The internet has dubbed it “CrapuCrapu” and they’re not wrong. Back in June, just a few weeks after the official opening of Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay, Theme Park University posted an article about how the park was being clobbered in the reviews on nearly all public reviewing platforms. Without question, the park was rushed to open and clearly was not ready for prime time. But when the mandate from upon high comes down to making sure you’re open the same weekend Pandora cracks open their gates down the street, well you gotta do what the folks upstairs say, right? The park still has some major issues and we are going to talk about TapuTapu in a moment, but let’s first look at what people are talking about.
First, let’s make it clear that the overall ratings for Volcano Bay on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Facebook are exactly the same as they were a few weeks after the park opened. We are now rounding the bases to month number 5 and literally thousands more reviews have been written and the needles don’t budge. To be fair, there are obviously positive reviews for Volcano Bay and perhaps you or your friends had a great time. I’ve spent hours reading literally hundreds of reviews and the pattern for most of the positive ones were very telling. Generally speaking, if guests gave the park a 4 or 5 out of 5 they either stayed on property, thus granted early admission and got a jump on the lines. Or they simply did a decent amount of research on the TapuTapu system and knew how to best utilize it before they set foot in the park.
Before I go any further I need to make something clear: even though you’re reading this website right now and maybe all your friends read many theme park websites constantly… this is far from normal. I know, I know. It may seem like in your bubble everyone does their research in advance and knows everything about a new theme park attraction months before the doors open. That is not how the majority of the public visits theme parks. And regardless of how dumb you think they may be for not doing research in advance, it’s the reality for the vast majority of the paying theme park public. Go ahead and call them all the names you want, but they paid just as much money as someone who did their homework. To be fair, the same can be said for someone who doesn’t understand other unique theme park features such as Disney’s FastPass. The difference, of course, is if you don’t know how to navigate TapuTapu properly, you don’t get to ride any of the park’s major attractions. And that is an enormous disadvantage for someone paying $67 for a one-day adult ticket simply because they didn’t do their homework.
I highly encourage not getting on your high horse and say that they should have done the research, please jump off and come back to reality. It’s a water park. Generally speaking, there isn’t much research to do. At the end of the day, it’s Universal Orlando’s job to inform the guests on how TapuTapu works and at this point, it isn’t working. Sure there are videos online, in guest hotel rooms and even on the bus before you arrive at the park. After experiencing that bus ride myself, I can tell you that families and parents, in particular, don’t pay attention to the introductory video because they’re busy organizing sunscreen, snacks, towels, and swimsuits for their families.
Much like Disney’s MagicBands, Universal’s TapuTapu has a huge learning curve ahead of it. It’s your ride reservation system, a way to get into your locker, a payment device and a way to interact with certain features of the park. For those of you who don’t know, Universal didn’t exactly invent this system. They partnered with a company called Accesso and made some modifications to their QBand technology which you can read about here. You’ll notice that there is no mention of Universal Orlando on their website, but that’s due to confidentiality agreements that all major parks have with third-party vendors. Speaking of, I should mention that Accesso is probably the vendor that supplied TapuTapu to Universal. Sure. That’s it. Probably.
So why are people so furious with it? Well, the rub comes in many multiple forms. First, many people don’t seem to know that this replaces the physical queue for all the major attractions in the park. It’s the ONLY option. So when they hand you an adorable wristband at the front of the park, you may not have any idea what it does if you haven’t paid attention to online videos or even the information given to you on the bus ride over. By the way, the reviews often mention the bus ride lines exiting the park which can often reach half an hour or more to leave the park and return to the parking garage. People genuinely hate that bus even though it’s an operational necessity.
Sometimes you literally need to force people to see a demonstration of how this works IN the park so they can at least wrap their head around it. Demonstration kiosks near the turnstile/ticket area would be most helpful. Especially if you don’t speak English.
Which brings me to another major sticking point. Water parks in Orlando attract an enormous amount of international guests. Many of which speak very little to no English. Not only have I witnessed many guests who don’t speak English become very confused with TapuTapu, I have heard it from many other guests and employees. They don’t understand that they need to tap at a certain time to reserve their place in line. They don’t understand where and how to return and they don’t understand the words “ride full” when all the reservations have finished for the day. Park ambassadors who speak several languages scattered around would be most helpful for this learning curve.
Then there is the problem with park capacity and not having enough to do considering TapuTapu is your only option if you want to experience the majority of major attractions. Meaning, many guests complain about only being able to ride two to three attractions (that require the use of TapuTapu) all day. Why is that? Circling. When wait times get too long in theme parks, people tend to start circling around looking for shorter waits. What ends up happening is the guests make an entire lap around the park looking for walk-on attractions and they never find any. This takes at least an hour, if not more, and in the case of TapuTapu they could have simply tapped and waited, but they spent the time looking for shorter waits so they could presumably do more. But on busy days, shorter waits are nowhere to be found. Thus, the perception is they could only experience two or three attractions all day when perhaps they could have done more if they had just realized that pretty much all the wait times were long.
Finally, for those that do figure out how the TapuTapu system works, what I read more than anything is the fact they still have to wait in line even after they’ve waited X amount of time to even return to the attraction. Sometimes those lines can exceed half an hour or more and often do. Keep in mind, most guests don’t wear watches or cell phones while waiting in line for water rides. Thus they could have waited 10 minutes, but if those minutes were in the direct Florida sun I could certainly see where it can seem like more. Plus, you can’t possibly have no wait upon your return or you’d eventually end up with empty slides through various times of the day. Thus, waits of some sort are required to keep the slides running at full capacity.
No matter what you may think of guests who don’t understand how busy water parks work, their perception is their reality. And they paid full price, just like those who did their research. For better or worse. This feeling of being “jipped” out of their day is echoed over and over. And very little has been done to make drastic changes to TapuTapu (and the surrounding resources) to make it more user-friendly. Sure, park capacity gets scaled back when park operations know certain attractions are scheduled to be down all day, but with a system like this, you have to do that or people will be even more upset than they are now.
To be fair, guest services have been hard at work helping those who didn’t have the best time at the park. I see tons of reviews where customers didn’t enjoy their day are encouraged to reach out to speak to a Universal Orlando representative presumably to get some sort of compensation. While that’s lovely, this a retroactive move and not a proactive approach. Guests will continue to have issues if major changes in communication, park capacity and the ease of usability doesn’t improve at Volcano Bay.
You know the worst part about all this? I foresee the problems with TapuTapu getting worse before they get better. Why? Let’s save that for the next article. Universal Orlando is working on a facial recognition technology that could not only be a game changer for the theme park industry, it could change ANY ticketed event as we know it in the future. And it’s rolling out to all theme parks Universal owns worldwide. If you’re interested in learning about how Universal is going to change the game with facial recognition, leave a comment on social media with “#IReadTheEntireArticle” so I know there’s enough interest to cover it in a future article. Otherwise, I’ll find some other fascinating topic to talk about.
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