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Lands of illusion

As the theme park market starts to take off in the Middle East, James Boley takes a look at the masterplanning behind the magic.

Nemanja Seslija/ITP
Nemanja Seslija/ITP

As the theme park market starts to take off in the Middle East, James Boley takes a look at the masterplanning behind the magic.

Some 50 years ago, Walt Disney bought 110km2 of unpromising swampland in central Florida, USA and transformed it into a theme park resort.

That land is now the site of Walt Disney World (WDW), which brought in US$2.8 billion revenue during the first quarter of 2008.

WDW is testament to the commercial success a theme park can have, the potential of which the Middle East is just beginning to explore.

More than US$3 trillion will be spent on leisure and tourism projects in the region over the next 20 years in total, the head of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions announced recently.

Projects such as Universal Studios Dubailand, Restless Planet, and Dreamworks are just some of the theme park developments on the horizon.

Telling tales

In contrast to other developments, the most important characteristic for a theme park is that it has a unified theme, according to designers.

"Designers and planners must roll in an excellent storyline and creative concept that will suspend belief, taking the park visitor to a whole different world of excitement," says Gordon Dorrett, president of theme park specialist Forrec, which is producing the design for Universal Studios Dubailand.

"If this is missing or overlooked then the project will undoubtedly run into problems."

Wild Wadi, a water theme park in Dubai, for example, based its design on the story of a shipwreck on a lagoon. The park features rides with names such as Breaker's Bay and Flood River.

"By creating some real sense of place and theme, you can evolve [the park] into something that allows you to provide a setting that ties into the experience," says Roger Nickells, who was project manager for Atkins on the masterplan of Wild Wadi.

Restless Planet, one of the theme parks currently under development in Dubai, meanwhile, is based around dinosaurs. Under design by theme park specialists Jack Rouse Associates, the park will use state-of-the-art electronics to transport visitors back in time to the prehistoric era.

Land of the unreal

Magic is another important ingredient in theme park design, the idea that a theme park should be an unreal experience, one that will entertain and suspend disbelief.
And it is magic, rather than size that is key to making a theme park a success, say experts.

"The magic doesn't need to be the size," says Nickells. "‘Bigger' doesn't necessarily mean 'better'." Coan echoes this call. "It's not the biggest and fastest coaster in these parks; people are looking for the best experience related to their intellectual property (IP) and content."

Many parks achieve the 'magic' by capitalising on their IP from television and movies. Design tricks developed from these can also be used in park design.

Forced perspective, for example, was used at the French pavilion in Walt Disney World, to give the visitor the impression of standing next to the Eiffel Tower.

"The real Eiffel Tower is 300m2 tall, while Disney's tower is about 30m2. But because it is placed at the end of a vista, with the view of its base blocked by building facades in the foreground, it appears to be more distant than it actually is, and therefore we accept what is actually a model as being the real thing," explains Paul Alexander, president of theme park design consultancy The Totally Fun Company.

Whilst keeping specific details of their developments closely under wraps, both Universal Studios and Dreamworks have hinted that using their IP will play a key role in their theme park developments.

Practical problems

Designers working in theme parks face a number of challenges, not least of which is handling the harsh Middle East climate. While theme parks in Europe and the US tend to enjoy some of their highest footfall in the summer, this is unlikely to be the case in the Middle East where temperatures can reach as high as 50°C.

Addressing this problem at an early stage is essential, specialists stress. Forrec, which is working on Universal Studios Dubailand, says it plans to overcome the climate challenges through a mix of outdoor and indoor cooling.

"We will be designing an entire series of climate control features from simple shade covered walkways, to air cooled resting areas and complete indoor air conditioned plazas," says Dorrett. "All queue lines and waiting areas will be fully shaded," he adds.

Wild Wadi addressed the problem of the heat by designing its ride system as a loop, so that visitors rarely have to exit the water for long. Additional relief is supplied by an irrigation system that ensures walkways remain at a pleasant temperature, says Nickells.

Areas where people are most likely to congregate, such as eating and queuing spaces, are where most care must be taken, according to experts. One way in which these areas can be cooled down, suggests Nickells, is through the use of misting and fogging techniques, whereby water droplets are dispersed into the air and cool through evaporation.

Maximising shading can also help to reduce the overall ambient temperature by breaking up the sun, says Coan.

It is important to keep away from extremes of cooling, however, designers warn.

"The body gets used to uniform temperature, so if you go from air-conditioned environments to non air-conditioned environments and back again, it's very uncomfortable," says Nickells.

"You can mitigate the high temperatures by gentle design solutions, rather than by putting everything inside a dome or inside an air-conditioned box."

The harsh climate also impacts the choice of materials. "This is a very aggressive climate to build anything in, and so the material specification and selection needs to be very responsive to that," says Nickells.

Specific problems include the high chloride and sulphate content in the air and ground in the Middle East region, which can lead to cracking of concrete meaning that any concrete features need to have the right mix of concrete, render and bonding agents.

Cultural divides

As well as climatic differences, theme parks in the region also need to respond to the cultural challenges in the Middle East region.

Although the theme parks under development in the GCC are expected to draw a mainly Western audience, design must be all-inclusive, specialists stress.

"It's very difficult to predict who's going to use what you develop, culturally you've got to design for a very wide spectrum," points out Nickells.

"A lot of people prefer theme parks where you literally just sit on a bench and watch people enjoy themselves," adds Coan. "We design parks so that those more passive people can go to a theme park and also feel they're getting an experience."

Queueing could be a problem, according to some specialists.

"There are certain tracts of society who are quite happy to queue, and other tracts that aren't interested in queuing. Managing that, so everybody has the same experience, requires a bit of thought," says Nickells.

Solutions include a tight queuing platform to prevent queue jumping and ensuring plenty of signage to enforce the system.

While the Middle East is still getting to grips with the concept of theme parks at the moment, the developments are seen as having huge potential in the Middle East.

Critics have questioned whether theme parks in the region will be able to seriously challenge existing parks, such as Walt Disney World, but their supporters say the region is in for some exciting times.

"The Middle East is brave," says Nickells. "Clients have a desire and drive to push the boundaries of everything, and it's that pioneering spirit that will drive excellence in park design."


Projects in the planning

Universal Studios Dubailand

Developed by Tatweer, Dubailand is expected to draw inspiration from other Universal Studios parks around the world.

Marvel Theme Park

Al Ahli brings the first park to be developed around the superhero comics to Dubailand.


Ras al Khaimah's theme park is expected to cater for 15,000 visitors a day when it opens in Spring 2009.


The Tatweer park will be designed around Shrek and other Dreamworks characters.

Restless Planet

I&M Galadari Group's park in City of Arabia will use animatronic dinosaurs to bring the past to life in Dubailand.

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