There are two big reasons to enter Universal's Volcano Bay at its 9 a.m. opening. One is that beach chairs are in limited supply, especially at popular spots such as Waturi Beach. Cabana reservations can also sell out early, so if you decide to rent one on the day of, move quickly. (Cabanas can also be booked ahead of time by phone.) Guests staying at Universal Orlando's hotels get 8 a.m. admission to the park, an easy way to get a jump on the spot of your choice.
By arriving in the morning, you also avoid the possibility of the park closing its entrance if it has reached capacity.
Each visitor receives a waterproof TapuTapu wearable upon entry. Put it on securely (the strap clips in two spots) because it's your key to the entire park. Most importantly, you'll use it to reserve a spot in a Virtual Line for rides. If you rent a locker, it'll be your locker key. You can also make purchases with it by using the official Universal Orlando Resort app to connect it to a credit card, so you don't have to fetch your wallet between rides. Finally, TapuTapu can be used to activate photo booths, water cannons, and other surprises around the park.
Use TapuTapu by placing it firmly and squarely at any illuminated Volcano Bay logo; a casual wave usually isn't enough.
With four public locker locations around the park, two close to the entrance, and two closer to the back of the park, many visitors will stop at the first locker they see to drop off belongings, but this can be a headache later if they're spending most of their time at the other end of the park.
Take a look at the park map and think about where you'll likely spend most of your day. If you're planning to spend more time at the pools and Waturi Beach, get a locker near the entrance. If you're going to be spending most of your time on rides, find a locker near the back of the park.
The most immediately gratifying way to use TapuTapu is to surprise other guests with a soaking. Most of the bridges crossing Kopiko Wai Winding River and TeAwa the Fearless River have TapuTapu panels where you can spray river rafters with water cannons, so send your companions off on the river and then lie in wait.
An even more devious surprise can be found inside the central Krakatau volcano, where a set of joysticks and a TapuTapu panel overlook the Reef pool. Activate the cannons and soak anyone in the pool below, using the joysticks to direct the water with precise aim.
Most people are familiar with theme park rides that take your picture: A camera flashes during the ride, and when you get off, there's a viewing booth at the exit where you can see your photo.
Volcano Bay works differently, smoothly keeping track of your photos across the park's rides and photo booths—so smoothly, you may forget your photos were taken at all. TapuTapu keeps track of them in the background for you. At the end of your visit, stop by the photo viewing stations and store at Waturi Marketplace near the entrance. Press your TapuTapu at the viewing stations and your photos appear as if by magic.
These twin body slides near the front of the park offer a moderately intense experience, with an exclamation point at the end: Sliders exit in mid-air and plunge into a 10-foot-deep pool. As the names hint, Ohyah has a smaller 4-foot drop than the more intense Ohno's 6-foot drop. (Though the height limit is 48 inches, the park advises that only those confident in their swimming ability should ride. If you've got riders who are just under that, or not as confident swimmers, Tonga of Taniwha Tubes is a good alternative.)
Because it's near the front of the park, another reason to warm up here is that the wait times tend to grow as more guests arrive.
The Kopiko Wai Winding River never has a line, so whether you're waiting for your reservation time on a ride or taking a break, it's always available for a relaxing float. Head to one of the two entry-and-exit ramps and wrangle yourself an inner tube. Getting into the tube can be tricky in moving water, so it's usually easier to grab one near the river and bring it back up the ramp to get into it.
Once you've gotten comfortable floating in the current, sit back, relax, take in the tropical landscape, and prepare for plenty of water surprises along the way.
A more vigorous river experience awaits those brave enough to jump in: TeAwa, which the park bills as the "Fearless River." TeAwa's current runs faster, there are more water cannons and waterfalls to navigate, and white-capped waves sweep through on a regular basis.
Unlike Kopiko Wai Winding River, there are no inner tubes here; every swimmer wears a life vest. That too makes TeAwa a more visceral experience—instead of just floating by the various features, you're actively immersed in them, especially when body surfing the river's big waves. Even just floating on one's back is a high-velocity thrill in the strong current.
The littlest of kids looking to cool off get a section of the park, Tot Tiki Reef. Toddlers can play among splashy slides, a tot-sized water volcano and a family of friendly tikis with spraying fountains.
For older kids, Runamukka Reef right next door features bubbling geysers, water blasters, slides and dump cups, shaded by fanciful bamboo sea creatures and waving seaweed.
Think you're the fastest slider in your family? Want to challenge your friends to a race? Head to Punga Racers. Single riders on manta ray mats slide head-first down four lanes to the finish line.
Proper technique is key to victory. Give yourself a boost at the start (rather than inching forward until you begin to slide), don't drag your feet along the tube, and try not to slide too far away from the inside of the track. Finally, follow the ride's instructions to lift the front of the racing mat back when you reach the finish line so that you skate across the exit pool instead of plunging into it.
Honu is next door to ika Moana (the two share a ride tower) and uses the same kind of raft, but the similarities end there. Just as ika Moana is themed as a ride on the back of a whale, Honu is a ride on the back of a turtle—a turtle that's all about getting as much thrilling hang time as possible. To that end, Honu features two enormous slide walls for rafts to slide along near-vertically, plus some precipitous drops to pick up speed.
Not thrilling enough? Up the ante by picking a seat on the raft that enters the ride backward so each twist and turn is a surprise. Too thrilling? Puihi of the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides offers a similar but less extreme ride.
The three capsule slides at the top of the Krakatau volcano are the height of thrill at Volcano Bay. (Quite literally: You have to climb more than a dozen sets of stairs to reach them.) Each begins with riders standing on a trap door in a sealed capsule; without warning, the trap door gives way and guests plunge almost straight down into the slide. (Hold your nose for the duration of the slide, as there's a big splash when the trap door opens.)
For a longer, more winding ride around the inside of the volcano, step into Kala or Tai Nui. If it's pure velocity you're after, Ko'okiri will be more your speed.
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