Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Miral enlists PGAV Destinations to design SeaWorld® Abu Dhabi

“The ocean connects us all”

By Joe Kleiman 

When Miral opened SeaWorld® Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, in May 2023, the stakes were high. It was the first international SeaWorld park, the first new SeaWorld park in 35 years, and the first SeaWorld park to be completely indoors. In order to achieve so many firsts – while also creating an experience that to guests encompassed the essence of SeaWorld – Miral engaged PGAV Destinations as the Creative Consultant (CC) and animal habitat designer for the park. 

The extensive, international portfolio of PGAV Destinations includes all the SeaWorld properties as well as many leading zoos and aquariums around the world. The design studio’s involvement on SeaWorld Abu Dhabi spanned a full decade (2013-2023), from initial meetings to opening day.

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi draws its audience into “One Ocean,” with the guest journey starting and concluding at the Abu Dhabi realm. Traditional Arabic motifs can be found throughout the realm, interfacing with the natural formations of nature. “We are all connected to the ocean. The ocean connects us all,” says Carol Breeze, Lead Designer, Story Experience at PGAV Destinations. “That’s the story we imagined together – with SeaWorld and Miral. We tell this story that conveys the heart of SeaWorld and is rooted in the maritime history of Abu Dhabi.” 

For this article, InPark spoke to Breeze, and PGAV Destinations Vice Presidents Al Cross and Mike Linenbroker. Cross and Linenbroker served as Co-Directors for Creative and Design on the park, including animal habitats.

Rising tide

In 2013 PGAV Destinations began top-level conversations with John Linn, SeaWorld Vice President of Global Theme Park Development; and Glenn Davidson, Miral Director of Theme Parks Development. “Miral is super smart,” says Cross. “They knew they were partnering with one of the world’s great international equities.”  

PGAV Destinations began the design process that year with site selection studies and layouts. “We also led a team – composed of experts from Miral and SeaWorld and third-party consultants – through visioning workshops that matured into the master plan and the basic guest journey narrative,” says Cross. In parallel, the team selected the local executive architect – AECOM Middle East. “With the exception of a few times where PGAV Destinations worked directly with SeaWorld on animal habitats, we were always together working on the project – meaning Miral, SeaWorld, PGAV Destinations, AECOM and any primary consultants necessary at any particular time,” Cross adds.

PGAV Destinations went on to fully design the park and animal habitats and provide a high-level concept for the entertainment that would be continued by executive producer Thinkwell Group.

A vertical, indoor SeaWorld: multiple levels and layers

Designing a two-million square-foot (183,000 square meter) SeaWorld park inside a five-story building naturally drove many of the creative choices – and opened the way to innovation. The existing outdoor SeaWorld parks could serve as a model only to a certain extent. “We leveraged that freedom to the greatest extent possible,” said Linenbroker. 

“It’s a very complicated building,” adds Breeze. “We think through each step the guest takes and consider their emotional journey. Challenges in the design are thought through on multiple levels and adjusted with the optimal guest experience in mind.” 

The design process required a close analysis of the brand identity. “We had very robust conversations,” Cross says. “Animals have always been a differentiating factor for SeaWorld, but beyond that, what makes the guest experience different from most other parks?”

“The most important and difficult challenge on the project was to capture the essence of SeaWorld inside a building,” says Linenbroker. The average visit length is 5-6 hours, and the guest flow is all indoors, via winding pathways, stairs, elevators, and escalators, with transitions between realms often taking place on multiple levels. The park is also fully accessible for people of determination (the UAE term for the differently abled). “The experience had to be more concise and compact than an outdoor park. It encompasses signature SeaWorld features, interacting in a single structure.” 

Linenbroker also pointed out that “the earlier parks were conceived before underwater viewing became the expectation.” But here, expansive overhead and underwater viewing galleries were designed from the start, and most habitats are multi-species dynamic environments. Together it all provides deep immersion for guests and resplendent living spaces for the animals. “The primary benefits of an all-indoor SeaWorld are guest and animal comfort,” says Cross. “Other parks in this region are going to adapt to this approach. It’s a no-brainer.” 

“It was a tricky line to walk, to provide that calm, park-like experience from one attraction to another, yet compress the experience, with some moments and beats lighter than others,” said Linenbroker. 

Flamingo Point in Tropical Ocean realm

All of the realms are self-contained. “For the most part, realms don’t reveal their themes at the portal; they have a deliberate pathway to reinforce the story,” says Linenbroker. For example, the pathway through the tropical village is intentionally curved to create a reveal of the dolphin lagoon as guests reach its far end. A self-contained realm can break away from the general design tropes, as does MicroOcean, with its bold colors and dynamic lighting patterns. “This is a place for kids to play, and is designed to reinforce the idea that small things have a big impact,” says Linenbroker. “Guests ‘shrink’ and enter the world of important microscopic characters such as plankton and krill.” 

The flow of a theme park typically leads to a central feature some distance beyond the gates. But here, the adventure begins at once, as Abu Dhabi Ocean extends to the very entrance of the park. “You enter the building and are first introduced to water at the wadi as you take the escalator through waterfalls to the seaside Abu Dhabi village,” says Cross. Within feet of the turnstile, underneath a mangrove forest, guests encounter touch pools. From there, at each turn, the experience expands and unfolds. Abu Dhabi Ocean features sea snakes and a dugong, and a pearl diving show, all of which play important roles in the Abu Dhabi story.

The park also features two major rides. Manta is a manta ray-themed, triple-launch roller coaster from Intamin that winds around the building exterior. Hypersphere 360° – a media-based ride from ATTRAKTION! and Intamin – is a 360-degree, spherical simulator found adjacent to the walrus habitat in the Arctic realm. “We wanted to tell a story that started in the Arctic and transported guests around the world,” says Breeze. “The point of origin matters because the Arctic has a primary role in how nutrients flow around the entire ocean – revealing how important the Arctic is to each one of us.” 

Krill Dude, one of the microscopic character residents of MicroOcean.

Other rides are found in the MicroOcean realm. “We were responsible for selecting the types of rides for the park,” says Linenbroker. “Zamperla was the successful bidder on MicroOcean. PGAV Destinations did the track layout on the Eel Racer coaster that zooms around the land. There are UV elements on the coaster cars. We shine UV light cannons on them to create a glow-in-the-dark effect.” Deft integration continues with the upcharge experience spaces, such as that for the walrus encounter, which feels like an extension of the existing habitat. “These were part of the program right from the outset, as SeaWorld has continued to connect their guests to the animals in wonderfully creative ways.”  

Guiding the narrative with state-of-the-art tools and techniques

The team continued to innovate by making the most of technologies and tools to achieve the design vision while also achieving a safe and healthy environment for the animals. 

Custom full-spectrum LED lighting adheres to animal health criteria provided by Dr. Jeff Keaffaber, SeaWorld Corporate Director of Environmental Design. According to Cross, “Throughout the entire park are 14,000 luminaires, including habitat lighting. Finding a manufacturer to supply that much lighting subject to these uniquely demanding specifications was a challenging exercise for the team! Ellis Don (the project’s management consultant) and their lighting design team deserve the lion’s share of the credit for that success,” says Cross.

“The overhead fixtures are custom designed to provide virtually the entire spectrum, including UVA and UVB, which is 100% related to animal health,” adds Linenbroker. “The lighting also cycles to more closely render day/night and season-to-season changes so that the animals’ biological rhythms are maintained as close to their natural habitat as possible.”

The separately charged Walrus Encounter is integrated into the walrus habitat itself. Innovative LED lighting can be seen mounted in the ceiling overhead.

The team also employed wall design, ceiling design, and lighting design in each realm. Linenbroker says, “Each realm approached the ceilings differently – partly as style and atmosphere, and partly for incorporating lights. Each also has a unique lighting and color palette.” 

To impart the botanical garden ambiance that SeaWorld is famous for, custom-fabricated trees, plants and murals supplement live animal habitats, extending the vista. “The murals are critical to imparting a sense of place,” says Cross. “The LED backlighting technology is similar to what’s used on billboards. However, the big step here was the scale, as there are almost two kilometers of perimeter murals. Then, of course, came the need to digitally ‘paint’ them. That was challenging.”

Techniques were used to extend habitats. Inside the Endless Ocean aquarium, projected whales and other large sea creatures virtually swim through the water to create an endless view beyond the animals in the habitat. In the realm’s sea cave, an eel habitat has a window behind the display that peers into the large ocean habitat, creating a three-dimensional effect similar to a multiplane camera in animation. 

“We developed the voice of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, which guides guests through the One Ocean story and includes the hosts, animal experts, and educators,” shares Breeze. “We took S•E•A Collective [a brand created and owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment prior to incorporation into SeaWorld Abu Dhabi] and developed it into the much more substantial S∙E∙A Guardians storyline in order to tell compelling ocean stories from beyond the boundaries of the park. The S∙E∙A Guardian Game is integrated into each of the realms. Guests play the game based on their interests – Science, Exploration, or Adventure.” 

The S∙E∙A Guardians also operate fictional “research stations” as part of their storyline, which can be found throughout the various realms, the most prominent of them being the sea base in Endless Ocean.

Endless Ocean, endless innovation

“Our goal was to create the best aquarium,” says Cross. “It happened to become the biggest along the way.” 

PGAV Destinations leads from a wealth of experience and success in zoological projects, and is no stranger to very, very large aquariums. According to Linenbroker, “This is more of an art than a science. Every zoo client is different, and no two exhibits are alike.” The Endless Ocean aquarium at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi has many unique characteristics that will likely prove influential in the field.

Unlike most aquariums, the 6.6-million-gallon Endless Ocean is deeper than wide. At 65 feet, the aquarium’s depth is twice that of two of the world’s largest (Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and Georgia Aquarium, both also designed by PGAV Destinations). Not only is this visually stunning, but it also allows different species to naturally stratify at varying depths, creating multiple distinct habitats within the aquarium itself. 

The aquarium presented special design challenges not only because of size. Linenbroker explains, “The Endless Ocean habitat is fully themed, has a back-story, and is ‘inverted’ from the normal aquarium experience. The guest spends most of the thematic viewing experience INSIDE the aquarium (as opposed to looking in from the outside of the box). Typically, in aquarium design, all windows are hidden from other windows. But here, you can intentionally see other people in other windows, giving a sense of scale to the sea base.” 

An interactive touch panel expands the experience in the Endless Ocean realm.

Endless Ocean is the crowning triumph of the park, and its innovation, success and high quality are emblematic of a successful partnership, creative collaboration and vision. This shining new SeaWorld is a new cornerstone of Abu Dhabi leisure development, standing alongside its sister parks, Ferrari World, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, and Yas Waterworld. It adds variety to the mix and will help encourage longer tourist visits.

“The project would have been difficult without our existing relationship with SeaWorld,” says Cross, “and we are fortunate that Miral understood that. For some members of our team – such as Mike Linenbroker, Matt Bigari, Ellen Mosley, Denise Schaberg, Mariusz Bleszynski, and Justin Stichter – the SeaWorld approach to habitat design is second nature. Similarly, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment trusts us inherently, and this allows for full consideration of new ideas and innovative thinking, without the doubt and stress that might exist otherwise.”

The park further evolves the SeaWorld brand through its transparency regarding animal care. “The Animal Care Center is the heart of the park,” Linenbroker explains. “It allows guests to look at all aspects of care, including surgery suites and labs. SeaWorld has developed a world-class facility here, and they’re proud to show it off.”

“We are delighted to have collaborated with PGAV Destinations in bringing SeaWorld Abu Dhabi to life,” shares Julien Kauffmann, CEO of Miral Experiences. “Over the course of their longstanding partnership of more than three decades, PGAV has consistently proven their excellence in designing major attractions for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Their deep-rooted association with the brand has enabled them to seamlessly contribute to its evolution. With their multidisciplinary team’s expertise in architecture, landscape design, theming, storytelling, and more, PGAV offered a comprehensive approach to creating world-class attractions. Their ability to integrate our vision into their designs was very impressive, and working alongside PGAV has been an exceptional journey. Their invaluable contribution has truly elevated the essence of the region’s first Marine Life Theme Park.”

The unique designer/client relationship helped everyone work together to successfully continue the SeaWorld brand and legacy while taking it to the next level. We are always looking to break new ground, and SeaWorld is always evolving their guest-facing message,” continues Linenbroker. “So, creating a park based on the story of how the Ocean is the sustaining force that brings all life together, regardless of which shore might constitute our physical connection to it, is a genuinely major step in the evolution of the brand. The fun part of this project was the freedom to pursue the theme in a deeper, fuller way than we normally could.”

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleimanhttp://wwww.themedreality.com
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, ThemedReality.com takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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