This is a blatant excuse to post a story about my trip to Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood. Now that we all understand my motivations, I’ll proceed with a review of a beverage that I enjoyed during my visit. Following that I’ll share my thoughts about Universal Studios Hollywood (in general).
One of the new food additions introduced with Super Nintendo World is a float inspired by Princess Peach. There’s a lot going on in this drink, a majority of that being peach. There’s a peach syrup mixed into either club soda or Sprite. Floating on top is a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with a dollop of peach puree. A layer of peach popping boba sits at the bottom of the cup and adds to the whimsy. In case there was any doubt that the drink was supposed to remind you of Princess Peach, there’s a Princess Peach flag on the straw. So, how was it? It was peachy (ha!). It was actually pretty great. It was fun, it was sweet, and it was expensive. That last one wasn’t a compliment, but it also wasn’t unexpected. The one criticism that I’d like to make is that they included ice in the beverage. Ice with ice cream is a terrible combination. It made the boba hard to access, and it made the ice cream difficult to consume. I dare you to mix a bunch of half melted ice cubes into a bowl of ice cream and tell me how your half your half chewing half drinking experience goes. If you order this I recommend asking for it without ice.
Backstory – I was in Los Angeles for a funeral. I was born in Northridge, and my grandfather was one of the last of the family in the area. That meant that his funeral was an opportunity to get our disparate family tree together and reconnect. While most of the trip was dedicated to that effort, we had one day where we could do something for entertainment. The weather was terrible, and I had a hunch that my family of Seattleites could take advantage of that and visit one of the theme parks during what might be a low crowd day.
I ended up getting much luckier than I expected. Our free day was Monday of MLK Jr weekend, and the previous two days were extremely cold and rainy. The forecast had called for Monday to be gross as well, but the rain tapered off in the morning, and the temperature hovered in the mid 50’s for most of the day. We got to Universal Studios Hollywood at about 9:30am and quickly discovered that my guess about crowd size was correct. It was empty and would stay uncrowded for the rest of the day.
That wasn’t the only lucky thing about this trip. Universal Studios Hollywood is scheduled to open its newest attraction (Super Nintendo Land) on February 17, 2023. Super Nintendo World was something I had heard about at some point, but it wasn’t on my radar until I read random blog post while waiting for my flight to Los Angeles. There was a comment in the write-up about Universal holding some “Technical Rehearsals” of the attraction prior to the official opening. I thought that this would be limited to annual pass holders, so I kept my expectations low and planned on being satisfied with the Studio Tour and some other rides.
As it turned out, they opened up the technical rehearsals to everyone at the park. Beyond some disclaimers about there being no guarantees about full operation of the rides and features, there was nothing different about my experience and what someone on February 17th will see. Well, except a giant crowd.
I’m a Nintendo fan. I’ve never owned any of the other major gaming systems, so all this Nintendo stuff is very tied into my childhood (and beyond). Stepping through the warp pipe and entering the attraction was beyond surreal. Between the high walls, the scale of the features, the super saturated colors, and the motion of the scenery (coins, goombas, piranha plants, etc.), I was fully immersed.
The footprint of Super Nintendo World is relatively small, and I was worried that it would feel claustrophobic. Maybe due to the small crowd size on the day I visited, this was not the case. The attractions are generally stationed along the perimeter of the space, and there was room to navigate around without people crowding into you. There were some awkward spots where a line formed waiting to play a mini game and it wasn’t obvious what direction the queue was intended to take, but someone came over and shifted us away from a different attraction’s entrance.
Something that surprised me was how many different themes they were able to incorporate inside the land. Similar to how a warp pipe in a game can take you from blue skies and green trees to an underwater realm, walking through a doorway can do the same thing in Super Nintendo World. There are lighting, temperature, and music changes to accompany the various themes. Upstairs in one of the castle areas was set up like a snow level, the bathrooms were underwater themed, parts of Bowser’s castle felt volcanic. It was terrifically executed.
Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge is the only true ride within the Super Nintendo World. As I mentioned, there wasn’t a crowd when I visited, but I was still very impressed with my walk through the queue area. You criss-cross through Bowser’s castle and get a sneak peak into the nefarious explosives manufacturing process. Bowser is a well-documented narcissist, so you’ll see statues, portraits, and other imagery of the big man scattered throughout the castle. The concept of the ride is that you’re on Team Mario and you’re racing against Team Bowser. Your job is to steer when you’re directed to steer, and to shoot turtle shells at Bowser and his cronies as you’re driven through the course. This is all achieved using an augmented reality system delivered through a sophisticated headset that is synced with the motions of the kart. You put a Mario headset on, pop on the AR visor, and then you take aim at your desired target by staring directly at it and depressing the triggers on your steering wheel. The ride itself isn’t fast, but the video elements add a lot of depth and motion to the experience. The interactive racing visuals and attack functionality felt really smooth and was a blast both times I suited up. You get coins for your successful hits, you lose coins for shooting your own team. It was easy enough that young riders will still have a great time, but it was also engaging enough that middle aged sentimentalists like me will get a lot out of multiple rides. In my opinion, this is the best “ride” at Universal Studios Hollywood by a long shot.
I don’t want to give away too many other details about Super Nintendo Land, but what I will say is that the Power-up Band ($40) is a worthwhile accessory. If you’re reluctant to drop a bunch of cash on it, I’d recommend just buying one for your entire party to share. That’s what we did. It connects to the Universal Studios app on your phone and turns the experience into a bit of an easter egg hunt (kind of like Pokemon Go). This was the only way that we were able to go through the Bowser Jr attraction, and it makes the power blocks and other features more interactive as well. You can still have a good time without it, but you’re definitely missing part of the experience.
I visited Super Nintendo Land at rope drop (10am), and then I visited it again at the end of the day (6:30pm). The blue skies and white clouds in the morning added to the natural aesthetic, but seeing all the features lit up at night was great as well. Either way, plan on spending a couple of hours wandering around the area. If you’re able to break it up into multiple sessions, then a day and a night visit would be worthwhile.
Now, here are my thoughts about Universal Studios Hollywood in general. Overall, I’m glad we went. The Super Nintendo World stuff was incredible. We also loved the Studio Tour where they drive you around their sound stages and old sets and give you some cinematic history lessons. The Water World stunt show was also fantastic, even though I’ve never seen the movie. However, I found that most of the other rides/attractions were subpar. Due to space constraints they use a lot of “shaking seat with a video” type of rides which got old very quickly. Here’s my quick ranking of the attractions:
- Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge – As described above, this was super unique and engaging. My son was upset that it wasn’t faster (like the test track at Epcot), but I really appreciated it.
- Studio Tour – This is a super unique attraction, and they do a great job with it. I loved that it was a long break between other things (about an hour start to finish), mixed a general tour with some ride-like elements, and taught me a little bit more about how movies are made. This is a must-do.
- Water World – The stunt show is special. They have real actors/stunt people playing the various roles, pull off some impressive maneuvers with jet-skis in a small space, and perform some very technical jumps/falls throughout the performance. The actors are also expertly engaging and funny, even on a cold day when there weren’t a lot of volunteers to sit in the splash zone.
- Jurassic World – This is a raft ride with a big drop at the end. My family went on this thing about 5 times, no joke. That’s partly because the wait times were very short, but also because we’re big fans of the Jurassic Park/World movies. The storyline was fun, the ride had some decent jump scares, and the splash at the end is good fun.
- The Mummy Returns – This ride is starting to show its age, but I had a good time on it. Rode it twice in a row because my son wanted to do it again immediately. It’s very dark, has elements of super quick acceleration/deceleration, and is spooky. It feels like it’s almost a rollercoaster.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – The Harry Potter theming in Hogsmeade and Hogwarts is fantastic, but this ride was just “okay” for me. I had ridden this before in Orlando, and it was the worst of the three main rides at that park. Gringotts and the Motorbike ride were much better, but neither of those are at the Hollywood park. I ended up riding the Forbidden Journey twice in a row (again, my son wanted to jump right back on), but I was reluctant. The mechanics of the ride are actually pretty impressive with how they blend the video elements with physical movements of the chair. My issue was mostly around how jerky it gets and some of the blurring/transitioning of the video. This might be because the ride was originally built as a 3D visual but then they converted it back to 2D. It’s not a bad ride, but I definitely felt motion sick by the end of the second round.
- Transformers 3D – This was mostly a “sit in the seat and get bumped around” ride, but they did add in some physical movement to it as well. The 3D video stuff worked better in the backseat of the car (again, I rode this twice in a row so I got to experience both), but what I wanted at this point was a real rollercoaster. Not a bad ride, just okay.
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – This was a giant group ride where everyone gets placed in motion seats and you watch a projected experience together. The story was kind of cute (you get turned into a minion and follow the characters through a bunch of perilous situations), but overall it was just too limited to impress my group. Meh.
- Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash – The queue area was adorable. They designed it to look like you’re walking through people’s apartments. Since there was no line when we visited, this was actually a bit weird. More than once I had to ask my wife if we had made a wrong turn because it didn’t look like a queue. The ride itself was made for young kids and was a spectator style trip through some whimsical animatronics. Little kids will love this. My kids have aged out of this sort of attraction (or at least on this day).
- The Simpsons Ride – I hated this. The waiting areas felt claustrophobic, especially the penultimate one with super low ceilings. They place you in a rollercoaster like cart and then video project a Simpsons themed adventure. The cart shakes and whips you around a bit, but I didn’t find the story all that engaging, and the motion was more jarring than exciting. Boo.
- Kung Fu Panda – Did not do. We got in line for it and then figured out that it was another presentation style thing. We bailed and headed over to Harry Potter, and then did the Nintendo stuff again.
Universal wasn’t a bad way to spend a day, but I’m not in a big rush to go back. My kids might want to do the Super Nintendo World stuff again at some point, but I wouldn’t consider that enough of a reason to book a trip to California. Maybe if we have a free day while doing something else in the area, but not as a dedicated journey. Universal Studios Orlando has a lot more roller coasters, so I could see us combining a visit with a future Disney World trip. Time will tell! If you’re planning on going I think you’ll have a great time with the new features.