By Elizabeth Broomhall
From Ferrari World to Ice Land, there are construction challenges associated with theme park development
As one of the most architecturally significant theme parks in the Middle East, the Ferrari World attraction was one of last year’s most talked-about developments. But far from being the only development of its kind in the post-recession climate, Ferrari World is one of many themed attractions recently built or planned for the region.
Another themed attraction which opened its doors to the public last year was the Ice Land Water Park in Ras Al Khaimah, complete with the largest man-made waterfall and the biggest rain dance pool in the world. Meanwhile, Aldar Properties’ 164,000m2 Yas Island Water Park is currently under construction and will feature 40 different rides.
“To some extent, the industry has been affected like all others during the downturn,” says Arnaud Palu, Majid Al Futtaim’s COO for leisure and entertainment, Arnaud Palu. “However, even in tough times, people continue to spend money on leisure and entertainment in their free time, making the market fairly resilient.”
Apart from being fairly abundant in number, another interesting thing about theme park projects is that they are open to any contractor capable of working on large-scale, high-profile developments. “Theme parks are no different to other civil projects,” says Michael Oswald, Aldar’s GM for the Yas Island Water Park, “except for the inclusion of specialist ride vendors and theming contractors. Prior experience with theme parks and theming work is beneficial, but not essential.”
Palu agrees. “Specialist consultants and engineers are generally more important than specialist contractors. But contractors should be capable of delivering almost any design with the correct oversight and management.”
When it comes to theme park building, one of the special characteristics is a focus on detailed project planning and creative design. According to industry experts, planning should be concise and thorough, and include an analysis of market trends and consumer confidence.
“Every project must begin with the proper programming as developed by a qualified and highly creative team, which has an understanding of the aesthetic, functional and economic characteristics that contribute to the overall success of a project,” says Bob Behling, theme park architect at ESDA, who was key in the development of Aquaventure at the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.
“The team should commit to a market analysis and budget proforma so that the client fully understands what the market can bear in terms of development and consumer demand, as well as any financial liabilities and costing.” As it happens, this is a view held by the majority of companies working on theme parks.
“Complex planning starts with the development of a storyline,” says Oswald, “and is followed by character development, which is incorporated into the concept design.
“Once an initial concept has been developed, then market demographics are analysed in order to determine the types and number of rides and attractions needed.”
Also setting theme parks apart from other projects is a focus on end-user experience. This is thought to be particularly significant in shaping the design and construction, as well as the numbers and types of specialist contractors and equipment brought on board.
“Every facet has to be developed around the experience of the end user, making the success of a park depend very much on how the place feels,” says Buro Happold’s Roger Nickells, who worked on Dubai’s Wild Wadi waterpark.
“This means that the interlinks between the components have to be managed carefully to ensure the original intent is retained.
“For a facility like Wild Wadi, which was designed to look as if it was sculpted from the local environment, the focus on making it look natural was critical, so the layering of the rockwork, the themed render and the coordination of all of the functional requirements had to be the major priority.” Similarly, construction of the Aquaventure water park was heavily guided by a design based on making the park look natural for the benefit of the consumer. Kerzner International Resorts states that the rides were blended in with the landscape and themed architecture to make the park more visually appealing.
“For Aquaventure, we required an architect and landscape designer highly skilled in making very visible and potentially unattractive construction works blend into the architecture, and a concept ride consultant to work with the slide manufacturer,” says Kirzer’s Ian Connolly, senior VP of facilities at Atlantis.
Equally distinct, and tied into these factors, is the need for more specialist suppliers, subcontractors and equipment. For example, Aquaventure engaged specialist individual subcontractors for the slides, theming, construction of the rivers and pools, landscape and MEP works, whilst the Ski Dubai resort contracted work to at least 18 different companies, including refrigeration, theming and insulation contractors, not to mention a whole host of other manufacturers and suppliers.
“Park projects differ from normal projects mainly in terms of the number and differences in specialist suppliers and consultants,” says Palu. “Reliances on these specialisms is critical in ensuring the successful delivery of services by the main contractor.”
As for specialist equipment, there seems to be a direct correlation between the sophistication of the region’s theme park designs and the need for more advanced or unique systems and machinery. “Today, the majority of the hydraulics and safety measures related to ride performance are computer-driven. Many venues are also incorporating theatrical light shows, lasers and holograms for entertainment value, which all require specialist machinery, hardware and software,” says Behline.
Connolly agrees. “For Aquaventure, we also required large earth-moving equipment that could contour the landscape quickly; high-capacity, long-reach mobile cranes and specialised mortar production services for the coloured concrete.”
What theme parks do have in common with other specialist projects such as schools and hospitals is a complex development process. Generally speaking, one of the key problems identified by experts relates to the rides themselves.
“By nature, amusement parks have a wide range of conflicts, especially around the method of procurement of rides, which tends to include the design, installation and operational guidelines, along with licensing arrangements” says Nickells. “Then you need to add in the complexity of commissioning.”
A more general challenge arises when trying to coordinate specialists. According to Connolly, this is due to a limited number of specialist subcontractors and consultants in the Middle East, increasing the dependence upon international firms, and thus the need for remote work as well as complex project coordination over long distances. If not managed properly, this can result in higher project costs.
Less obvious hurdles during theme park building are associated with projects’ unique complexities. Behling explains, “During design and construction, it is important to address the circulation of guests, and look at how every element contributes to the end-users’ experience. For example, you need to ensure key components are anchored to where food and beverage stations are located. Also, when designing in the Middle East, you have to consider the region’s specific climate conditions. For Aquaventure, we had to pay careful attention to the shade strategy, pathway layout and irrigation, to keep surfaces at safe temperatures for bare feet and keep guests cool.”
In addition, it is important for contractors and designers to recognise how more often than not theme parks will be linked to other tourist attractions such as leisure venues, souks, restaurants and shopping malls, which may make a difference to the design and construction.
The remaining complexities are directly linked to HSE, which is becoming increasingly important in the region. According to Nickells, health and safety issues tend to be heightened during theme park building. “During the build, the main HSE issues revolve around working at height, falling materials and working over water.”
Oswald seconds this argument, referring to how the construction of iconic structures can also add to the risks, as can the testing of speciality rides. He also emphasises the sustainability problem.
“Building a waterpark in the desert presents a real challenge in attaining sustainability ratings. To achieve credits, sustainable practices have to extend past design into construction, with the incorporation of efficient waste management practices.”
And yet, it seems that the myriad challenges associated with theme park building are, in reality, outweighed by the many advantages to be gained from such iconic projects.
From ski domes to car theme parks, these high-profile developments are as diverse as they are profitable, adding value to portfolios. Perhaps the only question remaining is: what will the Middle East build next?For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.