Theme parks are stressful, everyone knows that. A successful theme park experience requires planning, advance bookings and in my case, waking up at the butt crack of dawn. This is because, although I’m big on planning and a total Virgo, I wasn’t Virgo enough to book our Universal Studios Japan Express Passes in time (in my defense of the dark arts, it was a very last-minute trip). The Express Passes are limited and sell out faster than castella cakes, and by the time I finalised our trip, they were out. The next best alternative to being able to skip the queues (with the Express Pass 4 or 7, you get to queue in a different and shorter line for the hottest rides) was the USJ VIP Wristband. Awesome as this wristband may sound, it’s actually pretty non-VIP. Everyone knows how the Express Pass works, but the VIP wristband is — quite literally — a mystery.
So… to use the VIP wristband, you need to be in Osaka at least a day before you plan to hit USJ. This is because, for some bizarre reason, you need to pick up your wristbands from a place called Harukas 300 Observatory at least a day before your USJ sojourn, and you cannot go to Harukas and USJ on the same day (not that this would be possible anyway). For the record, I got our VIP wristbands at $36 per person from Klook.com (in comparison, the Express Pass 4 is $66), and also picked up our $92 per pax USJ one-day admission passes from Klook (no, the wristbands don’t include entry tickets; yes, it’s advisable to buy everything you need before you head to Japan, where the Lost in Translation-esque language barrier is very real.) That’s how I found myself at the Tennoji subway station, heading to Harukas 300. I pick up our wristbands from the counter on the 16th floor along with a piece of paper with a secret website address and password that would tell you the exact time you need to be at USJ. The opening time of the park changes daily, and the time which VIP wristband holders get to enter (if you haven’t figured out by now, the wristbands allow you entry into the park before it opens, slightly ahead of other park-goers) also varies every day. Clutching my VIP paper, I made a quick sweep of the Harukas 300 (love the cool lift which stops at an observation deck where you get an awesome 360 degree view of Osaka), then adjourned to a café where I furtively keyed in the password to check the top-secret, mystery time I had to assemble at USJ. It said: Meet at 7.30, and join the queue. If you’re late, you have to queue with the non-VIP hoi polloi.
Which brings us too… my phone alarm ringing at 5.30am. This was so we could get ready, then make the 15-minute trek to the subway station nearest our Airbnb which had a line going to Universal-City station. Basically, if you stay in the Namba area, which most people do, it would take you half an hour to 45 minutes to get to USJ. When we got to the Studio West gate at 7.30am, there was already a line of about 100 people. We joined a winding line. The excitement was palpable. Us ‘VIPs’ could not wait for the doors to open. At 8am, with a lot of bowing, the staff opened the doors. We rushed through, and once into the actual hallowed park ground, everyone started running. Like, sprinting. We, too, started running, because why not. Laughing while struggling to keep up with Japanese youngsters dressed in wizarding robes, we ran. Halfway through the sprint, I thought it wise to ask a staffer where The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was, in case we were following the wrong people. It turned out that while most folks were headed straight for HP World, which opened in 2014, some were headed for Minion Park, which launched this April.
We finally get to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and man, it’s like the movies and books come to life. Sprinting past a lush magical forest and Arthur Weasley’s crashed Flying Ford Anglia, we entered Hogsmeade, complete with theme music, the Hogwarts Express steam engine, all the shops you know (Ollivanders! Honeydukes! Butterbeer stall!), and of course, the fairy-tale turrets of Hogwarts castle in the distance. The attention to detail is amazing, and it was well worth the 10-minute dash. You can easily Google what you can do in HP land (don’t miss the Expecto Patronum night show and Wand Magic, where you can cast ‘spells’ to make things move). What I’m here to tell you is that when you use the VIP wristband and wake up before the sun, then run straight for Harry Potter, you get to be the first in line for the Flight of the Hippogriff ride (it’s the baby roller coaster) and breeze through the queues for arguably the most popular ride in the whole of USJ, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in 4K3D. The queue for this can go up to five hours in summer and usually hovers around three to four hours at peak times. My queue? 25 minutes. And that’s only because you take that amount of time to walk through the empty lines, into Hogwarts castle, through the amazing hall of talking portraits, past Dumbledore’s office and the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom and then stash your belongings in rows of magical-looking lockers. The ride itself is awesome. I’d even say it was worth a three-hour queue (but not five hours). Basically, you follow Harry as he flies into a Quidditch match and beyond. Pure thrilling magic.
By the time we’re done with HP World, the park had long opened to the public — your early head start only gives you enough time to explore one world before it disintegrates into the mist. When we emerge from the enchantment of Hogsmeade, the queue for the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride had swelled to 130 minutes, and the park was teeming with visitors. This was in October, and supposedly off-peak, which means you don’t need a Timed Entry Ticket to get into HP World, but during peak seasons and peak times, you may need to get a timed ticket. Your wristband would allow you to get in first to grab a ticket.
So, VIP wristband for pre-park opening entry or Express Pass? My friend who had the Express Pass told me it still took her two hours to get to the Harry Potter ride (yes, you still have to queue with the Pass, but it’s a shorter line). A pro-tip? Go really early to get your VIP entry’s worth, then head back for a siesta. Come back before park closing hours (it closed at 9pm when we were there) for much shorter waiting times and a different experience. When I went back at 7pm, the zombies had come out (it was Halloween) and the Minion line had shrunk to 45 minutes. Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are even more enchanting at night. Even with magical ‘passes’, it’s still impossible to do everything in one day. Guess we’ll need to Wingardium Leviosa ourselves back here again one day.
You can get USJ entry tickets, Express Passes and VIP Wristbands at Klook.com or on the Klook app. Use “YES100” to save up to $100 off your year-end holiday when you book activities on Klook.
Photos courtesy of Klook