Dubai Parks & Resorts is a brand new integrated facility comprising a Polynesian-themed hotel, a shopping and dining area (Riverland) similar to Universal Citywalk, and three theme parks with a fourth (Six Flags) due to be added to the line-up in three years time. It has been built close to the western border of Dubai, placing it within an easy three quarter hour drive of the parks in neighbouring Abu Dhabi and by extension within easy range of the three major international airports in the country. The site is also adjacent to that selected for Expo 2020, and it seems likely that there will be a considerable boost to footfall in a few years as a result. Foreign tourists (and certain members of coaster clubs!) will likely appreciate the fact that the resort has an alcohol license in a part of the world where such things are not widely available, and good use has been made of it with The Irish Village, an authentic bar with a good range of imported brews.
Motiongate is the largest and most ambitious of the three extant parks, bringing together a variety of different properties from different movie studios including Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks, and Lionsgate. While it formally opened on December 15th, some two months later than planned, readers should be aware that much of the park is currently in what can be thought of as a soft opening and/or technical rehearsal phase. Today the unavailable list included Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: River Expedition, Kung Fu Panda: Unstoppable Awesomeness, Shrek's Merry Fairy Tale Journey, and two whole themed areas: DreamWorks: How to Train your Dragon (which should open in March) and Lionsgate (which is officially labelled as "Phase Two"). Despite the closures, however, there were more than enough operational attractions to fill a day, and indeed we were present from open to close despite the fact that we had the place virtually to ourselves.
There were at least a dozen members of staff on duty in the enormous car park (which is actually somewhat larger than Motiongate) to marshall the twenty or so cars into spaces near the designated bus stop, albeit not those fitted with sun shades which today were left empty for some reason. We left our windows slightly open in a brave but fundamentally unsuccessful attempt to protect the inside of the car from the baking sun, and boarded a free air conditioned coach which drove us perhaps seven hundred metres to the park entrance. We did see a pedestrian route available for those who are not terminally lazy, though few people would want to expend unnecessary effort during peak months when the weather becomes brain-meltingly hot.
We began our day with Smurf Village Express (#2317), a custom family coaster from Gerstlauer that opened just one day prior to our visit. Today all guests were being given two laps of the course, though I'm given to understand that the computer allows this to switched to either one or three on demand, depending on the length of the queue. I was expecting a fairly run of the mill family coaster, but was pleasantly surprised by an experience that was well above average, with smooth tracking and a fun layout from start to finish. There was no perceptible difference between front and back, though it's worth noting that there were only a few people in the train; one imagines that the back would become a bit more forceful with additional weight on board.
Our second stop was at Green Hornet: High Speed Chase (#2318), a Gerstlauer Bobsled Coaster and a development of the hardware platform that premiered almost two decades ago with the much-loved G'sengte Sau. The experience started out very well with a themed queue and station building, but unfortunately things went downhill rapidly (pun absolutely intended) from there. The main part of the ride was eminently forgettable, and while we did do a second lap this was only to validate that we hadn't missed something blindingly obvious the first time round. On-board experience aside, however, the ride can only be described as an eyesore, as unpainted metal surrounded by concrete and fencing sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise beautiful park. We noticed that the track in the station building was painted green; as simple as it sounds I think I'd have been more impressed with the overall package if the rest of the track had been given the same hue.
We decided that we'd tick off the final operational credit before exploring the rest of the park, and with that in mind we made our way into the DreamWorks building for Madagascar Mad Pursuit (#2319), a Gerstlauer Infinity Coaster with eight-seat cars developed from those found on the Eurofighter family. Passengers are held in place by a simple pull down lap bar, which is comfortable without being obtrusive, though some operators were applying more pressure than others in their checks, which on two of my laps made things a bit tighter than I'd have preferred. Readers should be aware that the ride is operated with a strict loose article policy, but I can't fault that given a high top speed and the possibility of multiple cars being on track at the same time. The nearby bank of lockers is free for the first hour.
The experience begins with a gentle turn to the left and a small section of dark ride with the expected animals from the movie lined up on both sides of the track. There is an audible warning to keep your head back, and a series of lights illuminate a launch tunnel ahead. After a brief pause the car accelerates rapidly, and as it reaches full speed it makes a dramatic turn to the left followed in short order by an airtime element that feels like a top hat. The rest of the layout was a blur for me despite repeated circuits, a testament to the quality of the overall experience. A number of effects were still under development today, resulting in a few oddities such as an explosion sound with no matching visual, but those minor niggles will likely have been resolved by the time these words are read.
After a number of laps we concluded that the most comfortable seats in the train were the middle pair in the front row. I didn't get a chance to try an outside seat, but The War Department told me that some of the transitions along the course were not as smooth as they might have been in those locations, and I can report the same thing for the middle seats in the back row. Despite the minor comfort issues however I think it important to note that the ride quality on the whole was very good and markedly better than that of other recent coasters from the same product line, such as Smiler. The real question will probably be what the ride quality is after a few years of regular operation; I personally look forward to finding out.
The park has a beautiful custom carousel located right next to the coaster. Melman Go-Round features dramatic poses by the various animals from Madagascar, though we were disappointed to learn that there is a strict forty kilo weight limit for the moving creatures; adults are only able to sit in a small number of static vehicles on the outside ring. On the plus side, there is an artfully concealed speaker system on board that is essentially indistinguishable from a real barrel organ, and the music made the surprisingly long cycle particularly enjoyable. When the ride came to a halt we were instructed to move it move it towards the exit, a nice touch if one that promptly planted that dreadful song in the back of my brain where it remained for the balance of the day.
We spent a good twenty minutes exploring the rest of the DreamWorks building, which right now comprises Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and Shrek. All three areas are themed to an incredibly high standard, and the overall presentation, even in its unfinished state, arguably raises the bar over the nearby IMG Worlds of Adventure, which itself sets new standards for indoor parks worldwide. I was particularly taken with the enormous and spectacular Fountain of Dreams in the building entrance, which the photograph above scarcely does justice to.
After a while we headed back outside for Ghostbusters: Battle for New York, a target shooter with video screens along the lines of Toy Story Midway Mania or, for preference, Maus au Chocolat. This installation wasn't as well themed as the two benchmarks, but the overall quality was broadly comparable to the Amazing Adventures of Gumball ride yesterday. We noticed a trackless vehicle system, albeit one that really wasn't needed as the vehicles followed a standard switchback pattern around the course. We also noticed quite a few gremlins at various points: on our first ride two guns that we were not using (and that were resting in the vehicle) abruptly started hitting random targets, eventually clocking up scores of almost 120,000 apiece, and on our second ride, the same two guns refused to fire altogether in the first scene, though it ended up not mattering as the scoring system failed to capture our photographs correctly.
Our next stop was at another dark ride. Hotel Transylvania takes proper advantage of the trackless system allowing vehicles to criss-cross in front of each other in a big open room, and this works very well as an impressive technology demo, though it's fair to say that the result isn't necessarily all that thrilling as the cars spend just a bit too long doing nothing of consequence. There was some very detailed theming in side alcoves off the main room that looked great, but the rest of the attraction was honestly a bit sparse. A faster top speed might have helped things along a bit, but having said that, I'm given to understand that quite a few of the effects had yet to be installed, so I'm reserving final judgment for the next time I visit the park.
We found an unexpected gem in Zombieland Blast Off, a new generation version of the venerable S&S Combo Tower that was one of the best examples of the genre that I've experienced in my travels, thanks in no small part to an enormous and dramatic pop of airtime at the apex. We initially thought that the ride had been built by a different supplier, as the seat was quite different to the norm and there was no backup seat belt, but the operator was able to tell us the truth presumably from a plate on his control panel. We learned subsequently that the lack of a belt in the redesigned seating solved a potential headache for park management as it would otherwise have been impossible for guests to ride while wearing traditional attire. The theming in the queue was also excellent, and we were particularly amused at an employment rules sign that mentioned one of the designers by name.
The park has a heavily themed 4D cinema with a pre-show themed to the Underworld movie franchise. It was abundantly clear that a lot of effort had been put into making this look good, and it was interesting to be able to watch a genuinely different 4D movie given that the same basic pictures seem to come up over and over again. Having said that, the designers behind this effort seem to have assumed a certain level of familiarity with the original series, and that's a problem; neither of us had the required background knowledge and consequentially found the show far too complicated to follow. That didn't stop Megan from having lots of fun in her description, however; she acidly pointed out that a maiden in distress somehow had perfect eyeliner and hair straight out of a shampoo commercial. (For further amusement, try Jurassic World where Bryce Dallas Howard's character seems to be able to run effectively in high heels).
Our favourite operational dark ride by some margin ended up being The Smurfs Studios Tour. The zany sense of humour began in the queue, which featured a range of revised movie posters, including Smurfs Wars Episode I: The Smurfs' Menace, Smurfin' In The Rain, Lord Of The Smurfs, and Brainy Smurf And The Smurfs Stone, the latter presumably starring Lord Voldesmurf. The ride itself features four seat cars that move through a gloriously colourful series of film sets populated by the blue and white creatures, and perhaps unsurprisingly things go badly wrong when the dastardly Gargamel tries to get in on the act!
The selection of restaurants within the park is somewhat limited, presumably because the nearby Riverland area has a wide range of choices. Nevertheless we found our way to The Candy Apple, a high quality table service option located in the Shrek area of DreamWorks. This had the additional benefit of being indoors and thus fully air conditioned. Every few minutes we heard the voice of Fiona from the nearby photo point, commenting about how it's every little girl's dream to get married while stinking of onions.
I'd heard good things about the Step Up Dubai: All In show, and figured that we might as well catch a performance. I won't for a moment pretend to be familiar with the franchise, but I had to laugh at the idea of nine dancers entering the Middle East Hip Hop Competition, an event that really does exist but which seemed to me to be about as likely as the American Cheerleaders Burqa-Wearing Competition. I'm going to avoid describing the plot of the show except to note that it featured a love story acceptable to local audiences interspersed with some dancing and music. On the whole I enjoyed it, with the only major complaint being the volume level, which was on the far side of piercing. At the start the seats in the auditorium were actually vibrating, and even Megan felt it was too loud (which says something, considering that our preferred volume levels are somewhat different!). Later in the day I spoke about our experience to a member of management, who told me that the volume level had been preset for 60% capacity and hadn't been adjusted for the much smaller number present that day. This mistake should have been corrected by the time these words are read.
Our next stop was at a ridiculously camp pop-up show on a small stage next to the Ghostbusters ride. Though the lead characters were all straight out of the original movies the performance was mostly an excuse for cast members to dance in a thoroughly silly way to assorted pop songs (not least the Spice Girls' Wannabe, Gangnam Style, and Shake It Off). We saw as many staff members watching as guests, and most of them were wearing a fixed expression somewhere between terror and amusement (which, to be fair, almost certainly mirrored my own).
We had begun working our way back round various rides for a second time when the offer came in to meet up with fellow enthusiast Dan for a sneak preview of the How To Train Your Dragon area. We were able to have a look at the upcoming Dragon Gliders, an inverted powered coaster that uses the ride system from Arthur. Test vehicles have been run around the track as of this writing though there's quite a bit of programming to be finished before it can open to the public. It was interesting to learn that the ride was probably the most expensive in the park; apparently the individual vehicles cost an absolute fortune due to all of the on-board intelligence and safety equipment.
After bidding our farewell and thanks to Dan we made our way to the final attraction of the night, the Smurfs Village Playhouse, where guests are invited to talk to one of the loveable characters on screen. The technology is essentially the same basic idea as Donkey Live at Universal Studios Singapore where the screen is voiced by an actor hiding somewhere off set. None of the locals seemed to want to take part today, but Megan was happy to volunteer and talked about being a student studying anthropology and her favourite smurf ("you of course!"). The actor working today had an incredible vocabulary given his typical audience, using words such as expound, conundrum, perspicacious, piqued, and the word of the day, abso-smurf-olutely!
My overall impression of Motiongate is of a park that is already very good indeed, and it will no doubt be even better when it is fully finished. As with IMG Worlds of Adventure the staff were extremely friendly and outgoing, and flawlessly polite; the person training them definitely knows their business. The one thing I would mention, as a neutral data point rather than a pro or a con, is that the park feels completely western; there were very view obvious references to local culture beyond the obligatory prayer rooms and a sign warning against ablution in the regular bathrooms. Furthermore, there was no call to prayer at any point during the day. Dubai has a lot of expatriates and tourists, but it will be necessary for the park to bring in Emirati visitors too in order to survive in the longer term. The fact that the place was almost completely empty today was a bit worrying, even if we were visiting on a Tuesday in school term; hopefully the attendance will pick up as time goes on.