Going to a theme park can be the most exciting part of a holiday but it can also be the most stressful. The best thing you can do is be organised and realistic about long delays and queues.
Researching well ahead of going to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka helped make it the best possible experience while making the most of the fourth-most visited theme park in the world.
Last year it had an attendance of 14,935,000, including for the first time more than two million foreign visitors.
The night before our planned visit we had dinner with Shirly Santiago, guest experience manager of the Swissotel Nankai Osaka, where we decided to revise our plans for tackling one of the biggest tourist attractions in Japan.
“I get there at 5am when I go,” Santiago, who has an annual pass, casually tells us.
So rather than try to navigate the public transport system on what was a national holiday, we jump in a cab at 6.15am from the Swissotel (costing about $70) and within 25 minutes spot the iconic Universal Studios ball.
Arriving just before 6.45am, a flood of eager tourists is already congregating at the gates; luckily we had already purchased tickets and printed out hard copies so we could immediately join the ever-increasing eight-deep queue patiently sitting and waiting to be let in.
We had researched in advance and bought our tickets from the official website which, while difficult to navigate, is essential for those planning on visiting the park. Try to buy your tickets ahead of your visit and even consult a travel agent.
We had investigated buying an express pass to skip what were to be monumental queues (about $200 on top of the $90 entry fee) but given they needed to be purchased 48 hours in advance, and we were departing later that day for the 8.50pm Qantas flight to Sydney, we couldn’t take the risk. For those who plan in advance, the passes are worth considering.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opened in 2014, is a firm favourite for visitors to Universal Studios Japan. Usually accessed via a timed entry ticket, guests to the Wizarding World on weekends and public holidays can anticipate wait times of up to four hours to make it on the Harry Potter rides, even if you could get timed entry into that section of the park.
At 7.45am sharp, having waited at the entry gates for more than an hour, a circus of Looney Tunes characters arrived with smiling staff sporting Harry Potter hats for what appeared to be an official welcome ceremony. Like magic, the gates started opening, tickets were being scanned and it was pandemonium as people were sprinting to their ride of choice.
Using all the adrenaline that had built up in my body with the anticipation, along with the pure fear of a four-hour wait, I channelled Usain Bolt as I navigated the park, sprinting towards the Wizarding World.
I arrived at what was meant to be the timed entry line for Harry Potter and was told there was none happening today and it was first in, best dressed. For a park heavily designed for Japanese locals, it is easy to navigate and most staff — patient and pleasant like all locals that I met during my stay — can understand basic English even if they do not speak it.
Entering the Wizarding World, immediately I am immersed in familiar scenes from the multi-billion-dollar book and film franchise. From the depths of the Forbidden Forest, to a vintage Ford Anglia caught mid-flight, and the Hogwarts Express steam train en route to Hogsmeade Village, everything within the Wizarding World will be instantly recognisable.
With the sight of the imposing Hogwarts Castle surrounded by the black lake ahead, I join the already winding queue for the park’s No. 1 attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
I am weaving through barricade after barricade and within minutes I am in the castle, disposing of any belongings in a locker as I make my way through the brilliant set pieces towards the ride and suddenly, at 7.55am, despite being slightly out of breath and disorientated, I am being locked into a carriage for the most epic, motion-based ride through J.K. Rowlings’ magical universe.
About 45 minutes after getting off the ride as we wandered about the incredibly detailed Hogsmeade Village, the line for the Forbidden Journey had already snaked down all the way from the castle with an estimated wait time of just under three hours.
At that stage of the morning it only took a brief wait to try the kid-friendly mini rollercoaster, Flight of the Hippogriff, and to get into Ollivanders wand shop for a fantastic interactive demonstration. It featured a wand maker who effortlessly goes between Japanese and English and never misses a beat while wowing adults and children alike, even when he accidentally falls down a flight of stairs (a moment I had initially thought was part of the act but was in fact decidedly off script).
There was a sense of relief after completing all that the Harry Potter world had to offer without having to line up. Thus, the rest of the day could be less structured.
We made our way through the various parts of the park as the crowds of visitors continued to swell, with the highlight being the colourful and bizarre Minion Park, the world’s biggest Minions-themed attraction.
Throughout the park, signage estimated wait times for all the rides, for both normal queues and for single riders. Single rider lines allow you, even if you are a group, to get on a ride faster as you will go on separately to fill every seat in a ride vehicle and maximise the number of people the ride can serve per day.
We made use of the single rider lines as we went on the iconic Jurassic Park boat ride that saw us in our ponchos on the water-based ride within 25 minutes, while the normal wait time was said to be 100 minutes. Its new sister ride, over-the-top rollercoaster The Flying Dinosaur, had the longest wait times for the day at just under four hours.
Dining options are quite crowded and slightly limited. We made our way back early to the Wizarding World, given there was no timed entry, and settled into a table in the air-conditioned comfort of the Three Broomsticks, which serves the famous Butterbeer (and even a frozen version).
While Three Broomsticks looks just like the filmed creation, the restaurant itself — described as a Buffeteria — robotically dishes up standard fare such as chicken and chips ($20), roast beef and vegetables ($20) and thankfully a fresh smoked chicken salad ($14) washed down with official Gilly Water (spring water, $3).
Given we had done all we had set out to accomplish and with the red eye long-haul flight approaching we settled on one more ride. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man — the ride is a 4K3-D immerse rollercoaster experience that had an estimated wait time of 90 minutes. Jumping into the single rider line, we were miraculously on board in just over 10 minutes.
It was a thrilling, exciting ride and end to the day as we made our way to the nearby train station, which was just two stops to the connecting subway that had us back at our hotel in Osaka in 30 minutes.
DisclaimerRoss McRae visited Japan as a guest of Travel Associates. They have not seen or reviewed these stories.
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