As I glance around the entrance to Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando’s new 30-acre water park, I spot no ticket booths, no turnstiles.
Instead, there are totem poles, a concierge area and smiling faces. With ukulele music playing and water features flowing, it’s as if I’m entering an island resort.
“Hello, kia ora,” says a young man as he hands me a blue wristband. This Maori greeting, I soon find out, is part of Volcano Bay’s elaborate backstory.
The story explains how fictional Waturi islanders journeyed across Polynesia before they discovered Volcano Bay. Along the way, they picked up many cultural influences.
After a quick biometric finger scan, a TapuTapu wristband is assigned to me. This device, which is included with admission, allows guests to place their names in line for rides, without actually having to wait in line.
Around the corner is the big reveal: Krakatau, a 200-foot peak that is part water volcano and part fire volcano. Because this spot is slightly elevated above the pool and beach, the entire focus is on the showstopper: Krakatau. It’s only after you continue forward that you get a full view of the beach and wave pool in the foreground.
“The park is designed to go into the evening and that waterfall will do a show changing from waterfall to firefall to lava flow every night,” says Dale Mason, vice president and executive art director of Universal Creative, the team at Universal Orlando in charge of creating all the attractions. “Actually, the show may happen multiple times a night.”
Easily spotted from Interstate 4, the faux volcano is made to look like a basalt cone that has aged over time to expose the moss-covered granite below.
And in true Universal style, every inch of it was hand carved by a crew of 60 sculptors, painters and metal workers who have spent the better part of three years making it look like a geological wonder.
In early May, CNN Travel was the first to tour Volcano Bay, the third theme park on Universal Orlando Resort’s roster, set to open May 25. It replaces Universal’s Wet ‘n’ Wild water park, which closed in 2016.
Rides with trap doors and magnetic propulsion
At the volcano’s backside is the most daring ride, the Ko’okiri Body Plunge. Guests experience a 70-degree fall through a drop door and are sent plummeting 125 feet through the middle of Krakatau.
Universal says it is the world’s first slide to travel through a pool filled with guests. Nearby are the Kala and Ta Nui Serpentine Body Slides, which intertwine and have guests falling freely along 124 feet of twists and turns. Plus, there is Punga Racer, a high-speed ride where guests race along on manta ray-shaped mats.
The park’s Krakatau Aqua Coaster propels guests upward with the use of magnetic propulsion and then shoots them downward. It’s all thanks to linear induction motor technology.
“There are 4-passenger rafts in line that are pulled along by magnets,” explains Mason. “There is a big steel plate in the bottom of the raft and we cycle magnets through the ride. Unlike all the other slides, which are gravity fed where you have to start at the top and make your way down, this allows you to be pulled up hills and down and around corners. It means you don’t have to climb a ride tower to get to it. It’s very fast and exhilarating.”
Rafts ascend into the volcano, through passageways and then launch through a waterfall.
Altogether there are 18 rides, including the Kopiko Wai Winding River, a saucer ride (the first of its kind in North America) and an action river with rapids.
Beyond the slides, there are blowhole geysers, water-drenching photo spots and the Burping Tiki, which when prompted by a TapuTapu band squirts water from its ears, nose and makes a belching sound. There’s also an area near the leisure pool where water turbulence created by spring vents below causes swimmers to get buoyed up and over to the grotto area. Here, guests can take a breather at the base of the volcano and sit beneath waterfalls.
A pool with nine different waves
In the foreground is a multi-directional wave pool, longer than a football field. Throughout the day it pumps out nine different types of waves from traditional rolling waves to choppy waves to crisscross waves that slam into each other.
“Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, guest expectations have been set on a new level,” says Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme-park management at the University of Central Florida.
“Be Our Guest at Disney and Diagon Alley have only added to that. Every new technology and theming tact that the companies take raises the bar.”
Orlando resident and Universal annual pass holder Shelley Caran can attest to that for her family. “We’ve been driving by the park as it has taken shape, and our excitement level is through the roof,” she says.
This is all music to Mason’s ears. Along with his team, he’s spent the last three years focusing on all the painstaking details. That included things like sun studies to make sure that the beach is always in the sun all year long.
And, of course, loads of research. They traveled to Spain, Dubai, Bali, China and all over North America studying what people love and hate about water parks. The goal: to try and nix some of the typical water-park hassles.
With that in mind, they’ve built six dining locations (four restaurants and two bars) and provided four locker rooms instead of just one or two. And the TapuTapu wearable opens a guest’s locker, no keys or codes needed.
No lugging inner tubes up the steps
Instead of having guests lug inner tubes up hundreds of steps, the tubes are shuttled to the top of the ride on a conveyor belt. To upgrade the experience, guests may also book a one or two-story private cabana. Using the TapuTapu wristband they may book a ride right from the cabana.
The number one thing they found is that guests hate standing in line. That’s where TapuTapu comes in. Guests check in at a totem station and select the ride they’d like to go on. Then, they may play in the pool or lounge in a chair until the wristband vibrates, alerting them to head to the ride.
“We think it’s really going change the whole experience so you can focus more on relaxation,” says Jeff Polk, Universal’s vice president, water parks.
“We are doing it in a way that’s beyond anything that has been done anywhere. We started from scratch with how do we make the guest experience better and then we tailored the technology to fit that.”
Beyond holding your place in line, the band keeps track of photos taken on slides, gives the ability to shoot water cannons and also illuminates images in the volcano’s tucked-away grottoes. Down the road, Universal says it hopes to activate cashless purchases and roll out similar virtual-line capabilities in its other parks.
Not everyone is a fan, however, of the newfangled technology. “To me, one of the joys in visiting a theme park is the spontaneity of the visit,” says Dickson. “If all of the attractions are booked up with virtual queuing it takes the spontaneous aspect away.”
A multi-layered back story
The Volcano Bay concept is a mishmash of influences thanks to the layered back story Universal dreamed up. Via outrigger canoe, the Waturi people traveled to exotic locales like Bali, Tahiti and Rapa Nui.