Fix this theme park: Universal Studios Hollywood
Written by Robert Niles
Last week, the Los Angeles Planning Commission approved Universal Studios Hollywood's proposed $1.6 billion studio and theme park expansion (half a billion bucks more than Disney California Adventure's rebuild). Named Evolution, the project will include:Tweet
Consensus suggests that Waterworld (and possibly the Gibson) will become the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But what else does this park need to become not just a must-see on a Southern California vacation (which it is already), but a go-to place for frequent repeat visits, by visitors and locals alike, the way the Disneyland theme parks now are?
Unlike every other major theme park in America, Universal Studios Hollywood wasn't the product of designers working on a empty lot, building a design created on a blank sheet of paper. The theme park evolved around Universal's long-standing production lot in the hills above Los Angeles. Constrained between production facilities and unforgiving mountain geography, Universal Studios Hollywood lacks the hub-and-spoke or central lagoon design that define so many other theme parks. It meanders across a mountain top, with a second level below, accessible via a series of massive escalators.
Universal's most recent major overhaul of its property led to CityWalk, which finally gave the property the table-service dining, extensive retail and "places to just hang out" that the old studio-tour-and-show-theaters theme park lacked. But while CityWalk was revolutionary in the 1990s, by now, everyone's copied CityWalk. Rick Caruso's Grove and Americana at Brand duplicate the CityWalk experience, while being closer to many LA-area residents and offering much less expensive parking. This time around, Universal needs to improve the "hanging out" experience inside the park, with uniquely themed dining and retail experiences that outdoor malls such as the Grove can't match.
So for me, I hope that Evolution includes at least one table-service restaurant inside the park, something Universal Studios Hollywood now conspicuously lacks. But the park needs better variety in menus throughout the park, inspired by new, neighboring themed attractions. Ultimately, I think that unique dining does more to lure repeat visits from locals than anything else a park can offer. Sure, I like riding the rides and seeing the shows. But even the best attractions grow a little stale after several dozen times through. Great food, though, is always great food, and while I can go a day without theme park entertainment, it's real hard to go a day without eating.
USH's lack of unique food gives me fewer reasons to visit the park, even though I have an annual pass and live just 15 minutes away. The high parking prices and lack of an evening parking benefit on APs usually steers me toward Americana at Brand when I want to see a movie, since I can park there for no more than a couple bucks and the drive distance is a little shorter.
Put a Wizarding World of Harry Potter in USH, however, and the game changes. Give me a Three Broomsticks and Butterbeer, and now I have something unique to draw me to Universal. Create more themed lands with unique shopping and dining, such as a Madagascar area, or an expanded Simpsons land with a Moe's Tavern or a Frying Dutchman, and I'll have even more reasons to visit. Add a day-long free parking benefit for annual passholders, and Universal might win back some of the dinner-and-a-movie crowd that's flocking to places like Americana, as well.
Since Universal ditched plans to add housing to its Evolution plan, local opposition has evaporated. Unless there's an economic meltdown, this plan is going to happen, in some form or another. But with the details still to be filled in, what are you wishing for as Universal fixes this theme park?
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