Universal Studios LA 🇺🇸

Universal Studios was a larger than life experience. Although similar to Disneyland and California Adventure, in that they’re all theme parks – the similarities end there and the experience we had was entirely different again. Pre-purchasing our tickets online enabled us to gain early entry to the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter segment of the park, for one hour access pre-park opening. But boy, did it make for a long day.

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Arriving to the park for early admission meant getting a 7.30 subway train up to Universal City, and then a shuttle up the winding hill to the theme park gates – which also meant an early morning where we had to do all in our power not to wake our four other roommates in the dorm (safe to say, we absolutely nail this!). The people were slowly streaming in, all wanting to see what the fuss was regarding the new Hary Potter World section of the park.
Stepping through the entryway was like a portal straight into a J.K. Rowling dream. You were instantly transported to rows of shops that resembled those from Diagonal Alley or Hogsmeade featuring snow capped rooves, cobblestoned streets lined with carts primed to sell Butterbeer as the day went on, a real steaming Hogwarts Express train and of course, Hogwarts castle itself in the flesh. Although this section only boasts two rides, patrons will often spend all day perusing these shopfronts and performing ‘magic spells’ at key interactive points within the park – there were tonnes of full-blown adults and parents dressed in $100+ Hogwarts robes and school attire, carrying around their expensive wands! I had not expected this much fandom before arriving and I think neither did Blake; Harry Potter truly seems to be a worldwide icon and loved by people from all demographics.

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We walked straight up and into Hogwarts to see what all the hype was regarding the number one Harry Potter themed ride in the park – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. For a ride that usually gathers an up to three hour wait, early entry provided the goods and meant we were able to walk up the line and straight onto the ride with literally zero wait. And boy, was I glad we got this one out of the way early. It was literally the most incredible ride we have ever been on – Hermione casts a ‘spell’ on your ‘broomstick’ (aka. four person long row of chairs) and off you go, flying around the entire castle and Hogwarts school grounds, thanks to a clever combination of 4D animations and real life motion and interaction with moving sets. We soon learned this was not one for the faint-hearted though, or the motion sick prone as I spent the next thirty minutes feeling green, sick in the stomach but so totally happy we’d just witnessed that magic. It is worth the usual queues, there is nothing else like it and the closest thing to real life magic.

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In an attempt to settle my stomach down, we decided to take it easy, complete the kids ‘Flight of the Hippogriff’ roller coaster (spoiler alert: this one’s incredibly boring) and head on into the main park which had just opened. Another must do attraction whilst in this park is the Studio Tour that makes this Universal so unique to the others in the franchise. Although Blake has visited other Universal parks in his time, he was truly looking forward to this the most and seeing as there was no line, we hopped right on the first studio cart of the day and delved deep into the backlots and behind the scenes. It truly is incredible to see right where some of your favourite or at least, most well known movies have been brought to life, right in front of your eyes. Also slightly odd to see one strip of street and how they can turn it into literally any major city in the world with some cleverly placed props and neat video editing. Nothing is as it seems – a flash flood or an earthquake can be cooked up on demand and it really makes you think twice as to what goes on behind closed doors to make your favourite film believeable and realistic, knowing most of what you see is fake. One super cool new addition is the Fast and Furious 4D segment. Similar to the King Kong interactive movie, the tour cart is taken into an empty studio stage, which then transforms into a 360 degree movie screen and the experience commences. Not one to be missed, we’re both super fans of the Fast and Furious franchise – and to be immersed within the action of the films is truly exhilarating.

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The rest of the day was a blur of line rides, velociraptors, The Simpsons, Minions, more packed lunches and watching live shows. It’s not a secret I’m a big Jurassic Park/World fan, so the Jurassic Park water ride and chance to meet a ‘real’ velociraptor are definite highlights for me. Blake enjoyed The Mummy rollercoaster and had to brave The Simpsons ride alone, as I was sure I’d reached my 4D movie ride quota for the day. The special effects show was intense – never before our eyes had we seen a man so casually set on fire for almost 1 minute. The animal actors show was also a huge hit, where we potentially found our next dream jobs training cute and cuddly, yet incredibly smart animals for film and TV.

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Our final theme park day was done and dusted and between three of them, we’d conquered just about every ride thrown at us. The bags were packed once more and bus tickets purchased – next stop, Las Vegas!!

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Rodeo Drive & Sunset Strip 🇺🇸

The post Disneyland glow had worn off, our neighbours had kept us up the entire night before smoking, laughing and drinking right outside our adjoining door and the harsh reality that was the public bus back from Anaheim to Downtown LA was looming over our heads. The backpacks were repacked, strapped tight onto our backs and we made the journey to Disneyland Drive to the public bus stop, made worse by the fact it was on the opposite side of the park to where we were situated and we couldn’t very well just duck on through! Our Uber out to Anaheim had taken a breezy 40minute journey from our hostel in Hollywood to the inn, however this public bus took a casual two and a half hours, seemingly stopping at every random, ghetto neighbourhood on the way through to the concrete jungle.

We returned to our humble abode of Banana Bungalow Hostel after a short subway ride to Hollywood Boulevard once more, and realised that we were checking into the same room and bunks as before – it was quite nice to be back in familiar territory, as I wasn’t too sold on the idea of dormitory accommodation just as of yet! We gathered a map, list of sights to see and the various bus routes to be taken and off we went again – no rest and no downtime seemed to have become the travelling conditions for us both.

We had decided that whilst in Los Angeles, we should probably suss out all the hype and fuss that surrounds Rodeo Drive and do some celebrity spotting amongst our day, so we found the bus station down the road and hopped on the correct route bus. We were exhausted from the past two days and the fact that we had yet to stop and even smell the roses on the trip at this point, so when it was determined that we were on the correct bus route but were heading in the complete opposite direction for the past hour, as we had failed to catch the bus on the right side of the road – safe to say our relationship was truly put to the test and Blake was not a happy camper!

Another hour to get back to where we were and then a further half hour to drive and walk, we finally arrived to Rodeo Drive – both of us cranky and a tiny bit hot and bothered. To add insult to injury, Rodeo Drive was completely and utterly underwhelming. The streets seemed a bit sterile and false, designer labels littering both sides of the palm-tree lined streets for a few blocks with next-to-no actual customers in sight. It was quiet, unpopulated (with the exception of us and a few other tourist types) and clearly no celebrities to be seen. A small block comprising of only a few cross streets, it is a much smaller district than we imagined and took all of about 10 minutes to cruise the entire block.

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It is true that the cars that roam these few blocks are truly a sight to be seen; my personal favourite was a completely chrome-wrapped Mercedes Benz that seemed to reflect every single light source on earth and would hardly be deemed roadworthy in our country back home. However, these Ferrari’s, Maserati’s, Lamborghini’s, Mercedes’ and Range Rovers aren’t driven by fancy celebrities like you would expect in such a typical LA way. Blake and I were quick to point out that ninety-nine percent of these car owners were all of the same demographic – balding, middle to older aged men, driving living proof of their mid-life crises. Super highlight for me in Rodeo Drive area was finding a surrounding smaller street that housed a ‘Sprinkles’ store. Home of the notorious world’s first Cupcake ATM machine – a truly novel way to dispense baked goods, it advertises freshly baked cupcakes and cookies available 24/7. Blake agreed after some convincing that this was necessary to fit into the daily budget (hint: it didn’t), and after a quick swipe of my card, a warm and fresh salted caramel cupcake was ours to devour. Is it a gimmick? Probably so. Is the end product worth it? Absolutely.

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We then headed onto Sunset Strip, to see what WeHo had to offer us and I think we found the one neighbourhood so far that we would definitely return to in future travelling escapades. Filled with loads of boutique hotels and accommodations, culinary delights through the many different restaurant options to choose from and tonnes of bars and nightclubs scattered along the entire strip, it definitely seemed like a much more happening and exciting neighbourhood and offered a totally and completely different side to Hollywood that we were yet to see. Our loves to eat good quality food and party until the sun comes up would truly be sufficed here and would definitely be a place that we could see ourselves returning to on a trip with a much more flexible budget. It’s interesting to see history woven in amongst the fresh, modern new places. We saw the ‘Whiskey a Go Go’ club where many legendary bands first got a start in their careers, all the way to where River Phoenix famously ended his career and life, at the previously owned by Johnny Depp ‘Viper Room’.

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At this point in time, it was completely dark – we were tired and hungry and needed a way back down the hill to where we were residing and preferably a nice feed along the way. After walking down the strip, heading in the right direction this time, we eventually picked up a bus that was honestly the answer to our prayers, and alighted right outside In-N-Out burger. Most of you who know us, know that Blake and I are honestly burger addicts and have tried a fair few decent burgers in our time – so this was a definite must-do for us when we were in LA. The lines were insanely long and snaked the entirety of the inside of the building and tables were incredibly hard to come by. For a fast food chain, this seemed like a huge deal to us – we had never seen such a huge fuss made over some burgers and fries! However, the lines were quick moving with incredible service by the counterworkers and we before we knew it, we were seated at a table in the corner we had quickly snaked – with a Double-Double, a Cheeseburger and the not-so-secret menu item of Animal Style fries in our hot little hands. Although the fries were cold, the burgers went down an absolute treat and it’s safe to say I will be incorporating Thousand Island sauce into my burger recipes for the near future – it definitely did not disappoint! We finished our day another semi-early night, packing our day bags in advance and prepping for our early entry to Universal Studios Hollywood and Harry Potter World – a definite highlight of the USA for us.

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Santa Monica & Venice Beach 🇺🇸

It was honestly quite hard to get stirring the following morning on day two of the trip – jet lag had well and truly set in and the lack of sleep on our plane over had begun to hit both of us. After a slow morning and a quick hostel breakfast, we set off on the subway to get to Santa Monica and see what the shoreline had to offer us. Although it took us one hour each way on the subway, it was a truly inexpensive and easy way to travel to the coast.

I remember being in Santa Monica earlier in 2011 with my family on a trip in January – but what I did not remember was how cold it was! Here I was, telling Blake that we wore jumpers and shorts last time around and it was bearable, like a Sydney-side winter’s day. Although the sun was shining, creating picturesque scenes to be captured from our camera the winds were truly cold and icy off the water.

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It had always been a dream of mine to hire a bike and ride to Venice Beach along the sand and shore and Blake also agreed that it seemed like a good plan. After some time exploring Santa Monica Pier, the end point of Route 66, and the small theme park that is situated on the wharf itself (Paradise Park), we decided now was the time to get bike riding and make our way to the crazy strip that is Venice Beach. Blake is definitely a skilled bike rider, growing up riding bikes and motorbikes throughout his childhood. Myself on the other hand, not as talented and it took me a while to get going and keep up with him, that’s for sure!

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Along the way, we saw the original Muscle Beach situated near Santa Monica end, featuring a few tanned muscly characters doing their best to impress onlookers and people passing by with gymnastic style work on the rings. The original Muscle Beach boasts the birthplace of the physical fitness craze that took over USA in the 20th century and features predominantly gymnastic training areas amongst the sand – not exactly the same weightlifting and bodybuilding arena we expected and later found at Muscle Beach Venice!

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Venice Beach in itself is an experience not to be missed. Colourful, crazy characters walk the strip, singing songs to themselves, talking to seemingly any passer-by or setting up to busk and show off their weird or wonderful (sometimes, both!) talents for a cheap dollar. There are a huge percentage of homeless amongst the population strolling the strip, however they seem to be much less in your face and more content to sit and people watch or entertain themselves along the sidewalk. The smell of weed is nearly everywhere you turn and medical marijuana ‘Doctors’ offering prescriptions for a ‘cheap’ $40 are along every block or so – the list of medical conditions that qualify for a weed script is insanely long and seems to cover just about every ailment! Street vendors and performers line the entire boardwalk and there was truly never a dull moment when we visited. The amount of hopeful rappers and producers that peruse the street is actually ridiculous. These guys attempt to convince you (after they hear your Australian accent, might I add) that you know of them from Triple J radio station back home and offer you ‘free’ music – only then to turn around and ask for a hefty tip; as my dad always says ‘Nothing is truly for free in the US’.

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We also had a chance to admire the Venice Canals – a literal series of canals designed in the 1900’s to replicate the look and feel of Venice in Italy. Situated amongst multi-million dollar houses, these canals feature cute pedestrian bridges along with one-way bridges for cars and are a place to escape the noise and commotion of the boardwalk. The sun had begun to set on our ride back and that wind blowing off the ocean was truly icy – by the time we returned our bikes, we could no longer feel our faces.

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Los Angeles so far had been truly exhausting – long days sightseeing, huge kilometres covered either on foot or by bike and poor sleep (at least for me, first time in dorm accommodation!) and we were glad to get our Uber to Anaheim that night, to take a break in our little room at an inn and prep for the next huge two days in store – Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks!

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Hollywood & Downtown Los Angeles 🇺🇸

Two and a half solid years of talking and planning the dream. Two university degrees completed. Eighteen months of solid graduate work in our respective fields. 4:45am wake up’s, 9.30pm bedtimes – fifteen hour days and long commutes to the city. One cancelled trip somewhere in between all of that mayhem and two resignation letters later – around came the 23rd of January, 2017. They say ‘Quit your job, travel the world… It’s easy when you’re so young!’ – it definitely wasn’t easy, but it’s certainly worthwhile. With our backpacks packed for the next 12 or so months on the open road ahead of us, a vague plan in hand, numerous flights booked and empty passports in our wallets, we bid goodbye to our families, said ‘See you when we see you!’ and headed on through the departure gate at Sydney International Terminal to face our great adventure. First stop – LAX.

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‘I hopped off the plane at LAX with a dream and my cardigan’ – never had song lyrics resonated so deeply with me. After a quicker than expected flight, we landed on the tarmac a solid half hour before the airport and customs even opened – and that cardigan was definitely to come in handy. Los Angeles, the city of Angels, had welcomed us with a blustery, soggy, miserable morning of about 12 degrees. It was 0530am, neither of us had slept a wink the entire flight and the heaviness of our decision to pack our lives up and take the open roads was weighing heavily on our minds. Not exactly the warm, happy welcome we had envisioned in our minds over the last few years.

Jetlagged, chilled to the bone and still adjusting to the humongous weights we had signed up to carry for the next year on our shoulders, we arrived at our hostel – Banana Bungalow Hollywood, thanks to our new found friend. He was a Serbian taxi driver who spoke no English, did not smile or acknowledge us once and smelled strongly of cigarettes (yet we still gave him a tip, go figure). Leaving our bags in the locker room after a warm welcome from the hostel workers and some hot showers, we ventured onto Hollywood Boulevard to see what the fuss was about.

Call me stereotypical, but when you think of Hollywood you generally get this motion picture film reel idea in your head – red carpets everywhere you look, palm trees and lush greenery lining the streets, flashing lights of paparazzi cameras on every corner, celebrities doing their shopping in boutique stores on the streets, flashy cars driving past you. Instead we were hit with the harsh reality of all storefronts closed until 1100am, homeless begging you for a dollar on every street corner yelling profanities and singing songs to nobody but themselves and the utter stench of weed everywhere you walked. People were spitting on the ground or throwing their rubbish right next to the pale pink stars with celebrity ‘hall-of-famers’ names etched into the ground on the notorious ‘Walk of Fame’. Blake felt completely underwhelmed and I had to agree with him – it was quite a seedy district, the shops either selling attire for stripping, tacky and cheap souvenirs or various drug paraphernalia.

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Nonetheless, we managed to still spend an entire day tackling our jetlag head on, wandering the streets and immersing ourselves in all that Hollywood had to offer. Ticking off the major Hollywood icons, we wandered down the boulevard and past the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards; before weaving in and out of the hand and foot print of many legendary actors forever on display out the front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The rain got a little out of hand, so we took shelter but still managed to get plenty of snaps and memories to last a lifetime.

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One iconic place we had read about in the Lonely Planet travel guide was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and our love to see sights that are a little bit unique and off the beaten track lead us a good half hour walk from the main street, into the most beautiful cemetery we had ever laid eyes on. The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is one of the oldest in the entire city of LA and is the final resting place for many celebrities. However, it takes a less traditional approach – often hosting events and movie nights amongst the gravesites, remaining quite an active and modern space. A definite highlight for us both was the “Garden of Legends” section, where many of the most well known celebrities feature amongst the lush green gardens. Blake really enjoyed seeing these larger than life statues and tombs, with details so intricate and designs so over the top, the celebrities seem to remain VIP’s even in death. My personal favourite was the statue of Toto from Wizard of Oz; surreal to think that even dogs in Hollywood can be immortalised!

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A quick trip on the subway lead us into Downtown district of LA, where we would finish our night and the HUGE day we had just completed. Wandering around the lights of the city, it really felt like we could have been in any huge city in the world – the main CBD district saw men in suits, holding briefcases whilst talking on cell phones, hopping into cabs or rushing towards the subway. Whenever I am in LA, I feel the need to swing by Staples Center – and I’m not even a Lakers or Clippers fan! Just being able to show Blake, who is an avid Clippers supporter, the huge stadium where his team resides and the energy of the LA Live district, filled with nice restaurants, bars and bright coloured lights was a great way to end the night.

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Special mention to Blake’s sister, Brooke for the recommendation of Chipotle for dinner. Mexican is always a huge hit with us, and this was no different! My burrito bowl could have easily fed two normal adult humans, however we had not quite fit into our regular USA habit of sharing meals and thus we ended up with a mountain of mexican food. Retiring to our six bed dorm, it began to hit me that I was not entirely sure I was a dormitory/hostel type of traveller – but oh did I have SO much to learn over the next year. Thus began our travels together – a huge, rainy day in LA filled with over 20km of walking, 0 minutes of sleep in nearly 48 hours and only approximately somewhere near 364 days to go exploring the world.

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