Thursday, May 23, 2024

UAE: From The Palm to The Frame

A chronicle of attraction development – and developers – in the Emirates

by Joe Kleiman

ABOVE PHOTO: Looking back on The Palm from the peak of The Atlantis Resort Dubai. Photo Credit: Paul Williams

Attraction development and investment in the United Arab Emirates is currently in its second wave, with significant activity including the recent opening of Dubai Parks and Resorts, and the approach of the 2020 world expo in Dubai.

A look back

The booming first wave of UAE attraction development included the indoor ski resort Ski Dubai, which opened in 2005, and Atlantis, The Palm (opened in 2008), as well as Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2010. The latter was set to anchor the government-owned Miral Asset Management’s Yas Island project. Ferrari World has since added new rides since opening, such as Flying Aces.

Flying Aces: The Story Behind the Steel

Atlantis, The Palm, a sister property to the famous Bahamian resort, is located at the tip of the Palm Jumeirah, a large man-made peninsula in the shape of a palm tree. The public experienced an aquarium, dolphin swim facility, and waterpark all at the foot of a luxury hotel, complete with a waterslide through a tank of sharks.

Atlantis, The Palm was co-developed by Kerzner International and Istithmar World, a development company owned by the Emirate of Dubai. In 2015, Istithmar sold its interest in the resort to Investment Corporation of Dubai (ICD), a holding company used by the government to maintain ownership of some of its most prized assets. One year later, ICD purchased around 46% of Kerzner, which along with Istithmar’s 25% stake, gave the Kuwaiti government controlling interest in the international resort company.

Attraction development in the UAE more or less paused in 2008 (see “Projects on hold,” below) but has since resurged.

One park, multiple brands

The UAE has regained its footing as a major player in the international attractions market, but the development models have changed somewhat. Rather than single parks dedicated to an individual IP, licensed franchises that had been laid to rest have been resurrected at newly developed parks which showcase multiple brands.

A key example of this would be IMG Worlds of Adventure (opened 2016), located within the Dubailand property. Privately owned by Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group, it’s said to be the world’s largest indoor theme park. Licensed characters from Marvel and Cartoon Network, along with dinosaurs, can be found in four distinct themed neighborhoods. In 2016, the company announced plans for a second, even larger indoor theme park. At over 2 million square feet of space, licensed IP for IMG Worlds of Legends is set to include properties from Nickelodeon, Ubisoft, Saban, Pokemon, Mattel, Toei Animation, and Cartoon Network.

Dubai Holding and Meraas partner

Meraas, a Dubai government-owned developer, has a number of major projects in the Emirate, including retail and entertainment centers City Walk (2013) and Boxpark (2015). The company is also developing the artificial island community of Bluewaters, which will feature Ain Dubai, planned as the world’s largest observation wheel.

Shrek’s Merry Fairy Tale Journey dark ride at Dubai Parks and Resorts. Photo courtesy Dubai Parks and Resorts

One of the most prominent Meraas attractions is Dubai Parks and Resorts (2016), whose operating entity, DXB Entertainments, was spun off into a publicly traded company. The resort currently consists of a retail and entertainment complex called Riverwalk, a resort hotel, and three theme parks. The movie-themed MOTIONGATE Dubai and Bollywood Parks Dubai are managed under contract by Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos, while the neighboring LEGOLAND Dubai and LEGOLAND Dubai Waterpark, which will soon be joined by a LEGO themed hotel, are managed by Merlin Entertainments. A licensed Six Flags park is currently under construction and DXB Entertainments has been involved in the licensing of the Six Flags brand for a park in Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, DXB Entertainments established an attractions management division and began operating Meraas owned attractions throughout Dubai, including the Hub Zero video game attraction (2016), Splash Pad, The Green Planet tropical rainforest (2016), Mattel Play Town, and the Roxy Cinemas.

Another key announcement occurred in 2017 as a management exchange took place between government holding company Dubai Holding and Meraas as the two announced a joint venture company to construct new projects. One such project is the Marsa al Arab, a pair of artificial islands off the coast of Dubai that will feature both an expanded Wild Wadi Waterpark (1998), managed by Dubai Holding subsidiary Jumeriah Group, and a new marine life park. Dubai Holding also owns Global Village (1996), a major retail and entertainment complex, also in Dubai.

Smaller players, big attractions

Throughout Dubai are a number of smaller attractions, mostly found in shopping centers and mixed used developments. Majid al Futtaim, developer of the Mall of the Emirates (2005), manages a number of major attractions throughout Dubai and the Middle East. Ski Dubai (2005) is the only indoor ski slope on the Arabian peninsula and, as an added attraction, features live penguins that guests can swim with. Thirty minutes away, Orbi Dubai (2017) is the first location outside Japan for this virtual natural history attraction, a joint venture of BBC and SEGA.

Publicly traded Emaar Properties is the developer of the $20 billion Downtown Dubai complex, which includes the Burj Khalifa (2010), the world’s tallest building, with its observation deck; the Dubai Mall (2008); and the Dubai Fountain (2009). Engineered by WET Design, it’s considered to be the world’s largest choregraphed fountain. Its division Emaar Entertainment operates the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo (2008) and the UAE’s first KidZania (2010).

Yas Island: fast cars and family fun

Just an Emirate away from the theme parks and attractions of Dubai sits Yas Island, developed by Miral, a development company of the Abu Dhabi government. Attractions on the island, which include a Formula 1 racetrack, luxury mall, Yas Waterworld waterpark (2013), and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi (2010), are managed by Miral subsidiary Farah Experiences.

Three new attractions are headed to this Abu Dhabi resort. 2018 will see CLYMB, an extreme sports complex that will feature the world’s widest indoor skydiving chamber and the world’s tallest climbing wall.

Also opening on Yas Island will be Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, an indoor theme park featuring six themed lands: Metropolis and Gotham City, inspired by the universe of DC Super Heroes and Super-Villains; Cartoon Junction, Bedrock, and Dynamite Gulch, themed after iconic animated brands such as Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera; and Warner Bros. Plaza, reminiscent of old Hollywood, where the studio’s seminal characters and stories were originally brought to life.

In 2022 a fourth theme park will open on Yas Island – SeaWorld Abu Dhabi. The park, the first in the brand not to feature killer whales, will also include a research, rescue, and rehabilitation center for local wildlife.

SEAWORLD: Enter Esparza

Projects on hold

In 2008, the same year Atlantis, The Palm opened on Palm Jumeirah, a major themed resort was announced for the tip of Palm Jebel Ali, an even larger man-made peninsula. A joint venture between government-owned Nakheel Properties and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Worlds of Adventure would feature animal parks branded to SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, an Aquatica waterpark, and a Dubai version of Discovery Cove, along with a retail and entertainment center. The entire complex would be shaped like a killer whale, large enough to be seen from space.

Also in 2008, another government-owned company, Tatweer, a division of Dubai Holding, announced three new theme parks for its Dubailand project, 107 square miles of residential, retail, sports, and entertainment facilities. Joining an already announced Universal Studios Dubai would be parks themed to LEGO, the Marvel Superheroes, and DreamWorks Animation.

A few months later, the Dubailand and Palm Jebel Ali projects were either put on hiatus or canceled altogether due to the global financial slowdown.

Concept evolution

Plans for attractions in the UAE are not always realized in their original form but concepts tend to stick around and show up in other ways. Once envisioned as anchoring entire theme parks of their own, the characters of Marvel and DreamWorks Animation instead share the spotlight with other IP from other studios. This is the case at two properties: IMG Worlds of Adventure (open since 2016) and MOTIONGATE Dubai (opened in 2017; see story on p. 32 of this issue). For its part, the LEGO park concept was revived in a new location. Also once destined for a resort of its own, SeaWorld will now open in a new format indicative of the company’s new direction on Yas Island.

IMG Worlds of Adventure. Photo Credit: Paul Williams

Two newly opened projects developed by the Dubai Municipal Government further illustrate this kind of concept revival. Dubai Safari (2017) is the culmination of 15 years of planning to provide a new home for the 1.5 hectare Dubai Zoo, built in 1967. At various times, the new park was to be located in Mushrif Park or Dubailand; in early 2009, the plans were placed on hold.

In 2012, the Dubai Municipality announced that the zoo would be relocated to 400 hectares in Al Warqa’a. 1,500 animals new to the operation joined 1,000 relocated from the original zoo campus. Based upon open zoo concepts such as the Singapore Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the park offers safari tours visiting animals of Arabia, Africa, and Asia. Conservation plays a key role and the park is heavily invested in the breeding of endangered species.

A bridge between past and future

Another Dubai Municipality project, The Dubai Frame (2018) in Zabeel Park, literally acts as a bridge between the past and the future of the Emirate. Standing 492 feet high, the giant structure acts as a picture frame, showcasing the older parts of Dubai on one side and the newer, cosmopolitan Dubai on the other. Guests enter the structure through a museum on the ground floor, telling the history of the Emirate.

Essentially two towers with a bridge at the top between them, an elevator trip up one tower takes guests to an observation floor comprising the top of the frame. From here, they can look at either the historic or the newer parts of Dubai, and understand how the two are linked through a variety of augmented reality and media experiences. Smart glass in the floor clears up to reveal a view straight down to the bottom of the structure. After descending the opposite tower, they return to the ground floor, where a media presentation shows what Dubai will look like in another 50 years.

Linking tradition with progress

The concepts of renewal and linking to the past are key components of the biggest event to hit the region, the planned BIE-sanctioned Expo 2020. The logo for the Expo is based on a ring found at an archeological site in the Dubai desert dating back 4,000 years. The theme of the Expo “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” examines ways to take older and modern concepts from throughout Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and to link tradition with progress to trigger new thinking for a long-term effect in the region. The theme will be explored further through three subthemes – Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability.


Running from October 2020 through April 2021, 25 million people – a number roughly equivalent to the population of Australia – are expected to visit the Expo, 75% of them from outside the UAE. According to a 2014 analysis by Deloitte, the six-month run of the fair could result in 70 million room nights and an increase of $10 billion in retail and consumer spending.

Such numbers will not only be a boon for local attractions, but for new ones opening by 2020 as well. In addition to the above listed attractions, 2018 will see the opening of Dubai’s Cityland Mall, described as the world’s first “nature-inspired” shopping mall; Al Qana, a new tourism and entertainment project in Abu Dhabi, home to a 5,000 square meter aquarium; and the Deira Islands Night Souk, a 1.9 km long modern interpretation of the traditional Arab souk.

As the Night Souk gives modern life to an ancient tradition, the concept of linking past to present will continue when the Expo ends as its logo inspired by the art of 4,000 years ago becomes the logo of one of the Expo’s biggest legacies: District 2020, a reconceptualization of the Expo grounds as a living community inspiring residents, artists, innovators, workers, students and visitors to “connect, create, and innovate.”

In the UAE, 2018 is being marked as The Year of Zayed, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan. It’s only fitting that we close with a quote from Zayed, the founding father of the UAE:

“He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.” • • •

Dubai attraction photos courtesy Dubai Corporation of Tourism & Commerce Marketing unless otherwise noted. Ferrari World photo and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi conceptual art courtesy Farah Experiences. Expo logo and grounds artwork courtesy Expo Dubai 2020.

Timeline of key UAE Attractions


Global Village


Wild Wadi Waterpark


Mall of the Emirates

Ski Dubai


Atlantis, The Palm

Dubai Mall

Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo


Dubai Fountain


Burj Khalifa

Kidzania Dubai

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi


City Walk

Yas Waterworld




IMG Worlds of Adventure

Dubai Parks and Resorts

—-Bollywood Parks Dubai



Hub Zero

Green Planet


Orbi Dubai

Dubai Safari


Dubai Frame

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
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, 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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