All Articles A staycation at Universal Studios

A staycation at Universal Studios

A general view of fireworks at Super Nintendo World's Grand Opening Celebration at night
Super Nintendo World Grand Opening Celebration; Photo: Getty
Stacey Leasca
By Stacey Leasca2 Mar 2023 7 minutes read

When you’re ready to press pause on reality, to forget your everyday worries, we know a place. It’s a spot where you can see a wizard take on a few dementors, or maybe an Italian plumber team up with a princess to battle turtles. And you might bump into some dinosaurs, Minions, or Transformers on the way. That’s “reality” at Universal Studios Hollywood. And it’s a spot where locals like Jaden Benenfeld find a getaway from the same ol’ same ol’.

“I've always loved the movies, and the thing that makes Universal so special is that I feel like it gives people a chance to explore movie magic,” Benenfeld, a 19-year-old superfan from Los Angeles who’s been a season pass holder since the tender age of six, says. That annual pass, Benefield says, comes with plenty of perks, including first-in access to new attractions, like the brand-new Super Nintendo World, which opened in February. For Mario Bros. fans, it’s game on.

Benenfeld wearing blue button-up shirt standing outside of Jupiter's Claim attraction
Jaden Benenfeld

“Super Nintendo World is amazing. You get to walk through the pipe in the beginning and are transported into the Mushroom Kingdom,” Benenfeld, who also runs an Instagram account dedicated to celebrity visits to the park, shares. “There are so many activities you can do, and the ride's amazing.” Though he isn’t one to skip the classics, including the beloved WaterWorld show, which seems to have found more success as a live 17-minute event at the park than it did in movie theaters. (Picture jet skis, apocalyptic scenery, and battles between the “smokers” and the good guys, while explosions go off.)

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But that’s all a part of the escapism at Universal, where anything is possible.

“It’s definitely my safe place,” Benenfeld says. “It just feels so fun because I've always loved movies, and this place makes me feel a part of them.”

Ready to take a vacation from the norm and find your own movie magic? In this edition of The WeekEnder, we're taking you through the best lands, rides, restaurants, and nearby hotels so you can explore Universal Studios Hollywood like a pro.

Stacey Leasca, SoCal’s Senior WeekEnder Guide

Things to do

From dinosaurs to wizards—with a few plumbers in between—here are the must-see attractions.

People riding theme park cars with red "M" on them
Nintendo World

Power-up at Super Nintendo World

What gamer hasn’t dreamed about putting down the controller and stepping into their favorite video games? That’s exactly what Universal’s brand-new Nintendo World delivers. All the favorite characters are here: Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach. Grab a bite at themed dining venues like Toadstool Cafe, which serves the Mario Burger with (you guessed it) mushrooms. But the real draw here is the rides, so hop aboard the new Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, which combines virtual reality with a track ride, and race the others to win the Golden Cup.

Time-hop to Jurassic World

Ready for a dino-themed thrill? Head over to Jurassic World—The Ride. Though it starts off as a relaxing boat ride through a lagoon, things quickly jump into action (just like in the movies) when you learn the Indominus Rex has escaped its enclosure. Don’t worry—Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and BD Wong are on hand (in character) to help you escape. But not before you make an 80-foot drop down a waterfall.

Left: Gray stone castle and large gate flanked by winged creates; Right: Tour trolley going through scene with police cars and large fire
Wizarding World of Harry Potter (L), Studio Tour (R)

Teleport to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

When your day-to-day is zapped of magic, ditch the muggles and head to Hogwarts. This land is filled with authentic treats from the book/movie franchise, like Butterbeer and Magic Neep served at Three Broomsticks. Don’t miss the signature Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride that takes guests through a few familiar spaces, including Dumbledore's office and the Room of Requirement.

Go backstage with the Studio Tour

Ready to see how movies are made? Hitch a ride on the famed Studio Tour’s open-air trolleys, which gives guests the chance to get up close to a few of their favorite sets. The tour crosses the 415-acre movie studio complex, stopping in at the original set from Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” along with a backlot tour of Courthouse Square, Brownstone Street, and New York Street, which have all made appearances on countless TV shows (“Beverly Hills 90210,” “ER,” and a little show called “Seinfeld”). Visitors will also catch a glimpse of “Jaws Lake,” featuring an animatronic great white shark just like the one used by Steven Spielberg in “Jaws.” (Just try to stop yourself from singing the theme.)

See the action at WaterWorld

No visit to Universal would be complete without sitting down to watch the park’s number-one rated show—WaterWorld. There’s a reason this has been a park mainstay for almost 30 years. The show brings the 1995 cult classic to life with over-the-top fight scenes, explosions, jet ski stunts, and a dedicated cast. The show is performed several times a day, so make sure to check the posted performance times when you first arrive in the park to time the best show (or shows) for your trip.

Where to eat and drink

Take a snack break between thrills at these eateries.

Exterior of retro 50s-style diner with turquoise, metal, and black-and-white checkered exterior and large red name sign
Mel's Diner

Grab a Homer-sized breakfast at Lard Lad Donut

Start your visit with a sprinkle-covered breakfast that would leave Homer Simpson smiling from ear to ear. Located on Fast Food Boulevard, guests can step into Lard Lad Donut, which looks exactly the same as the one from “The Simpsons” down to its overall-wearing mascot. Get a coffee and a “Big Pink,” an absolutely massive donut smothered in creamy pink frosting and sprinkles that will leave you saying, “Mmmmm, donuts.”

Snag a heartier lunch at Cocina Mexicana

Fuel up for the second half of your day with a heaping plate of Mexican faves at Cocina Mexicana. Our vote goes to the Taco Salad with the works—lettuce, pico de gallo, refried beans, queso fresco, avocado ranch, cilantro, and crispy flour tortilla, which visitors can pair with chicken or carnitas or even Beyond Meat al pastor. There are also plenty of sharable options for groups, including nachos, taco platters, and mini churro bites if you need another sugar fix.

Left: Hand holding up large donut with pink frosting and sprinkles; Right: Wooden board topped with two tacos, tortilla chips, and lime wedge
Lard Lad Donut (L), Cocina Mexicana (R)

Take a Harry Potter-themed break at Three Broomsticks

Crossing from world to world can be tiring. Kick your feet up and rest with a Butterbeer at Three Broomsticks. The tavern, ripped right from the pages of the beloved series, is as accurate as they come with its rustic decor, iron chandeliers, and a menu filled with British dishes like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and even a smoked turkey leg platter.

Kick it old-school at Mel’s Diner

Step inside a real classic for a meal at Mel’s Diner. The ‘50s-inspired drive-in has all the trappings of a rock ‘n’ roll diner straight out of a show like “Happy Days,” with a golden jukebox, a checkerboard floor, neon lights, and chrome decor. Visitors can order American classics like burgers and fries alongside chicken sandwiches, or a side of onion rings. Or order a thick milkshakewith two straws and split it with your sweetheart.

Cool off on a hot day at Studio Scoop

Yes, even in March, the SoCal sun can get the best of you. On hot days, or when you’re just feeling a cold treat, make your way to Studio Scoop, an ice cream and milkshake shop located in the lower lot. Get a low-key cone or scoop, or go all-in on a Chocolate X6 shake—a chocolate milkshake topped with chocolate shavings, a brownie wedge, a few graham crackers, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup for good measure.

Places to stay

Live like a Hollywood A-lister with these staycation spots.

Outdoor pool lined with white loungers and palm trees, next to white hotel tower
The Hollywood Roosevelt

For a cabana for the whole fam, The Hollywood Roosevelt

If you’re looking to add a touch of Hollywood glamor, The Hollywood Roosevelt delivers. This timeless hotel has hosted every major star from the Golden Age of Hollywood till now, and it sits directly on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But—surprise!—this luxury hotel is also the perfect setup for family or group getaways since it offers several cabana options, including the Cabana Suite, which boasts 750 square feet of living space, a private balcony overlooking the Tropicana Pool & Cafe, and a separate lounge area to relax in after a day at the park.

For a stay close to the park, Hilton Los Angeles

If your goal is to stay as close to the action as humanly possible, opt for the Hilton Los Angeles. This hotel is located just a quick walk from Universal Studios, and it also offers a free shuttle service to its guests. After spending all day at the park, guests can return to the hotel and curl up in their cozy (and extremely plush) beds, watch TV in the in-room sitting areas, (which include streaming services so you can see your favorite shows after visiting their sets), or head out to the hotel’s outdoor pool and patio area to do that classic Cali activity—pool lounging.

Left: Living space with tan couch and patterned pillows, and glass door leading to balcony; Right: Minimalist, modern lobby with various seating and large mirror
The Garland (L), Kimpton Everly Hotel (R)

For an Insta-worth stay, The Garland

Design-lovers, this one’s for you. The Garland, a Hollywood hotel celebrating more than 50 years of service, is a mod-era delight, filled with colorful textiles, signature orange umbrellas and chairs, and equally bright orange loungers surrounding its azure pool. Snap a few pics for the ‘gram at its charming outdoor areas, by its bar serving craft drinks, or in its deluxe rooms that echo the color pops of common spaces. For those traveling with kids, the hotel offers “kids room” options, which partition off adorable bunk beds from the rest of the room, giving kids and their parents a little privacy.

For A-list amenities, Kimpton Everly Hotel

If you’re the type that loves all the little perks from swanky hotels, we have your new favorite. The Kimpton Everly is well-known for its ultra-luxe amenities, including Casper mattresses in every room, along with Atelier Bloem toiletries in each bathroom. But the perks don’t stop there. The hotel also hosts a social hour every day from 5 pm to 6 pm, offers free coffee and tea each morning, and provides guests with any forgotten items on request, like a toothbrush, razor, or anything else you left back home on your sink.

For a rooftop view, W Hollywood

Find yourself in the center of the action at the W Hollywood, located right on Hollywood Boulevard. Though, guests don’t really stay here for the street-level view. Instead, they’re here for the one a few stories up, at the hotel’s rooftop pool. The pool deck, surrounded by bright-pink furnishings, is a see-and-be-seen kind of place, but don’t let that intimidate you, as everyone is welcome here. Come lounge by the pool or look over the edge and see the Hollywood sign just off in the distance. And if you can, snag a room in one of the upper levels, which shows off equally impressive views out its picture windows of the sign and of the famed Capitol Records building just down the block.

Stacey Leasca
Stacey Leasca is an award-winning journalist. Her photos, videos, and words have appeared in print or online for Travel + Leisure, TIME, Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many more. You’ll usually find her in an airport. If you do see her there, please say hello.