Flying Dutchman sails into the desert

Hili Fun City in Al Ain had gone from fab to drab over the course of its 25 years in business. Families were turning their back on the once-popular attraction - until a tourism developer breathed new life into the rides, landscaping and entertainment.

UAE - Al Ain- Jun 29- 2011: People enjoy a ride at the Paratrooper at Hili Fun City park. ( Jaime Puebla - The National Newspaper )
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AL AIN // Twenty minutes away from Israa Adel's home is Hili Fun City, a 25-year-old theme park that holds a lifetime of memories.

For Ms Adel, who is the same age as the park, visiting the "place with all the memories" is an Eid ritual her family has observed since she was born. But for the past decade the family tradition has been the only reason to keep returning to Hili Fun City and its old, squeaky rides.

"Me and my sisters were always busy with school and friends and our parents with their work, so going to the park was one of the few occasions when we had a full day together," Ms Adel said.

"I used to love the train and the scissor ride."

The "scissor ride", officially called the Sky Flyer, is a swinging pendulum ride with two carriages. But as Ms Adel got older, so did the rides.

Attractions were almost always closed for maintenance, while others were shut down for an indefinite period for safety reasons.

Hili Fun City was in desperate need of renovation and customers were being driven away.

Hope arrived in 2009 when the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), a master developer of tourism destinations in Abu Dhabi, was given the job of renovating the theme park in three months.

"When we got involved in 2009 we found the park in a really bad state," said Vivian Paturel-Mazot, senior manager of leisure and hospitality standards at TDIC, who worked at Disneyland Paris for seven years. "It was a big challenge but we were able to do it."

Since then, 21 rides have been renovated, along with the 3D cinema and a 1,400-seat amphitheatre.

Seven new attractions have been brought in from Europe - the Circus Swing, Circus Train, Crazy Clown, Jumping Star, Hili Swinger, Lighthouse and Twister Mountain.

Since April, a magic show has been staged and a Techno Dabkeh - a not-so-traditional dance performed to hip hop-inspired Arabic music - has become a big attraction.

The landscaping was also given an extreme makeover.

More than 30,000 new plants were brought in, with 250 palm trees and 5,000 square metres of artificial grass.

Two hundred benches were added, plus areas of real grass for picnics and barbecues.

The changes lifted visitor numbers to 305,000 last year from 175,000 in 2009. Of those, 13,000 came on the second day of Eid Al Adha.

After 30 days' closure in August for maintenance and renovation, the theme park will reopen on the first day of Eid. Mrs Paturel-Mazot said: "We will continue working on the park, slowly but surely."

The next phase of renovation will see new rides built on the east side of the park. The work is due to be completed by 2014. "To see how the park is being taken care of now is great," said Ms Adel, who plans to visit this Ramadan.

"Now we go not because we are forced, but to see what's new."