SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

22nd February 2024

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is the newest major theme park in the United Arab Emirates, having opened its doors to the general public on 23rd May 2023. It’s a spectacular place that reportedly cost more than USD $1 billion to build – though readers should be aware that it has precious little in common with the three SeaWorld parks in the United States, at least as they exist today. Instead, it is probably best described as an elaborately themed indoor aquarium with a strong focus on animals, preservation, and learning. The result can almost be thought of as a reimagining of the original SeaWorld concept that is gradually disappearing from the stateside parks.

SeaWorld

As of this writing the park's official website claims over fifteen interactive experiences and rides, but this statement is more than a little disingenuous, to put it mildly. The page in question only lists twelve – four of which are play structures for children, and a further two are midway games that come with an additional charge. If one excludes standard family rides that can be found more or less anywhere then there are really only three major hits of interest to the travelling coaster enthusiast. Fortunately all of them are outstanding.

The main entrance to the park leads directly to a set of escalators up to the third floor where the vast majority of exhibits are located. Ticket sales and turnstiles are on this level, with the latter leading directly into Abu Dhabi Ocean, the first of eight distinct realms that make up the park. This space features touch pools and a gift shop, but otherwise serves primarily as a route into One Ocean, the central hub of the park from where all other realms can be accessed.

The highlight of One Ocean is the One Epic Ocean presentation (the park is very careful not to use the word “show” anywhere) that runs a number of times each day. The definitely-not-a-show is a fifteen minute audiovisual performance with images projected on a 360º screen stretching more than 200 metres around the whole realm. This would be impressive on its own, yet it is augmented further towards the end when a large number of drones appear overhead, some featuring coloured lights and the others lifting inflatable sea creatures that float just metres above guests. I’m not convinced this spectacle would be possible to replicate in the western world due to laws on drone use above crowds, which makes it a real treat for the eyes.

The park has a realm geared primarily at children. The entrance to MicroOcean (no space between words) is through a series of colourful arches and “Shrinkerators” that are supposed to make tiny humans feel like they’re growing smaller even as the underwater life around them grows bigger. The effect was largely lost on me, but at the risk of being a bit emotional I felt a rare sense of awe at the calibre of the theming, which reminded me very much of the indoor section of Tokyo DisneySea. It really is that good.

MicroOcean

It was in here that we found Eel Racer (#3111), our second Zamperla family coaster in as many days. The ride is a custom design designed to maximise use of available space, with both the station and lift hill adjacent to walls. Much of the support structure has been hidden inside theming, resulting in what I would almost describe as an indoor terrain coaster (if that makes sense). The result looks terrific, and the on-board experience is also very good, with the two lap cycle delivering a pleasant mix of forces. The only bad news was that operations were best timed using a calendar; the twelve-seat train was being dispatched once every ten minutes at best, and a result we ended up waiting nearly an hour for our cycle. I’d have liked to have ridden a second or even a third time but the wait was just too long.

Dave suggested that our next stop should be in the Arctic realm, home to a Walrus habitat (closed for overhaul during our visit) and Hypersphere 360, the world premiere of the Intamin Dome Ride Theater. Eighty passengers at a time sit on a ring of seats that can tilt and rotate inside a mostly-spherical dome screen that apparently features over 75 million pixels. The technology behind this system is seriously impressive, and while I would not describe it as a thrill ride (at least in the SeaWorld Abu Dhabi implementation) it is nevertheless an enthralling attraction that shouldn’t be missed. The seats do have over-the-shoulder restraints (and I’m not sure why….) but they don’t affect the experience; we enjoyed it so much that we decided to queue a second time despite a thirty minute wait. (As a fun aside, the ride has a pre-show safety video that displays different numbers for the height restrictions to those spoken by the narrator. I guess things must have changed late in the development process and there wasn’t time to do an update.)

The park’s signature roller coaster is located outside of the enclosed building, though the station is located indoors within the Tropical Ocean realm. The entrance for Manta (#3112) requires a bit of effort to find, as it has been hidden away a level down from the main show floor, and the access route is not obvious. This almost certainly reduces the number of people who find their way into the lengthy cattle grid, and from an enthusiast perspective a shorter queue can only be a good thing!


Manta

The ride station is themed to look like an underwater environment. Lighting in various shades of blue is used to illuminate the remains of a sunken ship and assorted sea life, and the ceiling area has been sculpted with wave patterns. There are dedicated front and back row queues, though for our visit at least it wasn’t possible to wait in them; seating was strictly on a first come/first served basis. Fortunately the locals apparently had little interest in the back of the train, and as a result all three of our laps were in the back row.

Dispatch leads to a slow left turn past a window into a fish tank, followed by a stop in a tunnel with animated lighting effects. After a brief pause a shutter lifts from in front of the train and riders experience the first of three launches. The specific details for these have not been published, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if all were set to the advertised top speed of 80km/h – as the train feels like it maintains a fairly steady pace throughout an aggressive, thrilling, and satisfyingly lengthy course. There are a total of four inversions along the route, and no dead spots whatsoever, to the point that I found myself ready for a breather by the time we hit to the brake run.

The track has also been lined with theming, much of it apparently added after the original POV videos were published, and the resulting near miss moments constitute icing on what was already a delicious cake. There’s literally nothing to fault about the design, which represents the very pinnacle of modern Intamin. The complete package is a definite contender for the best coaster in the United Arab Emirates, and I don’t use those words lightly; the designers have well and truly hit things outside of the park (pun sort of intended, sorry not sorry).

With the rides complete our next hit was a respectable definitely-not-a-show featuring dolphins in the Tropical Amphitheater. I thought that the performance could have done with more synchronised jumping, but that’s really a matter of personal preference more than anything else. The real highlight, at least for those of us who appreciate good schadenfreude, was a section where the animals splashed a significant quantity of water over the front few rows (as might have been done by Orcas in times past). The multitudes were not ready for this, and it was moderately entertaining to see people in traditional dress scrambling to get out of the way.

Dolphins

We spent the rest of our day wandering around the rest of the park and admiring the various exhibits. Some areas of the park were definitely more polished than others, but even the weaker sections were worth the time we spent in them. A particular highlight for photographers is The Rainforest, where you can get extremely close to apparently fearless tropical birds. Those planning their own trips to SeaWorld Abu Dhabi should allocate a full day, despite the relatively small number of rides – anything less and you will miss things.