Last update: 2015-11-11
[Note: There is a follow-up article about Universal Studios Singapore ]
Reading blogs and forums about people going to Universal Studios Japan (USJ) (日本環球影城), I got the impression that about 70-80% of those people believe that it is mandatory to purchase the Express Pass (in addition to the entrance ticket) in order to avoid long queues and properly enjoy the theme park. The queue is so long that one Hong Kong woman is so upset by her boyfriend’s refusal to buy Express Passes that she posted to a forum saying “去完旅行, 我一眼都唔想望見男朋友” that she does not want to see him again. [It should be noted that USJ normally overstates the waiting time.]
What is Express Pass? For those who only went to Disneyland but not to Universal Studios, Express Pass is a paid form of Fast Pass. With the exception of a few attractions (mainly for the family oriented rides), a free form of Fast Pass is not generally available in USJ. There are Express Pass 7, Express Pass 5, and Express Pass 3 – you need Express Pass 5 or 7 to avoid the long queue of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Express Pass 5 is priced higher than 70% of the price of the entrance ticket when I write this article, so in my book it’s really expensive. For those who are willing to pay for Express Passes, you can skip this article.
My wife and I managed to enjoy the following rides / attractions without buying Express Passes (waiting time is listed):
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (less than 30 minutes)
- Spider-Man – The Ride 4K3D (45 minutes)
- Hollywood Dream – The Ride (90 minutes, Single Rider queue for me only)
- Space Fantasy – The Ride (less than 30 minutes)
- JAWS (55 minutes)
- Back To The Future – The Ride (30 minutes)
- Backdraft (30 minutes of waiting + too much spent time on going through this)
- Terminator 2: 3-D (less than 20 minutes)
- Shrek’s 4-D Adventure (less than 30 minutes)
- Moppy’s Balloon Trip (less than 20 minutes)
- Parade de Carnival (daytime)
- Magical Starlight Parade (nighttime)
The major ride that is missing from this list is Jurassic Park – The Ride, because we were not interested in getting ourselves totally wet. As for Flight of Hippogriff, it’s merely a junior roller coaster. I also need to disclose that I wanted to watch the WaterWorld show but missed it, partly because I failed to find the schedule (English version schedule – but it’s better to trust the Japanese version) for it beforehand.
One needs to accept the fact that it is impossible to enjoy everything in a single day in the hugely popular USJ without buying Express Passes. (If the above list seems too few and limited, go buy Express Pass.) With this in mind, I believe my guide here helps with not having Express Pass.
Determine the Month
The most important thing is to avoid holidays – weekends, Japan public holidays, Japan school breaks and holidays, Hong Kong holidays, Chinese holidays and Korean holidays.
Determine the Date
Read forecasts (link 1, link 2, link 3) to find a least crowded day.
Check the USJ attraction closure table to ensure the rides you want to enjoy is not closed on the date.
Buy Tickets in advance
Buy tickets in advance from travel agencies (or other means) obviously saves time in the actual day you go to USJ. You need the type of tickets that can directly enter USJ. Beware not to buy a reservation voucher that needs to be exchanged for actual ticket in USJ ticket both – this defeats the whole purpose of saving time. Also check out this article with more information on buying USJ tickets.
Print a map
I did not print a map but I should have. Luckily I managed to get a map for my language from a ticket booth without wasting additional time.
Find Opening Hours
Check out USJ operation hours. Also check out how to travel there from your hotel, and how much time it takes beforehand.
On the Actual Day
Arrive 1 hour BEFORE the USJ opening time, because USJ regularly opens BEFORE the scheduled opening time, somewhere between 15 minutes to 1 hour earlier. According to another blog (perhaps on really congested days) you’d see queues waiting to get in at 6am.
Go to the correct queue and prepare for USJ to open. The easiest way to identify the correct queue is to show your ticket to any USJ staff.
After Entering USJ
When USJ opens, the very first group of people gets to enter the Harry Potter area without needing any Timed Entry Ticket, so:
Run with the crowd to the Harry Potter area. Just do it. Run like there is a shark chasing you. On the way you’ll see USJ staff waving at you. You may wonder whether they’re signalling you that you’re too late and the free entry period is over. Ignore them. Run for your life.
After you get to the area, don’t stop for taking photos. Continue running to the Forbidden Journey. If you’re successful as I did, you’ll be the among the first group of people on this ride for that day and therefore require minimal waiting time.
Note that when you get to the locker area, you’ll be given a white card of instructions. Keep the white card and don’t put it into the locker. You’ll need to return the white card before you can go to the actual ride.
After finishing the ride, do what you need to do in this area. After leaving it you can’t get back to this area unless you get a Timed Entry Ticket, or if luckily enough at a late time when there’s so few people it becomes open again without needing tickets.
If for any reason you’re late and prevented from entering the area, you’ll need to go to map location 65 to get a Timed Entry Ticket instead. There are time slots to choose from. Think about whether you should get a later time slot such that you can go to other popular attractions now, such as Spider-Man – The Ride 4K3D.
If you’re really unlucky and cannot even get a Timed Entry Ticket, I read from another blog that the tickets can become available again, perhaps due to people not showing up at their time slots.
If one does not mind being separated from partner(s) on a ride, the Single Rider queue (provided in some attractions) is faster, perhaps by 20% or more.
Bring some food to eat while waiting. Avoid having lunch in restaurants during peak hours. (To my surprise, there are vending machines for drinks.) We did go to a restaurant for some cakes while waiting for the afternoon parade.
Reserve and Ride
This is the free form of Fast Pass. Unfortunately USJ provides this only for some family oriented rides.
There is an official and several unofficial apps that show the waiting times for various rides. I could not get the official app to install and did not bother to use Japan VPN and create a Japan account just for it. I did try an unofficial app though.
Evaluation of USJ Attractions
By far the number one attraction in USJ must be the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It is a scenic dark ride that has more extreme moves than typical Disneyland rides. It combines projected images and real models of monsters from the Harry Potter movies. Harry Potter fans should not miss it. In 2015 it becomes 3D – this is nice but some of the scenes become too dark due to the 3D glasses.
Spider-Man – The Ride 4K3D is a similar ride, but in terms of motion, movie and physical environment it just cannot be compared to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. For me this is the second best.
Hollywood Dream – The Ride is an exciting roller coaster. It’s also available in an even more exciting backwards version. Perhaps too exciting for me – I got motion sickness after playing it. Along with the two rides mentioned above, this ride usually requires a really long queueing time.
Space Fantasy – The Ride is an indoor roller coaster that reminds me of Space Mountain in Disneyland, but it also spins. Clearly this is a less exciting roller coaster than the Hollywood Dream.
JAWS – This is a nice boat ride to see a mechanical shark. Note that sitting at the edge will get you wet.
Backdraft – Although I love the fire demonstration, before you get there you have to watch some videos by filmmakers, presumably talking about fire in movies. In USJ this becomes Japanese that I cannot understand, so for me this wastes some time.
Back To The Future – The Ride – although being a huge fan of Back To The Future, I cannot say this old ride is good. Its motion is simply too violent and jerky – more than 10 years ago when I played it elsewhere my partner got a bump on her head. By today’s standard the projected image is really blurry.
Terminator 2: 3-D – I thought I would find this dated as well but I think it holds up well. My inability to understand Japanese does not detract from enjoying it. I still think its integration of real stage actors into the movie is done really well.
Shrek’s 4-D Adventure: This is a 4D version (i.e. with water and other effects) of the video Shrek: The Ghost of Lord Farquaad that can be found from Dreamworks Spooky Stories Blu-ray (2012-8-28).
If you read this guide and go to USJ, please give a feedback.