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New Universal water park dares to chart own world

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    Krakatau volcano, the centerpiece water attraction at Universal Orlando’s newest park, Volcano Bay.

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Harry Potter,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Frozen” — why can’t theme parks come up with new attractions based on original ideas?

While some fans might long for the days when Disney opened new rides and shows such as the Country Bear Jamboree and the Haunted Mansion, with no movie or TV tie-ins, theme parks love the promotional boost they get from opening new rides with a built-in fan base.

Yet Universal has opened a new water theme park in Orlando based not on a movie or TV show, but on its own, original story. Universal’s theme park designers have concocted a story about the made-up Waturi people of the South Pacific to bring life to its new Volcano Bay theme park at the Universal Orlando Resort.

For years Universal’s theme park motto was “Ride the Movies,” and it’s been nearly 20 years since the Universal theme parks developed a major attraction that wasn’t based on one.

Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park originally included a “Lost Continent” land that drew from ancient and medieval-themed mythology, but in 2010 Universal converted almost all of that land into its first Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

According to Universal’s back story for the park, the Waturi traveled via outrigger canoes across the South Pacific — from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Bali — before discovering the island of Volcano Bay, where they finally settled, creating a home.

It’s a cute story, but one that easily can be ignored by anyone who just wants to get on the water slides. Yet Universal is hoping that the extra attention to story and decor will attract theme park fans who might otherwise opt for Disney’s also well-decorated and themed Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks.

For Volcano Bay, Universal had decorated the water park with a variety of South Seas motifs, including Tahitian, Maori and even Thai influences.

Volcano Bay’s big competition this summer hails from Disney, but it’s not one of those water parks, and, yes, Typhoon Lagoon was getting a major refurbishment and some new attractions. It’s Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, based on James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, “Avatar.”

For the two biggest companies in the theme park business to make the money they expect, they will need fans to embrace these parks without the help of an already widely beloved entertainment franchise.

If they do, maybe that will inspire theme parks to turn loose their designers to develop more original ideas. Now, wouldn’t that be fun?

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