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Extreme theme park makeover: Universal Studios Hollywood edition

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Published: January 16, 2014 at 4:27 PM

Have you visited Universal Studios Hollywood recently?

Construction
Is "CAT" Universal Studios Hollywood's current mascot?

Yeah, there's a lot of construction going on, as Universal has torn up about half of its Upper Lot as part of its ongoing $1 billion-plus "Evolution" plan to remake the Universal City property. This month, Universal tore down the old Doc Brown and Cantina restaurants, making them the latest in a growing string of closures in the park. Our Universal Studios Hollywood page might have the shortest list of attractions and restaurants of any major park in the world since we started accepting reader ratings and reviews of theme park locations back in 1999. As of today, the park has just 11 attractions and eight restaurants, all counter-service eateries.

Compare that with Universal Studios Hollywood's big Southern California competitor — Disneyland — which offers 44 attractions and 22 restaurants.

A simplistic calculation might lead you to think that USH offers just one-fourth the park that Disneyland does. But let's take a closer look at what's left inside Universal Studios Hollywood:

  • Two walk-throughs (House of Horrors and the Universal Experience)
  • One 4D movie (Shrek)
  • Three live shows (Waterworld, Special Effects Stage, and Animal Actors)
  • Five rides (Transformers, Jurassic Park, Simpsons, Mummy, and the Studio Tour)

What's missing from that list? How about spinners, or any other off-the-shelf amusement rides? We wrote yesterday in our #IfIRanAThemePark post about running a park without any spinners, the often low-budget carousel and scramble rides that parks often use to pad their attraction counts. Universal Studios Hollywood is just one of three major U.S. parks without any of those rides. (FWIW, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios are the others. Universal Studios Florida used to be on the list, but dropped off when it added the Kang n' Kodos spinner ride to its new Springfield land last summer.)

Carnival rides might soon be coming to Universal Studios Hollywood, with the debut of the Super Silly Fun Land area that will stand next to the park's new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride that will open in April. But for now, Universal stands as a test case, a response to the once-hypothetical question: What might a theme park be like without all the filler?

Even Disney's California Adventure, during its billion-dollar refurbishment, left more on its table than Universal Studios Hollywood has. This is a park stripped to its foundation, awaiting the additions that will transform it into something very different than it's ever been. Within a few years, Universal on its Upper Lot will have complete lands devoted to Despicable Me, The Simpsons, and Harry Potter. The Evolution plan calls for new attractions to replace Special Effects Stage, Animal Actors, and Waterworld, as well — clearing space for up to two additional themed lands. (Shrek's days likely are numbered, too.) The new Universal Plaza provides the park with a much-needed physical focus, a place to "hang out" and simply enjoy the energy around you. Universal always lacked that central design focus, before.

Universal could use some better "placemaking" on the Lower Lot, with more impressive facades for Mummy and Transformers, as well as creating some social spaces for people to sit and enjoy their time in the park. And a signature table-service restaurant somewhere in the park would help, too.

But, for now, hey, this is the moment of calm before the chaos, the chance to visit Universal's core attractions before the expansion crowds this park with millions of additional visitors a year. If you've visited USH recently, please share your thoughts about the park's transformation, in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From Tracy Bates on January 16, 2014 at 5:28 PM
It would be great if they added a better way for handicapped people to get from the upper portion of the park to the lower portion.

Also. The restaurants I ate at were both awful on my trip there. They had a new desert and not one of the five people working knew what it was when asked.

From 108.184.151.18 on January 16, 2014 at 5:28 PM
I have been to Uni recently, and the park feels like DCA, with bottlenecks. The park isn't very picture-esque right now. The Simpsons isn't a good place to take a picture now, since its littered with construction walls, the only place in the upper lot where you can take a decent photos is at Universal Plaza. But the lower lot is still the same, but has received minor retouched on paint. The park looks very different now, 2012 was the last year the park was going to remain the usual. Now it's stepping it up. With additional parking structures, it's going to be great.
From James Rao on January 16, 2014 at 7:03 PM
And other than Transformers and the Studio Tour, the park is also pretty much devoid of A list attractions as well.

Are they offering any admission discounts? "Half the price for half the park", or anything like that? Might be a good idea short term.

From Annette Forrest on January 16, 2014 at 8:48 PM
I don't understand why Universal didn't design the Potter attraction to be built with a hotel and restaurant component. It could have been incredible...and would have made Universal THE PLACE to be for the forseeable future.

My idea would have been to build Hogwarts castle as a hotel where guests could actually stay. Locate it on Universal property similar to how Disney has the Grand Californian right there as part of the scenery for that redwoods area of DCA. Guests staying at Hogwarts would have a private entrance into the park, right by where the Harry Potter attractions would be.

In addition to guest rooms in the castle, there would be a signature restaurant designed like the massive dining hall at Hogwarts, with all the tables for the houses. I would even theme the four wings of the hotel to be the colors of the four houses (leaving the most rooms for Griffindor, since that's where most people would want to stay).

I'd build the Forbidden Journey ride close by...and then the village of Hogsmeade and the rest of the Potter area and then from there it would lead into the rest of the park through the Forbidden Forest.

I'm 39 (soon to turn 40) and I can tell you that I would pay just about any price to stay in a Harry Potter themed hotel. My husband would lose his mind. My kids would go NUTS. I bet we would not even think of Disney at all in California if we could stay in a Potter hotel, eat in Hogwarts, and then have VIP access into Hogsmeade like that. It would be amazing and I guarantee you we'd be back as many times a year as we could afford.

Why Universal didn't do this just flabbergasts me.

From 76.171.89.203 on January 16, 2014 at 11:08 PM
You do know anything Harry Potter needs to be approved by Mrs. J.K. Rowling herself they can't just up and do that without her permission she owns ALL rights to H.P. Just like Matt Groening and Fox owns all rights to the Simpsons, add anything without their approval is a breach of contract.
From Anon Mouse on January 16, 2014 at 11:08 PM
I most recently visited the park last year in March. Several things are evident as its weaknesses. No place to hang out. No shade. Just a movie studio (could be a bonus, but not really.) Rides are not repeatable. Sameness of rides. It doesn't appeal to any specific demographic.

The park lacked a grandeur that Disney has nailed. Disney also has characters and classic rides that require no improvement to remain attractive to guests. Universal seems to require constant change. To be fair, EPCOT and DHS have the same problem.

My hope is Universal has a plan to fix it's weaknesses to ensure it is more competitive with Disney, but mostly to be a better park.

From 76.24.127.252 on January 17, 2014 at 6:30 AM
I don't understand the hate on spinners and carousels. Often they are great just for what the give an an environment, whether it's characters like the Carou-Seuss-el or aesthetics and kinectic energy like the Orbiter in Tomorrowland. Dumbo is a classic at Disney. I'm not saying theme parks don't take it too far (A Bugs Land is the epitome of filler off-the-shelf rides) but I wouldn't dismiss them all as filler
From 75.187.131.228 on January 17, 2014 at 5:30 PM
Off the shelf carnival rides at those prices? HELL NO!

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