My first adventure to a water park was in my tween years. I can still remember the thrill of taking my first dive down Der Stuka.

That moment before the drop. Der Stuka at Wet ‘n Wild Orlando

The anticipation, the fear, the moment of commitment. The rush. The ecstacy. The yell, the splash.

Growing up around Orlando, my family and I could take a staycation, on any given day, to America’s first water park and indulge ourselves in an experience that people from all corners of the country (if not of the globe) planned an entire vacation around. What they waited long for, we could have in a ridiculously short order.

Orlando’s are spoiled. We have all the things in our backyard. That also means we tire of world-class attractions sooner than nearly everyone else in the world.

Which is why we particularly get excited whenever our local entertainment parks announce their Next Big Thing. When it’s an #Epic Level Event, we mark Opening Day on our calendars and lock-in our front-row seat.

Guys, put May 25th on your calendars. Buy your tickets now. The Next Big Thing has arrived.

Behold! Volcano Bay, the theme park experience redefined from the ground up, masquerading as a water park.

Volcano Bay, the next-generation water theme park

In recent months, the many thousands of Orlando residents who drive by the Universal Orlando property during their travels have witnessed the new mighty volcano quickly rise from the earth and dominate the landscape.

Universal’s Volcano Bay rising toward the sky. Credit: Orlando United

This volcano is the centerpiece of Universal’s newest park, its “third park” — a water park truly unlike any other. (Read on if you think I’m exaggerating. I dare you!)

Aside from all the water slides and wet attractions we’ve come to expect from first-class water parks, Volcano Bay introduces a new dimension to the visitor’s experience: a total absence of queue lines. Instead, Volcano Bay operates by a virtual queueing system. Universal has dubbed their concept “Virtual Lines” — just a formal way to distinguish Volcano Bay’s approach from the others. No more waiting baking roasting under the hot sun while you await your turn.

Laze by the waterfall, not in line.

During your stay at Volcano Bay, enjoyment takes precedence over the boring mechanics of theme park attractions. When you enter the park, you’ll don an electronically-connected bracelet — the TapuTapu bracelet, as Universal has named it — that will enable you to reserve your place in line. You tap it at a ride’s entrance marker, where automagically your reservation will be taken. Your bracelet will be issued a return time. When it’s your turn to head up to slide, your bracelet will notify you. No paper tickets. No lugging an inner tube up some steps. No wishing you had time to enjoy another drink. You’ll always have time. Just an easy process. Simple. Permissive.

TapuTapu tells you when it’s your time to slide.

Universal is taking virtual queuing to the next level.

It’s a game-changer. Instead of paying for the privilege to waste your time on your feet on a hot summer’s day, you can go to Volcano Bay and chill under the canopy in your favorite spot, or take your time and enjoy a drink and a meal, or just relax on the river or play in the wave pool — whatever you feel like doing — until it’s time for you to slide.

What a view! And no queue lines obstructing it!

The “virtual line” concept has appeared in Universal Studios Florida as well, with the introduction of the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. Visitors there queue up in virtual groups and then enjoy stages of entertainment leading toward the finale ride through the Big Apple (and beyond!). The experience is carefully measured timewise to offer us a superior degree of enjoyment of every element of the attraction. The attraction’s length is around 30 minutes, yet due to the thoroughly entertaining structure, which begins with the virtual queue, you’ll likely (gladly) lose track of time while you’re inside the building. (And not in the oh-let-me-try-to-kill-time-while-I-wait-in-this-boring-line sort of way. That’s not a thing here.)

This bonafide realization of a 100% virtual-queued ride is a thing that has been long overdue.

Nearly two decades after Disney acquainted Orlando with FastPass, their concept of the virtual queue and its beautiful nature as a free time-economy option for the attraction-goer has turned into something… certainly less attractive. The “Express Lane” has become a tool of the on-site vacation deal packagers — a VIP Pass, if you will — that purports to serve preferred guests well, but it’s actually diluting the brand.

Universal Express Pass logoDue to the (over)use of the Express Pass as a freebie, users of a Universal Express Pass can frequently encounter long queue times, depending on the similarity of decisions made by the daily thousands of other Express Pass users. That’s the definition of irony. So, if a lot of the Express Pass crowd shows up to the Hulk at the same time you do, be prepared for the 20+ minute delay, just like the general crowd.

FastPass logoDisney quickly recognized a need to limit the number of FastPasses a visitor could hold at any given time, in order to prevent overuse. Subsequent modifications to the program — notably the FastPass+ variant — goes further in the effort to reduce the daily variance of FastPass demand for the popular attractions, so both Disney and their visitors can have a better expectation of the wait times and the day’s overall experience. That said, the FastPass system does not eliminate a rider’s wait time; depending on the park’s attendance for that day and the ride’s capacity (I’m looking at you, Space Mountain), the FastPass user can still experience a significantly long wait in a physical line.

Dare I speculate…

… that the misuse of the priority queue / virtual queue has caused an accelerated development and R&D cost of “virtual line” attractions, to justify the Express Pass’s value. (An Express Pass could once again become a true priority-queue option, as park operators wouldn’t have a practical need for concern about the general line’s average wait time.)

The solution, obviously, is a from-the-ground-up reconstruction of the queueing process. Orlando’s shining example — nay, the world’s shining example — as of May 25th, will be Volcano Bay.

A tidbit of history

Volcano Bay replaces the long-lived Wet ‘n Wild across the highway. Originally built by SeaWorld’s creator, the “Founder of the Waterpark” George Millay more than 40 years ago, it was purchased by Universal and recently shuttered in order to make room for the something fresh-and-new closer to Universal’s other theme parks. What SeaWorld’s creator began in the 1970s, Universal has faithfully continued. (I should mention that Disney launched a couple of cool water parks a while ago as well.)