How We Ended Up Going

Those of you who have been following Traveling Dad or me personally, know that we had our retreat in Orlando last week. In addition to the few days of fun with Disney celebrating the opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar, our family decided to extend the trip to a full week and explore a bit on our own.

Since the temps were forecast to be in the mid 90’s for the duration of our trip, we wanted to make sure to include a water park in our plans. The obvious choice was one of the Disney parks, either Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach. Either one probably would have been great, but a few weeks before the trip, I was watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a commercial came on the tv.

Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay

Universal Volcano Bay

Volcano Bay wave pool, beach, and volcano as we entered at 10:15 am.

Sun, fun, and the promise of no hauling tubes up flights of stairs got my attention. The part about a revolutionary new system to minimize or eliminate time waiting in lines had me hooked. I immediately sent a text to Chrissy that I wanted to go there.

Further research told me that Volcano Bay would be opening on the last day of our time with Disney. That meant we could go on Friday and it would be the second day it was open to the public. I knew right away that this could present a few problems. First of all, it would be insanely crowded. Day two of operation in a heat wave and leading into Memorial Day Weekend made this a no brainer. Secondly, I wasn’t sure how well things would be running from an operational standpoint. Planning and training only goes so far when thousands of fun-hungry people show up, but I was willing to give it a try. This was a mistake.

Getting There

We had booked our hotels prior to making the decision to visit Volcano Bay, so as a result, we were at a hotel on Disney property the night before, instead of a Universal hotel. This meant that the easiest way for us to get to the park was with Uber. This was where things got a bit tricky.

As we approached where the GPS said the park was, we saw a lot of construction and some small signs about Volcano Bay parking. We didn’t want to park, but there were no other signs, so we headed that way. A few turns later, we arrived at the parking lot. It was a paid lot and the guy working the entrance said we should turn around and follow the signs for Guest Drop-Off.

Away we went and soon found the signs. The reason we missed it the first time was because Guest Drop-Off was listed directly below Hard Rock Hotel on the sign and there was no mention of Volcano Bay. I would assume that many people arrive by car service and I would be quite surprised if many haven’t had this same issue. The parking attendant didn’t hesitate when we talked to him. On day two, it seemed like he head given these directions many times.

There is no parking or drop off directly at Volcano Bay. Instead, you get dropped off at the same spot as you do for the other Universal Orlando parks. Then you have to board a bus to Volcano Bay. They held these busses until the were fully packed and we ended up standing for the short trip. I have to assume that this will not be the final bus route, as there were some very tight turns and it appeared that we went through a couple of other parking lots on the way.

First Impressions

Universal Orlando Volcano Bay Entrance

The entrance to Volcano Bay seemed so welcoming as people streamed in at opening.

Eventually we made it to the park at about 10:15. The park opened at 10, but after the issues with finding drop off and the unexpected bus, we were a few minutes late. From the bus stop, you walk down a sidewalk and through a themed tunnel, finally emerging at the main entrance. We could feel the excitement of other visitors and within ourselves as we moved towards the entrance lines.

The entrance was the first of our lines at the “minimal line” water park. Volcano Bay has a wrist band system similar to Disney’s Magic Bands, except they don’t give them to you in advance. Instead, each one has to be activated and handed out as your ticket is scanned. This takes some time. I should correct what I said here, since they couldn’t actually scan our tickets. The scanners apparently aren’t working for mobile tickets. They can’t pick up the barcodes no matter what size or brightness on the phone. The solution for this? The ticket takers manually key in the 21 digit ticket number. You can imagine how smoothly this goes.

Well, 84 digits (21×4) and 4 activated wristbands later, we finally made it into the park. From the tunnel in, to the entrance, to the view as you enter the park, Volcano Bay is excellently themed as a South Pacific paradise. We were so excited to explore and see what this new park had to offer. Little did we know what was in store for us.

Entrance lines for Universal Volcano Bay

The entrance queue quickly filled up as bands were assigned and mobile ticket numbers were entered manually.

How the Bands Work

The wrist bands, called Tapu Tapu bands, are your key to all rides and purchases in the park. By downloading the Universal Orlando app, you can set up an account and link a credit card. I did this as we walked around the park the first time. We found chairs for our towels and went off to get a locker for our valuables. I was excited to use my Tapu Tapu for the locker rental. It did not work. I still do not know why, but I am not overly surprised it didn’t function as intended, given the rest of our experience at the park. Eventually I used a credit card to pay. The Tapu Tapu bands did successfully link to the locker, which is good, because you need them to open the locker later.

As I mentioned before, the Tapu Tapu are your ticket to ride (literally). To get in the virtual line for a water slide, you have scan you band at the kiosk. It then gives you a time to come back and the band counts down (or up as we learned) until it is your turn. Then it vibrates to let you know to go back. Great, we thought. We don’t have to wait in lines. Well, not so fast. Instead of one long line, you get to wait in a short line to scan you band, a virtual line that may never end, and then a line of 40-50 people to get on the ride when you come back. They can’t actually make the wait go faster, they just split it up.

Key things to know about the Tapu Tapu bands (problems):

– You have to physically walk to the ride to scan your band, even if it is on the opposite side of the park.

– You can only scan one ride at a time. The only exception to this is the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, the flagship ride in the park. If you can manage to find a time that the coaster is open, you can scan it along with your other ride.

– You can not scan to add yourself to a line when the ride is not working (like the Krakatau Coaster).

– All of the main slides require this system. On a busy day with waits of 150-200 minutes, that means you can go on maybe 4-5 rides over the course of a full day.

– The time does not always count down. Sometime is stays stagnant, sometimes it pauses (when rides are down), and sometimes it actually goes up. The time of your wait does not seem to be tied to any actual measure of time.

– The bands come off easily. I saw a man turn in two of them to an employee that he found on the ground. She said that happens all the time. Reminder that this is only the second day the park was open to the public. They actually have people stationed around the park to register new bands for you when you lose yours.

– They may or may not work for purchases. Ours didn’t work for the locker, even though we confirmed our credit card was linked in the app. We did not stay long enough to need food, so we didn’t have a chance to test again.

Wait, Wait, Wait

Tapu Tapu wrist band at Universal Orlando Volcano Bay

This would become a common sight during our brief time here. Rides and slides were constantly closing and pausing our wait times. Ryan believes that the employees were instructed to only run the Krakatau Aqua Coaster for 5 minutes out of every hour. He might be right.

As I mentioned above, some of the main rides had waits of up to 200 minutes or more. That’s over three hours. the park is open for 10 hours. Other than the slides, there is a wave pool, a kids play zone (we were all too tall for any of the slides there and the water sprays and buckets were not working), and a lazy river. When you do the math, that means on a busy day, you have paid ~$67 for 3 big waterslides and a whole lot of wave pool time.

We managed to get on two of the smaller slides when we first got there. One had no wait so didn’t require a band scan (it really took about 25 minutes in line). The other had about a 25 minute wait after scanning our bands (then another 20 minutes in line). Those were the only two rides we came close to getting on in the three hours we were there.

We walked over to the Krakatau Aqua Coaster three times only to find it was down and we couldn’t add it to our bands. On attempt number four, we finally got that added, with a 200 minute wait time. Due to constant shutdowns, this would never drop below 185 minutes before we left. The other bowl slide we scanned was 190 minutes when we added it, made it down as low as 50 minutes a couple of hours later, and then went back up to 95 minutes after being shut down for a while. This increase was the thing that pushed me over the edge and had me head to guest services.

Medical Services

Volcano Bay is designed as a Polynesian Island paradise and is excellently themed. Real sand beaches border the wave pool and lazy river, and there are plenty of beds for flowers, trees, and shrubs. These beds are filled with wood chip mulch. They are right next to the sand beaches and concrete walkways. Volcano Bay does not allow water shoes of any type on their rides. You can see where this is going.

While walking around wishing I was on a waterslide, I managed to get a good sized splinter in the bottom of my heel. I tried to get it out, had Chrissy try, and eventually accepted that I needed medical assistance. I asked the closest employee and he radioed for help. He offered me some shade to wait in and a couple of guys from the medical team arrived shortly. The EMT took a look at my heel and asked if I could make it back to their main office. I said sure and off we went, me walking on the toes on my right foot.

We had a great conversation on the way about how the aqua coaster works with magnetic propulsion, how I was liking the band system, and how general operations were going. We soon arrived at the Medical Services Building. A lighted magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, a razor blade, and a free Powerade later, I was on my way back out to not ride waterslides. Medical Services was a well oiled machine. They took my information, got me fixed up, and sent me on my way with a smile. They did have a few other customers while I was in there and at one point mentioned that it was slower than the day before. I’m not sure how many people are typically hurt at a water park, but that didn’t sound good to me. At least I didn’t have to wait in line to get help.

Guest Services

When I left the Medical building, I set off to find my family. I ended up seeing them getting out of the lazy river and together we watched our wait times go up. By this point, I had seen enough. I went to the front of the park and asked to speak with a Guest Services Manager. I was sent to stand in a line of around 10 people in the hot sun. The line did not move quickly, but someone came out with water bottles after not too long and a little later, a woman asked me what I was in line for.

I told her that I thought $285 (4 tickets including taxes) was a bit much to pay for a wave pool and a lazy river. It was at this point that the woman behind me mentioned that the lazy river was actually closed too. I would later find out from my Guest Services rep that the landscapers had spilled some mud and mulch in the river and it had failed its water quality test. Now there was only a wave pool to amuse everyone as they waited for virtual ride lines that never ended.

My Guest Services rep took me aside and asked if she could offer me some front of the line passes. I declined, mentioning that the rides I wanted to ride were all down for most of the time I had been there so front of line passes wouldn’t help. I asked if she could send us over to see Harry Potter instead. She quickly agreed to give us park hopper tickets for the other two Universal Parks, and after a bit of pushing, threw in 8 Express Passes for all but the top rides. I should note that I never mentioned I was a blogger or that I was with the media until after we had reached a resolution. I wanted to be treated the same way any of you would be in this situation.

As I was filling out paperwork, she asked how long we had been in Florida. I mentioned that I was down for the Media Events for the opening of Pandora. She laughed and said “Oh GREAT, you’re media.” She was clearly flustered. I assured her that although I could not give the operations a good review, I would be sure to mention how great the Medical and Guest Services handled the situation.

Off to See Harry Potter

Universal Studios Orlando Entrance

The entrance to Universal Studios Orlando was a welcome sight. We already knew that they could run this park properly.

One quick bus later, we were walking up to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. We scanned the tickets we had been given and were told that they we “Value” tickets and wouldn’t be good until August. I just laughed. A supervisor was called over, we had a discussion, he walked me into Guest Services, and they happily upgraded my tickets. I told them to call Volcano Bay and tell them the mistake they were making. I’m not sure if that ever happened, but we finally made it into the park.

We went straight for the back of the park to Diagon Alley. Nothing like a good Butterbeer to make everything better. A quick ride on Gringott’s and we were ready to conquer the parks. Chrissy had to leave a few hours later to fly home, but the boys and I stayed until close. Walking around the two parks in the flip flops I had brought to the water park wasn’t the best for my feet, but we still managed to have a great time.

Butterbeer at Universal Studios Orlando Hogsmeade

We went straight to Diagon Alley for a Butterbeer fix. Ryan and I couldn’t help getting started on ours as we waited for Chrissy and Cole to get through the ice cream line. It’s amazing how much a good Butterbeer can cheer you up.

The Difference Between Media Previews and Real Life

The reason I’m writing this post is to provide a real life perspective of an opening week at a new water park. I’m sure if you do a web search, you will see plenty of great reviews of Volcano Bay. Beautiful pictures and wonderful descriptions. What you have to keep in mind is that all of these stories come from people who were there for the press previews before the actual opening of the park.  I’m not saying those reviews are incorrect. They just had a much nicer experience than the actual customers who visited on the first few public days. This happens regularly with new attractions.

A google search yields the following results for Volcano Bay.

Google search results showing glowing reviews for Volcano Bay

With the Traveling Dads being at the press preview for Pandora last week, you will see many great reviews coming from this site of that new addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I agree, it was an absolutely amazing place to visit. I would have nothing but great things to say about the way they created this amazing world. But would I have felt the same way on opening day? When wait times for rides topped 300 minutes and there was a 90 minute wait just to get in to the gift shop? Probably not. You probably wouldn’t have been happy if you were there either.

When deciding whether you should visit or not, keep in mind that you might not have the same experience as the stories you read about online. Those stories depict the absolute best of the new parks, in an ideal low crowd situation. Make sure to pay attention and see a few reviews from public customers before deciding to spend a whole lot of money on something that could very well be a huge disappointment.

In the end, We ended up enjoying our day by switching over to the other Universal Parks, but I am sure there were lots of people at Volcano Bay that day who just suffered through it because they didn’t want to cause a problem. I wish I could have helped each and every one of them. If you learn one thing from this post, it should be that if you are in a situation that is not acceptable, be sure to speak up. Guest Services has a lot of power to make things right and you shouldn’t be afraid to get what you deserve for what you paid.

Hogsmeade, Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, Hogwarts Express

Although it wasn’t in the original plan for the day, we were happy to move over to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Our family will never turn down a chance to experience the magic of Harry Potter.

Recommendations

Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay has great potential, but I sure wouldn’t recommend that anyone go for at least the next few months. Operationally, they are just not ready. Rides are constantly going down, the Tapu Tapu bands don’t work as designed, and they can’t even keep a lazy river running. I heard from one Universal employee that they really needed about another 2-3 months to be fully ready to open Volcano Bay, and I believe it. It certainly appears that they rushed it a bit. I really do hope that Universal gets this worked out. I would love to visit next year and see Volcano Bay running smoothly, but I’m not planning to go back anytime soon.

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