One thing I’ve been hearing from you guys is that you want to hear more about my current travels right after they happen. Well, ask and ye shall receive! I’m jumping in to start sharing some posts from Florida and Tennessee, a trip so fresh I just unpacked from it.
I’ve gotten to do some pretty exciting and unique things in my six years as a travel blogger. Perks of the profession that I didn’t even know to look forward when I first got started. The most recent? Attending the grand opening of Universal Orlando Resort’s third fabulous theme park, Volcano Bay.
The best part? One of you won my giveaway to go see it for yourself — the winner is announced at the end of this post!
After a beautiful wedding weekend in Sarasota, I drove straight to Orlando for eight straight days of Universal fun. Eight days? Yup! As a member of Universal’s inaugural Blog Squad, I had two four day trips to Orlando already on the books for the year — unintentionally tacking one onto the opening of what promised to be the world’s most unique water park was just a stroke of luck.
While I fretted at first that anything over a week was extensive for a theme park vacation, I actually left itching to book another trip — there’s seriously so much to do at Universal without ever even leaving the property, I didn’t even get to everything on my wish list.
Volcano Bay — where even the bathrooms are beautiful!
What I did get was lots of time at Volcano Bay. Volcano Bay is themed around a highly developed concept of a fictional Pacific Islander tribe called the Waturi who live by the philosophy, “Water is Life. Life is Joy.” I could get behind that.
The day before the park’s grand opening, two hundred media members were granted a special preview in which we were let loose to ride, splash, play, eat and drink to our heart’s content before it ever opened to the public — basically every theme park aficionado’s dream.
And you know what? We went wild.
Photo by Camels and Chocolate
I assembled a perfect packing list of one-piece bathing suits in preparation for this trip — ain’t nobody got time for worrying if their bikini is going to fly off when they’re going down waterslides! In fact, I’m working on a full theme park packing guide coming your way soon.
I was working with one very unique accessory — the park’s unique TapuTapu wearables, wristbands that allow you to make cashless purchases, open and close lockers, and most importantly, hold your spot so you can float in the lazy river while you wait in a virtual line for your next big ride. Virtual queuing is something that Universal has already experimented with — their recently opened Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon ride in Universal Studios has been lauded for it — and so it will be very cool to see how it plays out at Volcano Bay once the opening kinks are worked out.
Don’t think you’ll just waltz right onto a ride once you’re TapuTapu tells you it’s time, though — once you get the “ride now!” alert you’ll swipe in and probably wait ten to fifteen minutes depending on the ride. But those crazy hour long slogs standing in a queue? Not at Volcano Bay.
I’m not normally much of a souvenir buyer, but I did wander into some of the gift shops and was wowed by what was inside — actually cute bathing suites, all the basics you might forget for a day in the sun, and plenty of super clever merchandise.
The food was another highlight. I guess you can’t really get away with mediocre food anywhere anymore — everywhere from festivals to theme parks keep raising the bar higher and higher. My favorite meals at Volcano Bay were ones that fell in line with the South Pacific theming — like a plate of coconut crusted fried chicken with boniato mash, plantains and cucumber basil mango slaw from Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club. Or the sampler plate of three brightly colored tacos like chipotle firecracker shrimp and pulled mole chicken from The Feasting Frog. You can even get a poké bowl!
Volcano Bay also has some fun proprietary treats like special Volcano Bay flavors of Dippin’ Dots and Coca Cola and a signature beer from Orange Blossom Brewery — how cool is that? But I admit, my favorite dessert was a plain ‘ol banana Icee. It was the perfect cool down on a crazy hot day.
Time absolutely flew by and I was crushed when it was time to leave the park to get ready for the kick off party that evening. Good thing we were headed back in again tomorrow!
That night, rain forced the grand opening reception indoors. It was still a fabulous party, with performers flown in from the South Pacific, a chocolate volcano smoking in the middle of the dessert table and food and drinks for days to feast on, but this being the second event I’d attended in a week that was forced inside due to Florida storms, my heart was aching for those who put so much work into the original versions.
That said, there’s nothing you can do about the weather!
The next morning, we were back bright and early for the big grand — and I really do mean grand! — opening of the park. There were more fabulous performances from talented artists, plus a dramatic scenery of the cloudy sky beyond the volcano, the energy of the crowds, and the excitement of trying to spy on Al Roker.
And then the gates were open!
It was definitely a different experience sharing the park with a few thousand more people (no one knows exactly how many, since capacity numbers aren’t shared), but I was super grateful that the sun came out that afternoon so I could get some blue-sky shots I was craving and see the park alive with excited people.
By the end of the second day, I’d checked off tons of fabulous rides. The Krakatau Aqua Coaster is a crowd-pleasing favorite — an actual coaster adapted for a water park! The Ohyah & Ohno Drop Slides feature four and six foot drops, respectively, into a pool at the end of the slide. And while I sadly never got to try the park’s signature Ko’okiri Body Plunge, in which you stand in a tube while a trap door releases beneath you(it was either not in service or full when I tried), I did try out one of the Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides which feature the same premise and leave from the same platform. Talk about a serious surge of adrenaline!
Would you believe I was still craving more? And lucky me, because when my sister and our friend Ashlee arrived for the weekend for the original trip we’d planned, I got to make one more visit to Volcano Bay to show them around the place! (You’ll hear plenty more about their trip coming up soon!)
Now, this was Memorial Day weekend and the very first week the park was open — so somehow, the crowds were even bigger than they were on opening day. Frankly, anyone visiting this summer should expect major mobs. Luckily, by the time Olivia and Ashlee arrived with their adorable Wanderland-themed one piece bathing suits in tow (!), I was able to cobble together some tips for those who want to beat the heat — and the lines.
So, how to make the most of Volcano Bay when it’s bursting with guests? Follow these tips!
• Most importantly, stay onsite at Universal Orlando Resort and take advantage of the extra early hour that resort guests are allowed to enter the park in. Cabana Bay Beach Resort (review coming up!) has a private entrance straight to the park. Literally be there when they open.
• Book your cabana or premium seating the second you book your trip, if it’s in your budget. They are reasonably priced and so are selling out like crazy. Express Passes are not currently being offered, which is a shame because ours were lifesavers for our trip — keep your eyes peeled and snap them up if they become available again.
• Bring a towel to avoid paying to rent one, and prepare to pay to rent a locker — unlike the other parks at Universal Orlando Resort, they aren’t free here.
• Connect your credit card to your ticket number before arrival using the Universal App — this way you’ll be able to use your TapuTapu to pay for food and drinks with a simple tap of the wrist.
So when the park opens for onsite guests, you’re totally first in line with your TapuTapu all set to go, right? Now, the first thing you should do is head straight to the Krakatau Aqua Coaster and swipe in for a time. This is the one ride that you can be “double booked” for, so take advantage of that. Next, swipe into your number one ride choice. While you’re waiting, you can laze in the Kopiko Wai Winding River, check out the slightly more adventurous TeAwa the Fearless River, kick around in the Waturi Beach wave pool, or look for any of the rides that say “ride now!” That means there’s only a short wait and you can ride them without interfering with the virtual queue on your Tapu Tapu. And don’t stress if you’re Tapu Tapu tells you to head to a ride and you’re in the middle of lunch or something — they’ll let you on whenever you get there.
While Ash, Olivia and I made the mistake of showing up pretty late in the day, I got to show the girls my favorite coaster, ride one new one, and pop into a couple of the pools I hadn’t been in yet — and most importantly, I finally got myself in the Kopiko Wai Winding River!
Volcano Bay is significantly more affordable than Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure — currently, a one-day ticket is $67 for adults and $62 for kids. Personally, I’d dedicate an entire day to Volcano Bay rather than trying to combine it with any of the other theme parks — there’s simply too much to see and do!
After three days at Volcano Bay… I know this water baby blogger is already looking forward to the next one!
Stay tuned for more from Orlando!