VOL­CANO BAY ERUPTS AT UNI­VER­SAL OR­LANDO

Take a plunge at a water park that raises the bar and low­ers the boom

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TRAVEL - Arthur Levine

A cou­ple of sec­onds af­ter the trap door in the water slide’s launch cap­sule opened, I was plum­met­ing in near dark­ness at break­neck speed with no end in sight. Many thoughts were rac­ing through my mind: I can’t be­lieve how steep this is. I can’t be­lieve how fast I am go­ing. What the heck did I get my­self into? Will this thing ever end?

Hav­ing sur­vived the Ko’okiri Body Plunge, one of the fea­tured at­trac­tions at the new Vol­cano Bay water park at Uni­ver­sal Or­lando, I can re­port that it did, in fact, end, and that my dig­nity re­mained in­tact. Barely in­tact, how­ever, was my abil­ity to brave the ul­tra-chal­leng­ing ride. (As a thrill ride fa­natic, it should be noted that this is a very good thing.) The Ko’okiri Body Plunge was the sin­gle most ter­ri­fy­ing water slide I had ever ex­pe­ri­enced — un­til I tried the park’s even wack­ier Kala and Tai Nui Ser­pen­tine Body Slides.

Known for wild, in-your-face theme park thrills, Uni­ver­sal has built a water park filled with in­tense water-based ex­pe­ri­ences. If you don’t share my fa­nati­cism for thrill rides, there are plenty of less chal­leng­ing slides and at­trac­tions at Vol­cano Bay. There are even op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­lax amid its lovely South Sea Is­lands set­ting.

The re­sort is billing its new prop­erty as a “first-of-its-kind water theme park.” That may be a tad hyper­bolic, but Vol­cano Bay does raise the bar. Let’s call it a new-wave water park.

The genre traces its roots to Dis­ney World’s River Coun­try and Wet ’n Wild Or­lando, both of which opened in the mid-1970s. Dis­ney has since closed its orig­i­nal water park, but opened two more. The Mouse’s Typhoon La­goon and Bliz­zard Beach could jus­ti­fi­ably lay claim to the “water theme park” de­scrip­tor. For the past few years, Uni­ver­sal qui­etly owned and op­er­ated the ag­ing Wet ’n Wild. It closed the park in De­cem­ber to pre­pare for Vol­cano Bay’s open­ing. (Lo­cated a cou­ple of miles away from its re­sort, Uni­ver­sal Or­lando re­port­edly has plans to con­vert the Wet ’n Wild prop­erty into ad­di­tional ho­tels and a sec­ond shop­ping and restau­rant dis­trict.)

GO WITH THE PARK’S FLOW

Like Typhoon La­goon and Bliz­zard Beach, a moun­tain sits at the cen­ter of Vol­cano Bay. At 200 feet, how­ever, Uni­ver­sal’s Krakatau Vol­cano tow­ers over its com­peti­tors and is an im­pos­ing sight. The Ko’okiri Body Plunge is the tallest speed slide in the USA. Along with Vol­cano Bay's two Ser­pen­tine Body Slides, it shares a world record for the tallest drop cap­sule slides. Water­falls cas­cade down the moun­tain and feed the Wa­turi Beach wave pool at the base of the vol­cano. By the way, ac­cord­ing to Uni­ver­sal’s elab­o­rate back story, the Wa­turi are fic­tional South Pa­cific is­lan­ders who have set­tled on the idyl­lic Vol­cano Bay, and by vis­it­ing the park, guests be­come hon­orary is­lan­ders. At night, light­ing ef­fects help trans­form the water­falls into what ap­pears to be a lava flow.

The park’s most ex­treme slides are lo­cated in­side the vol­cano. In­trepid riders have to trek up the equiv­a­lent of 13 flights of stairs to reach them. While catch­ing their breaths, they can see spec­tac­u­lar views of the park and the rest of Uni­ver­sal Or­lando from the up­per reaches of the moun­tain. They also can see how the 28-acre Vol­cano Bay is hemmed in on all sides.

The park is this close to I-4. In fact, in or­der to get to the main en­trance, vis­i­tors have to pass through a tun­nel that goes un­der one of the high­way’s exit ramps. Un­like Dis­ney World, which has mas­sive amounts of prop­erty on which to build and ex­pand, Uni­ver­sal Or­lando’s re­sort is much smaller. It ap­pears to be us­ing ev­ery avail­able square foot. An­other side of the park is im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to Ca­bana Bay, one of Uni­ver­sal’s five on-prop­erty ho­tels. Guests stay­ing at Ca­bana Bay have their own gate to ac­cess the water park.

At 125 feet, the Ko’okiri Body Plunge is only 5 feet taller than Sum­mit Plum­met, the thrilling speed slide at Bliz­zard Beach. It feels way more out of con­trol, how­ever. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause un­like Dis­ney’s slide, Ko’okiri be­gins with a drop cap­sule.

A rider climbs into the cap­sule, leans back, and ner­vously watches as a glass door swings shut to en­tomb him. The beat of piped-in tribal drums quick­ens to ac­com­pany his ac­cel­er­ated breath­ing and pulse rate. The ride op­er­a­tor counts back from three to one, pushes a but­ton, and the cap­sule’s floor opens to re­lease the pas­sen­ger into a 70-de­gree freefall. I think “Ko’okiri” may be Wa­turi for “You’ve got to be kid­ding me.” Stunned riders are un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dumped into a splash pool at the bot­tom.

The Ko’okiri Body Plunge is the tallest speed slide in the USA. Along with Vol­cano Bay’s two Ser­pen­tine Body Slides, which riders ac­cess at the same 125foot-tall load­ing plat­form as Ko’okiri, it shares a world record for the tallest drop-cap­sule slides. As their name im­plies, the Ser­pen­tine slides snake in and around the vol­cano rather than shoot­ing pas­sen­gers straight down. Be­cause of their more cir­cuitous routes, they send riders on a dis­ori­ent­ing, high-speed, lights-out jour­ney and take longer to com­plete. That gives pas­sen­gers even more time to con­tem­plate the ridicu­lously rau­cous rides.

LOOK MA! NO LINES!

Less in­tense, but still sat­is­fy­ingly wild and fun, the Krakatau Aqua Coaster starts near ground level and uses mag­netic propul­sion, as op­posed to the water jets that are more com­monly used at water parks, to cat­a­pult four-pas­sen­ger ca­noe-like rafts up and into the vol­cano. The long ride fea­tures mul­ti­ple up­hill launches and drops.

Uni­ver­sal con­sid­ers the water coaster to be Vol­cano Bay’s sig­na­ture at­trac­tion and ex­pects it to be the most pop­u­lar ride. The park has made no pro­vi­sions for a queue, how­ever. That’s be­cause there are no lines for any of the rides.

In­stead, vis­i­tors are is­sued wear­able Ta­puTapu bracelets as they en­ter the front gate. They tap the wa­ter­proof de­vices at kiosks near each at­trac­tion to re­serve a ride time and en­ter a vir­tual line.

In­stead of inch­ing along in a queue, they can float in the Kopiko Wai Wind­ing River, catch some waves, or just chill out in a lounge chair, which, to its credit, Vol­cano Bay ap­pears to have in abun­dance, un­til the Ta­puTapu alerts them that it is time to ride. In the­ory, the con­cept is ground­break­ing; in re­al­ity, Uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­enced some open­ing-day hic­cups that over­taxed the ride reser­va­tion sys­tem and caused long de­lays. The park should be able to get Ta­puTapu up to speed in short or­der.

Riders still have to climb tons of stairs to reach the slides, but un­like most parks, they don’t have to tote tubes or rafts. Ev­ery slide that re­quires them has a con­veyor sys­tem that lifts tubes to the load­ing plat­form.

That in­cludes Honu, which fea­tures four-pas­sen­ger rafts that soar up and down two half­pipelike walls, and Maku, which sends six-pas­sen­ger rafts swirling around a bowl. Other thrilling rides in­clude Ohno, a body slide that twists and turns be­fore de­posit­ing riders 6 feet above a splash pool. Like a car­toon char­ac­ter about to en­counter grav­ity, pas­sen­gers mo­men­tar­ily flail be­fore drop­ping into the water.

There also is the Fear­less River (a slightly more ag­gres­sive take on a lazy river), a reef with a wa­ter­fall, and play ar­eas with small slides and in­ter­ac­tive water el­e­ments for younger vis­i­tors.

Uni­ver­sal has given lots of at­ten­tion to the park’s food. Pizza and chicken ten­ders are on the menu.

But so are poke bowls, a grilled mahi mahi sand­wich topped with pineap­ple salsa, and a quinoa edamame burger gar­nished with roasted shi­itake mushrooms. A bar­be­cued pulled pork sand­wich with mango slaw was a per­sonal fa­vorite.

Desserts in­clude choco­late lava cake (this is Vol­cano Bay, af­ter all) and a sin­fully delicious choco­late pineap­ple up­side down cake.

If you think you might give the gut-wrench­ing Ko’okiri Body Plunge a whirl, I’d rec­om­mend do­ing that be­fore you tackle the gut-bust­ing choco­late pineap­ple cake.

Hav­ing sur­vived the Ko’okiri Body Plunge, one of the fea­tured at­trac­tions, I can re­port that it did, in fact, end, and that my dig­nity re­mained in­tact.

PHO­TOS BY UNI­VER­SAL OR­LANDO RE­SORT

At 200 feet, Uni­ver­sal’s Krakatau Vol­cano tow­ers over its com­peti­tors and is an im­pos­ing sight. Water­falls cas­cade down the moun­tain and feed the Wa­turi Beach wave pool at the base of the vol­cano.

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