Lines. They are the bane of any theme park goer's experience. Sometimes you're waiting up to an hour for a ride that's only a couple minutes long. It's hard not to feel like the majority of your time at a theme park is waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Theme parks have tried numerous ways to cut down on lines. There are single rider lines if you don't mind riding with complete strangers, there are ride pass systems that tell you to come back later and, when worse comes to worst, theme parks just hope they have enough shows and parades to keep people away from lines.
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Wearable technology, however, has given theme parks a new option: virtual lines. Or at least that's the best way to describe them. Some theme parks already use wearables, like Disney and its Magic Band system, which to tries to make the guest experience more seamless. But there's a problem: it's a new system being fit onto an old park designed for a world without wearable technology.
Universal's Volcano Bay water theme park is designed entirely around its wearable, TapuTapu, which can help you snag a place in a virtual line, make payments, activate theme park interactivity and more. So, is the virtual line-filled theme park of our dreams finally here? Can wearables usher in a theme park revolution, and will you never want to go to a line-filled theme park again? I went to find out.
From the ground up
You may think you hate waiting in lines for rides at a theme park, but that's only because you haven't waited in line for a ride at a water theme park. Where regular theme park lines can push you indoors or give you interesting things to look at or do, water theme park lines have you walking up stairs. The only thing you get to look at is the sunburnt skin of everyone around you, and maybe the odd bit of sweat rolling down their frustrated faces.
"We went out all over the world and looked at a lot of water parks," Dale Mason, vice president and executive art director for Universal Creative, tells us. "One of the things people complained about the most was waiting in line. So that was what we set out to solve."
It has to come off, it has to be waterproof, it has to give you a signal to tell you 'it's time!'
So they knew they wanted to eliminate lines, but how? The first thing they did was turn to Volcano Bay's theme. It's a fictional island inspired by Polynesian culture - not any specific Polynesian culture, mind you, just Polynesian culture on a whole - with a fictional people called the Waturi (they love water so much they're watery, get it?).
Bracelets just happen to be a big thing in Polynesian culture, which gave Universal's creative team the device they needed to develop a line-less water theme park: TapuTapu. The bracelet's design is also inspired by Polynesian culture, honoring the look of tribal tattoos.
A wearable in a theme park filled with water presented its own hurdles though. "It has to come off, it has to be waterproof, it has to give you a signal to tell you 'it's time!'" Mason says. "There were a lot of challenges in getting that to come together."
"It was not that difficult to conceive it," Chris Crayner, chief digital officer at Universal Creative, adds. "The hardest part of any of these things is creating a really seamless guest experience." Because TapuTapu's functionality was designed into the park from day one, most of the challenge was just making sure all the systems were good to go.
Kia ora: Trying out TapuTapu
"Kia ora!" says the college-aged Volcano Bay employee as he scans my ticket and my fingerprint to create a digital code assigned to my account. "Here's your TapuTapu wearable!" That's it. That's how you set up the TapuTapu. When you enter the theme park, they just hand you a band they synced to your theme park ticket and associated Universal account. The only thing you have to do beforehand is make sure you have a Universal account and sign in to the Universal Orlando Resort companion app.
The band itself is light and fits well. It uses a four-pronged notch to secure itself around your wrist, and despite being thrown about on water slides and swimming in a wave pool, it never feels like it's going to fly off. You aren't thinking about it until you have to think about it.
My TapuTapu buzzed my wrist and told me it was my time to ride. I swallowed the fear and headed off
From there, the park is yours. You head over to any of the TapuTapu kiosks, which have little lit-up volcano logos, to do a range of different things. You can reserve your spot in a virtual line, you can activate interactive parts of the park, you can pay for food and beverages, and you can take selfies. Well, OK, they're not selfies. They're photo booth tikis. You tap your TapuTapu - which is more of a two-second hold than a true tap - and then the photo tiki takes your pic.
If you want to take a look at those photos, all you have to do is go around to the other side of the tiki. You tap your wrist there, and it brings up all your photos, which include all your ride photos and pictures from other photo tikis. They automatically get bundled together, and you can head over to a photo station to buy physical or downloadable versions if you want.
But wait, how does it group in your ride photos? Well, before you get on any of the rides at Volcano Bay, you have to tap your TapuTapu at a check-in kiosk. These are the kiosks you report to when your bracelet lets you know that it's time to ride. Because the system knows you who are, and it knows you're about to hop on this specific ride, it can take your ride photo and group it in with the rest.
That kind of seamlessness is appreciated. It allows you to leave your wallet back at the hotel or in your paid, TapuTapu-activated locker (you tap your wrist and it automatically gives you a locker for the day, for a price). When combined with the ability to pay for both food and the all-important merchandise, it makes for a nice experience.
Where TapuTapu proves its value is when things get a little more complicated. I was 20 minutes removed from lunch, itching to ride the terrifying Kala & Tai Nui trap door water slides. But it was about a 15 minute wait and I had a photo in my hand. Normally, I'd either have to head off, put it in a safe space and come back to a potentially longer line, or take it with me and risk losing or damaging it.
Not this time. I just reserved my spot in the virtual line with a tap, then went off to secure the photo. As soon as I did, my TapuTapu buzzed my wrist with some light haptic feedback and told me it was my time to ride. I swallowed the fear and headed off, saving both time and a photo.
Of course, I promptly chickened out and found a less frightening ride to go on, which revealed a limitation: you can only hold your spot in one virtual line at a time. If you're in one line and try to get in another, the virtual line kiosk will give you two options: switch to the new ride or keep your spot in the old one. Also, once it's your time to ride, you can basically head over to the ride at any time. There's no time limit pushing you to go by a certain time.
That doesn't mean you can't go on any other rides while you're in the virtual line for one though. While in line for the Ohya and Ohno drop slides, I decided to head over to the Taniwa Tubes, since there was no line. I was excited, pondering which of the four twisty water slides I'd go down. I scanned my TapuTapu and got ready to walk a fun, rickety bridge to the ride, but then my heart sank. "Sorry sir, The Today Show is currently filming." I had to come back at a later time. Thanks, Al Roker.
Overall, TapuTapu's virtual line system is a pretty extraordinary experience. There were very few moments where I was actually waiting for anything, and most of that was up near the ride stations, where employees were sorting people into ride vehicles and tubes. Because I could go off and do whatever I wanted, it didn't feel like I was actually waiting for anything, even though I was. However, I'm a little concerned this illusion could shatter on a packed day, when waiting times creep up to and over an hour.
At the end of the day, you have to say goodbye to your little wearable. As you walk toward the park gates, the TapuTapu will buzz your wrist and remind you to toss it into one of the designated collection bins. Crayner tells us that at the end of every day, Universal does a wipe of every TapuTapu, erasing its link to your account. They also wash, cleanse and get them ready for the next day, and the next set of guests.
The geofence perimeters seem a little iffy right now. I was headed to a second photo tiki station near the park entrance, and when I went to go check out my picture my TapuTapu buzzed and reminded me not to forget to return my wearable. No, TapuTapu, I wasn't ready to leave.
When I did eventually leave, I felt a little sad. Wearables, obviously, are very personal devices, but not this one. I just slipped my TapuTapu into a tech trashcan, never to see it again. I hope it's happy on the next wrist.
One thing I did not get to test was the wearables interactivity features. It's a shame, because one of them involves activating a mini geyser onto unsuspecting strangers in the lazy river. That's what you get for being lazy - a nice TapuTapu-activated geyser.
While the TapuTapu experience is pretty wonderful right now, it also feels like it could be more. Despite having a display that can tell you things, it doesn't tell you the time. So you'll have to brave "kia ora" uttering employees to keep up, or take out your phone, which isn't such a good idea in, you know, a water park. On the plus side (for Universal) it does help cut you off from the world and keep you engaged in playing, and spending, in the park. Perhaps one day it might have some sort of communication system, maybe through your smartphone, which would be helpful for groups of friends or families contacting one another from across the park.
The future of theme parks
The heart of TapuTapu is the virtual line system, and in that way it feels like a harbinger of things to come. I'm already hoping Disney and Universal make the structural improvements necessary to make it a possibility at its other theme parks.
And no, the Magic Band - which you buy and keep - doesn't count. Everyone visiting Volcano Bay gets a TapuTapu, allowing theme park designers to make things knowing everyone has a wearable bracelet. Magic Band is more or less optional, since Disney also offers RFID-enabled ticket cards, which definitely cannot let you know it's your turn for a ride via a display.
While Universal wouldn't tell us about it's future plans, Crayner tell us that the thought behind the band, its integration, the experiences it creates and enables are very much on Universal's mind. He says the company's drawing board is filled with "many things" that it can't talk about yet.
"The broadest way I would say it is we're at the beginning of transforming the entire Universal experience."
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