For my husband’s 30th birthday, we went to Orlando and without realizing it, we were at the Wizarding World’s premiere of the release of the 8th HP movie. They had actors all over the park and we even managed to meet the men of the Weasley clan! When I heard they were opening the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood during my birthday week, I thought the magic would be replicated in the hopes that my sister could spot some big names during the inauguration. Turns out they decided to start the festivities before the advertised April 7th opening day, but there should still be something going on.
Because April 7th fell on a Thursday, we decided to fly out early, do other activities in the area and attack the park early in the morning on Friday. Universal Studios offers pre-paid ticket holders an extra hour of admission before the official park opening, and we took advantage of the offer. The downside? We’ll have to be at the park at 7 am to open the gates and take advantage of the opportunity to go through the rides with minimal crowds. Not an easy thing to pull off but we might get lucky! I’m sure they are expecting lots of spring breakers and fans. The advertising is everywhere!
To kill time before checking in at the Universal City Hilton, we drove our rental car to the Santa Monica Pier. Our intention was to kill a few hours but it started raining so we had to cut our visit short. We decides to take refuge in the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co and had our fill of shrimp while the weather improved. Before going in however, my husband spotted a JapaDog cart and ate a little less to be able to enjoy a japanese style gourmet hotdog, nori included, and was sad to learn they weren’t open on Thursdays. Since it was still sprinkling, we hit the arcade and admiree all the choices; they had Pac-Man, Galaga and many play for tickets games like Skeeball. By 12 pm the pier started to get full of tourists and visitors, who walked around the Pacific Park to check out the rides. Since none interested us we decided to head to the hotel to check in.
My husband booked our flights with a 6 am departure time so our crew was dead tired by the time got to the Universal City area. The Hilton staff checked us in early (1 pm instead of 4 pm) which gave us time to sneak in a nap before our dinner appointment at Ren Sushi in Long Beach to meet some friends. I used the in-room spa services to get a massage and complimentary face treatment while the rain subsided. Sunny California turned into gray and wet LA for the first 8 hours of our journey while back home record temperatures in the low 80s were being reported. Talk about being in wrong place at the wrong time!
We made it to Long Beach after a couple of traffic delays and had the best time watching Golden State Warriors play the San Antonio Spurs with two of the students of my London trip. It was worth the hassle, especially since the GPS took us through the scenic route; studio lots, east LA and Griffith Park to name a few. The sushi was excellent! As a tribute to International Beer Day we had pitchers of Sapporo. 🙂
The crew set out to Universal Studios Hollywood and have breakfast in the park. The plan was to attack the park by the 7 am opening time but we over slept, so we started our journey at 9 am. However most stores weren’t open yet, and the ride lines weren’t horrible either. On average we spent about 25 mins waiting, even in the Wizarding World the crowds were manageable. As the day continued, the queues stayed the same and the park was manageable in spit of the rain. Ponchos were expensive but a necessity. (See A Day in Hogsmeade for more info on the Wizarding World.)
We took refuge in The Mummy Returns and Transformers 4D rides but eventually we had to bite the bullet and get wet; the rides have some water effects too so we were never really out of the wetness. By 6 pm the crowds had subsided and we rode all of the attractions with waits under 10 minutes including Despicable Me’s Minions experience. The park itself is smaller than Orlando’s and doesn’t have as many rollercoasters making it heavily dependent on 3D and 4D experiences. The highest impact ride is The Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World which is also the newest.
The best part of the park is the ability to see behind the scenes of NBC Universal production studios. The tour has a lot of cool sets from movies like Jaws and War of The Worlds, along with props and sets used in TV shows. My sister lost it when she saw the Bates Motel! We also saw Amy Pohler’s car in the reserved parking lot and a few places for the Shades of Blue team. The tour is offered in various languages and unfortunately our Spanish tour had so many technical difficulties we ended up skipping The Fast and the Furious 3D spectacular. 😦
We left 30 minutes before park closing to drop off our loot and find a spot to eat. Karl Strauss Brewing Co opened late so we ventured into the City Walk and had a few beers and mac and cheese. The Hilton is within walking distance so we didn’t have to worry about drinking and driving. 🙂 If you are not a fan of beer, and want some nighttime entertainment, Howl at the Moon has dueling piano show with a cover charge. There’s also a Cantina restaurant with yummy Mexican food and a Bubba Gump Shrimp.
Since Universal Studios can be completed in a day, we had tacked on a day at Disneyland to our vacation. The Resort is about 45 mins to an hour away. The one day park hopper cost us about $170 per person, but we couldn’t have done both California Adventure and Disneyland on the same day and during the same trip otherwise. Since I love Sleeping Beauty and the park is centered around her castle, it was the perfect way to celebrate my birthday. My sister had participated recently in the Disney College Program so she knew how to get me a celebratory button. The goal, to get more than the 5 Slytherin shout outs the previous day. Our journey through the Resort would be a bittersweet moment for my sister who is also coming to the Happiest Place on Earth after surviving the worst year of her life…
California Adventure closes earlier than Disneyland so we decided to start there. Unfortunately for us the rain wouldn’t let up so we had to walk through Cars Land aka Radiator Springs with our minion ponchos and Hogwarts rain jackets. It wasn’t ideal but we weren’t getting soaked. Around lunch time we decided to try some cone fair from the Cone Motel. The snacks didn’t satisfy us so we crossed the street to eat at Flo’s Diner. The salads and burgers weren’t as excellent as the Racer 5 and Grand Am beers. The fare can be hit and miss, especially if you have fond memories of the Turkey legs and pizzas you had there once before. Nostalgia can make or break trips of this nature, in our experience.
The park has many opportunities to meet characters and at the Cone Motel we snapped a picture with Red. Lightning McQueen was also making the rounds, and you can ask the cast members for appearance times. It’s the one thing you can count on: Disney characters are everywhere! Because the Marvel license only applies to Islands of Adventure, you can pose with Captain America and Spiderman in the Hollywood lot. 😀 Make sure to use your photopass whenever they take your picture as it will enable you to check and order prints online. No more using park time to wait for souvenir shots!
After we rode California Screamin’ and the Ferris Wheel, we decided to skip the Food and Wine festival which runs through April into May. Drinking wine and tasting local fare is an excellent activity when it isn’t raining; the booths and eating spots are all outdoors and uncovered. Upon exiting the park, you get a stamp on your left hand for re-entry. We didn’t expect to return but it is best to be safe than sorry.
Unlike Orlando’s Resort, Disneyland is very small and doesn’t have an Epcot Center or Magic Kingdom. Therefore the park is a mix of the best rides and attractions of the two. Depending on how you consider it, there are many things in this environment that are similiar to Disney World with a few subtle differences. Both have Frontierland, Mickey’s Toontown, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland but this park also has New Orleans to house Pirates of the Caribbean and the Pandora store that sells the Resort exclusive charms. Main Street is almost identical except for the shops it houses. We stopped at the entrance podium to get my Happy Birthday badge, which got me about 10 shout outs and a front of line placement. Yay! Other than this, the only fast pass/front of the line perks we were able to score and use was for Star Tours. There are only 9 attractions that have this reservation and cutting in line ability so make sure you target these early because some rides run out of tickets. Download the app for more information, including attraction wait times and fast pass hours.
To our surprise, Tomorrowland has been converted to a Star Wars Universe preview, and features a meet and greet with Kylo Ren and Chewbacca. The Jedi Academy experience takes center stage and is filled in a first come, first served basis. Space Mountain was renamed Hyperspace Mountain to add a Rogue Squadron mission to the existing layout. From what intel I gathered, Magic Kingdom will not make the same changes. Also, if you are looking for R2-D2 Mickey ears give up now. They are being phased out by BB8 models. Nothing makes one feel older than a birthday and the revamp of your old childhood memories…
My husband wanted to check out Haunted Mansion which has been revamped too, adding scenes and characters from the Eddie Murphy movie. It’s a small world added several Disney favorites to the ride as well in their respective continents and cultural regions. I didn’t see as much Elsa and Anna as I was expecting post Frozen hype but then again there is merchandise for all princesses here so I am sure they don’t want to neglect the classics either. I wish they had more Sleeping Beauty merch but at least, for my delight, they did have her in the BLUE dress in the castle storybook hall.
At 9:30 pm the Disneyland Forever! fireworks show started and we parked ourselves in the it’s a small world area. The display of lights, music and fireworks was spectacular, evoking feelings of happy memories and joy. The colorful sky has always awakened the sadness in my heart, the booming noise serving as cathartic release of all that does not serve me: in the tears streaming down our faces we left the bitterness of all the unfortunate events of 2015 and shed the weight of many distasteful moments. Yes, my child would have been 6 years old, enjoying the view with his parents and aunt. Instead, we were there exactly as 8 years ago when we decided to spend a mini honeymoon at Disneyland; married without kids and my sister, single. Some wounds take longer than others to heal, and some twists lead back to the beginning. At least we have more experience, right?
Back at the hotel after fleeing the park before it closed, we drove through In N Out Burger to get some sustenance. This was by far our cheapest meal of the trip at a whopping $19 bucks total. The food in tourist spots is so expensive but healthier than in other parts of the country. At least that’s how it felt to me. The automatic parking machine reminded us to have a good morning. Busted! He he.
Sunday is usually our day to relax and unwind so we decided to visit friends near Edwards Airforce base. The mini family road trip was DJ’d by Sirius XM who had us singing to the hits of the 80s and 90s. After a stop at the Yard House in Palmdale, we met with our peeps and turned back to the city to find Griffith Observatory and Daniel Radcliffe’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We ended up almost crashing the premiere of Game of Thrones at Grumman’s Chinese Theater. We saw Peter Dinklage arrive, and part of his leg was caught on film. XD Needless to say we didn’t find the star we were looking for but we did breathe the same air as Khal Drogo and his Khaleesi.
Do me a favor, avoid Cabo Wabo. It’s too touristy and not worth the hassle. Hard Rock is better by far and closer to the action…
To avoid paying 9 bucks a gallon (rental car gas prices are ridiculous) we stopped at an Arco to fill up before reaching the airport. Past security, we stopped at Rock and Brews to have a couple of burger protein style and a breakfast burrito. Getting to LAX was a pain but the scenic route is always worth it, plus the 2 hr plane ride gives us enough time to nap and watch a movie. My sister chose Southpaw and my husband selected Pan. That defines my weekend in a nutshell. Zach was ecstatic to see us arrive and got us to play fetch. We missed him too. 😉
I hope you get a chance to experience the magic of LA yourself. We had a mini vacation but to see everything you need at least a week to see it all. Book early to get better airfare and hotel rates. A Disneyland Resort hotel is a best bet for those enjoying Knotts Berry Farm and the Anaheim Angels. We didn’t catch a game of any sport but we should have taken the opportunity to watch Kobe’s last game or a baseball opener. Enjoy!