What you’re missing in the Middle East’s new hit theme park

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It’s not every day that we see a major, innovative and immersive new theme park open in the United States. Makes sense. For at least the last few decades, the US theme park market has left behind a “growth” phase and settled into a “mature” phase. Like a sponge that can’t even hold one more drop water, many analysts see the North American theme park landscape as “full”. (For example, 2025’s Epic Universe will be the nation’s first major destination park since 2001’s California Adventure.)

But somewhere else, that’s a whole other story. All over the world, brand new parks – many designed and built by the best in the business, rooted right here in America – are opening up to new audiences. Today we want to highlight one and the industry changes that brought it to life. Join us as we lay the groundwork for Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi and showcase some of the incredible attractions of this 21st century park!

The Middle East movement

The entertainment industry’s gravitation towards the Middle East might be unexpected at first glance. Although Disney and Universal made big inroads into new Asian markets (with 21st century resorts in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Beijing), the answer was obvious: population. Disney’s two U.S. resorts serve a country of about 330 million people, while China’s population tops 1.4 billion – four times as many, and with a rapidly growing middle class looking for the kind of entertainment to fill their free time and pull their disposable income that Americans first enjoyed in the 1950s.

Image: Google

The case in the Middle East is different. The United Arab Emirates – home to the hot market cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi – has a national population of just 9 million people… about the equivalent of the population of New York. So the sudden influx of entertainment into the UAE isn’t so much about reaching a newly accessible population as it is about something with equal potential: tourism.

Countries on the Arabian Peninsula like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched an all-out media campaign to reposition their industries as innovative; their cultures, progressive; their cities, destinations!

Image: Unknown

The very fact that you’ve heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi – and they might conjure up visions of art deco buildings, fountain shows in crystal lagoons, the world’s tallest building, man-made islands, water slides and, yes, theme parks – shows that the UAE’s marketing plan is working. These two cities – about an hour’s drive from each other, and both located on the Arabian Gulf – are in the midst of a reinvention intended to elevate them to “global cities” alongside New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Cape Town and Hong Kong.

With almost unlimited land in the deserts surrounding their modern metropolises and unlimited money from the abundant oil industry, there is no limit to what the Middle East can finance. It makes sense that theme parks are an integral part of this push and that international entertainment brands are eager to license their properties to be introduced.

Does it work? Good…

bad timing

In the first wave of projects announced for Dubailand Resort in Dubai and Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, there were very, very big dreams.

Picture: SeaWorld Parks

In February 2008, Busch Entertainment (then owner of SeaWorld) announced that it would open a multi-park resort called Discovery Worlds in Dubai, with the iconic Palm Jebel Ali (an artificial archipelago of palm-shaped islands) crowned by an island shaped like a killer whale. This whale-shaped island would contain a sea ​​world, Busch Gardens, Discovery Coveand Aquatic water park, scheduled to open in 2012.

Image: Six Flags/Legacy Entertainment

A month later, in March 2008, Six Dubailand Flags was announced with a slated opening in 2011. (The project was re-announced in 2016.) Blending the thrills of Six Flags with a big-budget theme, this “next-gen” thrill park would have been a flagship of the ‘company.

And here we go for a (pre-Disney) Marvel Super Hero Theme Park theme park announced in 2007, a DreamWorks Theme Parka Arabian Legend Theme Parkand a whole park dedicated to a regional show for children called Freej (the equivalent of a Peppa Pig World, you might say), each destined for Dubailand.

universal dubai
Image: universal

Three months later, in July 2008, Universal Studios Dubailand has been formalized. Featuring ‘Hollywood’, ‘New York’, ‘Surf City’, ‘Epic Adventures’ and ‘Legendary Heroes’ areas, the new park was promised by a copy of its iconic art deco arch being built on the desert plot that he would occupy…a taste of what was to come.

The trick for every big-name theme park is simple: neither Busch Entertainment, Six Flags, Universal, Marvel, or DreamWorks would really be responsible for designing, owning, or operating the parks that bear their name. Instead, each would simply license their trademarks, logos, characters and likenesses to deep-pocketed Middle Eastern developers… who, of course, would agree to stick to style guides, quality checks and the approvals needed to borrow from the giants of the entertainment industry.

The work of the Goddard group for Six Flags Dubailand. Image: Goddard Group

To do this, the developers who lead and finance each project looked not inward, but to the experts of design and manufacturing firms in the United States, hiring companies to develop the attractions for their new parks. If it all came together, Dubailand really could have been the next Walt Disney World; an international destination of 21st century parks guaranteed by unlimited budgets, designed by industry experts and carrying major brands. The region would surely be at the top of the “Bucket Lists” of roller coaster and dark ride enthusiasts…

But none of that happened. At least not in its expected form. The flurry of announcements for Dubailand and other projects in the Middle East came just before the onset of the 2008 “Great Recession”, which ravaged global economies and led to years of slowdown in tourism.

“Dubailand” today. Image: Google

Projects across the industry have stalled. The Dubailand project was put on hold, and one by one, Six Flags, Universal, Marvel, DreamWorks and other major projects fell silent and then completely abandoned… Dubailand (above) and the Palm Jebel Ali ( visible on Google Maps) remain largely undeveloped and vacant to this day. The lofty dreams of turning the Middle East into a global theme park hub seemed to be coming to an end. But in reality, they were only slowed down.

Of course, the wave of continuous listings and dropouts in the Middle East throughout the 2010s became something of a joke among industry watchers. “I’ll believe it when I see it” was the response to every recurring ad. That’s not to say the Middle East has been seen as a potential new centerpiece for theme park innovation. Some projects have crossed the finish line…

The next evolution

dubai

Image: Dubai Parks and Resorts

The Dubailand dream was essentially cancelled, but about 20 minutes from the deserted desert campus was born Dubai Parks & Resorts in 2016 – a smaller multi-park destination that includes Bollywood Parks Dubai (an entertainment-focused park celebrating the Hindi bollywood film industry) and LEGOLAND Dubai.

Online, however, much attention has been paid to MotionGate Dubai – a “studio park” with Columbia Pictures-themed land (a Cloudy with a chance of meatballs raft ride, an infamous Hotel Transylvania dark tower, and a Green Hornet coaster), Lionsgate (a hunger games complete mini-terrain with simulator and roller coaster, a John Wick ride, and a Intensify live show) and a DreamWorks indoor court (a Shrek dark tower, one kung fu panda simulator and a How to train your dragon stroll).

In the same year and about 30 minutes away, the highly publicized IMG Adventure Worlds an indoor theme park has opened, featuring several original lands as well as areas dedicated to big-budget licenses from Cartoon Network and Marvel. (The park’s Avengers: Battle of Ultron ride might not be quite on par with the Modern wonder: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, but it’s an impressive outing for a non-Disney park…especially compared to Web-Slingers.)

Abu Dhabi

Image: Yas Island

An hour south of Abu Dhabi, a collection of similar-scale parks has sprung up on Yas Island – a planned, mixed-use development of theme parks, marinas, shopping malls, entertainment venues, fountains, entertainment, etc. Ferrari world features the world’s fastest roller coaster and a dark ride based on SCOOP; Yas Waterworld is considered among the best water parks on Earth; even a new one Sea World Abu Dhabi is on track to open in 2022 (although it’s a fully covered facility as opposed to a whale-shaped island; what hasn’t changed is that SeaWorld Parks has simply allowed the brand and will not directly own or operate the park).

Even if the dreams of Dubailand never saw the light of day, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it is indeed the beginning of a collection of parks exceeding the extent of Central Florida! But in our opinion, only one park really manages to come close to the quality that Disney and Universal fans have come to expect…

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