Lebeau Family Trip Report 2017: Universal Orlando Resort Part 4
Up to this point, we faced some challenges during our Orlando getaway. After a long drought, central Florida was getting such much-needed rain. Unfortunately for us, we arrived just in time for daily thunderstorms. My youngest daughter’s ankle was on the mend which limited her mobility and our oldest wasn’t going to be able to partake in any pool-related activities. We were just past the half-way point on our trip and we had weathered the storms reasonably well. So of course when I woke up on the morning of the fourth day of our vacation, I had a sore throat.
Before we left, both Mindy and Kara had cases of strep and bronchitis, so I was concerned that I might be coming down with something. I felt well enough to carry on, so I put my scratchy throat out of my mind. Kara rolled over in her bed and asked me if we were still going to visit Volcano Bay at some point during our stay. I reminded her that Josie couldn’t swim, but if she wanted to go to the water park, I would take her.
Kara had really been looking forward to Universal’s new water park. Rides aren’t really her thing, but she loves to swim and play in the pool. She’s also interested in Hawaiian culture which is celebrated at Volcano Bay. The place was right in her wheelhouse, however, I wasn’t sure she would want to go without her big sister. After thinking about it for a while, she decided we should go.
Before we left, I called to see if there was any priority seating available. There was not. I wasn’t surprised. I knew from previous phone calls that they were sold out for the next couple of weeks. I had gotten lucky once before so I figured I would try again. The girl on the phone told me to try again in person. She said they held back a few chairs for guests at the park.
Unfortunately, Royal Pacific does not offer a water taxi to Volcano Bay. It’s located right next to the Cabana Bay Beach Resort which is a nice perk for that hotel. You could walk to Volcano Bay from Royal Pacific if you were so inclined, but the hotel offers a shuttle. We had a short wait at the shuttle stop. Less than five minutes. It felt a little longer than it was because there was no signage indicating that we were waiting in the right spot and the only other family there spoke no English. But in no time at all, we boarded our bus and were on our way.
When the water park opened, they were offering a form of Express Pass just like the theme parks. However, it was not included as a perk to hotel guests. That’s understandable because Volcano Bay is relatively small and if everyone staying at the deluxe hotels could skip to the front of the line, the waits would be unbearable for everyone else. Universal very quickly did away with Express Pass at Volcano Bay due to operational issues we will talk about in a minute.
As guests at Royal Pacific, we did get one hour early admission to the park. This is a huge advantage if you are planning to visit Volcano Bay. Later in the day, people will be searching high and low for any loungers they can find, but we had our pick. We set our stuff down in a pair of loungers under an umbrella right in front of the wave pool. We were also able to get a locker long before they sold out. The lockers were accessible using the Tapu Tapu wrist band we were provided at the entrance, so there was no need to hang on to any of our personal belongings other than our sandals and beach towels. With early admission, there was no need to spend money on expensive priority seating.
This was the view from our loungers. Volcano Bay is an absolutely beautiful water park. It’s small and along the edges you are aware that it borders the Florida highways. But it’s easy to give in to the illusion that you are actually on a tropical island. If you are looking to relax in between visits to the theme parks, Volcano Bay is a great place to unwind.
Kara’s primary interest was the wave pool, but I wanted to explore a bit before the park opened to the general public. After a quick dip in the wave pool, we started to walk around the park. I had read that the new water coaster was a must-do experience and that lines would get long later in the day. So I kept my eyes out for that attraction. Unfortunately, I had no idea what any of the names meant. They are all in Hawaiian, so the signs weren’t of much use.
When we found the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, it was listed as “ride now” which meant we didn’t need to schedule a return time. Just as we were stepping in line, that changed. We were now told that we needed to use Tapu Tapu at the nearby kiosk to schedule a return time to ride. No big deal. Our return time was only ten minutes out.
In the meantime, we decided to check out the Kopiko Wai Winding River – that’s a fancy name for a lazy river. In addition to the standard circular floats, there were several that resembled floating recliners. Let me tell you, this was one relaxing ride. Unlike a lot of lazy rivers, there was always something to see. At one point, the river passes through the volcano which is all kinds of cool.
By the time we had winded along the lazy river, Tapu Tapu was telling us to report to the water coaster. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you get to experience the ride right away. We had about a 15 minute wait. I heard a staff member saying that they were supposed to keep the wait times under 20 minutes. The park had opened less than a week ago and they were still figuring a lot of things out.
Kara was uncertain about riding a water coaster, but I was confident she would enjoy it. She loved the Aquaduck on the Disney Dream which is a similar experience on a more modest scale. The fifteen minute wait was a bit much for her, but she perked up when it was our turn to ride.
I have been on a few water coasters before, but Krakatau was by far the best. Guests ride in four-person canoes which are pulled uphill by magnets. You get a surprising amount of speed every time you go up. The ride consists of several dips, turns and splashes plus another trip through the volcano. It’s also a much longer ride than you would expect. It’s no wonder that this is an incredibly popular attraction. Make a point to ride it first thing.
After our ride, Kara was gushing about how much she loved it. We made an appointment to come back. The wait time was already over an hour, but we didn’t mind. Kara was getting hungry, so we stopped at one of the restaurants and got her a footlong hotdog and a bottled water. After we ate, we returned to the wave pool to wait for our turn to ride again.
As it turns out, Kara had so much fun in the wave pool that when it as time for us to go back to the water coaster, we decided not to. Tapu Tapu held our place in line for several hours, but eventually it did drop us. That was fine. We spent most of the day rolling with the waves. Occasionally, we went back to our lounger for a break. Kara enjoyed playing in the sand just like you would at a real beach.
All in all, we had a terrific time at Volcano Bay. And everywhere I looked, I saw lots of people having fun too. So I was surprised when I returned home to read scathing reviews of the new park on sites like Trip Advisor. Here’s the thing. Universal clearly rushed this park to open by Memorial Day Weekend. Even now, weeks after our vacation, finishing touches are being put on the park.
Not only was the park unfinished when it opened, management was still figuring out the complex virtual queue system and operations for all the rides. Guests who arrived in the afternoon were facing extremely long wait times for most of the slides. Understandably, they weren’t happy about that.
But for our purposes, Volcano Bay was a wonderful break from touring the theme parks. And I’m sure as the season progresses, Universal will work out the kinks in their new system. I hear the elimination of Express Pass plus more efficient ride loading has already cut down the wait times significantly. And Universal has already announced plans to expand the park which will add to its capacity.
By mid afternoon, we were getting tired and decided to head back to the hotel. Before we left, we wanted to try the pineapple upside down cake I had read about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember which of the strangely named restaurants served the dessert and none of the employees I asked were sure either. We ended up circling the park before we finally found what we were looking for.
As you can see, it’s a chocolate cake with caramelized coconut flakes, pineapple and a chocolate-covered maraschino cherry. Kara and I each ordered one and we agreed that they were good. Maybe not “walk all around the park” good, but very tasty.
When we got home, the combination of spending all day in the sun plus my encroaching cold had me feeling pretty tired. I did something I don’t do very often. I took a nap. The girls woke me when they wanted to get dinner. This is where we ran into our biggest complaint about Loews Royal Pacific. They have four table-service restaurants and a pool bar, but they don’t have any fast dining options. When it’s raining and the pool bar is closed, you either have to get a table or leave the hotel.
Since it was raining, we didn’t want to leave the hotel. It didn’t help matters that I was feeling lousy. Food didn’t sound appealing at all. We visited each of the table service restaurants just to check out the wait times. Emeril’s Tchoup Chop had a reasonable wait time of 30 minutes, but it seemed a bit fancy. We really just wanted some kind of grab-and-go option.
Earlier in the day, a flyer had been left under our door for a local pizza place, Orlando Pizza Express. I suggested, hey, why don’t we just give that pizza place a try? Big mistake. I called at 8:00 and right off the bat I got a bad vibe from the place. The woman who took my order was extremely rude like she didn’t want to be bothered. We were told our food would arrive in about an hour.
Ninety minutes later, Mindy called to see what was going on. The same rude woman answered the phone. She said that there had been an accident which had shut down traffic on a main road and that our order would be there any minute. One by one, we each went to sleep. At 11:30, three and a half hours after I had placed the order, I was awakened by the hotel phone. The pizza guy was in the lobby. I told him we had all gone to sleep. “So you don’t want it?” he asked. “No,” I said. Even if we were awake, which we weren’t, there was no way that pizza was anything but ice cold.
The next day, I checked my credit card. Sure enough, they had charged us for the pizza. I called to ask for a refund and was told that there were no managers in that day and someone would call me back on Monday. No one ever did. I ended up disputing the charges with my credit card company. don’t order food from places that advertise with flyers under your hotel door – especially Orlando Pizza Express.
Next: ET, Donuts and Dragons