There's no denying that Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Volcano Bay -- Universal Orlando's third theme park and the resort's first on-site water park -- will be great one day. The problem for Comcast and its investors is that it could take months, if not years, for that to happen.
Volcano Bay sounded great on paper. Body slides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and even a water coaster were already available at area parks, but Comcast's resort would be charging a premium for Volcano Bay because it billed itself as a queue-free experience. Guests handed TapuTapu wristbands on the way in would be able to reserve virtual lines for the signature slides, freeing them up to enjoy the tropical oasis between the watery thrills. Comcast wanted to make a big splash, but if we go by first impressions, Volcano Bay is all wet.
Volcano Bay has been open for a little more than two weeks, and the first wave of reviews have been brutal. The attraction's average rating on TripAdvisor is 2.0 out of five -- poor -- through the first 181 reviews. Less than 10% of the reviewers rate Volcano Bay as excellent. The news doesn't get a whole lot better on Yelp, where it also scores an average score of 2.5 out of five stars on its reviews grid.
The complaints aim largely at the things that were supposed to set Volcano Bay apart. The lines are long -- whether it's to rent a locker, grab a bite to eat, or ultimately in some cases at customer service to argue for a refund. The virtual queue concept is also being called out, as wait times stretch several hours for many attractions shortly after the park opens. Since you are allowed to have hold a virtual place in line for just one attraction at a time, that often leaves guests with several hours between slides. There are pools and lazy rivers to pass the time, but that gets old fast. This is also Florida, where having a five-hour wait to make yet another line to actually board an attraction is a race against the afternoon thunderstorm that will inevitably happen.
Some of the growing pains will improve over time. Increased staffing, lockers, pool chairs, and dining options can eradicate some of the more common knocks. The TapuTapu wrist huggers will be game changers once we see improvements in both the actual technology and in the consumer learning curve. However, the one thing that Volcano Bay can't change -- at least not anytime soon -- is that it has a massive capacity issue. There aren't enough slides and attractions to spread across its thousands of daily visitors to prevent these long gaps between virtual ride reservations. This won't be an issue on a mid-week day in October when it's just hundreds or a thousand or two guests at the park. The problem is that it's going to be a deluge of negative reports during the peak summer season.
Some are suggesting that Comcast has lowered the number of people that it's letting into the park every day, something that, if true, may have resulted in the park closing to new guests shortly after noon on Friday.
Comcast shareholders obviously don't want Universal Orlando's third water park to have to cap guests at a low number, especially since it's promoting it heavily across various media outlets. Volcano Bay based its virtual queues on bad math. If the hourly capacity of all of the TapuTapu-eligible attractions combined is less than the number of the people in the park, the average virtual wait for someone to experience one of them will be more than an hour.
Volcano Bay began limiting guests to reserve just one slide at a time over the weekend. It had originally let them include the signature water coaster as a second reservation. That will help, a little. Universal Orlando can also remove some of the slides from the TapuTapu system, a call that would make the other virtual lines longer but at least give guests willing to wait in traditional water park lines more to do during the lull between reservations. The ideal fix, of course, would be to expand quickly with high-capacity attractions. The problem is that expansion space is somewhat limited given the various new hotels that Comcast has built around Volcano Bay, and it will take at least a few months, if not more, for the new people eaters to go up in the space that it does have earmarked for expansion.
Volcano Bay is a beautiful park with an ugly problem in search of a beautiful solution to overcome an ugly summer.