In Abu Dhabi, SeaWorld finds its heart again

May 22, 2023, 11:58 PM · So this is what a SeaWorld theme park should be.

Nearly 50 years after four UCLA graduates decided to open an oceanarium in San Diego after their plans for an underwater restaurant with a marine show fell through, Miral's Yas Island has commissioned a theme park that fulfills the promise of SeaWorld's name.

Forget what you know from visiting SeaWorld's American theme parks. On the surface, the new SeaWorld Abu Dhabi shares more DNA with Tokyo DisneySea than its older SeaWorld siblings. Built within sight of Warner Bros. World and on the other side of the adjacent Yas Mall from Ferrari World, this 1.97 million-square-foot indoor park includes a children's area, called MicroOcean, that feels like a plussed version of King Triton's Kingdom. There's even a jellyfish-themed kiddie drop tower.

The ceiling in MicroOcean
Looking up at the ceiling in MicroOcean

But that's literal child's play next to SeaWorld Abu Dhabi encouraging visitors to join its special group called the S.E.A. by playing an interactive game throughout the park. Okay, it's "scientists, explorers and adventures" here rather than Disney's "society of explorers and adventurers." But I suppose that SeaWorld should thank Ron DeSantis for keeping Disney's legal team well distracted these days.

That said, if you're in the themed entertainment business and you're going to look for inspiration from any one park in the world, let it be Tokyo DisneySea, the most recent winner of our Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park. But the heart of the sea lies far beneath its surface, so let's not get caught on that level. At that deeper level, the only thing that this park has replicated is an old-school SeaWorld park, where the animals are the attraction and saving them is the story.

Let's talk about going beneath the surface - because you will need to at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, literally. Divided into eight themed "realms" representing aquatic environments around the planet, this is a multi-level park, with abundant opportunities to go up and down levels to see the park's tens of thousands of animals from different vantage points. The Endless Ocean realm is advertised, with seemingly endless paths and options for viewing the 20-plus-meter-deep aquarium - which the park is billing as the largest single-tank aquarium in the world.

Time for our walk-through video:

The first thing visitors will ride when they walk through the doors of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is a series of escalators that will bring them up to the park's third floor, from where they can embark upon their journey into the park's eight realms. The first will be Abu Dhabi Ocean, a tribute to the legacy of fishing and pearl diving that sustained the Emirati people long before oil helped fuel the region's economic boom.

A dugong is the park's mascot

This next-generation SeaWorld park is designed on a hub and spoke system, in contradiction to SeaWorld tradition. Beyond Abu Dhabi Ocean lies that hub, the jaw-dropping One Ocean realm. A massive screen encircles this hub, playing ocean scenes filmed in 8K on a continuous loop. SeaWorld's plussed the production with a daily One Epic Ocean spectacular, which adds a small drone show to the mix. You can see One Epic Ocean at the beginning of today's grand opening ceremony for the park.

From One Ocean at the park's heart, visitors can access the park's other realms, including Polar Ocean - Arctic, Polar Ocean - Antarctica (which was not open during our preview), the Pacific Northwest-themed Rocky Point, and Tropical Ocean. The last two feature the park's two large-scale "presentations," the next-gen versions of SeaWorld's sea lion and dolphin shows, respectively.

Let us send outdoor, nondescript, concrete stadiums with aluminum bench seating to sleep with the proverbial fishes. Miral and its design teams have given these productions proper homes, though the Rocky Point auditorium is the more comfortable and engaging of the two. Both shows attempt to deliver somewhat contradictory social messages (follow the rules and respect marine protection laws... but be creative, too!), but I felt myself longing for the somewhat less theatrical style that SeaWorld adopted in San Diego with Orca Encounter, stripping the dramaturgy and portraying what the animals are doing not as tricks but natural behaviors that the animals are doing more for their own well-being than our entertainment.

Speaking of orcas, you will not find them at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, save as decorative elements on a few realm walls.

Orca picture on the wall in MicroOcean

Nor will you find the abundance of roller coasters and thrill rides that SeaWorld has been adding to its U.S. parks in recent years. If you haven't read it yet, please see my interview with Miral CEO Mohamed Al Zaabi, who told me that the Abu Dhabi park will remain committed to a focus on animals and habitats over thrill rides. Miral, which reportedly spent in excess of US$1 billion on this park, clearly has the financial resources to do what it wants rather than having to chase short-term market whims. I'll get into that in a bit.

But there are a few rides in SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, including a collection of Zamperla children's rides in MicroOcean, most notably the Eel Racer junior coaster.

The park's big coaster is SeaWorld's third Manta, this time by Intamin.

Located beneath Tropical Ocean, Manta loads indoors, continuing the practice Yas Island established over at Ferrari World. Once loaded, doors open on the track as you launch outside, where the heat hits you before the airtime does. But that airtime - and hangtime - does come, making this Manta feel more like an RMC than anything I have ridden from Intamin recently. There are four inversions on this feisty two-minute ride, with the last reminding me of Jurassic World VelociCoaster for its extended hangtime. Watch for the laterals on this Manta, too, which can do a number on the lower backs of people thin enough to slide in these generous bucket seats. Still, I liked Manta more than TRON at Walt Disney World and Pipeline at SeaWorld Orlando, making this my top pick for best new coaster of the year so far.

And it should look even better once the landscaping is complete.

A second major attraction, Intamin's Hypersphere 360, was not available during the preview. (Update: I was part of a select group of reporters who were allowed to ride a test of Hypersphere 360 on Tuesday. Stay tuned later this week for my thoughts. Update 2: Here is my review: Hypersphere 360 offers a unique new theme park experience.)

If you watched my walking tour video above (and please do!), you might have noted that it runs nearly one hour. And that felt rushed to me, too. Clearly, you need a least a couple of hours here just to make your way around this park if you spend any time at all watching the animals or trying any of the interactives next to the exhibits. Tickets start at AED 375 (US$102), though the price per day comes down quickly with multi-park tickets and annual passes. Yas Island also offers ticket discounts if you present an Etihad boarding pass, and our travel partner has discounts on Yas Island theme park tickets, too.

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is a visually beautiful park. It's an enticing space that fuels the spirit of exploration that the park was intended to cultivate. Well, for me, at least. I grew up and fell in love with the old SeaWorld parks, because they were the only place where I could ever hope to see real-life otters and dolphins and sharks up close. Sorry, but video does not adequately substitute for a real life experience. As I wrote back in 2011, "If you want to motivate people to act to protect orcas, you've got to have a killer whale splash them in the face."

Emotion drives action. Unfortunately, the emotion that too many people feel when they think about the future is now despair. Young adults have been raised in a well-earned pessimism about the world's future. That makes SeaWorld's message a tough sell. Who cares about the animals when the whole planet is dying? Let's escape this mess and just go watch another SciFi or superhero movie or ride another IP-based attraction, instead.

These are the reasons why SeaWorld has been buying roller coasters. No longer owned by Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld has to chase the market. The company now lacks the resources to change a market.

Miral is different. Backed by the government of Abu Dhabi, Miral can afford to build the kind of park that SeaWorld fans may have dreamt the company one day would create. Let's not ignore the irony that the affliction at the heart of all the problems that the animals in the Arabian Gulf and beyond are facing today is global warming - which, of course, exists in large part due to the consumption of oil that made Abu Dhabi and its neighbors so wealthy.

But let's also not overlook that SeaWorld Abu Dhabi symbolizes that Abu Dhabi's leadership understands this. Yas Island exists because Abu Dhabi is working to diversify its economy beyond oil and into tourism. It also reminds, or informs, its visitors that the Emirati people existed and relied on the sea long before oil. No amount of money will protect any of us if the planet dies. It's all one ocean out there, and we all depend upon it to live - rich and poor, animals and human beings.

That's not exactly an entertaining thought, of course. But it's a necessary one. The same creative skills that allow those who are trained and talented enough to entertain us also allow them to challenge us. And then, to inform us to understanding and to inspire us to action.

With all the problems that our land-and-sea world faces, we need people to step up and do that - in books and blog posts, videos and movies, theater and music, and museums and theme parks. I have no idea if SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will affect a single positive change in this world's prospects, through its exhibits and attractions. But I remain grateful whenever a creator tries to make something positive happen.

For a complete list of attractions at the park, please visit our Visitor's Guide to the New SeaWorld Yas Island.

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Replies (10)

May 23, 2023 at 11:37 AM

This park looks amazing. I'm a big fan of aquariums and this one seems like the new king on the block in that regard. I especially like how the theming is placed around the park. I will be interested to see how growth and expansion is handled for this park. A winner for Sea World and the UAE.

May 23, 2023 at 4:57 PM

I doubt I'll ever be making a trip to UAE, but this design looks spectacular. Even watching your walk through was mesmerizing.

May 23, 2023 at 5:48 PM

Interesting walkthrough. Were you able to try any of the food options and see how they compare to the American parks?

May 23, 2023 at 7:05 PM

Well dang, take that Disney - extremely well done! Let’s hope Orlando gets a remake of some sort like this.

May 24, 2023 at 12:59 AM

Of all the parks in the UAE, this one looks the most compelling to me, which is surprising as it does sound like a half day experience for most. Not sure if/when I'll actually make it over to check the place out for myself, but between SeaWorld and Mission Ferrari opening it's definitely risen on my interest list.

May 24, 2023 at 8:21 AM

Unfortunately, Mission Ferrari was down already ("for annual maintenance") when I visited. I'll have a post on Ferrari and WB later this week, but the scoop on Mission Ferrari was that they're swapping out the projectors on the ride, so it's gonna be a while.

May 24, 2023 at 9:37 AM

"Annual maintenance" on a brand new coaster that opened less than 5 months ago????

Consider me intrigued by this new park and the notion of spending a long weekend in the UAE. Sea World looks very much like the Atlanta Aquarium on steroids dressed with Disney/Universal-level theming. Miral has obviously done an excellent job at creating an appealing attraction, but I just wonder how long the seemingly endless supply of money and government support will continue for a business model that could take a decade or more to turn a profit. We all know that the tourism industry was virtually non-existent in this part of the world at the turn of the century, so the UAE (and other Arab countries) are starting from ZERO, but will this region ever get to a point where its tourism industry can be self-sustaining? Las Vegas, a similar region in climate, interest, and history, is a pretty fair comp just 70 years ago, but unlike UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, made its mark on tourism through vice. These Arab countries don't have that same draw or appeal, and are relying solely on a "build it and they will come" mentality. I do think that strategy can work, but it's going to take a lot of time and money to get to a point where the populous at large views the region as a viable tourist destination, and even then it's still going to lag behind other parts of the world with history, cultural significance, and diversity/inclusivity.

May 24, 2023 at 9:16 AM

"Sea World looks very much like the Atlanta Aquarium on steroids dressed with Disney/Universal-level theming."

That was my thought, too — which makes it pretty compelling even without many attractions to speak of.

May 24, 2023 at 10:22 AM

The key for Yas Island is that Miral (and the Abu Dhabi government) is not pursuing it simply as an out-of-market tourist destination. With growing residential and commercial office development, plus accompanying retail, there's an economic foundation here that other theme park resorts have lacked. It's closest to the original model for Disneyland Paris, but it's actually working here.

Throw in the Etihad Arena, which is a primarily locals' destination (though it hosts regional events such as the International Indian Film Academy Awards this week), and the giant Yas Mall, and Yas Island has plenty of income here before accounting for the theme parks and the F1 track. So if any Middle East theme park development is going to make it, it's mostly likely this one.

May 25, 2023 at 6:40 AM

In Abu Dhabi, SeaWorld finds its heart again

In Orlando, SeaWorld continues to gut the guest experience in their never-ending quest to please shareholders at all costs - circling the drain as they race to the bottom

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