Friday, December 1, 2023

The Experience Designer’s Guide to Expo 2020 Dubai

Photos by Paul Williams

The 200 pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai present a wide range of experiences. Many are architecturally intriguing. Beyond the architecture, however, what makes for a good pavilion? Some are structured like museums, others like art galleries. A few completely defy categorization. Some of the best pavilions rely on skilled experience designers to help craft an enticing environment that tells a story, engages with guests and provides helpful information.

Planning a trip to Expo 2020 Dubai? Or simply looking for highlights? For an overview of Expo and its importance, be sure to read Carissa Baker’s assessment. And take a look at InPark Magazine’s guide to the best pavilions for experience designers.


On the low-tech side, the Austria pavilion is a series of connected cone-shaped buildings, designed in homage to traditional Middle Eastern structures. Inside, small exhibits connect each of the five senses with elements of Austria, including an art installation that converts a guest’s heartbeat into a unique piece of art.


A small pavilion that’s well executed, Iraq provides a short tour through a hallway of LED screens that represent the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Markers in the ground outline the shape of the country while a tour guide points out the different highlights of Iraq. It’s simple, uses LED technology effectively and provides a quick glimpse into the country. For more about the pavilion and to hear from Sarah, an Iraqi worker at Expo, listen to InPark Tracks.



The Japan pavilion is a complex, emotionally-charged 60-minute tour through a variety of technology-enhanced environments, and frequently sports a hefty queue for entry. But it’s worth it. The experience is representative of both Expo and Japanese culture and is difficult to encapsulate in a brief summary. Check out InPark’s highlights reel from the pavilion on YouTube. Additionally, a full episode of InPark Tracks devoted solely to the Japan pavilion is in the works.


First impressions of the Kazakhstan pavilion lead visitors to believe it’s a fairly traditional experience, but just when you think the pavilion experience is over, there’s a surprise show at the very end. Slightly reminiscent of the long-gone Bird and the Robot show at Epcot, a giant robot arm interacts with a live dancer in a mesmerizing, choreographed ballet. This is easily the most interesting and unusual live entertainment experience in a pavilion.


Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

As one of the legacy buildings expected to remain after the Expo, Saudi Arabia delivers both outside and inside the pavilion. Recognized with world records for its giant LED mirrored screen and in-ground LED grid, the building is literally a dynamic piece of art. Inside, a series of exhibits blend projection technology, LED screens and crisp media to create stunning visuals and environments. For a video on the highlights of the KSA pavilion, visit the InPark YouTube channel.

Mobility: Alif

Expo features three thematic pavilions: Mobility, Sustainability and Opportunity. As the most immersive of the three, Alif’s environment at times feels like a walk-through version of Spaceship Earth (Epcot), with detailed human figures, theatrical lighting and highly themed sets. Perhaps the most photographed scene at Expo is of the three giant-sized ancient travelers in this pavilion. From this recreation of the past, the pavilion transitions to the present with a showcase on AI and the current state of technology. The pavilion ends with an optimistic look at the future of cities, reminding us that the future is not only about creating technology but also about creating happiness.

The Netherlands

This very well executed exhibit showcases Dutch ingenuity in environmental technology. Entering a towering cone of plants guests are given white umbrellas. An individual show is projected onto each umbrella, demonstrating how the pavilion is actually an experiment in sustainable living in desert environments. For more about the pavilion and to hear from Dutch representative Magnus, listen to InPark Tracks.


This delightful pavilion expertly combines scenic art pieces with projection, audio, scents and special effects to create a brief tour through Pakistan. It’s warm and architecturally interesting and helps broaden one’s perception of the country. Hear more from Pakistan pavilion representative Amna on InPark Tracks.


Sometimes art is the only thing you need. The Philippines pavilion brings together several installations from Filipino artists that relate back to the country and to Expo’s theme. It conveys ideas by making visitors think – it’s straightforward and enjoyable.


While the Russia pavilion doesn’t present a particularly strong overall narrative experience, it is architecturally fascinating and hosts one of the more notable projection mapping shows at Expo. The dome of the pavilion is home to a giant human brain that is illuminated through projection mapping, lighting effects and music. Also of interest is a small show located behind the brain that features two robotic arms with LED cubes that interact with one another.


Definitely one of the more artistic pavilions, guests first walk down a circular ramp around an interesting mobius strip sculpture that is “activated” by people moving their hands under the railing. This is followed by a short film about people working together to restore balance in nature. Finally, guests walk through a forest at nighttime – full of smells, lights, floor projections, and interesting exhibits on sustainability.

Sustainability: Terra

Huge and architecturally interesting, Terra offers two similar experiences based on themes of the forest and the sea. With fantastic scenic design and simple, effective interactives it’s an exhibit that rivals some of the best museums in the world. If time is limited, choose forest over sea.


The Thai pavilion delivers in and out. An entertaining outdoor show draws guests inside to the main event where two anime characters take visitors through three shows. The first theater has guests looking down at a mist-covered pond. Fountains emerge from the water and spell out words. Next, a 360-degree theater takes guests in a virtual drone around Thailand. Finally, an upside-down LED pyramid shares messaging from Thai corporations.

United States of America

Perhaps most known for the conveyor-belt ride at the start of the pavilion, the most interesting show elements are found right after exiting the conveyor belt. A large auditorium features layers of screens and projection in a multi-media show that includes giant set pieces flying in over the audience’s heads. For more on the USA pavilion, read our exclusive interview with Robert Clark, US Commissioner General.


Easily overlooked, this pavilion highlights the life and vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. While certainly presented with a fond appreciation for His Highness, the projection mapping experiences in the pavilion are of most interest, including bringing a large marble horse statue to life and illuminating a platform of moving tabletop towers.

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

Related Articles

Latest Articles