My family of four (consisting of my husband, myself, a 7-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son) finally took our first vacation in two years. Huzzah! We started off our 6 days of non-stop theme park fun by visiting Universal Studios Hollywood. When trying to plan my trip, I had a hard time finding itinerary examples of what other people with similar travel companions did. Since that is always my starting point for any vacation planning (i.e. reading blog excerpts from other families that have been there and done that), this was a struggle for me. Therefore, I figured I would provide my own itinerary, in case it helped anyone else going through the planning stages.
I have three disclaimers to make. First of all, there was a lot that we did wrong, mostly in terms of giving my non-thrill riding son enough fun things to do. It would have worked better was if we just split up the family while we were in the park. My husband and daughter could have enjoyed one thrill ride after another. Meanwhile, my son and I could have enjoyed all the toddler fun to be had at Universal Studios Hollywood. But that didn’t seem like a very family oriented thing to do on the first day of our family vacation. So we stuck together some of the time, which added to the level of boredom for my toddler.
Second of all, I decided to pass on using the rider child swap option during our stint at the park. My daughter wanted to spend two days exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I figured my husband could enjoy the rides with our daughter on Day 1, while I hung out with our son. Then on Day 2, we would switch. I would get to enjoy a day riding rides at Universal Studios while my husband and son moved on to the more toddler-friendly Disneyland. My daughter’s HP obsession is also why you’ll see several return trips to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on Day 1. (A post on our Day 2 itinerary is coming soon.)
Lastly, the timing below worked because we bought 2 Universal Express passes (for my husband and daughter) and 1 regular pass (for me). My 2-year-old son was free as paid admissions for children start at 3-years-old. I will go into the Universal Express pass in greater detail in an upcoming post, explaining the pros and cons, how it worked, and whether I thought it was worth it.
Our Universal Studios Hollywood itinerary for 2 adults, 1 child rider, and 1 child non-rider
8:30 AM – We made it through both the Covid-19 security and entrance into the park.
Note: As of 12/17/21, anyone over 5-years-old needs to show either proof that their 2nd vaccine was at least 2-weeks before their visit or show proof of a negative COVID test (within 48 hours for a PCR test or within 24 hours for a rapid antigen test). Universal Studios Hollywood’s website currently states “verification will take place when required based on theme park attendance”. It took place each time we entered the park on each day of our visit. But we did go during a busy time of year.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
9:00 AM – Walk to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
While both rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are on the Universal Express pass, there is a perk for standing in the regular line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s the only way you get to see the full sights of the Hogwarts castle. The Universal Express or Single Rider line are great at bypassing long wait times, but they cause you to miss all the cool parts of the castle.
9:10 AM – It takes my daughter and me 20 minutes to get through the regular line and ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
9:30 AM – Flight of the Hippogriff is only quoted with a 15-minute wait, so my husband and daughter join the regular line to save their Universal Express option for when it gets busier. I take my son around Hogsmeade, checking out the Frog Choir and peering into all the shops.
10:00 AM – We all meet up at the Three Broomsticks so my husband and I can order the “Traditional English Breakfast”. It really should be called “the Americanized version of an English Breakfast”, but I digress.
There was barely any wait to order. However it took about 30 minutes to get our food. I wish I had started the ordering process while the others were still in line for Flight of the Hippogriff. Note: later in the day I saw the line to order grow longer and longer. Imagine how long it would take to get your food if there is a wait just to order.
11:00 AM – Leave Wizarding World of Harry Potter and head down to the lower lot of Universal Studios Hollywood. Try to do everything you want to in one visit. The “commute” to and from the lower lot is long! My husband and daughter ride Jurassic World, Revenge of the Mummy, and Transformers using their Universal Express passes. My toddler and I hit up the Dino Playground right next to the Jurassic World Ride.
Springfield U.S.A. and all around wanderings
12:30 PM – Head back to the upper lot of Universal Studios Hollywood. No one was hungry for lunch after our huge breakfast at The Three Broomsticks so my husband and daughter go on The Simpsons Ride. Note: this line seems to be the longest wait for those using Universal Express passes. I plan to take my son to Super Silly Funland (a playground on the upper lot) but Mr. I-hate-having-my-picture-taken demands that we visit character after character so that I could have picture after picture taken of him looking sullen. I’ll take it!
Secret Life of Pets and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
1:15 PM – My jet-lagged trooper of a toddler is ready to melt down. We call it a day for him, and he’s taken back to the hotel by my husband for a snack and a long nap. If I could redo our schedule, I would have bumped up Secret Life of Pets to earlier in the day. It’s one of the only rides without a height requirement, and so cute. My son would have loved it.
Note: once this line becomes busy you need to either have a Universal Express pass or join a virtual queue. And by this time, the virtual queue tickets were gone for the rest of the day.
1:20 PM – My husband leaves me with his Universal Express pass to use for the rest of the day. Shhhh…. I don’t think it’s supposed to be transferable. However, it’s just a business card-sized piece of paper that gets scanned by the employee working the Universal Express line. No one checks anything more than if the pass works. My daughter and I ride Secret Life of Pets with the Universal Express passes.
1:50 PM – My daughter and I ride Despicable Me Minion Mayhem using the Universal Express passes.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
2:15 PM – Return to Wizarding World of Harry Potter to get my daughter a wand. We join the 25-minute line for Ollivanders at her begging (because I don’t think it’s worth it). She gets picked to be the one to try out wands. I change my mind instantly. This is so worth it! When we exit, a brand new wand in tow, we learn that the line is now 60 minutes long. Note: there is no Universal Express for Ollivaders.
3:00 PM – Watch the Triwizard Spirit Rally put on by Durmstrang and Beauxbatons.
3:15 PM – Visit the Hog’s Head for a round of Butterbeers. Note: Unless I want food from the Three Broomsticks, I always get my butterbeer fix here. Most people must think it’s just a bar because the butterbeer cart lines will stretch to a 60-minute wait for people wanting butterbeer, while I’ll only have to wait between 5-10 minutes for the same drink in the Hog’s Head.
3:45 PM – Attempt to perform magic with my daughter’s new wand. It is much harder than I thought it would be! Stock up on sweets at Honeydukes.
The World Famous Studio Tour
4:30 PM – Ride the Studio Tour using the Universal Express passes. I used to wonder what was so great about this tour. But they added some amazing effects that made it awesome.
6:30 PM – Meet up with my husband and son for dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. The wait wasn’t too bad for a table at that time.
8:00 PM – My husband and son return to our hotel. My daughter and I return for nighttime at Universal Studios Hollywood.
8:15 PM – Watch Kung Fu Panda. Here is another attraction (the Dreamworks Theater) that has been redone and much better than it used to be. The seats jostle you along with the movie on the screen. We used our Universal Express passes because we had it, but it was unnecessary. The line was so short by this time that all it did was get us to the front of the line when entering the same theater. However, this was still a nice perk because we got to choose our seats first.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
9:00 PM – Back at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter… again. I try to sneak us into a good spot to watch the nighttime lights at Hogwarts, but employees are carefully monitoring the crowds so that no one can do this. Instead, we decide to use our Universal Express passes to ride Flight of the Hippogriff. However, since all the Hogsmeade employees seemed to be manning the viewing spots for the show, no one is around to scan our passes. We walk on the ride without using our pass, turn around and go right back through the Universal Express line again. This time someone is back to monitoring the line and our passes get scanned.
9:30 PM – Get a spot in a chair right below Hogwarts castle to watch the nighttime light show.
9:50 PM – One last ride on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey using the Universal Express before the park closes.
Takeaways from our first day at Universal Studios Hollywood
Skip breakfast at the park
This is always a given for me. We typically eat before the park opens so we don’t waste time eating once we are there. Also, it’s much cheaper that way. I ignored my own advise this time because we really wanted to order the traditional English breakfast from the Three Broomsticks. It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t horrible, although it certainly wasn’t “traditional”. The hour we spent there just wasn’t worth the fact that when we were finally done eating, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was packed. As a further example, when we skipped breakfast on our day 2 at Universal Studios Hollywood, we got so much more done. (Post on our Day 2 itinerary coming soon.)
Come up with two itineraries: 1 for my thill-riding daughter and 1 for my toddler son
I should have rushed my son on the following rides / attractions as soon as the park opened: The Secret Life of Pets, Despicable Me, Kung Fu Panda, the Silly Swirly Fun Ride, and the Studio Tour. I had assumed the Studio Tour would completely bore him. But after going on it myself, I think he would have been fine.
Despicable Me gives a height requirement of 40″ so I thought it was not an option for my under 40″ tall son. However, he had a mini melt down at the best possible time. Right in front of a Team Lead employee. I watched with embarrassment as she pivoted and came over to us while he screamed that he was bored and had nothing to ride. But that embarrassment soon turned to gratefulness. The Team Lead explained there are handicap accessible chairs for Despicable Me that are stationary. These stationary chairs do not require a person to be 40″ tall. It’s not something automatically offered, but if you ask to speak to a Team Lead, they often agree to give those seats to the toddler and parents.
There are two other attractions he could have also experienced: Universal’s Animal Actors and Waterworld. I just didn’t think he would be very interested in sitting and watching something on stage for too long.
The Universal Studios Hollywood employees have stepped up their game
I specifically chose to start our vacation at Universal Studios Hollywood, because in the past it had been such a let down to experience castmembers making magic at Disneyland and then to move over to Universal Studios where the employees didn’t seem to care as much. This was a completely different experience. (Case in point the lady that stopped what she was doing to help me out during my son’s meltdown). The Universal Studios employees were amazing and made our days at the park as magical as they could be.