ORLANDO — You can build a 200-foot volcano from the ground up and you can transform central Florida into the serene South Pacific but you can’t rein in Mother Nature. A severe thunderstorm warning for Orlando and surrounding areas last night required a change of venue for the evening kick off celebration for Universal’s Volcano Bay, but organizers here didn’t let it put a damper on anyone’s spirits. The party just moved inside, to Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. And the forecast is sunny and clear for Volcano Bay’s grand opening today and the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the first long weekend of the summer in the U.S.
Is Volcano Bay a water park? Is it a theme park? No and no, says Universal Orlando. Volcano Bay is the best of both worlds, offering an immersive themed experience more often found on just one ride, all in a water park environment. This time, the theming carries throughout the entire park, from the waterslides to the restaurants and bars, making Volcano Bay the first of its kind.
‘Surfin’ U.S.A’. by The Beach Boys hums in the background. Palm trees sway in the breeze. A mix of cultural influences, from Hawaiian to Maori to Asian and the South Pacific, inspire everything from Volcano Bay’s thatched roof cabanas to the Mango Pulled Pork Sandwiches and Poke Poke Bowl at its four dining venues (there are also two bars).
Volcano Bay “is our piece de resistance,” says Universal Creative Senior VP Thierry Coup. “It’s so radically innovative, so detailed and immersive, we had to create a whole new term for it: water theme park.”
You can see towering Krakatau volcano from the highway, and it’s been the talk of the town for months as locals have watched it go up right before their eyes. But catching a glimpse of it on the drive in from Orlando International Airport earlier this week doesn’t prepare us for what is truly an awesome sight when we first come through the gates of the park a couple of days later. A wide swath of golden beach is dotted with brightly coloured lounge chairs. Krakatau looms in the background with multiple waterfalls cascading down its peaks by day (and fiery lava effects at night). Between the soft sand and the volcano, the wave pool better known as Waturi Beach beckons with refreshing turquoise waters. You know you’re still in Florida, but after a while, you kind of forget. You’re transported to the South Pacific, and after a day or two at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, UO’s other two theme parks, it’s incredibly idyllic.
Of course, there are thrills. Volcano Bay has 18 attractions in all, including a winding river ride, twisting multi-rider raft rides and speeding body slides. Several waterslides go down the back of Krakatau volcano, including the Krakatau Aqua Coaster for up to four riders at a time, and Ko’okiri Body Plunge, with its 70-degree drop and 125-foot descent. Punga Racers is for kids (no matter what age), with manta ray motif mats and waterslides through underwater sea caves. Younger kids will love Tiki Tot Reef with splash slides, spraying fountains and even a kid-size volcano. For pure relaxation, there’s Kopiko Way Winding River.
Your calf muscles will get a workout with all the stairs – as at any water park, there’s only one way up to the top of each water slide, just like there’s only one way down. The good news is, Universal’s new TapuTapu wearable technology allows Volcano Bay guests to dodge the lineups. Because there are no lineups. Everyone gets a bright blue TapuTapu bracelet when they come through the gates at Volcano Bay. Tap it at the Virtual Line totem in front of the attraction you want, and it notifies you when it’s your time to ride.
The TapuTapu bracelet also works for lockers. There are no keys to fuss with – you just tap the bracelet to the screen and your locker pops open. Close it and it locks automatically. A notorious forgetter, I returned to my locker several times, sometimes within seconds, and the TapuTapu system always opened the door automatically, no problem. Lockers are handy at regular theme parks but at water theme parks, with dripping wet bathing suits to store, they’re essential. Parents with young kids who never set foot on a waterslide may feel like they get their money’s worth with this hassle-free feature alone.
Universal Orlando has a new 3-Park 1-Day Anytime Season Ticket that includes Volcano Bay, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Single-day Volcano Bay tickets are US$67 per adult and $62 per child.
Universal is reportedly already developing lands adjacent to Volcano Bay for a five acre expansion. The company bought Wet ’n Wild back in 1998 and used much of the equipment for Volcano Bay. Meanwhile the Wet ’n Wild site, which closed on Dec. 31, 2016, will also be developed.