I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at www.ABLETravelPhoto.com and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published June 28th 2022
Volcano Bay Entrance, Universal Orlando, Florida
For one of the rare times these last five years since I started travel writing, I took off one morning without a more specific plan than "I'm going to Volcano Bay." After all, I am now the proud owner of a Premium Annual Pass to Universal Orlando's three parks. It includes parking and all kinds of nice perks. Volcano Bay is Universal's answer to water parks. I had my sunscreen, towel, sunglasses, and hat. What more could I need?
Know in advance it was still a great and exhausting day. I couldn't even tell you the last time I'd been out in the Florida sun for eight hours. And I'm certain I've never gone to a water park on my own before. There's a surprising liberation in going to a theme park on your own and I'm leaning into that. The glories of not having a child crying "I want a drink!" or "Carry me! My feet hurt." Miraculous.
So my expectations were to go to the park, park in preferred parking, go to the water park, get a locker (I learned long ago to expect to pay whatever price and keep a spare set of clothes dry) and had even thought to bring sample size shampoo and conditioner for the shower after getting out of the water so I could go work on another project at CityWalk. I'd go from one ride or beach or lazy river to the next. Simple, right?
1. There is No Great Advantage to Being a Premium Passholder
First thing I learned: there's not much benefit to being a Premium Passholder at Volcano Bay except maybe days that allow early admission. At the water park, one of the staff members said they're separate from Universal. Okay. Garage parking for Volcano Bay was on the first level. I'm not certain if it includes the second as well since I arrived within 30 minutes of the park opening. You can arrive earlier and take shuttles over for when the park truly opens, in my case 10 am. But I followed the line of cars for Volcano Bay parking and the directional guides, snapped the photo of the nearest python with my Spider-Man 156 identifier to find the car on my way out, and joined the throngs headed for the Volcano Bay shuttle busses. There are queues for the busses, refurbished city busses that are painted with either Harry Potter or tiki masks for Volcano Bay. Masks are voluntary and everyone was pleasant and good-natured. Perfect start to a theme park day with children excited and well-behaved.
Once filled the shuttle bus ride was just long enough for the videos to explain the Tapu Tapu system. This really is a brilliantly simplified system. Every guest receives a waterproof watch-like apparatus. You use your smartphone to connect it to an account to which you add each person and tap in to reserve your spot, essentially an express pass, for rides that aren't instantly available. There are two thought processes for this. More on that in just a minute.
Entrance to Purchase Tickets or Upload the Newest Version of the App to Your Phone
2. Make Certain the App is Updated to the Latest Version
In addition, once you confirm the most recent App is on your phone or take the time to connect to Universal's WiFi and download and open it, you can add your credit card information so that you can pay for things with the tap of your wrist rather than running back to your locker for your wallet. I highly recommend this for adults, especially those not too horrible with impulse buying. That part may be more of a challenge for the kiddos, but you're going to keep a close watch on them, right? Come to think of it, this may be the first park I've attended in a long time that didn't have a "Lost Parents" section… maybe the kids do better at keeping an eye on us.
Anyway, back to the thought processes for the use of reserved space on a ride. For this day, I took the first, chose the most popular ride, the one with the longest wait, and tapped in for that first, guaranteeing the spot. Then went on all the other available rides. Here at Volcano Bay, this also includes a lazy river with inner tubes and a roaring river with only life vests required and a Wave Pool in the beach with a bell that sounds when the waves are about to start. I learned quickly that you cannot enter a ride with a time listed for the Tapu Tapu. They make you wait until you either complete your reserved ride or clear their entire line.
The second option is to go for the mid-length waits, say the 40- to 70- minute waits instead of the 180-minute wait, and go to more of the popular rides earlier in the day. Be careful with this as several of the rides did fill for the day in the early afternoon, but if you like circling the park, that's a valid way to do a lot and leave the lazing in the rivers or at the Wave Pool for the afternoon when the children may be more tired and ready for a nap.
And when they did finally tell me, through the Tapu Tapu that it was my turn to ride the Aqua-Coaster, it was less than five minutes between my arrival on the platform (clean shot through the waiting area normally filled with people) and when I was loaded onto my "car." That was a very pleasant surprise.
Volcano Bay Wave Pool
3. Look at a Map of the Park Before You Arrive
The main reason I say this is that I broke one of the cardinal rules of travel writing. As admitted earlier, I hadn't done any research. So I didn't really have any idea about how many rides, attractions, restaurants, or other events may be occurring here. While I did not find a single show, I did find that they have concierge service, and you can reserve a cabana for your group or small pop-ups for your chaise lounge at the wave pool. All of these should be done in advance. They were sold out by the time I arrived.
If you have a large family group, having a cabana where you can leave your items with some sense of security and have an area protected from the sun with comfy outdoor furniture that includes chairs and sofas and a table upon which to eat … I would consider it if I'm having people over or a party of any kind.
But looking at the map would also have told me where I'd want to focus my time. Which rides would interest me the most, once I learned there were really rides? Or which restaurants might be best to have close by. Or, for me, with my allergy to alcohol, where would it be best to avoid, like the one right next to the bar? The bars I found scattered throughout the park serve no food, but they only allow one alcoholic beverage per person, so I never saw anyone even close to
Long ago I'd read that the best way to get through a theme park queue is to head for the left side when given an option. I don't know if that's different in Australia or Great Britain since I think it's meant for people that drive on the right side of the road. So check it out for yourself. In the United States, that means most of the time, you'll have a shorter line if you choose to go to the left rather than the right side when given the option.
Oh, except it's not true in the parking area. There, when they get you through the initial queue from the parking lot line, go to the right. The bus pulls up there and they bring a second one behind it, so you'd have to have more than an entire bus full of people before it's "worth it" to go to the left side for the initial shuttle.
With that brilliant old nugget of going to the left, after entering the park, I marveled briefly at the Volcano Bay and the map of the park and went for the nearest locker area on the left landing in the Western Market. This was a perfectly reasonable space to be. Near the Wave Pool and shopping and photography areas (your photos are compiled based on your Tapu Tapu also), close to one of the places to grab food. It was also one of the most crowded.
4. Understand Your Storage Options
I'd admitted earlier I long ago learned the value of a storage locker at a theme park. I had a translucent bag with me filled with a beach towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, sample size shampoo and conditioner, lotion, comb, change of clothes, shower flip flops, underwear and Q-tips in a waterproof bag and a book to read. That was the only thing I never got to, that book. It may have fit into the individual lockers, but I'll admit, I went for the first side I saw. You guessed it, to the left. After I'd paid my $20 to open it, I realised I was on the Family Side, not the Individual Side. The individual lockers are smaller and a little less expensive, but not having to struggle with the heavy plastic bag that has grown stiff over the years I've used it for sporting events made the extra space worth it.
If you use the aforementioned cabanas, I wouldn't expect to even need the locker. I did see several people leave their belongings right on the lounges by the Wave Pool but that didn't strike me as particularly safe. It was an easy way to keep the shaded lounges protected, I suppose. I never did find any sign that said there was a limit on how long the towels could "reserve" the space and can easily see that being a first come first serve situation.
If you enter the wrong storage set, there are three in the park, don't worry. Ask the staff and they'll have you tap your Tapu Tapu on the sensor and point you in the direction of your locker.
Kids Can Run Amok At RUNAMUKKAREEF
5. Plan Your Attack and Don't Be Afraid to Ask Staff
While I did ask early on about the cabana use and advantages for Premium Pass holders, I did not ask about why I was having a problem finding the entrance for the first ride. I continued along the path past the lockers to the Ko'okiri Body Plunge … and even chose the 200 extra steps to get to the higher one, breaking off for the first time that day for the line to the right.
It was so early, it didn't surprise me that there weren't more people there. After all, I'd chosen the extra steps, right? Well, I went into the volcano, saw some pretty cool and colorful water features and … walked back out into daylight. I had prescription sunglasses on and figured I must have missed a turn, so went back and tried again. Still no additional steps up. Rather than return right then and ask for help, I pushed through, found my way to the Aqua Coaster, tapped in, learned I had a 180-minute wait, and continued to another ride. I got turned around enough that I even went on that same ride twice. Didn't know it when I started, only after I'd climbed the stairs and saw the people at the top again. The fellow at the bottom said, "Welcome back" so clearly, they remembered people.
Volcano Bay Has a Lazy River for Relaxing or Soothing the Aching Joints
6. Don't Underestimate the Power of the Steps
Somehow, I hadn't put together "water park" and "steps." That should show you how long it had been since I'd visited a water park. Thinking back, I know I visited one before I knew I was pregnant with my daughter. She's now 27. So… a while.
I'm certain I've been to a few since then… oh, yes. I nearly fainted in the sun at a southern Illinois water park. They decided it was better to put me down the slide than try to get medics up to me. I was fine by the time I reached the bottom and drank some water. Just too much time waiting in line.
The Tapu Tapu system does prevent that, thank goodness.
What it didn't really account for is the steps that go along with all high standing water slides and the accompanying bare feet on concrete effects of walking on paths for six to eight hours.
I'm very impressed with what a great job Volcano Bay does at keeping the surface of the path's uneven enough to minimize how slippery they are yet smooth enough not to irritate feet. They also do a great job with strategically spaced water sprayers keeping the path cool enough to walk on. Most people are barefoot and that's how I chose to go this day, too.
I completely underestimated the effects of bare feet on concrete and climbing approximately 60 flights of steps over an eight-hour period. In my last two hours, I was uncomfortable. By the time I put my sandals on, my feet hurt. And I didn't consider the water sprayers as I left the park. Next time, I'll leave my shower flip-flops on until I hit the Volcano Bay entrance and then put my sandals on there. It didn't stop me from going to City Walk for a few more hours to complete another assignment but had I not put that on my schedule, I would've gone directly home.
The next day, I'm very glad I had the ability to sit through meetings and work on my writing projects. It was uncomfortable getting around.
Volcano Bay's More Raging Waters Require a Life Vest
7. You'll Have More Fun Than You'd Expected
Stay hydrated and flexible and take plenty of river breaks and you'll have great fun. Make your plan of attack and you, too, will be able to get on most, if not all, the rides in a day. Staff members tell me most people like to take two days to complete the park. Many of these have medium size kids, so I guess it makes sense. I was able to get on all but that ride that I hadn't asked for help with first thing that day.