by Joe Kleiman
On Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island sits a giant building, or, more accurately, a “magic box.” While its exterior and entranceway appear unassuming, once inside, the magic is unleashed and a next generation Marine Life Theme Park unfolds across multiple stories and multiple realms. Throughout its many layers, the first international SeaWorld park, SeaWorld® Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, showcases new innovations in technology, animal care, storytelling, and education, inspiring both regional and international guests – with programming designed specially to convey the importance of marine life and conservation to young Emiratis.
Through sliding glass doors, one enters the five-story entrance atrium, where waterfalls simulate an Arabian wadi – a dry valley that becomes kinetic with gushing creeks and waterfalls during the rainy season, nourishing the desert. This is one of many regional tie-ins. “There are connections to Abu Dhabi everywhere throughout the park,” says Mitchell Magill, SeaWorld’s Corporate Director, Entertainment Experiences – Global Theme Park Development. “We follow the path of water as it makes its way from the desert through a wadi and onto a port in Abu Dhabi – from here we set out into the One Ocean and all its shores beyond.”
Multiple paths of discovery
An escalator takes guests up through the wadi past waterfalls, where halfway up, they take a right turn, to a second set of escalators. The vertical structure naturally creates opportunities for discovery and exploration throughout the park, in a plan laid out by PGAV Destinations. This is supplemented by each themed realm having multiple levels to explore. Animal habitats can be viewed from ground level, overhead observation areas, or through underwater tunnels.
At the top of the second set of escalators, guests enter the Abu Dhabi Ocean realm, which acts as the park’s entrance plaza and local connection to our One Ocean wrapped into one. The area features a number of touch pools, an element that SeaWorld used very successfully some years earlier at Explorer’s Reef, the reimagined entrance to their San Diego park. The Abu Dhabi Ocean entrance design evokes the historic waterfront of Abu Dhabi from two centuries ago, showcasing the nation’s heritage and relationship with the ocean.
A legacy of SeaWorld’s North American parks was reinterpreted and resurrected for SeaWorld Abu Dhabi. “We are paying homage to SeaWorld’s heritage with our pearl diving shows,” Magill explains, “But here, we’re also paying homage to Abu Dhabi’s century’s old maritime traditions. One is an original fable of a fisherman who encounters a mermaid, and through his experiences discovers treasures far more precious beneath the surface of the Arabian Gulf. The other is a pearl diving demonstration, showcasing traditional Abu Dhabi techniques.”
A central hub like no other
A glass tunnel through a trumpet shaped aquarium leads to the park’s central hub – One Ocean. Throughout the day, different shows and immersive media showcase the relationship between all living things and the world ocean on a 360-degree screen, measuring 49 feet high and 722 feet long. “It was a pleasure to be there on-location for the production,” says Robert Yordi, the park’s Zoological VP/General Curator. “Howard and Michelle Hall were involved in the filming. They had this huge, nine-camera rig that they were filming with around the world. And, as you can tell, the result is just inspiring.”
The park is designed to inspire young people in several ways, including the interactive S·E·A Guardians game. Using RFID cards, guests can undertake touchscreen challenges within each of the realms that delve deeper into topics presented. Completing all the challenges activates physical props throughout the park, such as the lighthouse in the sea lion habitat. The S·E·A Guardian characters operate a number of research bases and vessels throughout the park and their presence in all the realms create a cohesive storyline throughout the park. Each of the realms also features its own characters and unique storylines to immerse guests further into the One Ocean story.
Shrinking the small folk
From One Ocean, portals lead to each of the themed realms. “All of the realms also connect to other realms, except for MicroOcean, our realm for younger guests,” says Magill. “We wouldn’t want parents losing their children out a back door, so there’s only one way in and out.” In MicroOcean younger guests and their families travel through two portals. One shrinks them to the size of a starfish, the other, a plankton. There are interactives, characters, physical play experiences, and rides that entertain with purpose, including one of the park’s two roller coasters.
Tropics in the desert
The Tropical Ocean realm features a giant dolphin lagoon. A dolphin presentation takes place in the amphitheater on the far end of the realm, with the barrier between the presentation area and the lagoon invisible to guests, creating a seemingly endless landscape. Surrounding the grandstand are animal exhibits, including rays, and a huge walkthrough aviary. Beneath the realm, past the dolphin viewing tunnels, sits Manta, a custom triple launch coaster from Intamin. The multi-inversion track stretches around the exterior of the building, reversing direction in front of the park’s entrance. Throughout the layout are multiple physical sets, creating the illusion of rapidly swimming between underwater rock formations and through shipwrecks.
Linking presentation with habitat
Rocky Point is where guests will find California sea lions and harbor seals. The area is based on the Oregon, USA coast and there is a second animal presentation area, where a presentation similar to those of SeaWorld’s American parks takes place –– it’s folksy, with a conservation message that animals change us. “The set is based on Oregon’s famous sea lion caves,” says Yordi. “Right now, we just have sea lions, but we’ll be adding other animals, including birds and otters.” In addition to a giant LED screen giving the illusion of looking out at the open sea, a scrim drops during the show, revealing the sea lions in the adjacent habitat swimming behind the set.
North and South
There are two polar areas at the park – entered through the Armillary, where a twelve-projector fulldome display overhead tells the story of exploration and the distinct differences of the north and south poles. One realm, Antarctica, is not yet open. Here, guests will walk through an open habitat with penguins on both sides. It will be similar to the attraction of the same name at SeaWorld Orlando, but the unique venue allowed some tweaks. “In Orlando’s Antarctica, we have to gradually change the temperature as you approach the exhibit area, because you’re coming in from the Florida heat,” shares Magill. “Here, we’ve already been walking through an air-conditioned building, so it’s much less of a temperature change.” Heat and humidity vary throughout the building – higher in the tropics, lower in the polar regions.
The polar region is home to the Hypersphere 360, a Double-Dome Immersive Media Ride newly developed through a collaboration of ATTRAKTION! and Intamin. The ride takes place inside a full LED sphere, transporting guests through the world’s ocean, hosted by the S·E·A Guardians mascot V·E·R·N·E, an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle).
The Arctic realm is home to puffins, walruses and otters. The five walruses come from parks in Japan and Canada and guests can get up close with them via a separate-charge SeaWorld Expedition. Other expeditions including a kayak ride on the tropical lagoon and a submarine ride for up to four guests inside the world’s largest aquarium tank will be coming soon
Exploring the deep
The elaborate Endless Ocean realm conjures the futuristic, natural world adventure and exploration spirit of Jules Verne. (His influence is found in numerous other areas of the park as well). It’s here that guests can explore Seabase 4 (a reference to this being the fourth SeaWorld park in the current roster, one of many “easter eggs” hidden through the park for diehard SeaWorld fans). The centerpiece is a six-story, 6.6 million-gallon habitat that’s home to over 68,000 animals. Once inside Seabase 4, guests peer out into the ocean through a giant circular window called the Oculus. Elsewhere, a six-story window called Endless Vista allows guests to view the entire aquarium from top to bottom. Having visited aquariums and marine life parks throughout the world, in this writer’s eyes, the Endless Ocean aquarium is worth the price of admission alone. The S·E·A exploration motif carries throughout the park, with seabase modules visible throughout the Endless Ocean habitats, painted to appear weathered through time, an Antarctic research base, and an Arctic research ship in their respective realms.
Taking behind-the-scenes up front
Beneath the One Ocean sphere sits one of the stewardship gems of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi – the Animal Care Center. Here, the fanciful environs found elsewhere in the park give way to the reality of a marine life park operation. Based in part on the Animal Care Center at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and SeaWorld’s stateside Inside Look events, park guests are able to witness examinations, surgeries, and lab tests all firsthand and, in many cases, interact with the professionals on the other side of the glass. “Nothing is hidden, everything is open to the guests,” says Magill.
“This was very important for Miral,” adds Yordi. “The UAE is very concerned about protecting the environment and fighting climate change. We work very closely with Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency, which makes the government decisions regarding animals in our care. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, head of the Environment Agency, is also the current President of the IUCN [an international body which, among other things, assesses the status of threatened and endangered species worldwide]. That gives you an idea of how dedicated they are.”
Another area of the building is hermetically sealed from the park – with separate visitor and staff entrances. Yas SeaWorld Research and & Rescue is similar to the animal care center, in that it features fully visible surgery and clinical suites, recovery pools for dugongs and dolphins, and research labs. The facility is based around four principles – research, rescue, rehab, and return. School groups from throughout the UAE will take tours of both the Research & Rescue Center and the park itself, with the goal of inspiring the next generation of Emiratis to pursue careers in science, animal care, veterinary medicine, and conservation.
“We’ve put a lot of thought and research into this facility,” says Yordi, who started in the industry as an animal keeper at Marineland of the Pacific in Los Angeles, in 1984. “From our innovative lighting to our transparency with medical treatments, we’re planning on sharing these innovations with zoos and aquariums around the world to improve habitat design and animal welfare everywhere.”