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Behind-the-Scenes: Volcano Bay Horticulture

volcano bay

June 13, 2023

I’ll never forget the first time I stepped onto the wet, hallowed grounds of Universal Volcano Bay. It was a hot summer day in Orlando so, naturally, I was wearing jeans and two shirts (I don’t always make the best decisions). While I was not properly attired for waterslides that day, I still had a fantastic time due in large part to the lush, vibrant plant life found throughout the park. It was as if I had been instantly transported to a tropical paradise in the South Pacific, completely forgetting that I was in Orlando. By the end of the day, I had a phone full of pictures featuring gorgeous flowers and plants I couldn’t begin to identify but loved showing people. You can imagine my delight when I got the opportunity to take a personal tour of Volcano Bay’s horticulture with two of the people responsible for designing and maintaining it, Dan York and Bill Orenzow.

Even before joining Universal Creative as project manager in area development, Dan was no stranger to the resort’s greenery. His first job out of school was as a landscape architecture design consultant for Universal Islands of Adventure. After working on a series of notable projects across the country, Dan returned to Universal, where he worked on design and construction teams for the various hotels and, of course, Volcano Bay. Bill, on the other hand, came to Universal — and to the world of horticulture — after two decades in masonry. Within months, he worked his way from groundskeeper to lead gardener and, today, serves as Universal Orlando’s assistant manager of Horticulture Projects. Both have been with Universal Orlando Resort for over a decade and, during that time, were instrumental in creating the look and feel of Volcano Bay’s landscaping. I obviously knew that the park’s vegetation was stunning, but it wasn’t until talking with Dan and Bill that I realized what an important function plants play in the daily operation of a water theme park. “We’re trying to frame your views,” Dan tells me. “When you turn the corner, you want the view of the volcano to be this ‘a-ha’ moment. You’re leading up to that the whole time with the plant material.”

While the volcano is certainly what grabs your attention even before entering the park’s gates, you quickly realize that it’s the surrounding landscaping that makes the massive structure so awe-inspiring. When you visit Volcano Bay, just imagine the place for a moment without the plant life, and you’ll quickly see that what separates your average water park from an immersive tropical water theme park experience is the horticulture.

I personally had an “ah-ha” moment of my own as soon as we walked through Volcano Bay’s front gates. The most visually impressive plant in the entire park is the large banyan tree you see upon entering. Even more impressive, though, is the work it took to get it there in time for opening day in 2017. “We realized that it was too big and didn’t know how to get it in,” says Dan, pointing to the unusually shaped tree. “Fortunately, we had a crane, so we grabbed it and dropped it right in there.” Their hard work and innovative thinking, however, did not end with the tree being planted. Bill says, “We opened Volcano Bay in the spring, and we got a frost that winter. We had six heaters on this tree all night long to make sure it stayed alive.” Who knew building a water theme park was so much work? Dan and Bill, that’s who!

While the duo was instrumental in the design of Volcano Bay, it takes a team of 14 people to maintain the park’s 4,400 trees and 40,000 shrubs daily. The bulk of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) is done at night when the park is closed, although some of the smaller landscaping jobs happen during park hours. According to Bill, when it comes to the landscaping work and even the plants themselves, you may only notice if you’re looking for it. “That’s all part of the plan,” Bill says. “If the guests don’t notice Volcano Bay’s horticulture, it means we did a good job.” In that way, theme park horticulture seems a lot like film editing. It can make or break an entire experience but, when it’s done well, you may not even be cognizant of the magic you’re witnessing.

It’s probably not easy to design and maintain the foliage at any major theme park, but I now have a whole new appreciation for the landscaping found at water theme parks especially. According to my two guides, chlorine is the biggest challenge with keeping tropical plants alive and, in case you’ve never been to a water theme park, there are two things one immediately finds in the air: joyous laughter and chlorine. When you’re at Volcano Bay, look closely at the plants and you’ll notice that the closer they are to the water, the thicker their leaves. “Finding plant material that can withstand the chlorine is still something we continue to work with,” Bill told me. “Plants like Clusia that have a thicker cuticle seem to withstand being near the chlorinated water better.” 

As we venture further into the park, I am fascinated with how each plant seems to get more and more exotic. “What is that one?” I ask, excitedly pointing to a plant that I’m positive must have been transported directly from Polynesia. “That is a Tibouchina,” says Dan. “You go to South Florida, and you see it in everyone’s yards.”

I can’t list all the incredible flowers on display at Volcano Bay, but I’ll leave you with a couple of interesting facts I learned about my favorite. The park has the most beautiful hibiscus plants I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was their hibiscus that really made me take notice of the horticulture at Volcano Bay and want to write about it. It wasn’t until my talk with Bill and Dan, though, that I learned the following: 1) the plural of hibiscus is hibiscus and 2) you can cut off part of a hibiscus, shave off the bark, and plant it to grow a whole new hibiscus. 

So, if you are planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort, I highly recommend spending a day or two at Volcano Bay. You don’t need to be a waterslide enthusiast to have a great time, and it’s okay if you don’t know a hyacinth from a hydrangea. At the end of the day, you can still have a phone full of shareable pictures and hopefully find your very own a-ha moment.