This year Universal Studios Japan (also known as USJ for short) celebrates its 15th anniversary, which has an unusual but fitting title: “RE-BOOOOOOOORN.” The park first opened in March 2001 and welcomed over 11 million visitors in the first year. It has various events happening throughout the year for the anniversary, and I am happy to say we got to experience at least part of it.
This isn’t my first visit to USJ. Back in 2003/2004, as an exchange student to Japan, I went to the park over winter holidays. I did get to ride Back to the Future during that visit, a ride which closed earlier this year. So much has changed since then, so I was “RE-BOOOOOOOORN” during this visit. That was a terrible joke, but I am leaving that one in.
Here’s our trip report to Universal Studios Japan during their 15th Anniversary Celebration! Also, you don’t want to miss our tips & advice for trip planning to USJ at the end of this post. If you prefer audio, listen to our podcast episode dedicated to USJ.
Airbnb, Shinkansen (Bullet Train), & Park Tickets
I was with a friend (he’s the one featured in the photos with me here) for dinner one night and he mentioned going to USJ but didn’t think it would happen before he left Japan. On a whim, I said, “Let’s just go!” Over the span of two days, we booked an Airbnb (if you sign-up, you’ll receive travel credit) and our Shinkansen tickets to Osaka.
Our tiny Airbnb cost ¥13,533 ($132 USD) for two people for two nights. It was two stops away on the Sakurajima Line (桜島線) and only a five-minute walk to the station. It was nothing luxurious, but it did the job and was a breeze to book. If you’re on a budget and want to save money, then I highly recommend it.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Shin-Osaka Station cost ¥29,460 ($289 USD) round-trip. Since I am a resident of Japan, I am not eligible for the Japan Rail Pass, which saves you a considerable amount of train fare, including the bullet train. If you’re traveling across Japan in a short period of time, then I recommend the Japan Rail Pass for tourists. In some cases, it’s not worth it, but it depends on your situation. Here’s an excellent guide explaining if the Japan Rail Pass is worth the money. For figuring out train ticket prices, I recommend Hyperdia, which I use on a regular basis.
For our park tickets for Universal Studios Japan, we went the easy route and bought the ¥7,400 ($72 USD) day pass. There are other ticket options, but this was by far the easiest. We bought them on the official Japanese website and used the e-ticket option on our mobile phones. The only downside to this is it’s available only in Japanese. If you cannot read Japanese, then your options are fumbling through the process online, buy them through a travel agent, or get them at the park. This information can be found on their website.
Arriving at 7:30AM
We visited the park on a Friday of the long weekend during Obon Week in Japan. While not the smartest idea — since Tokyo Disney Resort is quite crowded as well during these times — it was the only option we had, given our circumstances. The park was scheduled to open at 8:30AM, so we figured 7:30AM was the perfect time to arrive. How wrong we were.
We made it to Universal City (picked up breakfast from 7-Eleven) and headed towards the gates. Once we got there, the line into the park was what I would expect for a capacity day at Tokyo DisneySea. Our first order of business was checking if any Express Passes were left for the day.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
It was only 7:30AM and the temperature hit 30C, the line was Tokyo DisneySea level in length, and we didn’t get our Express Passes (sold out). But not all was lost: the gates to the park opened an hour early. Which meant only one thing: fly over to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!
To enter the area you need a timed ticket, which is distributed in the middle of the park. You scan your tickets and select the time you wish to enter. There are limited spaces for each time slot. To our delight, we didn’t need a time entry ticket because it was the first thing in the morning. Now, I am not sure if this is the case if the park opens at the normal time or not.
We rushed to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — the wait time is known to get over three hours — and jumped in line. The total wait time was just under 60 minutes, which was brilliant.
I rode this attraction in Orlando back in 2011 when my family and I visited. I recall the terrible motion sickness, which ruined the rest of my day. To my surprise, I had almost no motion sickness afterward. Afterward, I learned that the amount of AC helps offset motion sickness for a lot of people.
Since we got into the park earlier than expected, we took the time to enjoy Hogsmeade since we couldn’t come back in afterward and needed to get a timed ticket this time. We grabbed some frozen butterbeer and took in the sights, sounds, and smells.
5-hour Standby — No Thanks
We left Hogsmeade around 10:00AM and ventured over to Jurassic Park. We attempted The Flying Dinosaur — their newest coaster — but the wait time was 5 hours by that point and the single rider line closed. So we settled on the single rider for Jurassic Park – The Ride. The posted time for single rider said 30-minutes but only took about 15-minutes.
By this point, it was time to have a proper meal. Breakfast was bread and coffee from 7-Eleven, which is delicious but not the most filling. Before deciding on a place to eat, we got our timed entry tickets for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
All the restaurants we attempted had long lines and the temperature had reached over 35C. We made it our mission to find a place that didn’t have a line out the door, which lead us to Mel’s Drive-In in Hollywood. To say this place was crowded is an understatement. It was complete chaos inside with no order to the line — I didn’t see a single staff member guiding guests — and the tables were a free-for-all.
We decided to divide and conquer. My friend ordered our food while I attempted to snipe a table. But we weren’t the only ones with that idea. I scouted for tables with people almost finished, then I stood there holding my ground.
After 15-minutes of standing, we secured our table. The food itself was rather decent. We both got burgers and fries. Dare I say, the burger and fries were better than what you find at Cape Cod Cook-Off at Tokyo DisneySea.
The Case of the Dying Phone
In my infinite wisdom, I forgot the cable to charge my phone. I thought the stores would sell USB cables for iPhones, but that wasn’t the case. The staff informed me there are charging stations scattered around the park.
We found a charging station by the washrooms in Hollywood. The cost was 30-minutes for ¥300 ($3 USD). I ended up using this three times throughout the day. Taking video and photos all day in the Japanese Summer heat drains your battery like you wouldn’t believe. While not the most expensive mistake I made in my life, the mild inconvenience was annoying but manageable. The station charges a variety of devices that have lightening, micro-USB, and other connectors.
Why is this a thing?
I didn’t want to venture too far from the charging station, just to avoid walking back to pick it up. We wandered around the New York area, where they served rather odd food and things which made me say, “Why is this a thing?” The most notable oddities were the Coca-Cola Marinated Chicken Thighs and the Naan Bread Pizza. While they don’t sound terrible, neither of those I cared to put in my mouth.
Next up was the oversized vending machine — all it did was give you a bottle of Coke. The novelty is it stood about 10 feet tall, and in order to buy your drink you needed to stand on someone’s shoulders, have the gift of height, or jump. Despite all this, the line was 20-30 people deep.
Have you ever dreamed of firing an oversized bazooka that is taller than an 8-year-old child? They had this game where you shoot a comically large water bazooka at a target in order to win yourself a Coke (I am sensing a theme here). I saw two or three small children (who couldn’t have been older than 10 years old) doing their best to hold up these water bazookas. All of that, just for a Coke.
I moseyed on back to pick up my phone and checked the wait time for The Flying Dinosaur, which still had a wait of 4-5 hours and a closed single rider line. We figured riding it was not in the cards this visit. Instead, we made our way over to JAWS.
Back in 2004, I did ride this attraction but had zero recollection of it, besides the basic shark-in-the-water storyline. We got into the single rider line and waited no more than 30-minutes. The ride itself was fine, nothing spectacular, but who doesn’t love a mechanical shark attempting to swallow you?
Minions, Bananas, and Mang-oooooooo!
If you’re a long-time reader of ours, then you know that I am rather fond of bananas and the role they play in the Summer Festival at Tokyo DisneySea. Minions also love bananas, so it was a no-brainer that I needed to try all the delicious banana-saturated snacks I could.
First up was the Chocolate Banana Popcorn. They also had a choice of two different popcorn buckets that put Tokyo Disney to shame. Did it taste as advertised? You sure bet it did. Was it delicious? Do Minions love bananas? Then yes, it was spectacular. Logistics aside, I would have bought all the popcorn and ate it for the remainder of the week if I could.
The Chocolate Banana Churro was unbelievable. Warm with a gooey chocolate inside and a crunchy outside, topped off with candied bananas. This is what all churros should be. I am not a fan of churros on a normal day, so this turned into a pleasant surprise.
Next, up, we switched gears and went from sweet to savoury while sticking to the Minions theme. We tasted the Minions Pork Steamed bun. While nothing special in terms of flavour, the bun looks just like a Minion, which, for lack of a better-overused term, is adorable.
Last but not least, was the Mango Fruit Frozen Drink, which was a slush with candied mangos and blue something-or-other. It hit the spot during the 35C weather outside and soothed the burn I got on my nose (lesson is re-apply sunscreen more than four times a day.) We ate and drank all of this over the course of 30-45 minutes. Who needs a proper meal when you can eat Minions all afternoon?
15th Anniversary Re-Born Parade
After eating all the cute Minion food, we grabbed a spot for the special 15th Anniversary Re-Born Parade. The parade was rather odd, to say the least. The performers were all drenched in sweat and stopped to wipe themselves off and drink water constantly — safety is key, of course. With the temperature well over 35C, I don’t blame them. The parade had live singers, which were not the greatest, but I can’t imagine how difficult it is to sing in the intense heat.
They had a show stop where confetti and foam/bubbles come out, which turned into a gigantic mess afterward. It was a fantastic idea in theory. It wasn’t all bad; they had characters such as Elmo, Cookie Monster, Snoopy, and Hello Kitty, which always puts a smile on my face.
Overall, the parade was a decent effort, but I think the heat had a major effect on how the performers functioned, which I cannot fault them for. I did have a video of the performance, but I deleted it by mistake. Instead, here’s a random video from YouTube.
To take cover from the scorching heat, we popped into various shops to check out all the merchandise. I did notice a pattern in the type of goods that they had compared to Tokyo Disney Resort:
- Patterned t-shirts, socks, and shorts
- Oversized fluffy character hats
- Plush keychains
- Snacks (rice cakes, chocolates, chips, etc)
- … and the list goes on
The Japanese market is particular and it makes business sense for them to listen to what people want to buy.
Harry Potter Round 2
Oddly enough, neither of us bought any souvenirs. The thought of hauling more stuff around was enough to deter us. But after window shopping, it was time for our timed entry back into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We made it before our time expired. Not sure how strict they are with the timed entry, but we didn’t want to take any chances.
Instead of waiting in the 200-minute line for Forbidden Journey, we opted for the castle walkthrough. It’s one of the best air-conditioned buildings, so we took our time. I did the one in Orlando, and I gather this walkthrough is the same.
We grabbed another Butterbeer — got the normal one this time — and grabbed a spot for the student performances. We watched two different performances: one was with a student from each house and had a small story to go along with the show. The neat thing about the show was that it was in Japanese and English. Two students were Japanese and the other English speakers, so they flipped back and forth between the languages, which I think is a brilliant way of doing shows. It keeps the original tone of the show while catering to the local language. Tokyo Disney Resort could take a few lessons from this. The other show was about the Triwizard Tournament.
Once we finished the shows, it was off to the Three Broomsticks for dinner. The organization was better than that of Mel’s Drive-In, where you order your food first then a staff member seats you at a table. None of this waiting for a table and your food cooling off nonsense.
My choice was the Roast Beef dinner, which was one of the more expensive single meal options at ¥3490 ($33 USD) and didn’t include a drink. Roast Beef is difficult to find in Japan, and when you do it’s either subpar quality or overpriced — what I paid here is overpriced, just for the record. Now, I am not sure if the roast was fantastic due to that I haven’t had it in well over a year, or it was just that good.
Either way, I loved it, along with the Yorkshire pudding and roasted vegetables. So much so that it made me tear up a bit. It reminded me of Christmas dinner back home in Canada. Anyone that is an expat can relate to how specific foods that remind you of home swells up those emotions.
No Flying Dinosaur
After an unexpected emotional dinner, we tried our hand at The Flying Dinosaur again. Once we got to the ride, they had closed the line for the day. This was a bit of a downer and a lesson that you should buy the Express Pass well in advance online, even if that means asking someone who can read Japanese to help you.
Our Unexpected Space Fantasy
To end our long but fulfilling day at the Park, we jumped into the standby line for Space Fantasy, which was at 70-minutes. Neither of us knew anything about this attraction, which led this to become quite the surprise. It’s an indoor spinning roller coaster that takes you through space with an onboard audio system, interactive projection screens, and one of the most intense endings to an attraction I’ve been on. The outside is unassuming, but trust me when I say you won’t be disappointed.
The only thing I didn’t like was that we couldn’t ride it again because the park was closed by the time we got out! I recommend you don’t skip this attraction, but be mindful that uses heavy strobe lights.
We had successfully opened and closed the park and prolonged our stay by walking around the Park one last time before they kicked us out. We then celebrated by having McDonald’s on the Universal City Walk before taking the train back to our Airbnb. After our long day, you have no idea how thankful I was for having our room so close. Nothing worse than having to make a one-hour or more trek home.
Overall, the park is worth a visit for a day — two days is pushing it. If you plan accordingly, you could do everything in a day. We didn’t opt to do any of the special shows (One Piece and Dragon Ball Z) as they coast extra, and if you don’t understand Japanese it isn’t worth the money (unless you’re a huge fan.) The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the highlight without question, and Space Fantasy was the sleeper hit. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to ride The Flying Dinosaur, but that is my fault for not planning better.
The park felt much more crowded in certain areas than others — worse than Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea on busy days, which was frustrating at times. Having the intense heat doesn’t help the mood either. But I am happy how they control the crowd levels for Harry Potter with the timed system. This really reduces the overcrowding.
Advice & Tips
I learned some valuable lessons and came up with some advice & tips for your trip planning to Universal Studios Japan:
- Single Rider lines are not optional: use them. It will save you a ton of time and your sanity.
- Buy your Express Passes as early as possible online. Have a Japanese speaker help you, if needed.
- If the Park opens early, then head straight to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You do not need a timed entry ticket. You will need one later in the day, however.
- Ride Space Fantasy.
- Ride The Flying Dinosaur as early in the day as possible (if you don’t have an Express Pass) as the wait times — as of this writing — can get up to 5-hours long.
- There’s not a lot of cover from the sun, so don’t forget your sunscreen, refillable water bottle, and take plenty of breaks.
- If you forget your battery charger there are stations by the washrooms in Hollywood for ¥300 for 30-minutes of charge.
Thank you so much for reading this long trip report. I am expanding our coverage outside of Tokyo Disney Resort but relative to your trip to Japan — or maybe you live here and want to do something other than Disney. Let me know what you think!
Feel free to re-post any of the photos — with credit to TDRExplorer — used in this report.