UNIVERSAL ORLANDO Resort
Universal Studios Theme Parks
Review by: Lance Hart
Grand Opening Date: (5/25/17)
Welcome to Screamscape’s full review of Universal Orlando’s newest park!
Screamscape was honored to be invited to Orlando this past week to attend the grand opening of Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando, their brand new mega Water Theme Park. Screamscape readers have seen tons of construction pictures of this epic project rising over the past two years, but I'll tell you this right now... you haven't seen anything until you've walked right up to the edge, dipped your toe into the water, and gazed upward at the massive Krakatau volcano's cascading waterfalls dropping almost 200 feet down into the wave pool below.
Lets step back a bit to the park entry experience. All guests will take a bus over to the park itself from either their resort hotel, or from the parking structure. The exception is those staying at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort next door which offers their guests a special exclusive entrance into the park. Once you get off the bus you're directed to follow the sidewalk down a ramp and into a themed cavern style entrance that appears as if carved out of dark lava rock, which takes you under the road that separates the bus stop from the park entrance. Exiting the tunnel you can take a set of escalators up, or follow the winding path back up the hill through the lush tropical greenery that leads you to the actual park entrance, fronted by several tall posts holding up the letters that spell VOLCANO BAY, each with a cute water fountain spray at the base. The spray is a nice touch as well, as it keeps the pathways in front of the park cool for those already walking barefoot.
Awestruck. That's pretty much the word for it... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The park entrance isn't quite like anything you have seen before elsewhere, having more in common with a hotel lobby than it does a traditional theme park. There are no gates or turnstyles to spin, and no wall of ticket booths. Instead you'll find a service counter off to the right side to help you out if you need assistance or still need to purchase a ticket, otherwise step forward past the giant stone head that is singing to himself and towards an assortment of podiums manned by smiling faces who will great you with a friendly "Kia ora". You'll hear this phrase throughout the rest of your day from virtually everyone inside the park, which has it's origin from the Maori language of New Zealand. The literal translation is "Be Well" or "Be Healthy" and it is used in the park pretty much as both a greeting and farewell to guests, or even an as a "Thank you".
Scan your ticket at the podium and you will be presented with your TapuTapu wearable device which is your new best friend for the day. Universal recommends that you sign up for an account on their website or on the Universal Orlando app which they have tied into the TapuTapu experience. Once you have your account you can link your park ticket to it on the app or website, and your name and information is attached to your TapuTapu in the park for the day. You can also attach a credit card to the account in advance and used your TapuTapu for all your in park expenses for the day, allowing you to put all your belongings away in a locker and not worry about needing anything until you are ready to leave. TapuTapu is also what you will use at the major attractions to put yourself in the virtual queue, allowing you to then go off and enjoy the wave pool, either of the two river adventures, play areas, or enjoy a snack or beverage.
Don't worry, your TapuTapu will vibrate to let you know when it is time to return and ride. That said, much like Disney's FastPass, you can expect a short wait when you return, which will vary by attraction, but really isn't intended to be too long. After all, relaxing in the lazy river for an hour sure is better than 2 hours standing in the hot lines you'll find elsewhere. Now, keep in mind that I was visiting during a special media preview day before the official grand opening, so I really didn't get to put my TapuTapu to the ultimate test under true working conditions.
This is a new system that will be under constant monitoring and adjustment over the next several months while put to the ultimate test, so keep that in mind. That said, it was my understanding at the time that all guests can use their TapuTapu to get a reservation for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster AND a second attraction at the same time, so hit two things up as soon as you get there to start the process in motion. (NOTE: The park is also expected to hit capacity often during the first few months, and Universal has said to keep an eye on their social media channels for real-time updates or call 407-817-8317 to ensure they are still allowing guests in at the time you visit).
It's also worth mentioning that you can use the TapuTapu to activate various interactive features in the park, though I only came across a few during my preview, but various aspects of the park were still having the finishing touches added so some of these may still be in the works. I did notice a couple of photo kiosk areas where you can scan your TapuTapu and strike a pose with your group as well as a few spots where you can activate water squirt elements with your TapuTapu, such as one on a bridge allowing you to squirt water on the riders in the river below. While I didn't have to try it, you are also supposed to be able to rent and access your locker with your TapuTapu as well.
Please note that a few park elements were still closed during my preview visit as well as on opening day, as workers finishing them up. From the look of things however, these areas could open within days, if not hours, of when I passed by. The items that were closed at the time included the big kiddie play areas (Tot Tiki Reef and Runamukka Reef) the Kopiko Wai Winding River (aka: lazy river... so sad I didn't get to see the Stargazer's Cavern under the volcano) and TeAwa The Fearless River was sporadic on preview day, but running on the grand opening, along with some sporadic operations on the Punga Racers caused by the sled lift being fussy. Beyond that, everything else seemed to be running just fine everywhere I looked.
With that out of the way, lets get back to dipping our toes in the water. Where was I?
Oh yes... Awestruck.
TapuTapu strapped to my wrist, you venture through a winding lush tropical pathway until you make a sharp left turn and there it is... the Krakatau volcano looming very large in front of you, which kind of takes you by surprise because you just can't see it at all while approaching the park on foot. Once you reach this very spot it creates a fantastic reveal moment for the guests in much the same way that first time guests to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first see Hogwarts castle after passing through Hogsmeade Village.
Me? I made a beeline straight for the beach, walking right up to the waters edge to stare up at that behemoth of a volcano, with the roar of the cascading waterfalls filling my ears. I may have even shed a tear or two, because it was simply that awesome. Peering up near the top I spotted another object of my obsession... the clear waterslide tube of the Ko'okiri Body Plunge slide. A 125 feet plunge straight down from the top of the Krakatau volcano at a 70º angle where you can spot the brave passing through this clear section of slide before going through the dark volcanic rock to the bottom where they once again pass through a clear tube at the bottom alongside the wave pool, before dumping out into a nice splash pool at the bottom. (Yep... no blasting through a water filled trough at the bottom which was a nice surprise.)
Up until now, I had yet to experience a waterslide drop pod anywhere else before. The very idea sent shivers up my spine. I'm not afraid of heights by any means, as everyone knows I love a good roller coaster ride... but put me 3 feet off the ground on a wobbly ladder and I start to freak out because what I really fear is falling. If I feel safe, locked into a coaster seat, then I'm good... but if you ask me to jump off a diving board there will be some hesitation... go even higher from there and you may even get a "Nope!" Upon first viewing this slide with our good buddy Rick West of Theme Park Adventure (TPA), he immediately voiced by initial thought as well... "Nope! That's a Nope Slide". But I was determined to overcome this fear myself.
I was going to do it.
Did I mention that you start off this terrifying experience by climbing up around 250+ steps to get to the top of the volcano? From there you can approach the edge of the balcony that you see from the bottom, with the waterfall pouring down from above, and boy... you are HIGH UP! Take a look at the horizon and you quickly realize that only the top of the newly constructed towers added to the Cabana Bay resort are anywhere near your height. Turn around and the red drop pod awaits you.
I climbed in gingerly and noticed there is a little window in the bottom by your feet showing a blurry view of the infinite tube drop that lies below your feet. Cross your legs, fold your arms across your chest, lean your head back and the drop pod door seals shut, and the air inside is filled with the sounds of drums. My heart began to beat a little faster at that point, only for the beat of the drums to increase as well... the pounding in my chest grew more intense. Loud now, beating faster and faster until suddenly the floor drops out from beneath, putting the contents of your stomach into your throat for a split second while you try to franticly work up the air to scream or even utter a curse, or maybe both at once!
Finally... just as you start to scream, water begins hitting you in the face and you realize that what you really need to do is take a deep breath and hold it until you hit the bottom! But water... falling... air frozen in my throat... can't scream... can't inhale... and STILL... JUST... FALLING!! Falling into the blinding white light!
Suddenly DARKNESS... still falling... accelerating still... falling faster and faster! All I can hear is the roaring of water... or was that me still screaming? I've no idea, but then I feel my world start to rotate, the slide and rushing water against my back and gravity twisting my head back... the skin on my face pushing back against my ears!
LIGHT!! Water and Light... is it over? NO! Plunged back into darkness again... but through squinted eyes I spy another sliver a light ahead and remember that I've still got to breathe!! Too late...
SPLASH!!! Submerged... disorientation... do I swim or just try to stand up? Which way is up anyway? Reach out with legs, touch the bottom, stand up, break the surface and finally INHALE!!! Stunned, I blinked a couple of times and looked around... "WOW!" Just wow... I had no more words... that was simply an experience for the record books and a sense of achievement washed over me, because that was really something special.
According to the record books the Ko'okiri Body Plunge is the tallest body slide in North America (3rd in the world) as well as being the Tallest Drop-Pod slide in the entire world. If that wasn't enough... did I mention that there were two more drop pods awaiting you at the top of the volcano?
Meet Kala and Tai Nui... a pair of mean twins that are tied for being the second tallest body slides in North America featuring a total vertical drop of 124 feet, but these two straighten out after the initial 70º plunge and take you on an extremely twisted out of control adventure down to the bottom. There was some debate on which slide is which, but Kala is believed to the blue slide and Tai Nui is the green one... and while Kala is no slouch, I'd throw Tai Nui into the running without hesitation as being the single most intense waterslide on the planet. Tai Nui starts off fast, wild and completely off the rails and somehow seems to get ever faster and more insane as you go.
Opening your eyes is pretty much impossible to do as it twists, turns and drops you down the volcano, the G-forces in the turns quickly go from "Oh my!" to "OH S#!T!" as Tai Nui has it's way with you for a good laugh until it spits you out into the cool waters below in a completely disoriented state, like nothing I had ever experienced anywhere before. Upon finally standing up in the pool on my two feet again, trying to make the world stop spinning around me, I sucked air back into my lungs and found that the only words I could utter were definitely not suitable for children's ears. Another Achievement Unlocked!
The thrills just don't stop there... next door are the Ohyah and Ohno Drop Slides, body slides that will take you on a high speed twisting trip down to the bottom, only toss you out into the air over a 10 foot deep pool. Ohyah ends with an impressive 4 foot drop down to the pool, while Ohno sits next to it with a 6 foot drop. Even if you aren't up for the drop at the end, there is a nice sandy beach that surrounds the splash pool where you can gather to watch and laugh while others take the fall.
Walk towards the back of the park and you'll hit the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides... a pair of massive tube slides that offer giant rafts that can hold 4 to 6 riders at once. The yellow Maku slide will take you on more of a straight forward high-speed run down to the bottom, passing through some saucer shaped sections with geysers along the way. Puihi (the green one) will take you on a wild trip that drops through a pair of tornado style funnels elements for some high-up half-pipe action, twisting and turning down to the bottom. It's also nice to mention that the spirit and soul of the original Wet 'n Wild waterpark will live on here as Maku Puihi translates from the Malawi language as "Wet" and "Wild".
Moving on you'll find a set of four raft slides called Taniwha Tubes, each with a unique layout different from the rest. I didn't get to try all four, but my recommendation would be to try the light green one for the biggest thrill once again. Unlike the Maka Puihi, Taniwha Tubes will take on guests in pairs or single riders on double-tubes.
Not far from here you'll find another pair of giant raft slides called Honu ika Moana. Moana features a more traditional giant raft slide experience, extra-large sized, as you spin and whirl down the giant green slide tubes. Honu on the other hand takes a quicker trip to the bottom on the blue side dropping riders down huge hills into a pair of massive wall elements along the way.
Finally lets not forget the highlight attraction, the Krakatau Aqua Coaster... an experience like no other. You climb up a small staircase to the station where you realize this is almost more of a ride than a slide at first glance, complete with four-passenger canoe themed rafts sliding through the station on a conveyor belt. Climb aboard and get comfy because the ride starts with a steep drop right out of the station into the first of SEVEN coaster style drop and uphill elements. The magic here is that as fun as the drops are, the strange uphill moments are where the slide excels as you soar UPHILL faster than you fall down, even hitting some airtime at the top of a few hills along the way, and slowly find that your journey is taking you higher and higher with each magnetic push, ending with a final big plunge back down to the ground and then blasted up into a cool splashdown section which returns you to the station again. This pure is a pure joy... fun from start to finish and perfect for the entire family to experience together, shouting, laughing, squealing and giggling the entire way, and you'll be ready to put that TapuTapu to use to ride it again and again.
Beyond the attractions of Volcano Bay are a wide assortment of food options, many of which we previewed in a past update, along with a nice collection of bar lounge areas where you can cool off with a nice beverage.
I had one interesting observation however I thought worth mentioning. Before you get on any of the major attractions, you (or your group) will be asked to climb onto a scale. Don't worry... there is no big display where everyone can see how much you weigh, but I found it interesting that every major attraction in the park is being carefully weighed to be sure the overall load fits within recommended minimum and maximum specifications.
As a bigger guy, this is something I also appreciated as I noticed that Volcano Bay is a very friendly place compared to other parks for those who may be overweight or just large in size overall. I've seen too many parks out there that cap off the maximum weight allowed on body slides between 220 to 250 pounds, too many tube slides that while they allow a 450 pound maximum on a double tube, either don't allow single riders at all, or if they do, you have to still be under 250 when riding alone. For Volcano Bay, the magic weight number is 300 pounds. As long as you are 300 pounds or less, you can experience everything the park has to offer without the worry of taking a "walk of shame".
Volcano Bay may be the world’s ultimate theme park, offering something for everyone. There are enough slides and attractions to make any waterslide lover satisfied, while the tropical atmosphere alone is enough to allow a sun worshiper to find their place on the beach and relax with a tropical beverage under the warm tanning sunlight for the afternoon, sipping away at the straw next to a little tiny umbrella. The unique food selection as well will take your taste buds on a trip to a far away island place where no one has even heard of a “McNugget”. The visuals... even though you know you saw the park from the freeway, the park was designed so that all slight-lines point back to the volcano centerpiece. You really only get a clear view of the outside world when climbing to the top of a slide tower. For all intents and purposes, you really can find yourself believing that the world of Volcano Bay is real... because when it is time to leave at the end of the day, it didn't feel like I was just leaving a waterpark, it really felt more like I was going home from a magical tropical island vacation.
But this was no illusion... Volcano Bay is real... and I know I’ll be back again.
Volcano Bay Grand Opening
Taniwha Tubes - Reverse POV
Puihi - Reverse POV
Maku - Reverse POV