Two weeks ago, I got a sneak peek at the revolutionary water theme park that’s going to take the family vacation world by storm: I went to the opening of Universal’s Volcano Bay in Orlando.
As you may recall, I’m on the Blog Squad for Universal Orlando Resort, and our entire posse was reunited for four days as we got a preview of the park before it opened to the general public. And if you ever want to talk about the ultimate #workperk, it’s getting to be one of just 200 people let loose inside a water park! It was epic and one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
The opening party also came with some great entertainment in the form of a haka dance ceremony performed by a Maori tribe out of New Zealand. Universal sure knows how to debut a new park, that’s for sure!
For a full two days, SVV and I got to bop around Universal’s newest resident, the third in its collection of Orlando parks. For those of you planning a summer vacation to Volcano Bay, here’s everything you need to know:
Universal created an entire story around the fabled Pacific islanders called the Waturi. And when Universal carves out a theme, it sticks to it. No fewer than 30 park employees greeted us with a cheeful “kia ora!” There are also tribal design elements woven throughout the park.
As the Volcano Bay video tells it, “Long ago the Waturi people criss-crossed the ocean. According to legend, the mythical golden fish Kunuku would one day appear leading them to a new home, where their spirits would be free. In search of Kunuku, they sailed far and wide, traveling to Tahiti, Hawaii, Bali, blending each remarkable culture with their own. Finally, at the very edge of the world, Kunuku leapt from the waves, calling, ‘Follow me to Volcano Bay.’”
The Waturi live by the mantra “Water is Life. Life is Joy.” As such, their homeland is situated around the stunning Fire and Water Volcano, the park’s centerpiece. Surrounding it is Waturi Beach, sprinkled with lounge chairs (free) and waterside cabanas (for a fee), and it’s also got a wave pool, a lazy river and an adventure river (which to be honest, wasn’t that much more fast-paced than its “lazy” counterpart). If you’re worried about getting a lounge chair, you can reserve Premium Seating in advance, which also come with a dedicated server.
There are four different sections or “lands” of the park and 18 immersive rides. While I didn’t go on every one of them, I definitely had my favorites (see below for more ride specifics).
Volcano Bay unveiled some pretty savvy technology: a virtual line system called TapuTapu. This means you get a watch-like wristband when you enter the park and can scan in at any of the rides you want, then it gives you a countdown and buzzes when you’re on deck. You can also use the app or the UOR website to link it to your credit card and pay for purchases cash-free as you go, as well as open and close lockers where you’ll want to store your things while you ride.
Is it perfect? No. There are definitely kinks to work out. And I heard that over opening weekend, which coincided with Memorial Day, the wait times exceeded 360 minutes. But would I much rather spend those 360 minutes in the wave pool or lazy river than standing in line? Heck yes!
The Single Rides
I thought that the Ko’okiri Body Plunge, which shoots you straight down the middle of the volcano 125 feet at a 70-degree angle, was going to give me a panic attack—not because I’m afraid of steep slides but because I’m extremely claustrophobic and they fasten you into a glass tube then count down before triggering a glass door.
Luckily, no panic attacks here, but I did get a lot of water up my nose (and SVV’s back got pretty badly ride-burned). Would I do it again? Probably not. Am I glad I did it once? Definitely.
Near the entrance to the volcano, there’s also the Ohno and the Ohyah rides, a pair of enclosed chutes that spit you out into a pool via a six-foot drop. This was also a pretty fun one and one I’d do again in a heartbeat.
killer action shot by Eric Stoen of Travel Babbo
Additionally, there are a handful of other single-rider tubes, mat races, raft slides and more. The best part of Volcano Bay, in my opinion, is the fact that they have technology that hauls the rafts to the top of the ride for you so you don’t have to mess with any of it and can focus on having fun.
The Group Rides
You’re probably going to love the Krakatau Aqua Coaster—I did, as did everyone who was tackling the park with me—and as such, you’ll want to make it your first swipe of your TapuTapu. This is unlike any water slide I’ve ever been on before as you’re seated in a four-person canoe that shoots through the tracks like a roller coaster set in water. My other favorite was Honu ika Moana, which sweeps up one big wave-shaped wall and makes you feel as if you’re going to soar right off the slide.
You knew I was going to talk about how awesome the food at Volcano Bay was, right? Well, here goes.
You can have any type of dining experience at Volcano Bay from grab-and-go to something a bit nicer. SVV and I both really liked the pretzel bun hot dogs and flatbreads from Bambu (in the Rainforest Village) and the chicken coconut curry from Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club (in Wave Village). Snack-wise, the flavored Icees were awesome (banana, specifically), and the unicorn ice cream was possibly my favorite treat I had in the park. The Dippin’ Dots and smoothies were just OK.
The food overall was very impressive—a nice change over many theme parks I’ve visited where it’s all fried fair food. Best of all: There’s beer and liquor available! There’s even a signature drink, the Volcano Blossom, a refreshing passionfruit-flavored beer that I just adored that was created by Orange Blossom Brewery exclusively for the park.
What It Costs
A one-day Volcano Bay ticket is $67 for an adult and $62 for children, which is cheaper than the other two parks. However, you can buy a park-to-park ticket for $165 that gets you into all three parks on the same day. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, though, I’d highly suggest doing a multi-day ticket; it’s simply too ambitious to think you can do all three parks in one day. If you are said ambitious type and insist on squeezing it all in, you’ll want to tack on an Express Pass (starting at $55 per day)—especially during peak summer vacation time and also Spring Break—to accelerate to the front of the line and get the most out of your day in the parks.
I get a lot of emails asking how much time one needs to properly do Universal and now with three parks, I’m going to say three days. You could do it in two, but you’d be rushing from attraction to attraction and not have time to re-ride anything you loved. Check out all your ticket options and costs here.
Unlike Universal and Islands of Adventure where most locker rentals are free while you’re on the ride, at Volcano Bay you have to pay to rent one. The facilities are clean, nice and easy to use, much like the other parks. If you don’t want to have someone camp out with your lounge chairs and stuff on Waturi Beach all day, I recommend paying the $8 to $15 (depending on size) so you know your belongings are secure all day long. You can also rent towels or bring your own. At the entrance of each attraction, there’s a place to leave your shoes and cover-up (unmanned, of course) while you ride.
In terms of food, SVV and I spent around $45 for lunch for the two of us; that included a main and a drink (beer, for us) each. Given that Universal offers dining plans for $22 a day, that sounds about right.
Where to Stay
I love all five of the on-site Loews properties for different reasons, but if I had to pick a favorite, I’d probably say Cabana Bay—and lucky for you, it’s the budget option and backs Volcano Bay. Win-win!
Looking for other Universal tips? I’ve got a few:
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