hopefully decent option, and it turned out to be decent. It certainly is NOT New York style pizza (they always get the crust so wrong), but it was okay. I wish the park had an excellent table service restaurant in the park, but it currently doesn't. Presumably Potter-ville will bring something nice to sit and have a fine meal.
To let dinner settle we headed over to the Special Effects show and had a good time. The actors were entertaining and the show was fun. We skipped Waterworld since we saw it in Singapore, and while the show was good, the intellectual property it is based on is so poor and just downright silly, I feel no connection to the story whatsoever, and not matter how good the show's effects and actors are, I just don't care because of the poor storytelling behind the attraction.
We then decided to hit the few rides on the upper level. Shrek is the same everywhere. It is fine, but is mostly a once and done attraction. Simpsons is a fun ride, but it's another screen. Then we did Despicable Me and it's another screen, and this was a big problem with the park, too many rides staring at screens. They're hardly rides at all since you're barely moving. And that was pretty much it for the park. We missed the Horror House because I didn't know it closed early for the night (I was saving it for last at the end of the night, which was a mistake). I took a turn into Kwik-e-Mart but it doesn't feel like you're really in Abu's convenience store. It's just another gift shop, and a missed opportunity for an immersive experience.
The highlight of Universal Studios Hollywood was the Jurassic Park ride (by far), and the rest of it left me flat. I hope the new Simpsons and Potter areas take the park to a higher level as I would feel little motivation to return otherwise. As is, Disney has little, if anything, to fear from Universal Studios Hollywood; the contest is not even close and I place Universal in 7th place of the 7 parks we visited in SoCal.