This visit to Universal Studios Japan completes our ‘trilogy’ of the 3 large theme parks in Japan during our inaugural trip in the Summer of 2015.
Despite having ran and screamed our way through two of the most popular Disney theme parks (namely Disneyland and DisneySea), our visit to Universal Studios Japan (USJ) still gave us some unexpected surprises in more ways than one – lots of ‘thrills, spills and excitement’ in their many movie-themed rides. In all, we conquered 8 iconic rides and did a whole lot of souvenir shopping since this was the last leg of our Japan trip…all under 8 hours. It’s far lesser rides than the first two Disney theme parks we went but take my word for it, the queues at USJ is crazily longer than those at Disney’s.
Took the JR train from downtown Shin-Osaka to USJ!
In this post, we will also give our very own take on the recent Tripadvisor survey that ranked Universal Studios Singapore (USS) as the best theme park in Asia, surpassing even the more established USJ! Having been to USS countless times (read my most recent post for USS), we give our verdict at the end.
Plan Plan Plan Plan Plan!
Like all the theme parks we’ve been to, we always plan the rides we want to experience to maximise our visit. Quite simply because it’s not everyday that we are at USJ and also, I’m only young once, as well as my kids.
USJ is by far larger than USS. In fact, it is easily 5 times bigger. USJ is divided into 7 themed zones (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, Jurassic Park, Universal Wonderland and Amity Village). It didn’t help also that the Park Map was not drawn to scale so the distances were much farther than what it appeared to be. The Disney Park Maps were far more reliable and accurate.
Buy your Fast Pass!…and plan again!
I start recounting my experience with this golden advice – Buy your Fast Pass. Here at USJ, unlike Disney’s more equitable Express Pass system (i.e. no need to pay), you need to purchase USJ’s Fast Pass (officially known as Universal Express™ Pass). Unless you have your own private jet or live next to USJ, buy the Universal Express™ Pass before you visit USJ. Some money are not worth saving, unless you want to stand in queues for hours.
Fast Pass Buying Tips
The “Universal Express™ Pass” is a special Fast Pass that will make your outing to USJ far more enjoyable. The average wait per ride ranges from 60 minutes to 240 minutes long (yes! can you imagine standing in line for 4 hours for a ride?!). With the Universal Express™ Pass , your waiting time at popular rides and attractions will be shortened significantly. However, this is not a Entrance Studio Pass. You will need to buy the USJ Entrance Studio Pass separately.
There are three options for the Universal Express™ Pass available:
a. The Universal Express™ Pass 7: enjoy priority Q for 7 of the main rides
b. Universal Express™ Pass 5: enjoy priority Q for 5 of the main rides (*we bought this)
c. Universal Express™ Pass 3: enjoy priority Q for 3 of the main rides
Some things to note:
- The ‘Universal Express™ Pass Booklet’ can be used only on the day of purchase by the person who purchased the booklet (i.e. you need to purchase one for each of your family member, even kids too).
- With the ‘Universal Express™ Pass’, you can only enjoy the priority Q once for the designated rides, on the day of purchase.
- There is a limited number of Universal Express™ Pass Booklets available for sale per day. Booklets may be sold out.
- A Timed Entry Ticket to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ is included with purchase of Universal Express® Pass 5 or 7.
- We booked the Universal Express™ Pass 5 in advance online by following this step by step website.
Fearing that the Universal Express™ Pass may be sold out on our day of visit, we relied on the step by step instructions of this website to purchase both our Entrance Studio Passes as well as our Universal Express™ Pass 5 online while we were still in Singapore. We paid by credit card and received the E-Tickets which we printed at home and brought along for entry.
Once we got the Universal Express™ Pass, we thought we had some of the famous rides secured and started to plan how to include the non-Fast Pass rides into our day. We were raring to go…until…
Our Universal Express™ Pass were for these 5 rides: namely, Harry Potter ride, Spiderman ride, Hollywood Dream ride, Jaws Experience (classic) and Backdraft. Since these 5 rides were already ‘secured’ by our Fast Pass, I planned to queue for our non-Fast Pass rides starting with Jurassic Park.
Imagine my shock when I arrived at the Jurassic Park entrance only to see that it was closed for maintenance! My eyes quickly darted around and I saw that Jaws was closed too! Two of my preferred key rides were closed – bummer. We wanted to go for the Harry Potter ride (which is near the Jaws and Jurassic Park) but we were too early to gain entry (yes, due to the huge crowd at Harry Potter world, you need to select a time online for your visit). My carefully planned USJ itinerary was starting to go awry.
Go far, Go deep…first
Out of desperation, I decided to use another tried and tested strategy – go for the furthest ride first, assuming that the crowd haven’t made their way in yet. I went for something right at the deeper end of the park, something all too familiar, something from my time.
1. Back to the Future – The Ride
We queued 20 minutes early in the morning but the queue was 90 minutes by noon. This stationery 2-D simulation ride still packs a punch with us sitting in the Deloren going through time and space. Only thing was we didn’t quite understand the story line – the narration was in Japanese (no English subtitles)! Still, it was fun and I personally was starstruck to be able to sit this legendary ride. (Rating: 3/5)
Join us for our ride here: Caution – Motion Sickness alert
2. The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman – The Ride (Fast Pass)
From 2D, we literally travelled into the future to 4K-3D with the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman.
This travelling simulation ride will have us sitting in a car, aiding Spiderman to eliminate villains. It is reminiscent of USS’s Transformer ride but with greater thrills. Pity the entire story was narrated in Japanese as I had to try my best to deduce the story line while being jolted about by Dr. Octopus. The ride was thrilling but may not be suitable for young kids and those with motion sickness due to the violent shakes and turns. (Rating: 3.5/5)
3. Backdraft – The Show (Fast Pass)
After two intense rides, it was time to take it easy. A short walk from the Spiderman ride is our next Fast Pass experience, Backdraft. This is based on the hit show featuring firemen who risked their lives of those trapped in burning buildings. This experience is not a ride but a ‘standing’ show where you walk through different scenarios listening to the narrator explaining how certain parts of the intense movie was filmed. It reminded us of the ‘Lights Camera Action’ show in USS.
However, once again, the entire show was narrated in Japanese with no subtitles and/or translation aids. Ironically, the presenters were Caucasians, clearly from the movie set but speaking Japanese. This experience was just so last generation and although the special effects were good, I felt it did not serve the discerning theme-park goers. Unless you’re sheltering from a falling meteorites (or heavy rain) or have no other rides to take, you may want to give this a miss. (Rating: 2/5)
4. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Timed Entry Ticket booked with Fast Pass)
By now, it was close to 1030am – our scheduled time for the much awaited Harry Potter ride, unique to only certain parts of the world. We can’t wait!
We headed towards the entrance to The Wizardy World of Harry Potter and was promptly ushered in. It sure didn’t take long before we were transported to Hogsmeade. We were stunned by how realistic the whole village is! In fact, right at the entrance is the life sized Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 ¾. Great photo-ops here.
5. Join us for a walkabout of Hogsmeade:
Harry Potter World is a must visit in USJ. Every detail of Hogsmeade was recreated like the movie – from fake snow to the details in the shops, from non-alcoholic Butterbeer (Yum! Must try!) to the towering steeples of Hogwarts. HOGWARTS!!!! Yes, the legendary castle in its life sized glory. I could almost hear the Harry Potter sound track ringing in my ears just at the sight of the majestic fictitious castle. It was there that we are headed for our next ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
This is where we were honestly thankful for our Universal Express™ Pass. Even at 1030am, the queue was 2 hours long – the sign at the start of the queue reads ‘120 minutes’. By the time we ended our ride, the queue had swelled to ‘240minutes’ (no kidding!).
The 4K3D Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is intense and out-of-this-world AWESOME. A mini roller coaster of sorts except you’re seated sideways, back to each other and facing out. There are no major G-forces but you are swung and turned in and out as you fly with Harry Potter playing Quidditch (yes, fast-paced!) but were interrupted by Death Eaters and in the midst of it all, you have to defeat the one whose name shall not be mentioned.
Characters appear as 3D holograms and therefore quite realistic. The Death Eaters are really in your face as well as the Dragon! During the ride, we experienced fog, smoke, strobes, water, soap bubbles, loud noises, pitch black scents, rapid acceleration, abrupt stops-turning, sudden upturns and abrupt falls. In fact, this ride simulates dramatic aerobatics. Wow! But because of that, it may not be suitable for kids below 9 (Dana admitted she was frightened by the Death Eaters) or those not acquainted with J.K Rowling’s famous novels. But for us who do, this is a ride like none other. We only wish our Fast Pass allow us to ride it twice! The only regret was that all narration was in Japanese. For that my rating is 4.5/5.
When we exited the ride, the queue was now 240 minutes (4 hours) long. I think it can be seen from space. We tarried awhile more at Hogsmeade (I can’t believe I said that!), drank more Butterbeer and visited the souvenir shops in Harry Potter World (bought a wand for Dana to remember this visit). It’s quite a memorable experience! Regardless of whatever magic, it’s time for lunch now: we’re hungry.
Lunch: Azzura Di Capri (Number 63 on Map)
Right before we go from Harry’s Potter World back to New York and Hollywood, right in the middle is Azzura Di Capri – a restaurant that resembles an Italian Grotto, complete with Al fresco and indoor dining. To escape the mid day heat, it was indoors for us. The Pizza was really delicious – thin crust with fresh ingredients. It’s a welcome change from the usual usual theme park fare. The cold drinking water was a hit with most visitors as it was a sunny day.
6. Terminator 2: 3D show (Fast Pass)
After lunch, we walked over to New York where we substituted our Jaws Fast Pass (which was closed) for the Terminator 2, a 3D show which I thought would be a good Sci-Fi classic to introduce to the daughter. It could have been, except it was all narrated in…JAPANESE!
This is a mix of live stage show with the occasional 3D screening where we had to don the glasses. There’s the young John Connor being saved by a Arnie look-alike (ok lah….so so) complete with the bike walking on and off stage, shooting at the screen and speaking in Austrian-slanged Japanese. Sigh, so passé. Unless you are really hiding from killer cyborgs, give this a miss. Rating 2.5/5 – extra half point given for the comfy cinema seats, a welcomed rest from the running and walking around in USJ.
7. Space Fantasy – The Ride
Just right outside Terminator is a ride highly recommended by most travel reviewers. So, despite the noon day queue at 90 minutes, our craving for adrenaline got the better of us with the daughter and I gamely queued for it.
We didn’t regret it at all. This is one awesome ride. It’s a mix between Disney’s Space Mountain and a cup and saucer ride. It’s an intense indoor roller coaster except it’s only lit at some points as it whirls and turns, zooming past brightly lit stars and galaxies with tight turns and drops. Definitely not for the weak hearted and be prepared to drop backwards. Wow! Wow! Wow! We really had some serious adrenaline rush here. The brightly lit galaxies and strobes inside were just phenomenal!
Here’s a sneak peek of our Space Fantasy ride…see if you can catch glimpses of the galaxies as we zoomed by.
We would have loved to take this ride again if its not for the 120 minute queue by the time we emerged. In a bittersweet sort of way, this was to be my last roller coaster ride with my 7 year-old on this trip. (Rating: 5/5)
8. Hollywood Dream – The Ride (Fast Pass…twice)!
Finally, our last Fast Pass ride which you simply CANNOT miss. The Hollywood Dream, located right at the entrance of USJ is touted as one of the steepest and fastest roller coasters in the world. But sadly, my 7 year-old daughter didn’t meet the height limit and BECAUSE of that, I got to go on it a second time using her Fast Pass!
The Hollywood Dream Roller-coaster has an equally intense ‘cousin’- the Hollywood Backdrop. While the Hollywood Dream propels you forward like a regular roller coaster (albeit at amazing speed, height and turns), the Hollywood Backdrop draws you backwards with the same intensity and speed. Absolutely crazy! For me, it would be the Hollywood Dream for now as the Hollywood Backdrop is not available for any Fast Pass and the queue for the latter was 120 minutes long.
This is an awesome roller-coaster ride, definitely is not for the fainthearted. Apart from being one of the fastest and steepest roller-coasters in the world, it also gives a stunning view of USJ. I loved the ride so much I took it twice! Here’s the front row seat from my 2nd ride on the awesome Hollywood Dream.
What a spectacular ride to cap our Japan Theme Park Trilogy! Though Dana didn’t meet the height requirement this time round (she was not too happy about it), it’s a good reason for us to return one day for another Daddy and Daughter ride on the Hollywood Dream roller-coaster.
After Angie completed some souvenir shopping, we left USJ and made our way back to our hotel in Osaka just before dusk.
How is USJ compared to USS?
USJ has some really special rides which USS may not be able to offer for now. We were slightly disappointed that all the narration for the rides that bear a plot were all in Japanese. Even the Disney theme parks had selected shows in English or at least with subtitles provided. Also, the USJ map is severely out of scale. Staff at the USJ were not as proficient in English or helpful as those at the Disney theme parks. Due to time and factors beyond our control, we missed 3 rides: Jaws (closed), Jurassic Park (closed) and Flight of the Hippogriff™ (too long queue). We also skipped the kiddy Universal Wonderland entirely (as the daughter’s appetite for adrenalin is akin to one of a teenager’s).
We did not chance upon any meet any character Meet-and-Greet during the entire day (unlike USS) and we also chose not to stay till closing time to catch the Magical Starlight Parade. Despite that, USJ is still a theme park worth visiting for its diverse range of rides and attractions which cater to all ages. If there is one compelling reason to return to USJ, it would be for its star attraction – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):