Linking the previously-isolated theatre multiplex with the theme park's main gate, CityWalk was designed to encourage foot traffic between the two attractions, resulting in extra profits for both. And it worked.
But more than merely supplementing the theatres and the theme park, CityWalk itself quickly became a major destination. Unlike traditional enclosed malls, CityWalk emphasized smaller stores (as opposed to large department stores), an open-air feel, numerous restaurants & entertainment-related businesses, and an ambiance bubbling over with fun & color.
The first stage of the project cost $3 billion to build, but it was a big hit from day one, and quickly turned into a hot night spot. Over eight million people a year visit CityWalk. They expanded it in 2000, spending $1 billion to add 93,000 square feet more of shops and restaurants, and once again in 2006, including a giant IMAX 3-D theatre, a NASCAR racing simulator, a rock & roll bowling alley, new uppre level food courts, the Rumba Room Latin Nightclub, new shops, and a host of new restaurants.
Not surprisingly, CityWalk gets its fair share of celebrity visitors. As of 2008, I'm told that the entire "American Idol" cast comes to eat at Buca Di Beppo restaurant following each taping... and that Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus come to CityWalk often to go to the movies.
CityWalk's new "I-Fly" attraction (more about that later) has already drawn celebs such as "Iron Man" Robert Downey Jr., Dermot Mulroney (from "My Best Friend's Wedding") and American Idol's Chris Daughtry, to try out the simulated skydiving experience. (And that's not to mention the many celebs on the red carpet for premieres held here.)
In 2006, comic Jon Lovitz (of "Saturday Night Live" fame) opened his own 400-seat comedy club at CityWalk. It's called (what else?) The John Lovitz Comedy Club. It will offer two shows a night. (It replaced the old B.B. King's club.)
At the time it was built, the Universal CityWalk was an entirely new concept: more than just another shopping mall, it is, in effect, a synthetic city street, a virtual neighborhood, with all the glitz and excitement of an actual urban boulevard, but with none of the problems associated with real city life. At a time when most of Los Angeles' downtown areas were crumbling, CityWalk offered an "urban" environment with no carjackers, no panhandlers, no grime, no graffiti, no hookers, no muggers, no litter - yet also with no mall roof to block out the sunny skies or night time stars. For once, walking outside in the "city" was completely safe.
In years to come, others jumped on the bandwagon, most notably The Grove and Hollywood & Highland (although the latter is more of an outdoor mall than the kind of street scene represented by CityWalk), but at the time it was born, Universal CityWalk was unique. And its emphasis on entertainment & fun still sets it apart from the latter developments, which are more traditional shopping areas.
Designed by Jon Jerde, the same unconventional architect who gave us our local Westside Pavilion, San Diego's famous Horton Plaza, and Minnesota's massive Mall of America, CitryWalk is a real treat for the eyes, resembling a cross between the madcap Venice boardwalk, Hollywood Boulevard and Disneyland.
CityWalk features outrageous architecture which borrows shamelessly from other L.A. landmarks, and which uses every outlandish, visual trick in the book to wow the passing crowds. A '57 Chevy was stuck in the roof of Hollywood FreeZway, a yogurt shop. Not to be outdone, the "Things From Another World" store (specializing in sci-fi toys and books) had a crashed flying saucer protruding from its roof. A wave machine created artificial surf out front of "Malibu Ranch".
They like things big here. A giant orange slice marked a juice bar named "L.A. Juice." Immense tinker toys stood outside a toy shop. A mammoth neon baseball player towered over the Upper Deck sports store, and a huge copper pot hung above the door to a P.T. Copperpot, a Victorian candy emporium. You walked beneath an immense, daffy chicken face to enter the Captain Coconut toy store, the interior of which resembles a jungle (complete with tropical sound effects).
The front of the Wolfgang Puck's Pizza Cafe is a crazy-quilt of colorful graffiti and pop sculpture (which includes both Marilyn Monroe and the Big Bad Wolf), and a ten-foot tall statue of a Mexican charro stands guard outside Camacho's restaurant. A mock radio tower marks the spot of "Daily Grill - Short Order." A lighthouse and an artificial, sandy beach can be found outside Gladstone's of Malibu, while just across the street a gigantic, blue King Kong hangs from the side of the Sam Goody superstore.
The UCLA Extension building (where you can actually take college classes) mimics the familiar brick facade of that university's famous Royce Hall, while the outside of the nearby UCLA Spirit shop is emblazoned with carved bruins.
CityWalk's open central plaza is topped by a mammoth steel-web canopy; fountains leap from the sidewalk below; a huge TV monitor towers above the crowds down near the theatre multiplex, blasting away promos for Universal movie releases, next to the giant guitar towering over the Hard Rock Cafe.
Want to see a movie while you're at CityWalk? Well, you can have your choice of 18 different theatres inside the giant Universal Studio Cinemas. And now there's also an IMAX theatre. Shows tend to start around noon, with the last shows starting around 10 PM, except on weekends, when there are later shows. But it pays to come to the movies early here. There are bargain matinees on all shows before 6 PM, and if you buy two movie tickets before 6 PM, they will refund your entire parking fee. You can buy movie tickets in advance by calling (323) 779-2463.
(There's even a simulator ride just outside, called Cinemania, which will keep you on the edge of your seat.)
The interiors of the shops on CityWalk are just as unique, each offering a little something special. Even familiar mall shops have added a gimmick or two: Natural Wonders offers a small, walk-through rain forest, complete with a foggy mist. The UCLA Spirit shop features a fine indoor mural of the UCLA campus, and the interior of the candy emporium looks for all the world like a turn-of-the-century General Store. Glow sells just that: things that glow in the dark - and the local bookstore, The Upstart Crow, doubles as a chic espresso bar.
And there are plenty of unique shops: The Wound & Wound Toy Co. sells thousands of wind-up toys. The Zen Zone is an oxygen bar. Them! tend towards the macabre. Adobe Road sells Native American goods.
There's also plenty of action out on the street. Street performers (mimes, magicians, musicians) often entertain the crowds. At Christmas time, there's even a parade, carolers, and an outdoor ice skating rink near the theatres.
There are more than enough places to eat on CityWalk: Comacho's: a Mexican restaurant, Gladstones seafood, Tony Roma's ribs, Shanghai and Mein's dim sum, Buca Di Beppo's crazy Italian fare, Cafe Tu Tu Tango's appetizers, The Daily Grill's American standards, and Wasabi's sushi bar. Not to mention the Saddle Ranch Chop House, with its dance floor and mechanical bucking bulls.
Other entertainment at CityWalk includes a latin dance club called the Rumba Room, a rowdy piano bar called Howl at the Moon, an upscale bowling alley called Jillian's Hi Life Lanes, and of course, concerts at the nearby Universal Amphitheatre (now known as the "Gibson Amphitheatre") for major concerts.
Back in 1994, a slew of country & western stars showed up for the opening ceremonies of the high-tech, celebrity restaurant, called The Country Star. It featured memorabilia exhibits similar to Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Cafe, only with the emphasis on country music. (Country Star lasted five years, but is now defunct, replaced by Saddle Ranch Chop House.)
In 2002, "Survivor" winner Ethan Zohn and Jennifer Love Hewitt were spotted together wandering from shop to shop at CityWalk. In 2003, JLH was spotted here again, this time at Jillian's.
In July of 1995, the usually-reclusive Michael Jackson caused a bit of pandemonium by going for a casual, unannounced shopping spree on CityWalk. He browsed through the huge Sam Goody store, stopped to shake hands with some of the surprised customers, and bought a few environmental CD's at Natural Wonders.
And in January of 1996, the largest branch yet of the Hard Rock Cafe opened on CityWalk, complete with Van Halen lead singer Sammy Hagar entertaining the crowd with a live concert out front of the huge restaurant. Check out their collection of star memorabilia inside, including John Lennon's trademark spectacles, and Bob Dylan's jacket.
All in all, CityWalk is quite an intriguing new shopping and dining experience, unlike any other mall around. It's even better after dark, when all of that neon comes alive. And best of all, there's no admission charge!
Hours: 11 AM - 11 PM, Friday & Saturday, and from 11 AM - 9 PM on weekdays (but most restaurants and clubs are open longer hours.) Hours vary during the Summer and holidays seasons. Phone ahead to be sure.
Parking: $7 for general, unlimited Universal parking in the large parking structure at the top if the hill (next to CityWalk). Refunds available for ticket buyers at Universal Cinemas only (before 6 p.m.).
Valet parking is also available for the restaurants. With validation from a restaurant, there is a $4, non-refundable charge which gives you two hours of parking. If you stay beyond 2 hours, they charge you $1.50 per half hour thereafter, to maximum of $12 tops (reached in four hours). Without validation, there is a $5.50 charge for the first half hour, and $1.50 per half hour thereafter to a maximum of $12 (reached in two hours.)
Getting there: The CityWalk is located outside the gates of Universal City Studios, just a short distance up the freeway from the Hollywood Bowl. / From Hollywood, take the Hollywood (101) Freeway north to the Universal Center Drive exit or the Lankershim exit, from the 101, then just follow the signs.
[For more information on this subject, you can access CityWalk's official website at: http://www.mca.com/citywalk.]
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