It sounded like a good idea: Surprise the kids with an extended layover in Los Angeles and take them to Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood! Two days and two parks? It can be done….if you plan well. Here are my tips for going to both parks when you’re in LA, and not only surviving it but enjoying it.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I started planning the trip. I didn’t know about CheapOair’s new Things To Do series, for one thing. If I had, I would’ve had a better grasp on things to do in LA, which had tips that would’ve made this trip more affordable.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by CheapOair. I partnered with Universal Studios Hollywood to write a series of posts. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Getting around LA
Coming from the Midwest, LA is huge and the traffic is overwhelming. It seemed to me that we picked two parks that couldn’t be further from each other. Would it have been easier to choose other things to do over those two days?
Probably. Who knows?
But, that’s water under the bridge. Learn from me – make sure your planning is thorough.
Tip 1: You’ll need a car in LA. There’s no way around it, especially with only two days to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood.
Plan your routes and departure times before your vacation starts because you’re going to have to get up earlier than you thought. The theme parks are only 35 miles apart…but those are 35 California miles.
Where to stay when going to Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood
The age old question. Where do you stay in LA? As I mentioned, the two theme parks are not near each other.
Tip 2: Where you stay may boil down to where you have loyalty points. If you aren’t loyal to a particular chain, here are some things to consider:
- -Which park will you spend more time? Disneyland had more rides we knew our kids would want to do, so we knew our day would be longer at that park, factoring in waiting in lines.
- -Are your kids young enough to need a nap during one of the afternoons? We knew ours would be exhausted midday due to an overnight flight, so we wanted the option to leave for a nap.
- -What is your budget? Sky’s the limit with your budget? Then, choose a hotel that gets you early admission into Disneyland or Universal Studios Hollywood.
We stayed at the Best Western Park Place Inn & Mini Suites, a Good Neighbor hotel across the street from Disneyland. I thoroughly researched options.
Best Western had many perks:
- You can’t get much closer to Disneyland than this hotel. We walked to the park from the hotel and we were able to leave the park midday for a nap.
- It’s much less expensive than Disney property hotels, as well as many of the other hotels near the theme park.
- The price included parking and complimentary hot breakfast. We were able to park our rental car at the hotel before the afternoon check-in time, too, saving us from having to pay Disneyland’s daily parking rate.
- I could buy Disneyland park tickets at the front desk.
- There was a pool. Granted, we had no time for swimming and it was a little too cool for outdoor swimming. But still. There was a pool.
- It was a comfortable, clean room for the four of us.
The downside? It’s far from Universal Studios Hollywood.
For both parks, I made sure to download each respective app. Each app had different features, though both had a helpful interactive map.
The Play Disney Parks app, for instance, had games to play for some of the rides while we waited.
Tip 3: Playing said games on the Disneyland app suck the battery life out of your phone.
I spent most of my pre-trip planning on Disneyland plans. I used Touring Plans to help me. It wasn’t as essential as planning a Disney World trip, but it helped a lot. The plan gave me an outline of which rides to go on in the order that would minimize walking and wait times.
I started planning 60 days out and made reservations for meals at the park. That’s the earliest you can do it.
For Universal Studios Hollywood, far less planning went into things. There are fewer rides and (in my opinion) a lot more photo opps, so we were going to wing it.
Plus, we had a not-so-secret weapon: The Universal Express Pass. It is well worth the added expense since you could use it once per ride and show and skip the lines!
Tip 4: If you’re only spending one day at either park, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single-day, discounted ticket online. Multi-day passes at a discount are widely available, as are multi-day passes with a hotel discount.
Disneyland in a day
The popular suggestion is to get to the park before rope drop (the minute they officially open) and that you should visit the park opposite the one that has early morning magic hours. We did neither of that and survived. On a weekend.
We arrived at Disneyland about one hour after the park opened. Luckily, there was no stress with parking since we just had to walk across one street from our hotel.
Expect a bit of a line for the security check. It went quick. Because we bought our tickets at the hotel, we were able to walk right up to the ticket takers after passing through security.
We bought the Disney MaxPass for each of us so that we can reserve FastPass tickets for each of us on my phone. The bonus? The Disney MaxPass includes digital copies of all photos taken by Disney photographers inside the park!
Tip 5: There is a free way to get FastPass tickets, it is just a lot more running around less of a guarantee you’ll snag them for the times and rides you want. We tried this option for about an hour before getting frustrated.
The must-ride new ride at Disneyland, Smugglers Run, does not allow a FastPass (at least, not when we were there). Your best bet is to either make that your first ride of the day, or track the wait time on the app and run to the ride once the wait is below 60 minutes.
Tip: You’re assigned a role for the ride. You want to be one of the pilots, if at all possible.
Dining (quickly) at Disneyland
Disneyland allows you to order at some quick-service restaurants through their app. I tested this out with Bengal Barbecue and in the time it took for me to order a snack and walk to the counter window, my food was ready. We ate our jungle skewers while waiting in line for the Indiana Jones ride.
Tip 6: See which restaurants allow Mobile Food & Beverage Ordering here.
We successfully fit everything we wanted to do in one day at Disneyland, including having a sit-down meal (in Disney parlance, that means Table Service Restaurant).
We had lunch reservations at Blue Bayou Restaurant. This much-coveted dining experience is located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Like, you literally watch boats float by.
My kids love all-things-pirates, so it was a no-brainer. However, if you are on a budget and/or time crunch, you are better off skipping this restaurant.
Tip 7: Even when you have reservations at Disneyland, expect a bit of a wait. For both our reservations, we had to get into a line to get in. Of course, this line was much faster than the no-reservations line.
We also had reservations for Oga’s Cantina inside the Uber-popular Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It was right around dinner time, so I’d assumed we’d eat there.
The limited menu is more finger foods and appetizers, and pricey ones at that (pricey ones that kids refuse to eat). It’s an extremely unique place to grab a drink, though.
Tip 8: My kids were surprisingly grossed out by the blue milk and cookie drink they had there. If you suspect your kid may be the same, save yourself $11 and just order them a water.
Universal Studios Hollywood in a day
It’s always recommended to arrive at Universal Studios Hollywood right when the park opens, but as is our MO, we arrived about an hour after opening. We had our admission tickets printed out already, so we by-passed the purchase line. That’s a great idea to save a few minutes!
Now, we were very fortunate to have the Universal Express Pass, which allowed us to skip the long line for each ride once. Whether or not you have that pass, I recommend going to the most popular area in the theme park first: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
And then go straight to the ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™. This popular line is well worth the wait, but why not minimize the wait and go there first thing? (Our wait was about 5 minutes – the time it took to walk the winding route from the entrance to the ride) The amazing ride takes you on a whirlwind journey through Hogwarts™ and outside the school grounds.
Tip 9: Be sure to slow down when rushing to the front of the line with your Universal Express Pass. There are some incredible things to see while you wait in line for rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™. There are quite a few must-have experiences I recommend for Universal Studios.
You can rent a locker by the ride for free for a couple hours, which is a fantastic perk. After the Forbidden Journey, walk over to the only outdoor rollercoaster in the park, Flight of the Hippogriff™.
Your family is going to want to explore The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and that included buying interactive wands and testing them throughout the area.
So, if you suspect your Potterhead kids will be the same, delay getting those wands until later in the day when the lines for the rides are their longest. There can be a slight wait to get into Ollivanders™ and then there’s additional time choosing the wand. (A Universal Express Pass does not get you to the front of the line at Ollivanders)
For the rest of the day, we explored the Upper Lot first before venturing down to the Lower Lot. We rode all of our must-ride rides. We even used the Universal Express Pass to gett straight onto The World-Famous Studio Tour.
Tip 10: Younger kids aren’t nearly as impressed with seeing the movie and TV sets as adults are. If an hour on a tram will test your youngster’s patience, it might be worth waiting for a future visit to go on the tour.
We saved a few things until the end of the day, like the cute Animal Actors Show and DreamWorks Theatre Featuring Kung Fu Panda. Really, we kept our day relaxed and only loosely planned since we didn’t have to worry about lines. We left the day open to random character encounters and surprises.
The finale for us was returning to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and watching the light show on the castle. It was spectacular and jaw-dropping, and I’m really trying to hold back on using too much hyperbole.
We were there at the end of the holiday festivities, so Hogwarts took on an enchanting Christmas appearance with a Christmas tree and lights.
Returning to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter one last time at night gave the kids another chance to use their wands. There is a map that comes with each wand you purchase, so it is easy to find all of the places you can cast a spell.
Dining (quickly) at Universal Studios Hollywood
Like Disneyland, we brought our own water bottles into Universal Studios Hollywood, so we saved on drinks so that we could splurge on treats.
Tip 11: To beat spending too much time in line for food, we ate at off-hours.
So, we had a mid-morning snack — mmm, donut — in Springfield, home of “The Simpsons.” There was no line for a big donut at 10 a.m. Go figure.
Then, we had a late lunch splitting some chicken fingers at Cletus’ Chicken Shack and a Krusty Burger at…where else? Krusty Burger.
While my husband waited in line for the Simpsons-inspired food, the kids and I went looking for characters to take pictures with.
As a trade later on, while I waited in line for an early dinner entree at Jurassic Cafe in the Lower Lot, my husband and the kids went to play in the DinoPlay area.
Tip 12: Get all of my money-saving tips for food at Universal Studios Hollywood in this post.
Final thoughts on two LA parks in two days
I have a few takeaways after our exciting and darn exhausting 48 hours at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood.
- Resist the urge to plan on staying from open to close at one or both of the theme parks. When planning our days out, I knew that we could try to tough it out and get the most out of our park ticket, but it was not worth the exhaustion.
- Stop and smell the theme park flowers. It’s so easy to get caught up in rushing around to get to the shortest line that you easily miss hidden gems and unexpected surprises. Disneyland especially has a lot of nooks with hidden Disney treats.
- I’d have watched “The CheapOair Travel Guy,” Beau Rials, to get some ideas on how to save a little money while we were in LA. His Things To Do video series just started, and while I don’t think we could have crammed one more attraction, I would have loved his tips on food. Want to keep up to date on tips like that? Follow CheapOair’s You Tube channel for the next video! I’m told CheapOair will give their social media followers the first chance to participate in an exciting opportunity soon.
Tuesday 21st of September 2021
Thanks! It’s timely I should find your article because I’m planning a Universal Hollywood trip, and we did a stop in Omaha this past summer! I love Omaha having lived there when I was a kid, and I’m wishing we could move back some day.
Wednesday 22nd of September 2021
Glad I could help! I hope you have a fun trip!