Volcano Bay Opens at Universal Orlando Resort – Full Review

On the morning of May 25, 2017, Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort welcomed its first public guests as Florida’s newest major park opened. Theme Park Adventure was fortunate to be there for the momentous occasion. New attractions open with regular frequency here in the United States; entirely new parks – those are rare happenings that are truly unique moments for all involved. It was an honor to sit front row and center for the park’s opening ceremony, as fabled Waturi people gathered on a white sand beach in the shadows of Krakatau – a 200-foot-tall steaming volcano – to perform tribal dances, songs, and to bestow a special Māori stone from the ocean near New Zealand on Bill Davis, the President & Chief Operating Officer of Universal Orlando Resort.

The opening of Volcano Bay is a significant event not just for NBCUniversal as a whole, but in the continuing evolution of Central Florida’s unparalleled tourism corridor. There is no hotter “battle zone” in the world of theme parks than the Orlando area – Universal and Disney are slugging it out on an unprecedented level these days. In the end, we all win; it’s an amazing time to be a theme park fan.

WATER IS LIFE. LIFE IS JOY. THE LEGEND OF VOLCANO BAY

Universal has given Volcano Bay its own backstory and lore, which is ultimately steeped in New Zealand themes and jargon. The Legend of Volcano Bay says that once upon a time long ago, an ancient people known as the “Waturi” crossed the oceans, in search of a giant golden fish, known as “Kunuku” – who would guide them to a new home where they would thrive for generations on an island paradise. During their travels, the Waturi came across many different cultures, blending each with their own over time. The end result is the exotic, warm friendliness found in abundance across Volcano Bay, which Kunuku eventually led the Waturi to.

The Waturi inhabited Volcano Bay, living life with the philosophy of, “Water is life. Life is joy.” Thrilling moments, exciting adventure, deep relaxation – all of these things come when you live in perfect harmony with the land, including the waters surrounding it and running over and through it. Everything returns to the water – the essence of life. The essence of Volcano Bay. It is here in this paradise that Universal Orlando guests are invited to become part of the Waturi culture, to experience their fun-loving way of living, and to partake of the many mysteries and wonders of the island.

Everywhere you go, you are greeted – either in written word, or verbally by Universal Team Members – with a cheerful, “kia ora” – a Māori language greeting that translates to “be well/healthy”, also loosely meaning “hello”. This good-natured culture extends throughout Volcano Bay, and was palpable during the park’s opening days, as excited Team Members greeted us literally every step of the way – to the point of being almost comical at times. The excitement felt by the Universal staff was absolutely apparent and the grins were genuine. Rightfully so, everyone working at or associated with Volcano Bay is very proud of the new park. Those Team Members we spoke to at length about the event understood how special it is that they are part of the launch. Everyone could feel the high level of enthusiasm – both employees and visiting members of the media.

LAY OF THE LAND

Volcano Bay is a large property, coming in at about 53 acres. In comparison, Typhoon Lagoon at Walt Disney World is 56 acres. On the West Coast, Waterworld in Northern California is 30 acres, and down in SoCal, Raging Waters in San Dimas is 50 acres. Volcano Bay is roughly four times the size of both Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Valencia, and Knott’s Soak City in Buena Park.

As guests roam throughout Volcano Bay, they pass through four areas, or zones. They are Krakatau (the volcano), Wave Village, River Village, and Rainforest Village. Combined, they are home to 18 attractions, ranging from wave pools and lazy rivers to heart-stopping slides and plunges. Truth be told, after spending two days at Volcano Bay, I don’t see enough variation in the theming to know where one area ends and the other begins, with the exception of Krakatau – a massive rock-covered volcano rising 200 feet into the Orlando skyline with mist around its summit and cascading waterfalls flowing down its sides. This isn’t a negative observation – just a statement that there isn’t enough difference in the areas to tell one from the other. It’s all exotic. It’s all Polynesian-style. And it’s all very attractive to the eye.

The attractions at Volcano Bay range from kiddie pools with tiny slides and charming interactive elements, to world-class thrill-seeker slides, including Ko’okiri Body Plunge – a terrifying 125-foot-drop at 70 degrees (near vertical) from near the top of Krakatau. The towering plunge takes only seconds, as riders zip through an enclosed tube through the heart of the volcano and pass along a clear tunnel in one of the park’s pools near the base of the mountain. Ko’okiri Body Plunge is not my idea of a good time, so I was content watching riders blast past at dizzying speeds from the comfort and relative calm of the Waturi Beach wave pool. Props to those with the cojones; more power to them!

Also geared toward adults, and intertwined with the volcano are the Kala and Ta Nui Serpentine Body Slides. Like Ko’okiri, these are body slides that feature trap door-style launches, where riders literally have the platform pulled out from under them, sending them plummeting into the tubes below. If that doesn’t sound unnerving enough, the moment is accented by the sound of pounding drums getting louder and louder until the floor drops out and all you hear is the rush of water and your own screams as you disappear into the darkness. If it’s any consolation, the trek up the volcano is a visual delight for those brave enough to have at it. The views from the slide launch area are stunning, looking out across Volcano Bay and beyond, with wind blasting spray from the waterfalls over the platform and riders waiting their turn. It’s an intense moment after climbing a staggering amount of stairs to reach the platform, adding to the awe and adrenaline rush as guests watch those before them drop from the enclosed launch tubes. In other words, it’s freaking scary. I did not partake in any of the serpentine slides in the volcano – but our own Johanna Atilano did! She rode one of the more aggressive slides – “The green one”, as most people refer to it.

That brings up another interesting observation that I have mulled over quite a bit this past week. Most of the names featured at Volcano Bay are Polynesian, such as the Kopiko Wai Winding River, Taniwha Tubes, Ika Moana, and TeAwa – The Fearless River. It’s great thematically, and absolutely sexy on paper. As a show writer in this industry, I have given attractions similar names in the past on numerous projects set in tropical, far-away lands. What became increasingly clear to me, is that exotic names like these become problematic, in that no one remembers them easily. We spent the entire time communicating with our friends and Universal Team Members by referring to the slides mostly by color – “She rode that green one in the volcano!” or, “We rode that yellow one with the rafts.” The problem with getting terribly fancy when it comes to naming attractions, is that if the names aren’t easy to relate to or recall, there’s a breakdown in referencing them during or after your experience; an interesting take-away for me as a writer.

I do have my favorite slide name(s) in the park: the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides. As someone who show writes for a living, there’s no way you can tell me the “make you poo” play on words is an accident; no way. And… I love it so much!

On the flip side of that, Universal also came up with some very clever names that are much easier to recall, such as Runamukka Reef, and the Ohyah and Ohno Drop Slides. It’s interesting to me to see which types of names stick and are easy to remember, versus those that are easily forgettable or completely challenging to even pronounce.

Our favorite attraction hands-down is the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, a fantastic slide where riders sit one behind the other in rafts that have been designed to look like waka taua, which are Māori war canoes. This unique water coaster doesn’t rely solely on gravity, but rather, linear induction (magnetics) to propel each raft very rapidly up steep hills before sending them careening down another drop or through a series of banked turns within the volcano itself. There is no show per se, but the ride experience is an absolute blast. We’d never been on anything like the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, so it was new and extremely exciting for us. In speaking with others, the Aqua Coaster seems to be the clear favorite in the park by a longshot. Here’s a pro tip: hit this ride immediately when the park opens, as the wait times can rapidly become daunting for it.

The only attraction that we really wanted to experience but didn’t get to, was the Kopiko Wai Winding River, which takes riders through the volcano, and features dark caverns and random special effects. On the day that we were able to hit the rides for ourselves, this attraction was closed when we wanted to do it, which was disappointing for us after waiting months to see the “glow worms” illuminating the darkness of Krakatau.

Volcano Bay has an abundance of food and drink in every section of the park. The food we had was good, and the tropical drinks we indulged in were also very nice. The park has two featured bars – Dancing Dragons, and the Kunuku Boat Bar. Most of the drinks are very sweet tiki-style concoctions, which you need to be careful with; they’ll sneak up on you, and can make for a nasty hangover if you party too hard. We also tried the park’s specialty beer, Volcano Blossom, made specifically for Universal; it was delicious, especially in the afternoon heat of Orlando. Here’s another pro tip: When you set up your TapuTapu band and link a credit card to it, make sure to set up an associated PIN as well; I didn’t, and ended up having to pull out a credit card instead of simply “tapping” at the point of sale. Here’s another pro tip: If you’re not… mature in appearance, you will be carded, so despite the freedom of the TapuTapu Wearable band, you’ll still need to carry your valid ID with you if you’re going to partake in the libations.

Throughout the park are cabanas for rent. This is definitely the way to go if you are in a small group or have the financial means (it’s honestly not that much, and pricing will vary depending on the season). With your private cabana rental, you get a secure place to store your things, a personal server for food and drink, and great views of the park if you happen to get an upstairs space. The real winning feature that makes renting a cabana a no-brainer, is that each comes with its own TapuTapu kiosk, where you can reserve your rides while relaxing in the shade without having to trek around Volcano Bay to each attraction individually. When we return (it’s not even really an if, despite the fact that we’re not huge fans of water parks in general), getting a cabana with a couple of friends is definitely the way we’ll go.

If cabana rentals aren’t your style, Volcano Bay has ample lounges and chairs on its beaches and elsewhere; one thing we never had a hard time finding was a place to sit, and just about every beach or seating area has really cool views of Krakatau and other park features and attractions; there’s literally not a bad lounging area in the place, as far as we could tell!

THE TALE (AND TRIALS) OF TAPUTAPU

One of the biggest cornerstone ideas of Volcano Bay, is that the park features “virtual lines” for its attractions. Upon entering the park, each guest is given their own TapuTapu Wearable band. It basically looks like a big, colorful version of the Casio digital watches many of us had in the ’80s. Guests walk up to whatever attraction they want to experience, and put themselves in a virtual queue by “tapping in” with their TapuTapu at a kiosk at the entrance of each slide, etc. If there’s a wait, riders will then get a message on their TapuTapu’s LCD display that tells them how long their wait is going to be; once it’s their turn to ride, the band vibrates, letting them know it’s time to return.

When we experienced Volcano Bay, it was media-only; there were literally only a couple hundred people in the park as guests. There were no lines, so when we walked up to something we wanted to ride, we simply tapped in, and proceeded up the stairs, or whatever. We never got to experience the joys or frustrations of the virtual queuing system. The challenges of park-wide virtual queuing became apparent shortly after Volcano Bay’s opening, as thousands poured into the park. Soon, wait times for most of the slides in the park were more than two hours. On opening day, the wait for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster was more than 6 hours – which, to be honest, isn’t a shocker; any opening day line for a new ride anywhere is going to be crazy.

One of the challenges quickly realized, is that you can only reserve two ride experiences at a time with TapuTapu, or at least the Aqua Coaster and something else. This means, if you have a 4-hour wait for the Aqua Coaster, and a three-hour wait for one of the big body slides, you’re going to be either in a wave pool or lazy river, at a bar, lounging on the beach, or in a cabana for hours before you can do something or even reserve another ride elsewhere in the park. That can be a lot of waiting around. If the park is really crowded, TapuTapu stops taking reservations when the system can see that guests will be there after the park has closed, so in theory, if you wait until 2pm to tap into the Aqua Coaster and it’s got an hours-long virtual queue, you may very well be declined. There is no alternative; there are no standby lines for those who don’t want to use the virtual queuing system. Unfortunately, that’s going to make for unhappy guests.

Another concern we heard voiced throughout the park’s first few days of operation, is that once you do get the go-ahead to return to a ride, there will be a line to wait in, simply due to normal dispatch intervals and operational factors. The virtual queue eventually does end up with some kind of line riders must wait in before it’s their turn. This may not be a big problem once operations become smoother and more routine; it’s too soon to tell, although it’s certainly something to be aware of, and to watch.

So, what will Universal do to alleviate the apparent challenges that have come with this brand-new park-wide virtual queuing system? It’s too early to say at this point. If you insist that guests must find something else to do while the virtual queues are reaching into the hundreds of minutes, you’re going to get a lot of backlash from people who want to ride thrilling slides – not spend the whole day in a wave pool or lazy river. If you suddenly begin offering standby lines for some of the park’s more popular attractions, you’re admitting that the idea of TapuTapu is flawed, and that at the end of the day, virtual queuing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither is a win-win situation; I’m glad it’s not my problem to solve or decision to make, honestly. It’s a tough spot that will likely come down to serious meetings between Creative and park ops.

At the end of your Volcano Bay experience, you must turn in your TapuTapu Wearable band. This surprised me somewhat, in that I figured the band was worked into the cost of admission to the park. I can see that happening eventually, with various styles and/or completely customized TapuTapu bands coming into play, much like Disney’s very lucrative MagicBand operation at Walt Disney World. I believe that this is TapuTapu “Beta”, if you will; there’s no doubt in my mind that it will evolve and spread resort-wide in the years ahead.

TapuTapu’s apparent strengths are in purchasing food, beverages, and merchandise throughout the park, as well as very simple rental locker operation. There are also interactive elements that guests “Taptu Play” throughout the park that trigger water fountains, special effects, and even a selfie station. Perhaps in the months ahead, we will see TapuTapu’s role change slightly, in that it will be used to enhance the experience at Volcano Bay rather than completely control it; that’s the course it will take if Universal decides to alter its virtual queues throughout the park to alleviate wait time issues. This will be very interesting to follow as Universal continues to tweak and fine-tune the operational aspect of Volcano Bay in the weeks and months ahead.

THEME PARK… OR WATER PARK?

One of the bigger discussions that is taking place both online and in professional discussions among folks in the themed entertainment industry, is whether or not Volcano Bay is a theme park or water park. This is because Universal has branded this third gate as its newest “theme park”, raising immediate debate from all corners.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me over the past several weeks about this, and I tend to lean toward accepting Universal’s branding that Volcano Bay is indeed, a theme park. Here’s how I arrive at my interpretation:

Disney may have coined the term “theme park”, but they don’t set the standards or get to determine how the industry evolves. Had they branded Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach as “theme parks” back in the day, no one would think twice about Volcano Bay being called one. I have colleagues and friends who balk at the idea of accepting Volcano Bay as a theme park; when I ask why, there’s no coherent answer, really. “It’s just not” isn’t acceptable when trying to get to the bottom of this debate. “A theme park has rides! Attractions!” Yeah, well, Volcano Bay has a linear induction-powered mechanical Aqua Coaster, and other attractions that feature thematic environments and special effects.

Merriam-Webster doesn’t really help; its definition of “theme park” is: an amusement park in which the structures and settings are based on a central theme.

If you take Webster at face value, you can go right down the Volcano Bay checklist. It’s a gated property with an entry fee, just like most other theme parks. The structures and settings are incredibly well-themed throughout Volcano Bay, setting the specific tropical tone, which plays into the backstory of the Waturi people settling this island paradise. Each attraction has a themed name and its own given story. Volcano Bay offers food, beverage, and merchandise locations throughout the park, all geared toward its theme and overall experience. I can easily see Universal bringing in characters or other live entertainment now that the Grand Opening week has come and gone.

So, with all of that in mind, I step back and ask, “Why isn’t it a theme park?” All of the attractions are water-based. So what? The rides aren’t rides – they’re slides. And your point is? Theme parks are for families. Just about every attraction in Volcano Bay is family-friendly; even Disneyland has rides that older people or very young people cannot experience. Water parks are seasonal, giving people something to do outside of the theme parks when temperatures soar. Volcano Bay is planned to be a year-round park; a move that separates it from its seasonal counterparts across America, and definitely is going to up the ante in Orlando.

You find very quickly that there’s not really a logical reason that Volcano Bay isn’t qualified to be a “theme park”. I haven’t heard an argument to the contrary that makes me pause, or one that can’t have holes punched through it.

A theme park doesn’t need to be defined by an arsenal of iron attractions or expensive dark rides. You don’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on big “E” ticket rides or drop half a billion bucks on rockwork and landscaping (although let’s be real – that 200-foot-tall Krakatau volcano is pretty fantastic; it had to cost a pretty penny). Volcano Bay tells a story; a central story idea that is executed throughout the park, from its entry to the end of your day as Team Members bid you farewell. Volcano Bay is much more than a “water park”. At least in my opinion, it is. If Universal says it’s a theme park, I can’t find an argument that articulately refutes that. So… I don’t have any problem casting my vote to the “theme park” side.

In the end, it’s a gorgeous park, regardless of how fans or professionals want to classify it. It’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s relaxing, and it’s something we will do again (although probably not in the heat of summer). Universal Creative came up with something truly cool; people we spoke with during our week in Florida say that it’s on par with any of the Disney water parks; many people said they like Volcano Bay more. We have never been to any of the Disney water parks (or are they theme parks – hmmmmm), so we don’t have any first-hand experience to compare it to for ourselves.

VOLCANO BAY RISING

The biggest elephant in the room regarding Volcano Bay is the fact that the park opened without being fully operational or complete. Volcano Bay was officially announced in May of 2015, and we’ve heard that being open for Memorial Weekend 2017 no matter what, has been the directive for quite some time.

In the days leading up to its Grand Opening, Volcano Bay was a 24/7 flurry of activity, with concrete trucks coming into the park as late as 7pm on May 23rd. I found myself extremely anxious and nervous for our friends at Universal; the last thing we wanted was for them to get hammered by the media or fans for opening a park that isn’t ready.

Let’s skip to the good news. When we got our media day in the park (May 24th) to try the rides and experience everything, we were stunned by how much Universal had gotten done; it was a very satisfying experience. By Opening Day, even more was done – I suspect that momentum is being maintained each day after closing as the company gets closer and closer to having a fully-operational and “completed” park.

People have definitely called Universal out on some of the construction that isn’t done, or parts of the experience that aren’t yet ready (the glowing caverns inside Krakatau or its nightly eruption that promises to be a spectacle in itself), and I get that. However, seeing how beautiful the park is, and knowing how quickly it has come together to get to this point for opening weekend – it’s truly awe-inspiring and a bit unnerving as a professional in this industry (because I can imagine the stress and insanely brutal days involved in pulling this off). But, Universal did it. They opened their new park, and despite some issues that definitely need to be addressed in the weeks ahead, they have created something very special that takes them to the next level on the Orlando playing field.

Finally, I would be remiss not to give a nod to the Universal PR and Events teams for their hard work this past week. A very elaborate VIP/media party was planned for the night of May 24th on the beach at Volcano Bay, with international entertainment flown in, and a lot of effort put into what would be an incredible night in every way imaginable. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t play nicely, and the threat of a very serious storm prompted Universal management at the last minute to call off the event in the park, and move it to one of the large ballrooms at the Loews Sapphire Falls resort. Without getting into too much detail – the party was extravagant and absolutely fantastic; a testament to the well-oiled machine that is Universal Orlando. I’ve said it before – no one throws a party like Universal Orlando, regardless of where it is. I’ve had the pleasure of being to several, and they never disappoint. Kudos to all involved – I know it had to suck so bad to cancel the plans for the beach party everyone worked so hard to plan. What the team created for us in the ballroom was simply astounding – everyone involved should be very proud.

We want to thank the Universal Orlando Resort team that we work with that made this trip and experience a reality: Tom Schroder and Ali Beemer for welcoming TPA and all of its readers to Volcano Bay. And absolutely huge shout-outs to Ashlynn and Hailey, who were kind enough to escort us all over the park to get the photos and video for you to enjoy here as part of our coverage. An “A” team, all the way! We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

And we thank each and every person involved with making Volcano Bay a reality. From the designers to management, construction crews to maintenance folks. From the lifeguards and ride operators, to the bartenders and ticketing team. Everyone should be extremely proud – Volcano Bay is here, and it is beautiful!

Kia ora, everyone!

  • Rick West

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