Before I flew to Dubai in December for the grand opening of Bollywood Parks, Legoland, and Motiongate Dubai, I sat down to talk with some of the creative leaders at Mycotoo who worked on the development plans for Dubai Parks and Resorts. Mycotoo is a Pasadena, Calif. entertainment development company specializing in location based and live entertainment. I wanted to hear how this audacious project — three new theme parks opening within just a couple of months, one with a unique, new theme — came to be. Especially in Dubai, a market that lost a lot of credibility with theme park fans worldwide when so many announced projects went under after the 2008 global economic slowdown.
But more than that, even, I just welcomed the opportunity to talk with people who helped a new theme park — any new theme park — make the difficult transition from concept to an actual, functioning entertainment attraction.
I spoke with chairman and co-founder Clifford Warner, who served as an executive producer on the Motiongate project, as well as with Mycotoo CEO Seth Cover, and Danny Hartigan, who worked as executive creative director on the Dubai project. The three worked on the Dubai project for an 18-month period, leading the master plan for the resort from concept through design development.
"If you don't work for Disney or Universal, actually seeing a project go from blue sky to being built is rare," Danny said. "There's people I know in the industry who have worked for 15-20 years and have only worked on concepts that have never been built."
Most design teams — including those at Disney and Universal, as well as independent firms such as Mycotoo — need to staff up to take on projects as large as the Dubai Parks. Cliff, Seth, and Danny all shared tales of working to design a theme park at the same time as their expanding office looked like a construction site.
"Communication is the key," Cliff said. "We encouraged everyone to communicate with each other, so we could head off surprises. We sat our tech team in the middle of the space, so they could hear what the design teams were doing. They need to know if they're making a change that they need to be aware of.
"That paid off for us. We had a very small tech team for what we were trying to do. We built up 3D environments so that the creative directors and even the client could see what we were trying to achieve. That really helped us in getting approvals."
The use of 3D, computer-generated models provides an alternative to the old-school method of crafting practical scale models of a proposed new park or attraction. Those models looked great and made for amazing museum pieces one day, but they took a lot of space required an often-slow rebuild with every change. CG 3D models, ultimately, allow designers to move from concept to reality faster and with less expense.
"When you are dealing with [clients] that are bringing our industry into their region, there's a learning curve. Part of our job is to help manage that learning curve," Cliff said. "We have a lot of challenges when dealing with construction. A lot of the engineering and architectural groups have built big projects, but they haven't built theme parks.... Usually the speakers don't dictate where something sits. For us, in a show, speakers dictate where things sit."
Ultimately, that's because the visitor experience isn't just one of many element of the project. It's the core product.
"The challenge of the region is the big players want grandeur. They like giant boulevards and things like that," Cliff said. "As much as that looks great in a drawing, we all know that these grand boulevards look empty in a theme park, if there's not enough people to fill them. We felt we needed to make this parks more intimate for a better guest experience."
And, being a theme park, the core of the guest experience is the collection of rides and shows the parks offer. I asked the three about how they match particular experiences with the IP they had to work with in these parks.
"We always go back to the question of what a guest expects," Danny said. "If you're going to go on a How to Train Your Dragon ride, what do you want to do? You want to fly. You want to be on a dragon. That's an easy one. The harder ones are like Shrek. We ended up in a dark ride, but we went through five solid iterations of that ride."
"You've got to ask, how do I represent this movie, without every ride being a 3D theater?" Cliff said. "That's where we try to find a balance, to ask what are the types of rides we'd like to have, and then which one fits best with this IP?"
In Bollywood Parks and Motiongate Dubai, I rode a Soarin'-style flying theater, a Minion Mayhem-style 4D ride, two interactive shooter rides, a couple more trackless dark rides, saw two 4D theater shows, a live stunt show, a live dance show, and also saw a roller coaster and drop ride... and that's without Motiongate's Dreamworks and Lionsgate lands being open. While that shows an impressive diversity of attraction experiences — in some fresh and unique environments — none of these were completely original, first-of-their-kind-in-the-world ride systems.
"We are working with a park that doesn't have the R&D money like a Disney or a Universal that's going to be able to spend years in development with a new, custom vehicle, so knowing who the right manufacturers are and keeping in regular contact with them to understand what they are doing next, or how we can take what they've done and tweak it a little but, that's part of our arsenal as we're matching experience with what we can do," Seth said.
"It's the participation of the creative director with a good art director and a good technical manager who come together and come up with some great ideas how to get the beats or moments that allow you to experience something different even though you are using this really affordable ride system," Cliff said.
"The advantage of using an existing system is that you get to go ride it," Cliff continued. "Then you can talk to the engineers and ask what do you wish had been done or what's not being featured on this? They always know what more it can do."
One of those plussed ride experiences will be the Dragon Gliders coaster. This Mack Rides Inverted Power Coaster, which was not open when I visited Motiongate, is a next-generation version of the Arthur - The Ride coaster that opened at Europe Park in 2014 to enthusiastic reviews. But if I was disappointed in not getting to experience Dragon Gliders and the rest of the Dreamworks experience at Motiongate while I was in Dubai, I swiftly got over that when I saw Bollywood Parks Dubai.
One of the most beautiful theme parks I've ever visited, Bollywood Parks Dubai celebrates a theme that's probably not familiar to most Americans, but that's beloved IP for millions of fans around the world — especially in the markets that Dubai Parks is targeting.
"The Bollywood Park is brilliant" for Dubai, Cliff said. "Seventy percent of your expats are Indian or Pakistani. And Mumbai is a two hour flight away. There's a huge middle class that has nothing to do in India and our industry depends upon the middle class.
"When we are developing parks we are looking for a large middle class population. So I think it's a no-brainer to put a Bollywood park in Dubai. It's a smart play."
But unlike with Motiongate — with its movie studio theme — no one had a template for a major Bollywood-themed park to help inspire the design of Bollywood Parks Dubai. So designers had to start with the original sources.
"In Bollywood, the star usually has more voice than the owner or the studio," Cliff said. "Danny got to have meetings with some of the stars to hear what their concerns were and what was important for each one. The toughest thing was what to do for the arrival. What's the entry experience?"
"It was Dabangg," Danny said, referencing the 2010 Salman Khan vehicle that's one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time. "There's a dance scene toward the end of the film that's fun and magical. It's vibrant and all about celebration, and I went 'that's our statement, right there.'"
"That first street, which we call Bollywood Boulevard captures that scene," Cliff said. "That magic of Bollywood, where streets turn into full color and there's an energy that sets the tone."
Mycotoo's Fri Forjindam oversaw Bollywood Boulevard as creative director, with Paul Sierra designing as artistic director. Jacqueline Ball and Brian Smith joined Danny and David Wally as creative directors working on the park, with Paul Sessa, Chuck Spina, and Andy Sklar contributing as artistic directors.
"As I'm looking at Bollywood [Park], I'm asking, who are the art directors who can design happiness?" Cliff said. "We were fortunate to find Andy Sklar. He's always done very happy designs. He had the natural ability to capture that and to embrace Bollywood."
I recently named Bollywood Boulevard one of the 10 things I most love about theme parks in the world. With a Phase Two expansion that includes the world's first Hunger Games-themed land slated for later this year, a fourth park — Six Flags Dubai — under construction for a 2019 debut, and the 2020 World Expo planned nearby, Dubai Parks and Resorts is aiming to be part of a critical mass of themed entertainment attractions that will draw millions of new fans to the United Arab Emirates.
"Dubai is still the safest place for a Muslim family to do vacation," Cliff said. "All their cultural needs are taken care of, their religious needs are respected, there's beautiful resorts. From October through May, you have incredible weather. So you have a good chance of succeeding if you give people something to do. And then you have India. You have a billion-person market within a two-hour flight. They're going to get more Indians than they are going to get Europeans. The difficulty in their strategy originally was they thought it was going to be all Europeans - that they were developing for the European. It wasn't until after 2008 that they realized their loyal market was India."
And for the Mycotoo team, there's the satisfaction of having been a part of one of the most ambitious new theme park developments in the world right now.
"It's the collaboration that makes this industry," Cliff said. "I was educated in theater. I get the magic of doing theater. And then I went to work in film, and that's just a cut-throat business. But this industry is different.
"You walked into it, and everyone just cared about the project. People really wanted to deliver. That sense of interest in it and passion for it — I haven't found any other industry that matches that type of environment and that type of commitment for passionate people."
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