Cover Story - October 2017

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Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay brings exceptional theming and innovation to the water park industry

by Keith Miller

All photos courtesy Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando Resort, known for two of the top 10 best-attended theme parks on Earth, aims to stake another theme park claim, but this time with a water park. In May 2017, the resort opened Universal’s Volcano Bay, a 25-acre water theme park it hopes will set a new standard not only for water park design and theming, but also for technological integration in the attractions industry. 

“We believe the combination of incredible storytelling and the immersive nature of this water theme park is what truly sets it apart,” says Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative. “After bringing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to life in our other two theme parks, we really wanted to challenge our creativity by bringing that kind of immersion into a water park environment. The 200-foot-tall Krakatau volcano at the center of the park brings this enchanted island to life, and no matter where our guests are in the park, this mighty volcano is visible from every corner.”

This colossal volcano is Volcano Bay’s  centerpiece. It dominates the skyline and serves as the park’s functioning focal point, with several signature attractions launching from it and winding around or through it. Waterfalls flow down its exterior into a large multidirectional wave pool at its base, which is enclosed by the volcano and Waturi Beach, a large sand-covered shoreline covered in beach loungers. A wide footpath encircles the volcano, giving easy access to rides, restaurants, shops, and guest services. 

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The Legend Behind Volcano Bay

Volcano Bay’s backstory centers on the god Krakatau, who discovered he couldn’t control his daughter, Tai Nui. She fell in love with Kala, a native youth, and when Krakatau found out, he banished Kala to the sky for eternity, where he became the moon. Tai Nui wept, and her tears created the sea. When Krakatau discovered he’d ruined her happiness, he pulled the Earth into the sky to reunite Tai Nui and Kala, creating a volcano. The Waturi, a seafaring people in search of a home, were guided by a mystical fish named Kunuku to the shores of Volcano Bay, where they made their home. 

Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative, talks about how this backstory contributed to Universal Orlando terming Volcano Bay a water theme park: “As a creative team, immersive theming and storytelling are at the core of what we do at Universal Orlando Resort. We approached this project by creating the unique story of the Waturi people, as well as the mythical story of the fiery god Krakatau and the love story between Tai Nui and Kala. These backstories shaped our vision for Volcano Bay and the details that can be seen throughout the park. So, yes, it’s not just a water park—it’s a water theme park, as we are immersing our guests in this rich story.”

But like any water park, the thrilling slides and rides are the attendance draw, and Volcano Bay delivers big in this department. From a high-speed plunge to winding body slides and twisting drop slides, there is no shortage of intense experiences. Plus, one of the best water coasters anywhere journeys into and out of the volcano.

Prior to its grand opening, the park’s iconic volcano could easily be seen for over a year from nearby Interstate 4. The enormous publicity this brought the park, plus Universal Orlando’s promotion of its attractions and theming, drew throngs of people to Volcano Bay from the moment it opened—so many guests, in fact, that Universal Orlando was routinely closing the park shortly after opening each day when it reached capacity.

1710_FEATURE_VOLCANO_1All-Powerful Wristband

Correctly anticipating the park would be popular from opening day onward, Universal Orlando introduced TapuTapu, an advanced wearable wristband featuring a digital display. “The TapuTapu wearable is a tool that allows us to transform the guest experience in many ways,” says Coup. “Its main feature, of course, is to allow guests to virtually wait in line for attractions throughout the park, but there’s so much more this wearable can do.” 

The waterproof wristband is provided as a part of admission to the water theme park, and though it boasts multiple features, perhaps the most valuable and hotly anticipated is its virtual queuing capability. A guest taps the wristband against the totem at a ride’s entrance and is immediately given a virtual place “in line” at that attraction. The time at which the guest is to return and experience it is shown in the TapuTapu display, and the wristband will alert the guest shortly before this appointed time arrives. 

At each TapuTapu-enabled attraction in the park, a display at the entrance tells guests the length of the virtual wait so they can decide whether to join the queue. This information is important because a guest can wait in only one virtual queue at a time. The one exception to this is the “Krakatau Aqua Coaster,” which allows guests to virtually queue for it along with another attraction.

It should be noted the TapuTapu virtual queuing system is the only way you can experience the rides that employ it—there is no option to stand in a real line and wait. The exception to this is when the wait at a ride is less than 10 minutes. In this case, “ride now” will be displayed at the attraction and guests can enter without having to use TapuTapu.  

As mentioned, the TapuTapu wearable offers other features, like TapTu Pay, which allows guests to make purchases throughout the park with their wristbands, including meals at restaurants, which eliminates the need for carrying cash and credit cards. Lockers can also be rented and accessed throughout the day through the wearable. Guests set up a TapuTapu account and register a credit card on the Universal Orlando website or official app. 

Guests can also use TapTu Play to activate effects throughout the park, like controlling shots of water spraying from whales in “Tot Tiki Reef,” shooting water canons at other guests meandering down the “Kopiko Wai Winding River,” and illuminating images inside the volcano’s caves. Plus, they can take advantage of interactive photo opportunities throughout the park, including some on Volcano Bay attractions. The wearable links the photos to guests’ accounts where they can view, share, and purchase them.

1710_FEATURE_VOLCANO_SIDEBARVolcano Bay’s Rides and Attractions

Volcano Bay offers several attractions for kids, daring guests, and those who just want to relax: 

“Honu ika Moana” offers dual, twisting, multi-rider tube slides.

“Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides” have twin drop doors that plunge two guests down intertwining tubes.

“Kopiko Wai Winding River” takes guests on a lazy-river ride around Volcano Bay.

“Ko’okiri Body Plunge” features a 70-degree fall through a drop door and down a 125-foot slide.

“Krakatau Aqua Coaster” is a thrill ride sending four-person canoes uphill and into twists and turns within the volcano.

“Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides” are two six-person raft adventures that offer distinct experiences. “Maku” slides through a volcanic gorge before spinning through bowl-like formations, and “Puihi” descends into a dark winding tunnel that leads to a huge funnel where riders experience some zero-gravity hang time.

“Ohyah & Ohno Drop Slides” send riders down twisting courses that finish with four- or six-foot drops into a pool, respectively.

Puka Uli Lagoon is a leisure pool with playful features, like tropical bongo drums and spraying jets of water. 

“Punga Racers” is a four-lane racing slide where single riders use manta-ray mats to shoot through underwater sea caves.

“Runamukka Reef” is a place for children to enjoy bubbling geysers, water guns, slides, and dump cups.

“Taniwha Tubes” are four twisting water slides inspired by the coiling roots of puka trees.

“TeAwa The Fearless River” is a whitewater ride where churning rapids and choppy waves push riders along in their inner tubes.

“The Reef” is a leisure pool with its own private waterfall.

“Tot Tiki Reef” is a kid-friendly spot with slides and spraying fountains.

Waturi Beach offers waves, seating, and a view of the Krakatau volcano and its waterfalls.              

Aquatic Thrills

Several of the rides and slides at Volcano Bay have already gained acclaim as being among the best available at any water park. One of the favorites is the “Krakatau Aqua Coaster,” where riders in four-person canoes are thrust through twists and turns inside the volcano. The numerous water jets propelling the canoes are placed throughout the ride, allowing for multiple up-and-down transitions before finishing in a rush through a waterfall. 

Volcano Bay also offers three intense slides where riders wait in anticipation for trap doors to open beneath them, beginning the ride experience. “Ko’okiri Body Plunge” drops guests into a 70-degree plunge down a 125-foot run that begins in a clear tube, providing a spectacular but brief glimpse of the water park. “Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides” take riders down intertwining tubes where they recover their senses only after splashing into the pools below. 

For guests wanting a break from the slides, there are two lazy rivers—“Kopiko Wai Winding River” and “TeAwa The Fearless River.” Coup explains to Funworld the idea behind having two lazy rivers in the park: “From the beginning, we wanted to include attractions that everyone could enjoy, so it was a no-brainer to include two rivers—one for the thrill seekers and one for those just looking to relax. If you look around the park, you’ll find this theme continuously throughout the other attractions and experiences we created. Plus, both of these rivers don’t require a wait.”

“Kopiko Wai” is the lazier of the two and starts near the volcano’s base, and then it drifts into caves, providing a break from the sun. “TeAwa The Fearless River” is definitely the more active ride, with a faster flow and a few spots with churning water. Guests are required to have a tube, and lifeguards enforce this rule. Though the faster of the two rivers, the heavily themed “TeAwa” circuit still takes about seven minutes to complete, and it passes under the “Krakatau Aqua Coaster” at one point.

1710_FEATURE_VOLCANO_4For an even milder experience, a pool on Waturi Beach has a place where swimmers can congregate around the glass tube of “Ko’okiri Body Plunge” and watch sliders whiz by. “Runamukka Reef” is a kids’ water play area offering geysers, slides, water blasters, and a dump cup. “Tot Tiki Reef” is where toddlers can play in a mini water volcano or glide down splashy slides.

The park’s magnificent volcano is not only the crown jewel of the park, but is at the heart of the story that serves as its theme involving the fire god Krakatau, his willful daughter Tai Nui, and an island people called the Waturi. But this theme is actually woven throughout Volcano Bay, from the numerous totems that dot the park, to the canoe-like boats of the water coaster, to the grass-thatch roofs of retail shops and cabanas.

The rides’ names reflect this story from the South Pacific, like the “Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides” and “TeAwa The Fearless River,” as does the signage. Even some of the dishes on the restaurant menus pay homage to this central theme, in name, appearance, and composition. 

Premium Food and Relaxation

A day at a water park usually works up hefty appetites, and Universal Orlando wanted Volcano Bay’s dining options to go beyond standard fast-food options. So, the resort’s corporate executive chef, Steven Jayson, and his culinary team designed an array of dishes for the park’s six dining locations, many inspired by flavors of the South Pacific. However, for those who still just want the old reliables, there are plenty of hamburgers, pizza, and chicken fingers to be had, and a fast-service version of Universal Orlando’s dining plan for the water park is available for $22.99.

1710_FEATURE_VOLCANO_5But for those craving something more elaborate, there’s a mango BBQ pulled-pork sandwich, an island chicken salad, a Waturi mahi sandwich, and a quinoa edamame burger. One of the most highly touted dishes is coconut curry chicken with green coconut curry sauce, coconut rice, and cilantro with sweet plantains. 

Guests wishing to make their entire day a premium experience can rent one- or two-story cabanas that feature padded lounge chairs, refrigerators, and locker and concierge services. They hold from six to 16 people and range from $159.99 to $299.99. 

Single-day admission to Volcano Bay is $67 for guests 10 and older, and $62 for those 3-9. Three-park passes are available to add Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida to a visit, and Florida residents can purchase a season pass.

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Tips for a Better Volcano Bay Day

For those who may be planning to visit Volcano Bay say, before or after next month’s IAAPA Attractions Expo, here are some important and helpful things to know:

  • During its first summer of operation, Volcano Bay routinely reached capacity in the early morning. Like any theme park, arriving early is always recommended. 
  • Volcano Bay does not have its own dedicated parking lot, so visitors park in the main Universal Orlando garages. Designated lanes lead to Volcano Bay-only parking, and then guests will go through a security check before boarding buses to the water park.
  • Because a guest can only be in one virtual queue at a time, decide which ride is the one you most want to experience and then head straight to it upon entering the park. Make your TapuTapu reservation, then grab a beach seat and a locker.
  • Though the lockers are outside, there are private changing cubicles located in the restrooms.