The executives behind the new Dubai Parks and Resorts have said multiple times this weekend that they studied other parks around the world in developing their project, and that they sought to build their theme parks to the highest standards in the industry. But even they cannot escape the business school law that you only get to pick two: good, fast, or cheap.
Dubai Parks offers intellectual properties that stand well in competition with those offered by the industry-leading Disney and Universal theme parks. Dreamworks can boast some of the world's most popular animation franchises, including Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Sony, Columbia, and Lionsgate all have produced enduring film hits. And Bollywood might top all Hollywood film studios for global popularity. Finally, Lego might be the world's most popular single toy brand.
While Lego and has built theme parks all over the globe — Dubai is its seventh Legoland park — Lego doesn't spend anywhere near as much as Disney or Universal spend building their "A" level parks. Lego's theme works to its cost advantage. When everything is supposed to look like blocky plastic bricks, you can save quite a bit on not having to deploy the variety of textures and finishes visitors will find in Disney's Cars Land or Universal's Diagon Alley. Lego also achieves some efficiencies of scale by deploying the same designs across its network of parks. Legoland Dubai is built with the same "blocks" you'll find in many other Legoland theme parks: The Driving School, The Dragon, Lost Kingdom Adventure, and so on. So maybe there's a fourth element — originality. You can be good, fast, and cheap, but only if you duplicate something you've done before.
Heck, let's add a fifth element, too — size. You can deliver an original, high-quality theme park project in quick order on a limited budget, but you've got to keep it really, really small. You can have three, but only when it's out of four. And four, but only out of five.
You can see that in Bollywood Parks Dubai. An impressively decorated park with abundant live entertainment and original installations of solid attractions that reference popular IP, Bollywood Parks delivers Disney and Universal quality by keeping it small, with about half a dozen attractions.
Having spoken with several creative developers who worked on the Dubai Parks project, I know that Dubai Parks didn't bring Disney- and Universal-level budgets to each park in this resort. Dubai Parks is spending a little more than US$3 billion to build the entire development, including three theme parks, a hotel, and the Riverland shopping and dining district. That's around half of what Disney spent to build one park, two hotels, and a Disneytown district at Shanghai Disneyland, which is said to have cost US$6.3 billion when it opened. So Dubai Parks picked "cheap"... at least relative to the ridiculous amount that industry leader Disney spends.
Which brings us to Motiongate Dubai, which we toured along with other invited and hosted media people today. If Legoland held costs in check by duplicating an established model (sorry, I can't help myself!), and Bollywood hit its budget by keeping it small, Motiongate aims to deliver an original park with dozens of attractions, housed in sometimes unique environments.
And it's not done yet. So forget about "fast."
And for the attractions that are complete and operating at this grand opening moment, you can too often see the missed opportunities. Throughout the park, Motiongate has opted for "studio theming." That's the look the Universal and Disney's studio parks once employed, where environments are built for the eye of the camera, and not those of human visitors. Ceilings are left unfinished, support work is often exposed, and finishes are "good enough" for the camera, but feel, well, a little cheap upon close physical inspection.
With projects such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, Disney and Universal are leaving that style behind in their studio theme parks, opting instead for the richly detailed, immersive environments that cost one heck of a lot more money to deliver, but that further distinguish their parks from other competitors, such as Six Flags and Cedar Fair, which decorate modestly and theme often sparingly.
So into that abandoned market space steps Motiongate Dubai.
A walk through the park reveals the potential of this space, but it's impossible to judge fairly until the park is closer to completion. Motiongate has designated the Hunger Games attractions in its Lionsgate land as "phase two," to open next year. The Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs rapids ride isn't running yet, either. The Dreamworks Animation building is said to open "very soon"... but not "now," when I'm here. Sigh.
So what's left? Fortunately, the Step Up Dubai All In show is open and playing multiple times daily. A high-energy musical performance starring an international crew of hip-hop dancers, the show is based on the Step Up film franchise, but this is as solid a live stage show as anything over at Bollywood Parks next door — or any other theme park I've visited. No, it doesn't have Bollywood's elaborate costuming or decoration, but that's not hip-hop's style. The dancers here perform with precision, emotion, and an obvious drive to get your hands off your armrests and into the air. It's the must-see attraction in the park right now, and scores a bonus point for offering what might be the most comfortable theater seats I've ever had the pleasure sitting on. Seriously, I wanted to spend the day in here.
As for the rest of the park that's open? Well, The Green Hornet and Zombieland are straight-out-of-Six Flags, lightly-decorated thrill rides. The Ghostbusters Battle for New York interactive dark ride offers some impressive practical detail, but also screen-based gameplay that feels a little "been there done that" next to the more impressive practical gameplay of Disney's latest Buzz Lightyear ride in Shanghai, or even the 3D gameplay next door on the Sholay ride at Bollywood Parks. (Pro tip: I found the Ghostbusters guns heavy, but when I switched to holding the gun in one hand but firing with the trigger finger on my other hand, my score tripled.)
Hotel Transylvania boasts an impressive trackless ride system, but runs it through a collection of static scenes, with mannequins of the IP's characters rather than fully realized, moving animatronics. A ride through a monster-filled castle never should feel boring, but the guy sitting next to me felt compelled to haul out his cell phone and start making calls rather than keep paying attention to the ride. The Smurfs Studio Tour throws in a little more motion, but it's enough to make that the top dark ride in the park at the moment.
Ultimately, though, that unopened Dreamworks Animation land looms over the park. It's the visual weenie on the far side of the park's hub, and its inaccessibility frustrates. (Motiongate is selling reduced-price admission tickets until the park has opened more attractions.) With Universal now owning Dreamworks Animation, and seeing how impressively the two firms collaborated on the Madagascar and Shrek lands at Universal Studios Singapore, I have high hopes for what Dreamworks can do with Motiongate in this immense and impressive show building.
But that's all I have now. Hopes. A hope that Dreamworks will deliver. And the hope that I'll be back some day to see it.
Previously, from Dubai:
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