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The publicity surrounding the opening of Universal’s Orlando Resort’s all-new Volcano Bay waterpark a few years ago was substantial. Anchored by an immersive South Pacific theme, this 25-acre waterpark is packed with attractions for all ages, new technology, virtual queueing, etc. A 200-foot-tall, man-made volcano presides over it all, spewing waterfalls and housing several slides. But did it live up to the hype?
In a word: Yes.
And now, three years after opening, Volcano Bay remains a really important and unique Orlando attraction. While Disney World has not reopened its two waterparks, Volcano Bay has been open and operational since Universal Orlando reopened its other theme parks in June.
If your family is Orlando-bound and enjoys waterparks, a day at Volcano Bay is a worthwhile splurge — especially with a few money-saving strategies. Whether you’re partial to floating idly down a lazy river or dropping through a trap door into a 70-degree tube slide, here’s what you need to know to make the most of your investment in fun.
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Universal’s Volcano Bay basics
Universal’s Volcano Bay is one of three theme parks that comprise Universal Orlando Resort (the other two are Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure; read on for tips on how to save by visiting more than one).
Its designers — the minds behind the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter — successfully resolved common waterpark complaints like generic food, extensive tube-lugging, far-flung lockers and long lines. Instead, guests find 60-plus menu items, cleverly engineered tube conveyor belts, four locker rooms placed unassumingly around the park and a wristband system for quick access to rides that you can even use to pay for your purchases with the tap of a wrist.
Related: How to use points and save money at Universal Orlando
The parking garage for Universal Orlando’s three theme parks, including Volcano Bay, is located at 6000 Universal Boulevard, 17 miles from Orlando International Airport. From there, buses shuttle visitors to the entrance. Alternatively, you can stay at a Universal hotel, such as the Aventura or Cabana Bay, and simply walk a short distance to Volcano Bay.
Related: Review of Universal Orlando’s Aventura
Across the Volcano Bay park, seating areas are tucked into little enclaves complete with palm trees, umbrellas and sand. (Ground-level sprayers along walkways keep feet cool and clean.) The vibe is Tiki-on-overdrive, with bamboo, thatch, totems and lush tropical vegetation used to brilliant effect: You’d never know a busy interstate is just out of sight.
Related: Best credit cards for theme parks
The centerpiece of Volcano Bay may be the 200-foot Krakatau Volcano, but there’s a lot more to the park than any one ride. Depending on how you count, there around 19 total attractions at Universal’s Volcano Bay, which can easily fill an entire day. Relaxation seekers find Zen on the Kopiko Wai Winding River (I saw someone sleeping on her tube, despite occasional sprays of water), while more adventurous types get their adrenaline fix on thrill rides like a water coaster (Krakatau) and a first-of-its-kind “saucer slide” (Maku Puihi).
Children go bananas at Runamukka Reef (kids) and Tot Tiki Reef (babies and toddlers). The whole crew can enjoy two leisure pools (Puka Uli Lagoon and The Reef), as well as the Waturi Beach wave pool (a bell tolls when the waves are about to begin).
Related: Guide to Universal Orlando
Who will enjoy Universal’s Volcano Bay?
Most rides, including TeAwa and the Fearless River — a more exciting take on the lazy-river concept — requires a minimum height of 42 inches (on some rides it’s 48 inches), making the park a great fit for families with school-aged kids or older. However, don’t write it off if you’ve got small children. We brought our 4-year-old, who would have happily romped around the Runamukka Reef area until midnight if we’d let her. This play zone features five kid-size slides, water sprayers, dump cups and gushing geysers.
When to visit Universal’s Volcano Bay
Universal Orlando Resort’s three parks are open 365 days a year, weather permitting, but Volcano Bay hours fluctuate, so check the schedule. Recently, it’s been operating from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Summer is your best bet for a hot day, but you’ll also usually be contending with families whose kids are out of school. Holidays and spring break also bring crowds. Storms are most common during Florida afternoons from May to October, and rides will close temporarily because of lightning. In January, average temps dip into the high 50s, which would be a pretty chilly day for water play, but the water is heated. Your best bet may be just before school gets out in May or after classes resume in late August or September.
Related: These are the best times to visit Disney World
What are the COVID-19 precautions at Volcano Bay?
Inside Orlando theme parks, such as Disney World and the other two Universal Orlando theme parks, face masks are required pretty much the entire time other than when you are stopped to eat or drink. However, things are different inside this water park. Face masks are required when you enter, in retail locations, while in restaurants when you aren’t eating and they are encouraged while walking around the park.
However, face masks are not permitted in the pools or on the waterslides. Practically speaking, this means that the bulk of the time in this park, people are not wearing a face mask.
The TapuTapu wristbands that are worn while at Volcano Bay are disinfected before each use — and the wristbands remind you to distance and wash your hands. There is a temperature check to access Volcano Bay. There are also social distancing markers in the queues, but since guests will often not have masks on while in this park, it will be very important for you to take an active role in distancing from others.
It’s also worth mentioning that there have been some reports that operating hours for some attractions within Volcano Bay are reduced even within the park’s official hours.
Related: I was in a reopened Universal Orlando, here’s what it was like
Admission and how to save
Gate Admission: Single-day tickets to Universal’s Volcano Bay start at $70 – $80 (adult) and $65 – $75 (children 3 through 9), plus tax and parking ($25). Toddlers 2 and under are free.
You’ll get a better value if you plan to visit multiple Universal Orlando parks. For example, adding Volcano Bay to your four-day ticket can add just $40.
Or, right now Florida residents can get access to access to all three Universal Orlando parks, including Volcano Bay, for just $193 through Dec. 24.
You can avoid extra park expenses by bringing your own towels and sunscreen, packing snacks and water in a small soft-sided cooler, and leaving valuables back at the hotel. Know that otherwise, you will have to pay to rent towels and a locker.
Chase Travel Portal: You can use points to save, too. Redeem Chase Sapphire Reserve points at a value of 1.5 cents via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, which offers a selection of Universal Orlando park tickets.
Costco Travel: If you’re looking for cost-effective travel packages to Universal that include entrance to Volcano Bay, it’s worth checking Costco Travel.
Universal annual pass: If you think your family may visit Volcano Bay a few times a year as part of larger Universal vacations, it may make sense to purchase an annual pass.
Everyone raves about the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, where four-person inflatable canoes plummet down drops and then shoot up inclines thanks to a mysterious mechanism of high-pressure jets. I pictured myself flying off the track but, of course, never did — and enjoyed the run so much, I did it twice.
The ride joins other group slides like Honu ika Moana (four-person rafts) and Maku Puihi (five-person rafts), during which riders slingshot around steep curves while screaming their heads off (or maybe that was just me).
The Taniwha Tubes (two-person tubes) offer a slightly tamer alternative, while on Punga Racers, single riders zoom down headfirst on padded mats. Several body slides round out the offerings; I ran out of time (i.e., was too chicken) to try them, but daredevils won’t be disappointed.
How to minimize lines
Universal’s Volcano Bay claims there’s no waiting in line. Sounds too good to be true, but it’s not.
On arrival at the park, each guest receives a TapuTapu digital wristband. You then choose the ride you want to go on and tap the band on the totem located at the front of that attraction. The band then tells you when to come back to ride (similar to an old-school Disney’s FastPass concept). The bad news is that you can only get in the “virtual line” of one ride at a time. In the meantime, enjoy the restaurants, rivers and pools, or jump on a waterslide that’s listed as “Ride Now!” (Check an automated sign.)
You can also skip the virtual line for a per-person daily fee (select rides from $20; all rides from $40). Right now, during the pandemic, there seem to be more “Ride Now” opportunities available than there normally are during a normal timeframe.
Where to stay
Reservations at one of Universal Orlando Resort’s on-site hotels come with Early Park Admission to Volcano Bay before the park opens. Reservations using points can be made through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. You can keep the South Seas theme going at Loews Royal Pacific Resort or opt for the nearby Universal’s Aventura Hotel, whose Kids Suite room option sleeps up to three little ones in a separate area.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is another nearby option, or you can walk over while staying at Cabana Bay.
Alternatively, those with the Amex Platinum can book a room at the Loews Portofino Bay via the Fine Hotel and Resorts program to get late check-out, included breakfast and more.
Looking off-site, you can walk to Volcano Bay from DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando (from 25,000 points per night); the welcome offer for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card earns you 150,000 Hilton Honors points as a welcome bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months of holding the card.
On your card anniversary, you’ll receive an annual free weekend night reward. This card has an annual fee of $450 (see Rates & Fees). There are several other Hilton co-branded credit cards with lower annual fees. Here’s how to select the best Hilton credit card for family travel.
Another option is to redeem Marriott points at the Category 6 JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, a 500-acre oasis set nine miles south of Volcano Bay. The hotel boasts five pools and a lazy river. Plus, in 2019 it debuted the AquaCourse 360, a first-of-its-kind watery obstacle course for families (minimum 48 inches). Standard guest rooms with two queen beds cost 40,000 – 60,000 points per night, and if you redeem points for four nights, the fifth night is free. You can also use the annual anniversary certificate from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card on nights that are 50,000 points or less.
Alternately, at the Category 3 Hyatt House across from Universal Orlando Resort, rooms start at 12,000 points per night. The hotel provides free shuttle transportation to Universal Orlando’s theme parks, and World of Hyatt members get free breakfast on a qualifying stay. Plus, if you have The World Of Hyatt Credit Card, you can use your free Category 1–4 anniversary reward night certificate.
You can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt points or Marriott points at a rate of 1:1 if the rates make that the more attractive option.
Volcano Bay is a game-changer of a waterpark thanks to leaning in on technology. Its beautiful tropical aesthetic goes well beyond the simple waterparks of days old and shines in the world of waterparks — especially for families with kids in upper elementary to high school years. You’ll want to spend a whole day immersed in the scenery and innovations at Volcano Bay. Normally, its biggest issue is simply that it is popular and can be crowded.
That said, during the current era, Volcano Bay hasn’t generally seemed to be very busy based on online reports. But, know that Volcano Bay is very different from the other reopened theme parks in that masks are not in heavy use, and you really are relying on social distancing and the natural breezes of being outdoors.
Featured image by Erika Hueneke
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire, please click here.
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And when you do spend on dining, you should use a credit card that will maximize your rewards and potentially even score special discounts. Thanks to temporary card bonuses and changes due to coronavirus, you may even be able to score a meal at your favorite restaurant for free.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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