Universal grants theme park fans' wish for original IP with Volcano Bay

May 5, 2017, 10:20 AM · Who's ready for this Memorial Day weekend, when Disney introduces a new screen attraction based on a movie and Universal opens a completely practical attraction based on original IP?

Okay, I'm grossly oversimplifying (and possibly trolling) with that question. Walt Disney World's Pandora - The World of Avatar is much more than a single screen-based attraction. It might be the most beautiful attraction that Walt Disney Imagineering ever has created — which is an amazing standard to uphold. We'll be writing much, much more about Pandora over the next three weeks, but today I want to take a moment to acknowledge that it's Universal that now is doing something that theme park fans have been wanting for years — creating a new attraction based upon an original IP.

Universal's long-standing motto was "ride the movies" and it developed its attractions to match that. Walk through any Universal Studios theme park and you see ride after ride, show after show, based upon movies and television shows. (Or the occasional book or comic, too.) Universal is the theme park industry's IP king, aggregating not just its own Universal Pictures franchises, but properties from Warner Bros., Fox, and other studio competitors, as well.

But for its new Volcano Bay water theme park, Universal has skipped the opportunity to develop a park based upon its own or a partner's IP in favor of developing an attraction with its own, original backstory. The story of Volcano Bay is the story of the Waturi people, who crossed the Pacific looking for a mythical golden fish who would lead them to a new home. Here's the official backstory from Universal Creative.

Okay, if you really want to stretch for a movie IP tie-in for Volcano Bay, "Waturi" was the last name of Tom Hanks' boss in the 1990 movie Joe Versus the Volcano, which was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. No industry does better with recycling than Hollywood.

But Volcano Bay isn't about that guy, or that volcano. It's about creating a new experience that borrows from a wide variety of South Pacific influences to create a unique experience that frames the physical activity of riding water slides, floating down lazy rivers or simply lounging by a pool within a story that helps to transport you mentally to a different place — one so exotic that it can exist only in imagination.

That's what great theme park attractions do — they transport you to a fantastic place, time, and experience. Starting with an established IP from other media allows park designers a head start, as you come to those attractions with a knowledge of and (presumably) an affinity for that franchise that designers can build upon in creating an experience for you. When a park starts from scratch with an original IP, it must find ways to set the scene and introduce its story in a way that captures the imagination of visitors who come in knowing nothing about the experience.

Universal obviously is building upon widely-known South Pacific themes in crafting its story for Volcano Bay, which should help build the appeal for the park among people who never will bother learning the word "Waturi." But having the backstory and weaving into the experience of the park gives Universal an opportunity to create something even more engaging for visitors than a well-decorated water park loaded with palm trees, thatched roofs, grass skirts, Hawaiian shirts, and Tiki bars.

The Disney and Universal theme parks are part of large media conglomerates whose leaders look for every opportunity to build franchises that work across multiple media — from movies, to television, to recording and publishing, to toys and collectibles, to theme parks. With theme park attractions costing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those parks gets few opportunities to develop major new attractions each decade. Why risk one of them on an original IP when there are so many well-established IPs to grow and promote with those attractions, instead?

That's what makes Volcano Bay so unusual, and well worth watching. Will Volcano Bay's original IP resonate with visitors? Or will it prove an irrelevant aspect of the experience? We will start to find out when the park opens officially to the public on May 25.

But if Volcano Bay's IP is a hit, who wants to take bets on when Universal develops some TV show based on it?

Replies (17)

May 5, 2017 at 11:04 AM · Both Disney and Universal are the reason why my Orlando vacation gets longer and more expensive every time I visit. That's a good thing and a bad thing! I'm all for screen-based attractions as long as they do it right. I'm also loving the highly detailed lands they're churning out. Competition is a good thing!
May 5, 2017 at 11:08 AM · Shaun Fisher is AWESOME!
May 5, 2017 at 11:56 AM · An attraction or land can be awesome or not so, with or without IP. It does depend on the execution. From what I've seen online, The IP inspired Pandora will be stunning, and a place I will spend several hours in daylight, and evening. I also loved the non-IP Rivers of Light, when I saw that recently at DAK. I would like to see a mix of both IP and non IP attractions, at Disney and Universal's parks
May 5, 2017 at 12:12 PM · Tom Hanks also starred in Cast Away where he was stranded on a deserted island. The music from the Waturi video is so much like Hawaiian that it could be another Aulani commercial. If anything, Universal wouldn't let Disney corner the Hawaiian market and will one day open timeshares in Oahu.
May 5, 2017 at 4:17 PM · If anything, I'm expecting the lack of IP to contribute to the relaxed atmosphere of Volcano Bay. Anything with an IP carries with it a certain degree of angst. I find I look forward to Volcano Bay with the same feelings I felt for the pre-Depp Pirate rides: It's a place I can project myself into freely. I look forward to both Pandora and VB, but expect more relaxation from the Waturis.
May 5, 2017 at 1:21 PM · @TH Creative, no, YOU'RE awesome :) And Robert's pretty cool too.
May 5, 2017 at 6:57 PM · LOL! Nothing screams immersive environment like being surrounded by highways, condo projects, and hotel complexes. Not to mention that half of the volcano is left exposed and looks unfinished. Ultimately, I am a fan of Universal Orlando and enjoy a couple days there, but it pales in comparison to Disney IMHO. WDW is a resort that I want to spend 7-10 days at, while Universal has created theme parks that I want to spend a couple days at, similar to Busch Gardens.
May 5, 2017 at 10:47 PM · Just a week-end at Fort Wilderness at Disney means so much to me and my family, that I cant understand what the fuss is all about at Universal Studios.
May 5, 2017 at 11:47 PM · Disney's water parks are not based on IPs either. I really don't think a water park needs any of that.
May 6, 2017 at 4:13 AM · Love the Joe vs the Volcano tie-in. A great movie with tons of symbalism.

Personally, I disagree that it looks "unfinished" - what we have seen from the outside so far looks stunning. The real question will be how well you feel isolated from I-4/Turkey Lake Road literally being feet away in spots from the park. To me, that is the key factor that may break the immersion. Immersion is what makes Aquatica, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon work so well. Time will tell whether some bamboo can drown out the sound of 18 wheelers gear-jamming up and down the Interstate while you relax in the land of the Waturi.

May 6, 2017 at 5:16 AM · Good chunks of Disneyland (Tomorrowland, Toontown, small world) border up to the Santa Ana freeway, and the Matterhorn is about as far away from the highway as the Volcano, it'll be an interesting comparison.
May 6, 2017 at 6:54 AM · Moana
May 6, 2017 at 8:14 AM · Will Volcano Bay's original IP resonate with visitors? Or will it prove an irrelevant aspect of the experience?
It depends on the guest. As with Avatar land you can get as much or little out of your experience as you want. The amount of detail is put in there.
I for one love a good back story (unlike the Disney Springs one). With repeat visits the rides will get the background and the experience with the area and it's story gets noted more and more. That's what I like.
May 6, 2017 at 5:32 PM · I know it seems like a tall order, but I'm going to go out on a limb with the prediction that Universal will handle the issue of immersion vs. local congestion quite well. One of the things I like most about staying at Royal Pacific, Volcano Bay's close neighbor, is the fact that, while the resort is easily visible for I-4 and the surrounding highways, you don't realize it while you're there. It's my favorite of the Universal resorts because it's so peaceful to hang out near the waterfall outside Jake's or by the pool. You don't realize just how close the rest of the world is. I'm betting Universal took all of this into account with their design of Volcano Bay.

That said, I'm still dying to see how they FIT everything that's supposed to be there onto that small slip of land....

May 7, 2017 at 8:05 AM · Myself and most other industry experts are expecting attendance at Volcano Bay to be extremely underwhelming, to the point that I fully expect it to quietly close within a few years.

If you want a water park, you go to Typhoon Lagoon or Atlantis Bahamas. Sorry but Volcano Bay is shaping up to be yet another disappointment for another of Disney's rivals.

May 8, 2017 at 11:16 AM · They better be serving orange soda at Volcano Bay! Thanks for pointing out the (previously unknown to me at least) connection to an 80's classic that I will always stop and watch when it's on-and I own the DVD! Now if only they had an animatronic Nathan Lane in full native regalia getting visitors and asking, "Are you...Joe?"
That said, I am most looking forward to the opening of PANDORA: THE WORLD OF AVATAR. We haven't seen world building on this scale since THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER, and although I don't have what I'd call an emotional connection to the IP, I thought the film was as spectacularly immersive a cinematic adventure since the original STAR WARS. I don't know how many people will actually remember the film more than vaguely(no matter how often it airs on FX), but that won't stop guests from citing it as a reason to visit DAK. The only thing I really like over there is DINOSAUR, so this will go a long way to making the park a destination I want to return to.
May 8, 2017 at 11:47 PM · Whatever this so-called "industry expert" (two posts above) is smoking, it must be good stuff. Attendance will underwhelm and Volcano Bay will quietly close?? From everything we've seen, that is science fiction.

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