VOLCANO BAY ERUPTS AT UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
Take a plunge at a water park that raises the bar and lowers the boom
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.
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.