From Harry Potter to Real Madrid, how UAE theme parks are evolving

Chief executives in Dubai and Abu Dhabi explain rising demand and what adrenaline seekers can expect

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES : Oct 30 , 2013 :- People enjoying the fastest roller coaster at the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) . For News. Story by Emily Cleland
 *** Local Caption ***  PS3010- FERRARI WORLD01.jpg
Powered by automated translation

Just after Dubai lifted some of its Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, Shannon Soans and his friends were feeling extra sentimental. It was around 10pm, he says, when they decided to take a nostalgic trip to Wonderland, an abandoned theme park in Al Garhoud.

“Even though it closed years ago, most of the rides were still there,” he says. “It was a bit creepy – no lights whatsoever, but it brought back so many memories.”

Wonderland first opened in 1996 and is believed to be Dubai's first theme park. The eight-hectare carnival-style venue, which also included a water park, was a go-to for many families at the time, Soans tells The National.

It was shut down in 2013, but remnants of the park still linger years after.

Today, the UAE is in the midst of a new theme park era, the basic roller coasters of the past evolving to ones that have record-breaking speed and vertical loops, augmented even more dizzying projections, immersive sounds and more.

New projects are on the horizon, including a Real Madrid-themed venue in Dubai and a Harry Potter-themed land in Abu Dhabi.

More adrenalin, more fun

In 2016, three years after Wonderland's closure, Dubai Parks and Resorts opened to the public. At the time it consisted of three parks: Motiongate, Legoland and Bollywood Parks, the last of which closed operations last year.

IMG Worlds of Adventure also opened in 2016, with the theme park entertaining residents and tourists alike with state-of-the-art rides and experiences, announcing year-on-year developments to ensure visitors are engaged.

In 2022, Dubai Parks and Resorts signed a deal with football club Real Madrid CF to open a sports-themed destination. Set to be called Hala! Madrid, the park will be dedicated to all things Real Madrid, including its spirit, players and decorated history.

It will include a dedicated museum, rides, football skill games as well as memorabilia retail outlets, “enabling guests to immerse themselves in the culture of the world's greatest football team”, according to the Dubai Parks and Resorts website.

No opening date has been revealed so far, but that is to be expected, given building a theme park is no easy feat.

“Developing theme parks is very complex,” says Scott O'Neil, the chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, the global operator of the Legoland brand.

“There are multiple stakeholders. You've got financing, planning, permissions and design,” he adds. And once they are developed, theme parks take about 10 years “to really gain critical mass and be ingrained in the community”, O'Neil explains.

Many other theme park projects in the UAE have seen unfortunate halts in the last decade, including what would have been the first Middle East outpost of the popular Universal Studios. There were also plans to build a Six Flags theme park in Dubai, but was later scrapped.

However, O'Neil says theme parks will always have a special place in communities, especially after the social cost of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were stuck in their homes.

“Coming out of Covid-19, we learnt quite a bit about ourselves, each other and how we interact. We learnt that we need each other. We need escapism. We need to laugh, smile, hug or hop on a roller coaster for the first time. As a dad of four daughters, some of my greatest memories with my kids are taking them to theme parks,” he says.

The pandemic has given people a lot of time to reflect on “what's really important”, he adds. “And that is our friends, our families, the people we love – and want to spend more time with them.”

Abu Dhabi's bid

In Abu Dhabi, theme parks are also an integral part of the government's vision of transforming the emirate into a well-rounded tourism hub.

In fact, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi opened to the public in 2010, way before Dubai Parks and Resorts was established. It grabbed headlines for being the world's first Ferrari-themed park, as well as having the world's fastest roller coaster, Formula Rossa.

The park is operated by Miral, which calls itself as a “creator of immersive destinations and experiences” and is also the company behind landmark projects such as Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld and SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, all located on Yas Island.

“Over the past years, we have been investing a lot on Yas Island to ensure the best experiences for visitors, not just from the UAE but abroad,” says Miral Experiences chief executive Julien Kauffmann.

Since the opening of Ferrari World, Miral has not stopped when it comes to launching new experiences on the island, with the focus of creating “diverse assets with different personalities to entice people to come”, he adds.

One of Miral's latest bids in this regard is the upcoming Harry Potter-themed land within Warner Bros World, first announced in 2022. “We want to be true to the story as possible, but we're also thinking about how we can bring it to the next level,” he tells The National.

Kauffmann did not give any details about the new attraction's opening, but assures it will come “soon”.

“The reason it's taking time is because we want to make it really extraordinary,” he explains. “The benchmark is high because there are already other Harry Potter destinations around the world,” he says.

Last year, Miral also announced an ambitious expansion to Yas Waterworld, which originally opened in 2013. Set to be completed by 2025, the project will add 16,900 square metres to the park, including 18 new rides and what is set be the country's highest slide.

“It's important to keep updating these theme parks, according to Kauffmann, and technology plays a crucial role in doing so, especially with the pent-up demand after the pandemic. Our numbers now are significantly above 2019 levels,” he says.

As an industry, he believes theme parks are fulfilling demand.

“There is a true need for people to experience what we offer,” he adds. “A true need to forge togetherness.”

Updated: January 30, 2024, 11:24 AM