A few hundred metres away from the main Abu Dhabi – Dubai motorway a city is being built.
About 11,000 workers in blue boiler suits are putting the finishing touches to a giant white 800-seat Taj Mahal style theatre and metal sections of railway track lie in stacks like some monumental Scalextric set waiting to be assembled.
The 25 million square foot site is just one of four new theme parks set to open in the UAE this year, with another three due by 2018 as property developers scramble to turn the country into the Middle East’s answer to Orlando, Florida.
Last month the company behind the long-awaited 1.5 million square foot IMG Worlds of Adventure theme park announced that it would open its doors in Dubailand on August 15, while three new theme parks – Legoland, Motiongate and Bollywood Parks in Jebel Ali – will open to the public in October. A fourth linked Dubai Parks & Resorts theme park, Six Flags Dubai, is scheduled to open in Jebel Ali in late 2017.
Al Ahli Holding Group said last year that it planned to open a 20th Century Fox theme park and resort on the site of the Dubai Outlet Mall, which it expects to open in 2018
Also last month the Abu Dhabi developer Miral announced that its Warner Bros theme park on Yas Island is due to open in 2018.
Park owners hope the parks will complement each other, drawing families to the UAE’s other resorts and hotels and attracting millions of vacationers living within a short flight’s distance.
The numbers of visitors forecast to arrive at each of the parks certainly seems bullish. Dubai Parks & Resorts alone is expecting to welcome 6.7 million ticketed visitors during its first full year of operation. To put that in context, that would be about the same number as Universal Studios in California. And in a country with a population of 9.3 million people, that assumes a lot of overseas visitors.
“We’re expecting to be short and to actually surpass those numbers,” says Stanford Pinto, the chief parks operating officer for Dubai Parks & Resorts, a company spun off from Meraas, the private property company owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. “We’re pretty confident we can meet those estimates. It’s a new offering, it’s brand-new in this region. Those are all very good reasons for us to believe that we can make it,” Mr Pinto says.
IMG Worlds of Adventure says it expects to attract 4.5 million people during its first year of opening. And Miral, the company planning to open Warner Bros studios in Abu Dhabi, says it expects to increase the annual number of visits to the capital’s Yas Island to a staggering 30 million in 2018 (although much of this includes shoppers at Yas Mall and visitors to the Grand Prix).
Meanwhile, in Dubai, the Government hopes an increase in the tourist offering will push up the number of tourists coming to the emirate alone to 20 million visitors a year by 2020 – up from 13.2 million in 2015. Last year the Abu Dhabi Government increased its target for tourist arrivals to 4.1 million from an earlier figure of 3.5 million.
Park owners see parallels with Orlando in Florida, home to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the world’s most visited theme park, as well as the Epcot Centre, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Universal Studios.
“In general, as the competitive landscape is shaping up, I think with the amount of attractions coming up, Dubai is moving into an Orlando 2.0 model,” says Lennard Otto, the chief executive of IMG Worlds of Adventure.
“Where the market is untapped, we have a four-hour flight radius with no major leisure attractions of this scale. If you look at Orlando, they have multiple parks flourishing in the same location in a competitive environment because the market has shaped up where you have a very high penetration rate.
“Today Dubai’s airport is twice the size of Orlando’s, it has twice the amount of visitors. It has more room to use. It has a bigger food and beverage industry.”
In Abu Dhabi, too, the company building the new Warner Bros theme park believes in the merits of critical mass.
“You’re not seeing the full picture yet,” says Mohammed Al Zaabi, the chief executive of Miral.
“I think we are complementing each other. We are creating entertainment and leisure sectors jointly; Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Tomorrow, for Russians or Indians or Chinese visitors, the list of attractions I have to do in the UAE is getting longer and longer.
“Instead of coming for two days and then jumping to Europe, I can spend a full week or 10 days in the UAE and enjoy all the attractions. I can go to the museums on Saadiyat, I can come to Ferrari World, I can go to the Burj Khalifa and many other destinations.
“If you go to Europa Park in Germany would you miss Legoland – which is a one hour drive away? Of course not. You have flown there already. You are there,” he adds.
But despite the optimism, critics point out that the one major theme park which has been operating in the UAE since 2010, appears nowhere on the official lists of the world’s most-visited put together by the Themed Entertainment Association. Ferrari World on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which boasts the world’s fastest roller coaster and was last year last year named the Middle East’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards, seldom publishes annual visitor numbers but insiders suggest that it stands at about 1.25 million.
The park’s operator hopes that new rides launched this year including a second headline roller coaster – the Flying Aces, the world’s biggest and tallest roller coaster, will do much to redress this balance.
“Ferrari World is an important reminder to theme park operators that you spend an awful lot of money up front and you open the doors and you really hope that people like what is inside,” says Phil Taylor, the managing director of Team Leisure, a Dubai leisure consulting company.
“Ferrari World was a prototype, in terms of the brand and the location, and it is easy to get a few things wrong in the first place. But these things are fixable and in the second phase of Ferrari World we are seeing a lot of things to do just that.”
With about 16 million tourists visiting the UAE each year to add to the local population, Mr Taylor estimates that successful theme parks in the country could aim to attract about 10 per cent of the potential catchment which he works out as about 2.5 million visitors.
And while at the park, consumers are turning more and more to their mobiles for a range of reasons. A survey by Thinkwell, a US international design and production agency specialising in the creation and master planning of theme parks, found that 69 per cent of visitors want more mobile integration at theme parks, saying it would improve their overall experience
The most-desired mobile features were time savers, including front-of-line access, the ability to check queue waiting times and GPS tracking to locate family members.
The idea of turning Dubai into the theme park capital of the Middle East has been around for more than a decade with very little to show for it on the ground.
Plans for Dubailand, one of the most ambitious leisure developments ever proposed anywhere and costing US$64.3 billion, were first announced in 2003 and included many of the theme park brands still being developed today.
At the time, Tatweer, the part of Dubai Holding charged with building the mega parks, said the project, located on Dubai’s outer ring road, would be have an area of 278 square kilometres and include 45 mega-projects and 200 sub-projects.
But the global financial crisis of 2008 put a stop to many of these plans with dozens of projects including Universal Studios Dubai and Sahara Kingdom suspended.
So what has changed this time around?
“The difference this time around is that the plans are being spearheaded by the Governments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and they seem a lot more realistic,” Mr Taylor adds.
“Back in 2003 the number of tourists visiting the UAE as a whole was just 4 million or 5 million, now we’re up to 14 million and there is a lot more of a tourist offering overall.”
Whatever the final outcome, developers would be wise to strap in for what will most likely be something of a roller coaster ride.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter