Though the rides lack both Disneyland's charm and the sheer terror inspired by Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios Hollywood's hillside theme park offers some worthwhile thrills fueled by silver-screen memories and an illusion of Hollywood glamor.
There are some real standouts, mostly in the more thrilling lower lot. The Transformers ride is a slick crash course in Michael Bay robot carnage, and easily the best experience in the park from start to finish. Revenge of the Mummy is a short but action-packed ride through a movie property you'd otherwise forgotten. And though Jurassic Park: The Ride isn't quite the magical adventure you remembered it to be as a kid, it's still worth the plunge.
You'll find a mix of 3-D movies and stage shows—bizarrely, Waterworld is highly entertaining—on the upper lot, as well as themed areas and attractions for Despicable Me and The Simpsons. Kids will appreciate Minion Mayhem and the adjacent Super Silly Fun Land, though neither are as charming or exciting as you'd wish. The immersive Simpsons Ride, on the other hand, is a clever and wildly entertaining albeit highly nauseating attraction. The restaurant-filled Springfield nails its Simpsons references but comes up short with its food offerings—in terms of price and taste—and some rather drab interiors. That seems to be the standard here: Everything feels about 80% of the way there, especially when taking into consideration the steep ticket prices. Hopefully the introduction of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2016 willl change that.
The park's original attraction is also one of its highlights: the studio tour. Most of your time is spent carting through diverse backlot sets of New York, a mutt of European villages, the Old West and familiar movie landmarks—most impressively the 747 crash site from War of the Worlds. The majority of actual live filming is securely tucked away, but Universal compensates with preplanned encounters that mimic special effects: a wet and fiery earthquake simulation, a sudden flash flood and that delightfully rubbery, toothy grin on the face of Bruce—a.k.a. Jaws. While the 3-D motion simulation that replaced the iconically campy (and burned down) King Kong section is a welcome technical upgrade, the tunnel lacks the same immersion and charm of the original—hopefully the similarly staged Fast & Furious: Supercharged (slated for June 2015) will perfect the formula.
Most attractions have the decency to save their souvenir shops until the end. Not here. You can't reach Universal Studios without strolling down CityWalk, a loud, colorful and oppressive pedestrianized street crammed with souvenir hawkers and junk-food retailers. If you've got children, don't be too surprised to find your finances severely depleted before you've even reached the gates of the studios.
RECOMMENDED: Studio tours in Los Angeles