When it opens in Abu Dhabi several years from now, SeaWorld will join a growing number of theme-park companies establishing a presence in the Middle East.
Two major amusement-park projects opened this year in Dubai. More Middle Eastern attractions are in the works.
It means more business for Orlando-based design firms that work for theme parks, such as ITEC Entertainment and Falcon’s Creative Group.
“It’s a busy place. They’re literally spending billions on their parks and the infrastructure on building up this entertainment mecca,” said Guy Nelson, president of Dynamic Attractions.
Middle Eastern projects helped drive the Canadian company to open an Orlando office focused on full-blown themed attractions rather than its traditional basic ride systems.
The newer players in the Middle East “tend to need more help,” Nelson said, than when giants such as The Walt Disney Co. or Universal Parks and Resorts expand overseas. “Creating a … high-quality attraction can be elusive to the uninitiated. We’ve got some expertise in being able to do that.”
The Orlando attraction development center has been working on a special effects roller coaster for Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital.
Like Ferrari World, Warner Bros. will be on man-made Yas Island. It will be one of a cluster of attractions by Miral Asset Management LLC, an arm of the Abu Dhabi government.
SeaWorld will license its name. Miral will take financial responsibility for building the theme park, SeaWorld’s first without orcas. SeaWorld declined to comment for this article on its theme park, expected to open in 2022.
It’s not the first time SeaWorld tried venturing into the region.
In 2008, the company announced four attractions — SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Aquatica and Discovery Cove — on a Shamu-shaped, man-made island in Dubai. Universal Studios announced a Dubai theme park in 2007. Neither project came to fruition.
“The financial crisis hits those guys just as it hits the whole world economy, but it really hits them hard,” said Jeff Jensen, executive vice president of Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment, said of Middle Eastern developers. “There were a lot of projects that were going on…that just got completely canceled.”
Still, Ferrari World opened on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island in 2010, and development has revved up more in recent years. Yas Waterworld made its debut in 2013. A Warner Bros. park featuring characters from Bugs Bunny to Batman will open nearby in 2018.
Much development is taking place farther north in Dubai. There, leaders in the region “are looking at really creating a broad diversification of their financial portfolio in order to change their reliance on oil to other things,” said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer of Thinkwell Group, a California design firm that has worked on Middle Eastern projects including an interactive snow play zone at an indoor ski resort.
Tourism growth has coincided with investments in Middle Eastern-based airlines and airport infrastructure, making places like Dubai “more of a destination,” Pacific Asset Management leisure analyst Bob Boyd said.
IMG Worlds of Adventure, an indoor theme park featuring characters from Marvel Comics and Cartoon Network, opened in Dubai earlier this year. Next door, plans have been announced for the IMG World of Legends featuring Pokémon, Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dora the Explorer and Barbie.
Local companies that worked on IMG include Falcon’s Creative Group, which did attraction designs for 42 experiences including the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” attraction.
Falcon’s is also designing a Lionsgate zone featuring “Hunger Games”-themed attractions at Dubai Parks and Resorts, which has opened in phases this year. That complex includes Legoland; a Bollywood-themed park; and Motiongate, a Hollywood-inspired park. About 30 percent of Falcon’s Creative Group’s work is coming from the Middle East.
About 20 workers from ITEC recently traveled to Dubai for the attraction’s opening. ITEC provided the technology for six attractions, mostly in Motiongate, including rides based on “Hotel Transylvania,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “The Smurfs,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Shrek.” ITEC also worked on a stunt show in the Bollywood park.
A Six Flags will open in Dubai Parks and Resorts in 2019. Six Flags has also initiated discussions with Saudi Arabia to pursue theme-park development there.
The Middle Eastern market is different than another booming theme-park destination, China, where Shanghai Disney Resort opened this year and Universal plans a Beijing location.
China has the population base to support the attractions, while the Middle Eastern parks need to focus on tourism from the outside, industry experts say.
“The UAE needs to focus on getting tourism in to support these,” said David Schaefer, vice president of Falcon’s Treehouse, a division of Falcon’s Creative Group. “In China, I feel that’s not an issue.”
Developers in the Middle East are “hopeful, I think, they can attract the higher end Indian tourist,” said Nelson, of Dynamic Attractions.
There are some unique challenges to working in the Middle East, including getting visas for its skilled workers, ITEC’s Jensen said. Still, “unlike the majority of the work we do in China, this is very easy,” he said. “I think the Europeans have paved the road there. It’s all English-speaking.
“Building construction standards, drawing standards, all the things we normally encounter … are just well established and familiar to us, as opposed to China where the cultural differences are way more challenging.”
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