Al Nasr Leisureland, once the UAE’s premier entertainment complex, is now more of an artefact than an attraction. It is a time capsule of Dubai, stripped of its skyscrapers, glitz and glamour.
Hardly an inch of its 48-acre plot in Oud Metha has changed since it opened on October 10k, 1979, from the wooden penguins outside the entrance to the retro video game arcade beyond. The Al Saffa Coffee Shop adjoining the ice rink, the Luna Park amusement park, the wave pool, the eight-lane bowling alley, the tennis and squash courts, they are all exactly the same – albeit less busy.
Leisureland is a reminder of the legacy of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late Ruler of Dubai – his vision, ambition and pioneering spirit. Those resources were as invaluable to the city’s unprecedented development as its discovery of oil. Visiting Leisureland now feels like travelling back to a time when Dubai set sail for greatness, still unsure what form that would take.
“In those days, there was nothing else here, there were no buildings at all, no hotels, nothing,” says Kamal Nandi, one of Leisureland’s first ice rink supervisors and the current marketing manager. “The ice rink was the only international-size ice rink in the whole of the Middle East so we had visitors from Kuwait, Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf.
“I remember they used to ask us if it was real and they would actually touch the ice. Especially for a lot of Arab people, having an ice rink in the middle of the desert in those days was unbelievable.”
Nandi returned to Leisureland last year after 13 years in Canada – tot the exact same office. His desk was just as he left it and everybody was still on the same extension numbers. His colleague Cherian Matthew, now the operations manager, joined as Leisureland’s other ice rink supervisor the day after Nandi. The pair painstakingly supervised and maintained the ice rink together for eight years.
Matthew says: “It was really hard work. We did everything, from cleaning to supervising. There was a manager and other staff, but even our manager used to chip the ice with us. We had to melt the surface every three years to paint the hockey lanes.
“There’s been a lot of unimaginable changes in Dubai. And it keeps on improving. When I came here 14 years ago, there was nothing in this area – it was empty, all sand, and you could see small shells. There were not a lot of buildings – on the Trade Centre and the Toyota building. After that, it was desert all the way to Abu Dhabi.”
He says the 12 years that Nandi was away from Dubai saw the most dramatic development. Nandi agrees. “I saw tremendous change when I came back here again. I started driving in 1981 but when I came back, I got lost. I thought: this was not here – where am I going? Before, if you missed an interchange, you’d have to drive 10 kilometres to come back.” Matthew laughs and adds: “Maybe all the way to Abu Dhabi.”
Initial membership was subject to meticulous scrutiny, with Leisureland checking applicants’ financial and personal backgrounds before approval. Nandi says this was necessary, given its exclusive attractions. “The swimming pool had a wave system, even back then. We had a bowling alley, five tennis courts, six squash courts and then we had the fruit garden. It had rides for the kids and families and in those days it was amazing. Kids used to go on the dodgem cars for hours.” Anyone caught misbehaving or trying to sneak in would have to deal with Leisureland’s 7ft security guard, nicknamed everything from Big George to George the Giant.
The main building’s back doors lead into a bizarre, psychedelic them park, full of enormous fruit. A small train sits on rusty tracks that pass through an oversized orange with a frightening face. Other fruits are linked by metal climbing frames, allowing children to climb from one fruit to another. This is Luna Park, commonly called the fruit garden.
Hajhi Afzal moved to Dubai in 1971 and has worked at the Leisureland site since 1974 – before the complex was even built. At that time, it was barren, aside from a small pond near the current Luna Park. Two years later, Afzal began planting and constructing the landscape for the fruit garden. He points to the brick paving: “I laid these stones, I made this garden.”
Afzal moved from Pakistan to Oman when he was around 18 and then to Dubai a year later. “I did not have many opportunities at the time and there was a rumour in Pakistan that people could make a lot of money in Dubai because it had recently found a lot of oil,” he says.
“We used to live in wooden cabins here but there was no electricity so I used to sleep outside. Then, I moved into an air-conditioned room – but for the first six months my body used to ache in the morning because I was used to sleeping outside and couldn’t take the temperature change.”
Afzal only leaves the complex to buy groceries, opting to walk around Leisureland’s peaceful gardens in his spare time. “Years have passed by but I feel that I came yesterday. From here until Satwa, before there no buildings at all, and in Satwa there were just shacks. It’s a miracle.”
Unlike most of Dubai, Leisureland has not moved with the times. It does not have any planned expansion or rejuvenation projects. Nor are its facilities as exclusive or impressive as they were 34 years ago. The Dh10 entrance fee is far cheaper than Wild Wadi or Atlantis and has never been raised. Luna Park is where Leisureland really shows its age. One roller coaster does not work at all. The train ride moves at a snail’s pace, dragging itself through the large orange and a haunted house.
However, the ride gets there in the end – and so does Leisureland. It is, for all intents and purposes, functional – and presumably profitable, given that it is still open. Local schools take students there weekly; its ice rink is still a popular training ground for hockey teams; and it regularly hosts large functions – sometimes catering to thousands.
The Egyptian executive chef Khalil Razadam leads a team of 25 chefs and 12 stewards. Leisureland has restaurants with eight different types of cuisine, from Goan to Italian. Razadam joined as a sous-chef in 1997 and has been head chef for 14 years. He says Dubai does not change every minute, as Nandi suggests, but every second.
“Every day you can see something new in Dubai. I like people who have a plan and know what Dubai needs. If you know what you need and have a plan, you’ll have peace of mind.” His team has a plan, he says. Last month, Leisureland catered to 11,000 guests from and Indian church – in just four days.
“My chefs have to do everything by the plan because we need the meal going to the guest to be safe, healthy and hot. It’s a challenge because it’s about Leisureland’s reputation, but whether we’re taking 100 or 11,000 it’s the same for us.”
Leisureland may not have changed much over the years, but its large catering department is an exception. It has to stay competitive in a city that now boasts one of the best hospitality industries in the world, says Razadam. “Every day our industry changes – you can say every minute it changes. So we try to upgrade ourselves and change our menu according to our customer. If you have Thai people coming and we don’t have Thai cuisine here, we try to make a new dish and see how it the reaction of the guest. If our food is successful, or tasty, we should keep that change.”
While Leisureland does not appear to have kept up with Dubai’s overwhelmingly rapid development, one might say its role has. To those who spent countless weekends at Leisureland in its prime, the complex offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane. That is important in a city where it is increasingly difficult to find childhood landmarks intact.
To younger generations, who have grown up instead with enormous shopping malls and sprawling waterparks, it is a humbling reminder of life before smartphones, megamalls, skyscrapers and 3-D video games. It symbolises Dubai’s aspirations on the cusp of its rapid transformation into a modern metropolis. The indoor ski slopes, themed bowling alleys and world-class waterparks – all can be traced back to Leisureland.