Tail over teakettle is not my best look.
But there I was, hurtling down a neon green water slide backward with one leg in the air until – kerplop – into the nippy exit pool I went. When I finally got my head above water and clambered ashore, heart pounding, I had three immediate thoughts. In order:
Please, pretty please, let my swim trunks be arranged properly.
Was it the slide’s twists and turns that left me breathless? Or was I still winded from climbing the many (many) stairs to its top? And were those (sob) my love handles jiggling on the way down?
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Let’s go again.
There is not enough chlorine in existence to make me a water park enthusiast, but Universal Orlando in Florida had lured me to its glistening new “water theme park” with a tantalizing marketing assertion: We have reimagined the whole experience. All those things you don’t like about water parks? Our new 30-acre attraction, Volcano Bay, has fixed all of them.
Waiting in long lines? Fixed.
Hauling soggy mats up hundreds of stairs? Fixed.
“One part evolution, three parts revolution – distinguished at every level,” Mark Woodbury, vice chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts, told me when I arrived May 8 for a pre-opening peek. (The park opened May 25. Single-day admission is $67.)
The ick factor
Water parks have come a long way since 1977, when Wet ‘n Wild opened in Orlando and created what would become the industry paradigm: a nest of colorful fiberglass slides affixed to a platform, a wave pool, a meandering “lazy river” canal filled with inner tubes. Indoor water parks proliferated in the late 1990s. Water coasters, where riders in rafts sometimes travel uphill, propelled by high-pressure jets or magnets, are now the rage.
But Woodbury’s comment struck me as hokum. Over the years, various entertainment companies have promised to reinvent the water-park-for-the-masses experience. By my estimation, none pulled it off. At least in the United States, the drill has remained stubbornly the same. As Adam Bezark, an independent theme park designer, had told me earlier by phone, “It’s still got a lot of chaos, a lot of junk food, a lot of ick factor.” (For the record, I’m not a water park neophyte: In 2002, The Wall Street Journal sent me to eight water parks with mold-testing swabs to get a feel for cleanliness; I returned with a rash my doctor referred to as “hot-tub leg.”)
Perhaps the lack of innovation at U.S. water parks is why they have grown rather slowly. Attendance at the top 20 totaled 15.9 million in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, up 5.3 percent compared with 2010, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
A $600 million park
I held out hope that Volcano Bay would live up to Universal’s billing. It cost as much as $600 million to build, according to analysts at Nomura Instinet, making it the most expensive U.S. park of its kind. And Woodbury’s track record is impressive. He led the Universal Orlando team that brought the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to life in 2010. With its looming Hogwarts Castle and snow-dusted Hogsmeade village, that project dazzled adults and children alike, raising the bar for theme parks everywhere, Walt Disney World included.
So I put on my prescription sunglasses, tossed a beach towel over my shoulder and set forth in flip-flops to give Volcano Bay a whirl.
Upon arrival, you walk through a long dark tunnel that has (fake) rock walls and bamboo on the ceiling. It seems like a passage left behind by a lost civilization. You emerge in what feels like a jungle and ride twin escalators up a hill, where a thatched-roof pavilion – a bit like a stadium after that cramped tunnel – serves as ticketing plaza.
This is also where you get a heavy dose of the park’s fictional mythology.
Volcano Bay, you see, was once home to the ancient Waturi people, who found it only after searching Hawaii, Bali, Tahiti, New Zealand and Easter Island. Finally, at the edge of the world, having appropriated bits of various Pacific Islander cultures (ahem), they met a magic fish named Kanuku that led them to a secret atoll – Volcano Bay. The smoking mountain at its center has its own back story involving a god named Krakatau and a willful daughter, Tai Nui, whose tears filled the pools.
I know intricate story lines are important to a lot of theme park fans. But enough already: Let’s see the place.
The volcano comes into view after a sharp bend in the path, and it is one of the most mesmerizing theme park centerpieces I have ever seen. (Alas, I have a rather embarrassing recreational résumé that includes visiting every Disney park around the world.) The upper part of the 200-foot-tall mountain is basalt brown, and the lower rocks are mossy green. Puffs of smoke emerge from the top. One waterfall spills 27,000 gallons a minute from a height of 170 feet. At night, lighting effects make the water look like lava.
The immersion was so strong that I totally forgot that a busy highway was beyond the landscaping to the east.
I was going to dive straight into the wave pool, which stretches from the volcano’s base, encircled by white sand – but it was lunchtime. Since Volcano Bay’s stylish main restaurant, Kohola Reef, was right there, I decided to see if Universal had improved on one of my biggest water park complaints: the food.
Food options at these parks are usually minimal. Noah’s Ark in Wisconsin Dells, which calls itself America’s largest water park, offers little aside from pizza, hamburgers and fries. Funnel cakes and turkey legs are big at the awkwardly named Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas, the nation’s fifth busiest water park.
Perhaps in an effort to attract a more upscale clientele, Volcano Bay offers a 60-item menu, including basic sushi, coconut-crusted fried chicken, jerk-seasoned mahi-mahi and arugula salad with watermelon and feta. Another nice touch: Staff members direct you to open tables, alleviating the where-will-we-sit panic that often accompanies theme park dining.
As I chomped on a pulled-pork sandwich ($13) with caramelized pineapple and mango slaw, I considered how Universal had gotten a few things right already. The food, for a start. More important, Volcano Bay did not feel like a water park. It felt more like a resort. Granted, the masses had yet to descend; maybe things would be different with a mob of bobbing bodies in that wave pool. (No surprise: Theme Park Insider said opening day was a zoo.)
But the easy vibe seemed to have more to do with the park’s unusual layout.
The entire front half was free of typical water park commotion – no slides in view, no anarchic locker rooms. That is because Universal put the livelier attractions behind the volcano or disguised them. For instance, Ko'okiri Body Plunge, a clear tube slide attached to the front of the volcano, is almost completely covered by a waterfall. As for the four locker rooms, they are tucked discreetly throughout the park.
“We thought, ‘Here’s a crazy idea: Maybe your locker should actually be near you,’” said Dale Mason, a senior Volcano Bay designer. The park also has 51 private cabanas that come with concierge service ($160 to $550 a day, depending on size, location and season) and pairs of reservable beach chairs ($30 to $70) that come with waiter service and clamshell shades.
Adding to the resort atmosphere – and standing in stark contrast to Disney’s competing water parks – is an attached hotel called Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Universal Orlando has five hotels in total; a sixth is on the way. With the opening of Volcano Bay, there are three individually ticketed parks. The goal is to keep vacationers so busy that they don’t have time to don Mouse Ears for a day.
Volcano Bay has four themed zones that offer 18 attractions, including slides of every imaginable variety (including tot-size ones); a “fearless river” where the current moves 4 feet per second through rapids (hold on tight to your inner tube); and a water coaster that takes riders inside the volcano’s grottoes. Many of the lavishly themed attractions were not yet operating during my visit, but I’m kind of a slide ninny and probably wouldn’t have ridden the more aggressive ones anyway.
I did try five slides, including one promoted as a first-of-its-kind “saucer” ride called Maku, which sends multipassenger rafts speeding around wide, open-air corners. That one was a blast: You sit in a five-person circular tube, with seats around the edges and everyone’s feet together in a middle area. Being alone, I was paired with three people I didn’t know, which was weird at first – none of us really wanted to play footsie – but you lose your self-consciousness in a hurry on that first dip. Hitting the water with other people is also more fun than doing it solo.
One of the best parts was the lift system for those rafts. Universal had, indeed, fixed the hauling problem. At most water parks, you pick up an inner tube or raft at the bottom and lug it up the stairs with you. But Volcano Bay has conveyor systems (kind of like an ascending luggage return at the airport) that do the work for you.
Now if they could just figure out a way to get rid of the switchback stairs and tow people to the top … gasp, wheeze, pant. (Some slides have elevators for visitors with disabilities.)
As for the biggest water park complaint – lines – Universal has figured out a technology solution it calls TapuTapu. Upon entry to Volcano Bay, everyone is given a waterproof wearable device that looks a little like a rudimentary Apple Watch. Instead of waiting in line, you tap the device on digital totems at slide entrances; that holds your place in a “virtual queue” and you can sunbathe or swim or whatever until the device flashes that it’s your turn to ride. Pretty cool.
TapuTapu also allows guests to pay for food with a tap. There are all sorts of other features. I liked how the device opened my locker – no more need to carry a key or remember a code – and activated surprises (a burping Tiki, erupting geysers) as I explored the park and unwittingly triggered sensors. There are spots where you can tap a totem and pose for an automatic photo; the pictures magically appear on your online account, where they can be downloaded later for various prices.
With my face a bit sunburned, I decided to call it a day.
First, though, I wanted to check out one of Volcano Beach’s beach bars, which have outrigger sails on their roofs and ukulele music on their sound systems. I ordered a fruity concoction called a Guavaruma, one of a dozen specialty drinks that come with little umbrellas. Mine was a nonalcoholic version, but its contents – Sprite, pineapple juice, guava juice – were sugary enough to make me a bit dizzy nonetheless.
Or was it still those stairs?