Universal Orlando is changing the theme park experience, one wearable at a time

Stroll through the entrance of Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando's newest theme park, and you're immediately struck by its namesake, the stunning Krakatau Volcano. 

The 200-foot-tall structure's exterior is adorned with gushing waterfalls, while many of the park's most thrilling attractions snake through its interior. The volcano, which also erupts with fiery lava effects in the evening, makes quite the impression. 

While this man-made mountain could proudly sit alongside the world's natural wonders, it only represents the second coolest piece of technical engineering at the water theme park. 

The first-place honor goes to the TapuTapu, a wearable device that aims to eliminate many of the inconveniences that come with spending a day in a crowded theme park.

One band to rule them all

Universal Orlando's Chief Digital Officer Chris Crayner calls the gadget, “the one device that allows you to have the quickest, most hassle-free day at the park.” 

Of course, as anyone who's waited 90-plus minutes to board a roller-coaster will attest to, standing in long lines is easily the biggest fun-halting hassle sullying the park-going experience. Toss in the probability of the Florida sun frying you like a slab of bacon while you wait, and the common inconvenience becomes an even bigger problem for Orlando-based parks. 

The TapuTapu — available in a variety of tropical colors — aims to alleviate this issue by placing guests in “virtual lines”, essentially eliminating the physical act of standing in zig-zagging queues like corralled cattle for much of the day. 

Issued to each guest upon arrival, the device looks and feels a lot like a fitness band. In fact, we swapped our Fitbit with the lightweight, rubbery TapuTapu for a full day, and had to look at our wrists to remind us we’d made the switch. 

Once strapped on, the wearable can be tapped against an attraction's respective totem to virtually place the patron in its line. Once “in line”, the guest is then free to do whatever they want, wherever they want, until it’s time to ride. 

Attempting to lessen wait times, or eliminate them altogether, isn't a fresh concept. Disney's parks have experimented with the idea for years, first with the FastPass system and, more recently, with MagicBands. 

Universal, too, has done plenty in the past to try and eliminate the infamous theme park queue with their Express Pass system, a premium add-on ticket — for a premium price — that grants line-skipping privileges; where Express Pass options start at $49.99, TapuTapu is included in Volcano Bay’s standard admission price.  

As recently as this spring, the park also incorporated a line-less, free reservation method for the new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon attraction.

Tap to the future

These solutions have all made great strides, successfully removing much of the standing, sweating, and swearing that comes when hot humans wait in long lines. And their continued evolution suggests theme park lines will only get shorter as technology progresses. 

But Universal believes the TapuTapu is ahead of the curve — already offering the theme park experience of the future — because it was built from the ground-up with customer convenience in mind. 

Rather than retro-actively trying to fix a problem, the TapuTap, according to Crayner, was crafted right alongside the park and its attractions, allowing its careful integration to be more cure than Band-aid. 

“From the moment we started the entire project, it was always conceived as, if you're going to create something brand-new for the world, how can you create something that allows complete fun and freedom with no hassles? That was the initial conceit behind the idea of the wearable.”

Achieving these goals meant not only making the TapuTapu — which translates to “utility” in Maori — but also designing the entire park with line-elimination in mind. Volcano Bay boasts nearly 20 attractions, a handful of them specifically created to accommodate large crowds. 

So, while guests are virtually waiting to experience a popular, premier ride, like the park's Krakatau Aqua Coaster, they can chill on the beach, cool off in a wave pool, or enjoy a relaxing ride on the lazy river. The idea being that, maybe you'll forget you're waiting at all if you're soaking up some rays from the comfort of an inner tube. 

The park's also packed with TapuTapu-specific time-killers, designated areas and activities that react to the band in different ways.  

During our May visit, for example, we tapped the device on totems that would squirt water at other park guests. We also visited a selfie station, a photo-opp spot that allowed us to snap pics of ourselves by simply flashing the band, getting in frame, and waiting for the red lights to signal when it was time to smile. 

These photos, as well as those taken automatically while you're screaming your head off during an attraction's most hair-raising moments, are tied to your TapuTapu account; tap the band at any of the park's merchandise locations, and you can spy your photos and take them home for a price. 

Wearable wallet

This feature also ties directly into the device's “tap-to-pay” feature, a convenience that lets you leave your wallet in a locker or back at your hotel room. 

If you're going to create something brand-new for the world, how can you create something that allows complete fun and freedom with no hassles?

Universal Orlando's Chris Crayner

Using Universal's app, guests can set up an account, allowing them to purchase everything from lunch to souvenirs with the TapuTapu. Be careful, though, as the band also makes it super-easy to sample all those adult beverages adorned with umbrellas and appetizing garnishes. While the app — available for iOS and Android — isn’t required to enjoy the wearable’s virtual line features, it is needed to set up a spending account. 

Parents who opt to download the free app can also use it to set up separate accounts for their kids, complete with specific spending limits for each member of their brood. Even if you don't plan on dropping any additional cash in the park, though, this feature still solves the age-old problem of having to hide your wallet in a smelly sneaker while you take a dip in the pool.

Up the tech, up the fun

Because the wearable is waterproof, it can also track your virtual lines while you're enjoying that refreshing dip. Guests can be virtually queued in two attractions at a time, the aforementioned Aqua Coaster — the park's premier ride — and another of their choosing. 

When you tap-in, the attraction's totem will immediately tell you what your wait time is and when to return. This same info is also shown on the TapuTapu screen, another feature Crayner believes separates it from similar line-cutting concepts that don't have displays. 

“Tap into a totem and it's going to give you your return time and communicate that to your band. You're then free to roam about the park, and the [TapuTapu] screen will tell you when you can ride... you're actually going to see it countdown to your return time.”

If you're not staring at your TapuTapu, no worries, as the band will give you a nice little buzz when it's your turn to get wet. Much like Disney's MagicBands, the TapuTapu uses Bluetooth as well as short- and long-range RF technology, but puts a fresh spin on the familiar concept by also incorporating haptic feedback. 

The fact the band will give you a nudge if you’re dozing by the pool also plays into one of the features Crayner believes most separates it from Disney’s similar tech. “It’s a two-way communication device. We’re sending messages, we can display information to you, it has haptic in it. We can, upon a weather event, restack the virtual lines based on if we have lightning strikes and have to close things down for a short period of time, and re-communicate to you.”

When asked about the evolution of TapuTapu and how its existing guts might further improve the guest experience, Crayner said, “Right now TapuTapu 2.0 is not on the drawing board. What we would probably do is look beyond this piece of technology. We have a lot on the drawing board we're not talking about yet.” 

Crayner kept mum when pressed for more specific intel, but teased, “One of the things we're trying to do is leverage the technology people already have. It’s most integrated into their everyday life, and a lot of that is mobile. So, maybe in the future, things like that might be better than the band itself.” 

We do know Universal is interested in using the latest tech to craft brand-new rides rather than shoehorn it into existing attractions. Last year, for example, the park dipped its toes into the virtual reality pool with The Repository, an immersive, horror-themed VR experience. 

While other amusement parks are racing to retrofit VR into rollercoasters and other aging attractions to give them a refresh, Universal is only looking to leverage the latest technology if it can bring something entirely new to the table. 

With the summer season in full swing, we'll soon find out if the TapuTapu is transforming the theme park experience for good. We look forward to finding out if it can truly make lines a thing of the past, but even more so what other tech Universal might be cooking up. In the meantime, though, we're perfectly fine “waiting in line” while sipping margarita's at the poolside bar.