Universal Studios Hollywood has just opened the new Super Nintendo World
The original Universal theme park has just added a whole new Mario-themed world
It is known as the entertainment capital of the world and the playground of the rich and famous, a place budding actors flock to in pursuit of their dreams.
But in February, I got to live out my own LA dream when I spent a few days exploring Universal Studios Hollywood.
My only previous visit to a theme park was a day trip to Disneyland Paris 12 years ago, which was shortened considerably by accidentally getting off at the wrong Metro stop and having to walk for hours.
So full of nervous excitement, I arrived at London Heathrow for my Virgin Atlantic flight armed with my Gryffindor jumper and the most comfortable pair of runners I own.
I was visiting Universal’s original theme park for the official opening of Super Nintendo World and therefore was one of the lucky few who got a sneak peek inside Mario’s kingdom before it opened its doors to the public on February 17.
Being a self-confessed Harry Potter nut, but not as familiar with the video game that turned into a billion-euro franchise, I was not sure what to expect.
But just a few steps inside the giant green tube that takes you into the Mushroom Kingdom, I was hooked, as my world was suddenly lit up in technicolour. Everywhere I looked there were interactive activities to entertain the whole family.
I took full advantage of the media preview night, and raced up to become one of the first punters to enjoy a go on the land’s stand-out attraction Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge.
If I wasn’t as familiar with the universe of Luigi, Princess Peach and co as some, just one go on the technologically mind-blowing ride was enough to make me a loyal member of Team Mario.
Quite literally a video game in motion, the ride starts when you take your place on a four-seater go-kart that brings you around a moving track, as you take on Bowser’s team of bandits using head-mounted AR (augmented reality) goggles.
While my score was nothing to be proud of, I can confidently say the challenge is perfectly set up for Mario fans. Video game enthusiasts will relish navigating the various courses — some underwater, others in the clouds — as they bid to collect the gold coins and defeat Team Bowser.
As well as colourful landmarks such as Bowser’s Castle and Mount Beanpole, Super Nintendo World is also home to a huge number of interactive areas, including punching blocks where you can collect digital coins. Guests can also collect keys after winning the key challenges dotted around the land — collecting at least three keys will ultimately allow access to the final boss battle with Bowser Jr.
Power-up bands come in six character designs, and help you keep track of your team and individual scores, as well as collecting digital coins and obtaining keys. They can be purchased in the gift shops for $40.
Being a major foodie and not a great loser as the key challenges continued to elude me, I was keen to move into the Toadstool Cafe — one of the highlights of Super Nintendo World for me. A clever queuing system means you order and pay before being seated, and the food is then delivered to your table by a staff member.
I usually expect themed food to be more about a feast for the eyes than the taste buds, but Chef Toad must have been hard at work for months perfecting a menu that is as delicious as it is creative.
I certainly didn’t think food that comes with a moustache would be a taste sensation, but the Mario Burger followed by a Princess Peach Cupcake was a winning combination for me. An honourable mention must also go to the Toadstool Cheesy Garlic Knots and the ? Block Tiramisu – a really impressive creation. The menu also offers vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Mushroom Kingdom can fit up to 4,000 people at maximum capacity and that is likely to be thoroughly tested over the coming months as Mario fans throng to Super Nintendo World — the first in America.
While I was excited to get my ‘game on’ and dive into the world of Mario, it is just one of many themed lands ready for exploration in the park.
The VIP Experience ($363 per day) gave me express access onto each of the rides and it certainly was a day to remember, not to mention a rollercoaster of emotions.
I left reality as I knew it and travelled through New York and then onto Paris where I dropped into the Moulin Rouge for a delicious lunch before joining Gru and his daughters on the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem experience. Later we travelled through Springfield, and even stopped by Moe’s Tavern for a Duff beer.
The park has something for everyone and while the Kung Fu Panda and Secret Life of Pets areas are perfect for children and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is suitable for both big and small kids, there are plenty of hair-tingling moments for the thrill seekers in your group.
After entering the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I was mesmerised as we were guided through Hogsmeade, up towards the castle and past Hagrid’s Hut where we jumped on the Flight of the Hippogriff. This teaser coaster is fun, fast and over in no time, so perfect for those who like a quick thrill.
But that’s where the fear factor really ups its game, and I made my way inside Hogwarts Castle to be briefed by Ron, Harry and Hermione before following them into action on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This dizzying and hugely immersive ride turned my world upside down — quite literally.
During the thrilling adventure, we came face to face with dementors, dragons, and even got to take part in a game of quidditch as Harry tried to lead us safely back to the castle.
While I absolutely loved it, it’s not for the faint-hearted and it probably wasn’t the best idea to ride it twice in a row after one too many cocktails the night before.
Another stand-out attraction at the park was, without a doubt, Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride. Both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, it is a hair-raising experience for even the most sturdy of rollercoaster riders. Jurassic World – The Ride is also a highly enjoyable experience but strap yourself in for the ending. Exhilarating, to say the least!
There are definitely bigger theme parks out there, but I enjoyed being able to make my way around Universal Studios Hollywood and redo some of my favourites without feeling overwhelmed and having to queue for hours. It offers so much but also affords you the time and space to take it all in.
Another draw of Universal’s original theme park is that it also offers a studio tour, where you are treated to a close-up look at some of the sets, both past and present, from hit shows and movies.
From Amity Island, where Jaws still prowls the infested waters, to a 3D tunnel experience courtesy of The Fast and the Furious, and the King Kong 360 3D experience created by Peter Jackson, the amazing tour is well worth doing.
I would also recommend the VIP tour if you have some extra cash to spare. It allows you to get out of your transport and walk around some of the original sets, including wreckage of the Boeing 747 from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.
There are plenty of food options within the park itself thanks to its many themed restaurants, but the Universal CityWalk is also a great place for food and shopping — if like me, you don’t spend all of your money on merchandise in the numerous gift shops.
Reminding me of vibrant Las Vegas, the lengthy strip is full of bars and restaurants, and lights up at night. It is therefore a popular option for guests staying in the hotels surrounding the parks, and for those who don’t want to bother having to book transport to go for dinner.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savoury Feast Kitchen was a stand-out for me here. Despite what the title would lead you to believe, there are plenty of delicious non-chocolate food options too. But if you are feeling a bit adventurous, the chocolate chicken wings are definitely worth a try.
I would also recommend dropping by Margaritaville if you need a stiff drink after a few times screaming your way through the Revenge of the Mummy ride.
The shopping is pretty good too, with Sephora and Abercrombie & Fitch among the stores on the strip.
I stayed in the Sheraton Universal Hotel, which I would highly recommend with its close proximity to the park (only a five-minute walk) beautiful rooms and extremely comfortable beds.
The hotel offers a pool and jacuzzi, which is a great way to wind down after a busy day at the park or to take a few hours off from a jam-packed trip and enjoy the sunshine if visiting in warmer months.
Some people considering a theme park holiday may feel that the long-haul flight from Dublin or London is a step too far.
But the lure of La La Land is real, and when you are over there you realise how much the city has to offer — and how you can easily turn your theme park holiday into whatever you want it to be.
This area offers so much, from the bars of west Hollywood to sightseeing around the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A short Uber ride will bring you to Santa Monica for a beach stroll, or to Beverly Hills and its famous Rodeo Drive for some shopping.
I spent a very enjoyable morning getting lost in the Hollywood Hills as we made our way up a challenging but hugely rewarding hike towards the famous sign. The starting point was Griffith Observatory, a brilliant vantage point from which to enjoy stunning city views.
For me, a theme park holiday combined with the bright lights of a bustling city and the breathtaking views that LA boasts really was a game changer. I can’t wait for my next theme park adventure!
TRAVEL FACTFILE UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD See universalstudioshollywood.com ■ SEVEN nights in Universal Hollywood with Virgin Atlantic Holidays costs from £1,239pps, including return flight from London to LA, deluxe king room at The Garland Hotel, and all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges, which are subject to change. Price is based on a May 18, 2023, departure, and includes a digital shopping voucher. See virginholidays.co.uk.
■ ONE day tickets to Universal Hollywood costs from €100 (adult) and €95 (child aged 3-9). Tickets can be printed or shown on a smartphone and, for a limited time, you can get a second day’s visit for free with Attraction Tickets. The second visit can be taken any time within six days of the first visit. To book, visit attractiontickets.com or call 1800 927 467.
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