Thematic design

Theme park design specialists are flocking to the GCC in response to demand for new leisure destinations. Keith James, president of one of the biggest practices, Jack Rouse Associates, talks with COD.

Keith James
Keith James

Theme park design specialists are flocking to the GCC in response to demand for new leisure destinations. Keith James, president of one of the biggest practices, Jack Rouse Associates, talks with COD.

Jack Rouse Associates (JRA) is one of the world's best-known theme park design and planning practices. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, the firm has worked on numerous high-profile projects around the world, including Universal Studios in Florida, Legoland in the UK, and Six Flags in Texas.

Attracted by the region's growing theme park market, JRA is fast building a base in the UAE and currently has 20 staff working in Abu Dhabi. Projects the firm is working on in the region include the high profile Restless Planet at Dubailand.

JRA president Keith James talks to Commercial Outdoor Design about the challenges in designing theme parks in the desert and whether the Middle East could be the new epicentre of the theme park design industry.

Which projects is JRA working on in the region at present?

Our two main projects are Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi and Restless Planet in Dubai. Other than those, we're doing two projects in Sharjah and potentially one in Kuwait. Our entertainment work tends to be more international, our museum and sports work more North America-based. We are certainly busy in this region, however.

What are the specific challenges of designing theme parks in the Middle East?

The obvious one is the extreme weather. For four to five months of the year, people don't want to go outside. The only place that I have ever worked that is remotely close to the extremes experienced here is Las Vegas. [To mitigate the heat] you have to provide for shade everywhere. There are a couple of systems available that don't necessarily make it cooler, but which do cool down the visitors by using water mist and fans.

Do you design with a typical visitor in mind, or for a range of people?

You don't necessarily have to cater for the locals because the local market isn't big enough to support all this. You really have to cater for the world, because if you're going to get the guest numbers you need, you need tourists to come here and try [the park] out. Our projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai rely heavily on the tourism component, and the tourists are coming from everywhere.

Developers are projecting that over 15 million people a year will come to the region by 2015 on the back of new developments. Do you think that these estimates are overly ambitious?

I think the real issue is whether the guests can be delivered. Whether or not those attendance numbers can be achieved has far more to do with tourism than the attraction level.

There aren't enough people here yet. Tourism is increasing but [here it is] nowhere remotely close to Orlando. There will be 20 million guests a year here within the next 10 years, but Orlando gets 50 million a year.

The GCC is planning a record number of theme park developments in a very short space of time. What problems do you think there will be in realising all of these projects simultaneously?

If everything that is talked about gets built, it will be a huge stretch for our industry to support it, because it is a boutique industry that has never been pushed to this level, with the possible exception of when Orlando was booming.

Getting enough qualified people is a challenge. But the real challenge is on the operating side. In the event that everything gets done, it will be sensational, but it's going to be a while before there are enough people to support everything.

Fact file

Established: 1987

Offices: Cincinnati, Ohio, US

Services include: Masterplanning, attraction/exhibit planning and design, content development, project management, and theme park management

Key projects in region include: Restless Planet, Dubai, UAE; Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, UAE


With so many theme parks in this region, how do you create something unique?

In the region, you have people going for the best, and the intellectual property (IP) aspect of it differentiates the product, whether it's Universal, Six Flags, Busch, Ferrari, or Warner Brothers.

The IP will really draw people, because while some of the hardware is similar, the stories that are being told are considerably different. There are an awful lot of different things to do, different experiences to have, different stories to learn, so it's not "Here's a park. Here's a park.

Here's a park." but "Here's Universal Studios. Here's Warner Brothers, etc" so they should be quite different.

What cultural specifics do you need to bear in mind when designing theme parks in this region?

When you compare this part of the world to other parts of the world, this one is much easier [to work in], because many of the people here are extremely well travelled. They have been to Florida, to Los Angeles, to different projects in Europe.

They understand that sometimes you have to stand in line, but we've designed enough [attractions] so the lines should not be very long. The queuing issue is far worse elsewhere. There are obviously other issues that we need to be sensitive to.

For example, fast rollercoasters are not necessarily conducive to people wearing national dress. We need to be very careful that we don't offend anyone.

Orlando saw a growth in design talent because of the theme park boom in that area. Do you anticipate a similar growth in design talent in the Middle East?

We'll have to wait and see. Orlando has been developed over 30 years. Therefore there has been a resource that has evolved because there was always something being done. Here, there may be a resource developed, but it depends on how long-term it is.

Here in the Middle East, everything is happening all at once. Whether or not the industry will transplant itself to the region depends upon whether there is work long-term. Disneyland in California opened in 1955, Walt Disney World in Orlando in 1972, and the regional theme park boom in the US started in the 70s.

It's a much more mature, everlasting industry. Here, is it going to be all of a sudden and then be gone? Right now it looks long-term, but ask me in five years.


Keith James is president of Jack Rouse Associates and has worked in the themed entertainment industry for over 35 years. He has also served as president of the Themed Entertainment Association.

Since 1992, he has managed JRA's design and production work for the LEGO Group; Warner Bros.; Universal Studios Florida; Six Flags Theme Parks; Restless Planet; and Ferrari World.

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