Universal Orlando previews its new park, Volcano Bay
May 24, 2017, 1:46 PM ·
ORLANDO — What is Volcano Bay? Is the third gate at the Universal Orlando Resort a theme park, or a water park? Or, as Universal's taken to calling it recently, is it a hybrid — a water theme park?
Who cares? All I know is that it's a lot of fun. And that's coming from someone who's never really enjoyed water parks before.
Universal Orlando invited reporters to visit the new whatever-it-is park today, one day before its official public opening tomorrow. Volcano Bay features seven water slide collections, plus two lazy rivers, two water spraygrounds, and a fun aqua coaster that I thought was the highlight of what I was able to sample today.
But the heart of the park, without question, is that big visual weenie at its center — the Krakatau volcano.
It houses two of the water slides as well as its eponymous aqua coaster. More importantly, it gives the park a thematic identity that separates it from most water parks.
Beyond those, however, Disney established the template for a themed water park with Typhoon Lagoon and then Blizzard Beach, years ago. But Universal advances it with Volcano Bay, which effectively recreates the form on a South Seas island, with a volcano in the middle and the water attractions surrounding it. Yet it is with service that Universal is making a claim for Volcano Bay to become the world's top water park.
Universal has replaced the traditional queuing system with virtual lines, requiring it to issue every visitor a "TapuTapu" wearable, which not only is used to claim your place in a virtual line in the park, it also can be used to reserve and open lockers and make payments throughout the park, when linked to a credit card via the Universal Orlando app or website.
Yes, Disney blazed that trail with MagicBands a while ago, but by eliminating standby queues, Universal has the potential for a much more coherent and user-friendly system. Just tap the wearable to claim your place in line. Then go sit by a beach, float down a lazy river, grab a drink at a bar. Whatever. The TapuTapu's screen will tell you when it's your turn to ride.
No managing reservations in advance, or via an app. Just tap, wait, and go.
Unfortunately, I can't tell you how well or poorly the system works because on a media preview day like today, there simply aren't enough people claiming places in line to cause a backup. Everything was a walk-on. (To quote a rival company's villain, "I can feel your hate.") But the TapuTapu works great for the lockers, which are located in three main stations inside the park, each next to shower and changing facilities. And I was impressed with Universal's conveyor systems to move rafts back up to the top of water slide towers, without requiring guests to haul them up themselves.
Let's take a walk around the park.
My goal for the day was to try two of the relatively new and unique ride types in the park: the Krakatau Aqua Coaster and the Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides. Yes, you might find similar water rides in other parks, but these ride types — a capsule drop slide and especially a LIM water coaster — are fresher concepts than your basic tube slides. Even though I'm not a water park fan, I didn't want to start at the beginning. Why not jump in with the latest stuff?
For once, I didn't have to keep my hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times! ;^)
As you can tell from my reaction, the Krakatau Aqua Coaster is pure fun. It's not a water slide, but more a roller coaster with water flowing all around you. The zippy lifts, the airtime over the hills and the stomach-floating drops are all part of the coaster repertoire. But when you're laying down, right on the "track," everything feels magnified. And that refreshing water, with a soaking splash at the end? It's best of a flume and a coaster, together at last — 10/10 would ride again.
Also inside the Krakatau volcano you will find the Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides, as well as the Ko'okiri Body Plunge. All three are capsule drop slides, where you're loaded into a clear chamber to await the trapdoor releasing below you, dropping you into the ride.
I wanted some twists with my slide instead of a straight down drop, so I chose the green side of Kala & Tai Nui. (I've already forgotten which one that was.) If the Aqua Coaster was pure fun, this one was pure terror. (Hey, some of us are into that!)
The trapdoor drop was no problem. It was the swirling rush of water in the tube that got me. Let's back up a moment. Getting on the ride required a hike up the countless steps that bring you nearly to the top of the 200-foot Krakatau. I needed some time to catch my breath up there before even considering which capsule to enter. But, apparently, I needed even more time than I took — and more breath — because when I opened my mouth to refill on the way down, well, oxygen was available only with its twin friends, H1 and H2.
Having been dropped from a perfectly comfortable chamber and squeezed through a tube into stuff I'm not using to breathing, I now believe that I have a conscious understanding of what it was like to have been born. It was a great trip, and I'm glad that I went through it, but I'd rather not look back on my way to ride the Aqua Coaster again.