It's open, but is Motiongate Dubai ready for its close-up?

December 18, 2016, 1:28 PM · DUBAI — Business students seem fond of citing the adage that a project can pick two of the following qualities, but never three: good, fast, and cheap. The lesson is that, unless you have gobs of cash to throw at a project, you'll have to face a trade-off. Do you sacrifice quality for a quick delivery, or vice versa?

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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Replies (17)

December 18, 2016 at 2:45 PM

They simply don't have the quality attractions. I know it was suggested before hand that they have imagineers from Disney and Universal, but it must the ones who worked on 'Stitches great escape, Small World' than anything major.

They have some exciting franchies like Ghostbusters. I went on the attraction hoping for something spectacular, and walking to the actual attraction it bought back memories of Transformers - but oh boy once the attraction started it was just a cheap Nintento Wii shoot em up. Just cheap beyond belief.

Hotel Transylvania was atrocious. Same with the other two attractions as you wrote 'cheap six flag' style attractions.

Wasted opportunity in my opinion, as they have the setting to do something spectacular - and they have the vision. But they simply don't have the creative talent on board.

December 18, 2016 at 3:22 PM

Great write-up Robert, such a shame so much of the park wasn't ready.

I like that they've focused in on making the park to a high standard even if it's not the most attraction dense, that's a nice change of pace for parks in the UAE.

The key thing not just for Motiongate but for the other two parks and any new parks to come is continuous investment. The current offerings are the best in the region, but if they want to take a slice of the European market current monopolised by Orlando, they'll need even more.

The added advantage that these parks do have is that Dubai already attracts plenty of tourists, it's just of those tourists are willing to spend more than a day at theme park resort.

December 18, 2016 at 3:38 PM

It all feels very much like California Adventure circa 2001. With that said, DCA grew up to become an excellent park, so hopefully they follow suit and do the same to attract return visits. Living in Oregon, I'll likely stick with my west and east coast resorts and opt out of the international trip with my young family. Thanks for the detailed report! I'm looking forward to your eventual trip report to Shanghai!

December 18, 2016 at 5:16 PM

If you claim to become the new theme park capital of the world you should deliver more than what is shown in Motiongate Dubai. Bollywood is probably a nice start but is to small. Lego is nice but can be enjoyed closer at home if I was in the market for that. I'd rather travel to China where more exiting and unique parks are being build.

December 18, 2016 at 7:21 PM

The video showed ANOTHER theme park built on the cheap! The blogger further reinforced the visuals with this post.

December 18, 2016 at 8:28 PM

There are substantial expansion pads around each park, and the cranes are moving into place to build the Six Flags park that will join the three others in 2019, making this, like Disney World, a four-gate resort. So what I saw this weekend was more the foundation for rather than a finished version of what Dubai Parks and Resorts offers.

That said, Riverland was packed last night, following the ceremony. And that's with about half the shops and restaurants yet to open and no one staying in the hotel yet. I'm actually more concerned abut Riverland's potential for capacity problems - serving as the mandatory entry to four theme parks - rather than this becoming some under-developed ghost town.

The potential here is what excites me, and drives me to keep covering this region. No, this isn't the new Orlando. Not yet. There's much work to be done still. But Dubai and Dubai Parks have started, with much more work happening just a few miles down the road in Abu Dhabi, too. If the crowds keep coming, even if they are modest by Orlando standards, investors will see a return and they will keep spending to expand these parks. Then we really might have an Orlando of the Middle East.

December 18, 2016 at 10:14 PM

I think this would make for a great regional park, even though the prices are pretty steep. While the limited budget didn't give a lot of hope for impressive animatronics, even the puppets at Chuck E. Cheese are better than static mannequins. Hopefully the other rides will make for a more compelling reason to visit.

December 19, 2016 at 12:04 AM

Given this tepid review, I can't even imagine travelling to Dubai when Orlando is three hours from where we live in Canada, and California is five hours away (if we get direct flights). And if I was ready to travel much further than that to visit theme parks, Tokyo and Shanghai beckon. When the only must-see attraction is a dance show...that's pretty bad.

December 19, 2016 at 12:11 AM

Like I've been hearing elsewhere, it looks like only 25% or so of the park is actually ready to open. What is open, however, mostly looks good. Not groundbreaking by any stretch, but probably better than what you'd find at 90% of parks that are not owned by Disney or Universal. I just wish they had waited 6 months or so and opened a complete park rather than opening something that is good for about three hours, as this is like Shanghai Disneyland opening with only Tomorrowland available. I do hope negative word of mouth doesn't cause problems, as with all the new projects Dubai could be worth a visit for the traveling enthusiast in five years or so. However, at the moment there just isn't enough there to justify the trip.

December 19, 2016 at 11:01 AM

The blogger's post while negative and further reinforced by the posted "Comments" show just how much Disney Parks & Resorts AND Universal Parks & Resorts have changed the game.

Dubai proudly announced they are spending to compete at the level Disney and Universal. As the blogger repeatedly showed and stated in the blog post, they fell short with the outdated studio look and static rides.

The video and blog post were refreshingly honest.

December 19, 2016 at 12:51 PM

At least they are more competent than the knockoff parks at China. They used actual IP and licenses from real businesses. The issue is its an unproven market at a volatile location.

December 19, 2016 at 11:37 PM

Seems to me they really opened this place prematurely. They should have had the patience to open when they were ready. As it is, bad word of mouth might hamper its long term success, even when the improvements are added.

In any case, the global theme park business is clearly becoming saturated. I can't see places like this competing in such a crowded field.

December 20, 2016 at 3:09 AM

People seem to forget that the original plans for a theme park resort in Dubai was one that was going to be bigger than wdw and would have included a universal studios but then the market crashed in 2008 and financing dried up.

In fact the famous universal studios arch is still standing somewhere in Dubai.

The global theme park is not saturated. There are still over a dozen theme parks in the pipeline, mostly for the Asia region.

December 19, 2016 at 11:36 PM

Over a dozen? If the market is not saturated already, it's well on its way.
Considering the massive expense involved in building and maintaining a park, they all need heavy attendance in order to survive. That's not likely, considering that Disney and Universal get the lion's share. Of course, you could do everything on the cheap, but then your park looks terrible compared to the aforementioned industry leaders.

December 20, 2016 at 3:24 AM

Legoland Japan, Legoland Korea, Universal Studios Beijing, Six Flags China, Six Flags Vietnam, Six Flags Dubai. 20th Century Fox Malaysia, Paramount London, Warner Bros China. (Yes even they plan to build a park in China) Oops I almost forget the dozen or so Wanda Media group (owners of AMC cinema & Legendary Entertainment) will build in China

And Wanda is not building them on the cheap, having coasters/tbrill/flat rides from GCI and Intamin in their parks. Mind you, the layout of their parks could use more thought.

December 20, 2016 at 9:02 AM

Seems like a long way to go for a "meh" experience. Granted there are many sections not open yet, but from those that are....meh

December 22, 2016 at 3:27 PM

Point of information: The growing system of LEGOLAND Parks is owned and operated by Merlin Entertainments (a U.K. company), and has been since 2005, when the LEGO Group (Danish) simplified its business holdings. (Specifically, the parks are 70% owned by Blackstone, Merlin's owner, and 30% by Kirkbi AS, LEGO's owner.) The LEGO Group provides IP and merchandise (sets and loose bricks), and that's it.

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