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What’s big, red and packed full of hi-octane fun? Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest indoor theme park. Owen Ralph takes a closer look and assesses the attraction’s impact on the industry in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
After a series of false starts, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, officially inaugurated the park on November 30, UAE National Day. As well as around 2,000 VIPs, almost 150 Ferrari cars travelled across the UAE to be part of the proceedings.
“I would like to thank all those who made this dream a reality, and in particular our partners and the leadership of Abu Dhabi,” remarked Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo on the night. “The park just four years ago was a project, an idea, maybe even a too ambitious idea, and it is now a fantastic reality.”
An integral part of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi (FWAD) is the realisation of a dream for UAE president HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and a rather ostentatious one at that. No one flying into Abu Dhabi International Airport can miss the 200,000 square metre sleek red roof and its giant Ferrari logo, which sit directly in the flight path. After dark, the park's impressive exterior light show creates a mirage-like image amid the “sandscape” of Yas Island. The attractions inside are just as impressive.
Just weeks earlier, during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, FWAD was visible to more than 500 million international television viewers as the Formula 1 cars and their drivers sped by just metres away at the Yas Marina Circuit. Paying guests were admitted into the park from November 4, a week after what was a low-key press preview due to the death of the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, a nearby Emirate. Yet the park was originally supposed to open in time for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November 2009.
We'll explain some of the construction challenges later, but the delays have at least given the park's management chance to fine tune its 20 or so rides and attractions – among them the world's fastest rollercoaster – and with one exception, they are now firing on all cylinders.
Developed by Aldar Properties, a multibillion dirham real estate developer responsible for most of Yas Island's infrastructure, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is operated by Farah Leisure Parks, a joint venture between Aldar and the ProFun Management Group. Farah's chief commercial officer is Mohamed Al Mubarak, but many of the park's key staff are western expatriates recruited for their industry expertise. The team includes FWAD general manager Claus Frimand, park manager Andy Keeling, rides and attractions manager Paul Flynn, operations directors Maria Moussievska and Heiko Engels, director of maintenance Wayne Meadows, director of marketing & sales Troy Lindquist, director of food & beverage Gregory Encinas, plus Saudi-born marketing director Nadine Traboulsi.
Admission to the park is AED225 ($61.25/€46.50) for those over 1.5-metres in height, with a premium admission available for AED375, allowing priority access to all attractions and use of a VIP lounge.
Although FWAD is intended to generate an operating profit, it has a much more important role to play, not just for Ferrari. Sure, the park is an impressive marketing tool for an already influential brand in the UAE (“they absolutely love it over here,” observes Keeling), but it is also a flag waver for Abu Dhabi itself, the capital of the UAE.
“Abu Dhabi is a beautiful city, but not a lot of people come here except on business,” highlights Flynn. “This park is the first piece of the jigsaw in building Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination.”
“Yas Island is an integral part of the government's ambitious strategy to develop tourism in the Emirate,” adds Aldar chairman Ahmed Al Sayegh. “Our work with Ferrari was a meeting of minds with a clear vision to create an experience that is unique, fun and inspirational.”
FWAD owes its distinctive shape, which is inspired by the curved side profile of a Ferrari GT Body, to the architectural practice Benoy. The content inside was designed by Jack Rouse Associates (JRA) and spans a plaza area of 86,000 sq m.
“We started work on the project over five years ago,” reveals JRA senior project director Randy Smith. “Once the concept was established, we began the design of the attractions, restaurants, retail, the attraction architecture, and finally managing the production of all the attractions. Ferrari was involved extensively throughout. They were very concerned with the presentation of the brand.”
Yet where FWAD succeeds is that it appeals not just to “petrol heads” or hardcore Ferrari fans, a challenge for JRA's designers: “If we only had to focus on men this would have been an easier project, the back-story would have been in the consciousness of the visitors,” highlights Smith. “Normally, saying 'Ferrari' and 'theme park' would not happen in the same sentence. Our job was to find appropriate ways to show the Ferrari brand to a traditional theme park audience. We did that by illustrating Ferrari's Grand Prix and Formula One history, but we also spend considerable time showing how GT cars are made and how they fit in and develop from that racing experience. Then we show how Italy, Italian culture and food play a role in the heritage of the brand. I think most motor sport attractions have a much narrower focus.”
“The park celebrates Ferarri's past and present and pays homage to its Italian roots in a bespoke and innovative way, from the stunning structure through to the attractions and experiences offered,” explains Keeling. “My son is five years old so too young to understand the Ferrari brand and everything it means, but he absolutely loves the park and finds the rides and attractions most enjoyable.”
Alongside the park's sleek silver and grey tones, the use of primary colours like the corporate Ferrari red and yellow softens up many of the attractions, making them look at home in the theme park environment.
“To me, the speed almost isn't the most important thing about it,” says Keeling as he looks up at that sign reading “World's Fastest Coaster” at the entrance to Formula Rossa, the park's 240km/h launch coaster by Intamin. “It's also about knowing what it's like experience the emotion and intensity of being in a Formula 1 race.”
This writer's F1 record is limited, make that non-existent, but I can tell you Formula Rossa provides an intense, eye-watering and enjoyable experience that doesn't let up from start to finish. Just like a Formula 1 race in fact, but without the crashes, the overpaid drivers or the hangers on. Better still, the ride is devoid of the whiny engine noise that plagues each and every grand prix. Once you've been shot out of the side of the building – at 0-240km/h in four seconds – and crested the top of a 52-metre hill, Formula Rossa is a sublimely quiet coaster ride across a desert plain. Maybe that's because it takes most riders' breath away. The whole experience lasts 92 seconds, covering a circuit of just over 2km.
Using a similar hydraulically-driven launch system to other Intamin coasters including Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey or Desert Race at Heide Park in Germany, Formula Rossa boasts a number of unique features to cope with the Abu Dhabi heat, which can reach as high as 50ºC in summer, and rarely drops below 30.
The running gear on each of the ride's four 16-seater trains is sprayed with water between rides using an integrated cooling system, which also removes sand from the wheels. Riders on the front car, and sometimes the whole train, must also wear goggles throughout the ride to protect their eyes from sand particles. This, surely, is the ultimate desert race.
The other coaster at Ferrari World also escapes outside of the main building. Fiorana GT Challenge (pictured below) is Maurer Söhne's first duelling launch coaster, and it's notable for a number of reasons.
Riders take their seats in a choice of two trains, each consisting of three four-seater cars based around the Ferrari F430 Spider. If the LSM launch at the start of the ride take passengers by surprise, then so too do an additional three acceleration points throughout the circuit. Riders reach speeds of up to 95km/h as they tear through hairpin turns on parallel tracks, each totalling around 1km in length. Authentic engine sound effecrs add to the GT Experience. “The best team always wins” – or that determined by a random computer sequence.
Although you'll find tower rides in shopping malls throughout the UAE, none are as tall or provide the same kind of vista as G-Force, Ferrari World's Shot 'n' Drop tower by Huss Park Attractions. Located right in the centre of the park, it shoots its 16 passengers out through a funnel 62-metres into the sky. There's a brief moment to take in a bird's eye view of that big red roof and the rest of Yas Island before guests plummet back down to earth.
Based around a flume ride from Hafema, V12 takes passengers on a cruise through “the heart of a Ferrari 399 engine,” ending with an obligatory splash. Like Cinema Maranello (the park's 4D theatre) and Viaggio In Italia (Flying Over Italy), it is housed inside a self-contained “box,” shielded from the rest of the park. The latter's motion base ride system was provided by Huss Park Attractions, forming an integral part of a Soarin'-style simulator experience which follows a Ferrari car through a series of Italian landscapes. This was the one major attraction still to be commissioned at the time of writing, and is now confirmed for launch in 2011.
Speed of Magic is FWAD's 4D dark ride experience, with moving vehicles by Oceaneering. A Spider-Man-style multimedia experience, the ride follows a young boy as he travels where no Ferrari has gone before – into the jungle, through ice caves, volcanoes and the ocean – in search of a cartoon racing driver called 'Nello (short for Ferrari's hometown of Maranello). Changes in temperature, light and sound effects, all add to the adventure.
The park's other two dark rides, each with a ride system by Mack and theming by P&P Projects, employ more conventional storylines. Made in Maranello takes riders on a VIP tour through the Ferrari factory to see how one of the world's most prestigious cars is made. Riders on The Racing Legends, meanwhile, begin their adventure in the 1950s, and pass through a series of scenes depicting famous racing moments and F1 circuits from around the world. An effective part is the skid sequence midway through the ride.
In Scuderia Challenge, FWAD guests can enjoy a selection of state-of-the-art Cruden simulators, while Driving With The Champion provides an additional simulation experience. Audience participation is key in The Pit Wall, a live interactive theatre experience that tests visitors' strategic skills. Nearby is The Paddock, giving guests an insight to what makes the Ferrari team tick during each grand prix. As they go behind the scenes, visitors can even get involved in the action by changing a tyre.
Grouped together near the middle of the park are several children's rides and attractions including a “Carousel” where replica Ferrari prototypes appear instead of horses, a driving school attraction called Junior Grand Prix or, for those a little older, Junior Training Camp, featuring go-kart style cars. Bell 'Italia features a miniature Italy, through which guests can walk or ride around in a replica '50s Ferrari 250 California car by Chance Morgan. Elsewhere Junior Training Camp, a themed play area, awaits young guests.
Galleria Ferrari provides visitors the opportunity get up close with an ever-changing display of Ferrari cars, lent by their owners: “Many of these people are millionaires so there's not a lot you can give them in return,” notes Flynn, “however I think it's something of a badge of honour to say their car has featured at Ferrari World.”
Throughout the park, there's an Italian theme to many of the park's food and beverage opportunities, including the signature Ristorante Cavallino, complete with private dining areas for UAE royalty. FWAD also showcases the world's largest Ferrari store, complete with an optional personal shopper service, plus a boutique selling personalised branded goods.
Building the park and its rides and attractions presented several challenges, some of which may account for the delays. “One of those was the heat,” explains Flynn. “During the summer we faced reduced working hours. With labour coming from several different countries, sometimes the language barrier can be a problem and you have to sort out things like housing and transportation. All these factors mean things take a little longer than they would in other parts of the world.”
Now that it is up and running, the park boasts around 850 full and part time employees. Training them was another challenge, but Flynn says he is more than happy with the service offered to guests, which is in keeping with the high levels experienced in the hospitality sector throughout the UAE.
Service With A Smile
“Apart from the industry specialists already working over here, there are not many people locally who have experienced a theme park before, let alone worked in one,” higlights Flynn. “From the outset our training was very thorough because we wanted to educate these people into the theme park way of life. The outcome has been even better than we could have anticipated, based on our guest comments. We trained them not to say certain words just because they have to say it; if you say hello you mean it. We are also very big on empowerment. For instance, if there are guest complaints we try empower that employee to deal with it, whatever it might be. It's their park, and they are quite proud of it.”
Getting word about the park out to the wider public has been relatively easy: “Ferrari is a well-known brand,” highlights Flynn, so from that point of view it's been very easy. The message was out there really before we started pushing it because everyone wanted to know what that big red building in the dessert was.”
Open 12 months a year, six days a week (excluding Mondays), the park can entertain up to 10,000 guests at a time. While no published figures are available, FWAD officials insist early attendance has been above expectations. It is expected many of these visitors will be UAE residents.
“The park fulfils a regional need for family friendly leisure attractions which can be enjoyed all year round,” notes Flynn. “You step out of 45º heat into a nice controlled atmosphere which is big enough not to feel like you are always indoors; we've got the trees, the landscaping and the daylight through the centre. At no time do you have that feeling of confinement.”
The Next Step
The “box within a box” approach to rides such as V12 and Viaggio In Italia means the park can easily switch attractions and perform routine maintenance without affecting the rest of the facility. Yet there is also room for expansion outside the park, not to mention the rest of Yas Island.
“I know most theme parks tend to put in something new every two years,” observes Flynn, “but I could see us lasting a bit longer than that. That may change down the line, but I think the main role for us now is to activate the island.”
Several Yas Island hotels are already offering free FWAD tickets to their guests, and the park is expected to play an important role in filling beds outside of Grand Prix season. It will be joined on Yas Leisure Drive in 2012 by a waterpark, one of several other world class parks and attractions being developed by Aldar. Now that the Dubailand dream appears to be shattered, it is Yas Island that promises to become the UAE's first major parks and attractions hub, Schadenfreude perhaps for Abu Dhabi's leaders, who had to bail Dubai out of its financial woes less than a year ago.
Jack Rouse Associates has been involved with the Yas Island masterplan from the early days: “We feel that it has a very good mix of attractions, shopping, hospitality, and of course motor sports,” notes Smith. “Because of the leisure focus, we think that it has great potential for the region.”
“Ferrari World is huge in so many ways, not only for the UAE, but also for the local attraction community,” concludes Smith. “Think about the fact that it was completed during one of the most tumultuous economic periods of recent years. That says a lot about Aldar, Abu Dhabi and their commitment to future developments.”
World’s Fastest Coaster ...but for how long?
"During practice runs we have probably had it up to 254km/h, but it will always be at least 240,” says FWAD rides and attractions manager Paul Flynn. He’s talking about Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster, and an itegral part of the offering at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
Park manager Andy Keeling’s assertion that, “the speed almost isn’t the most important thing” about the Intamin-built ride is fortunate since its bragging rights could be snatched this summer by RingºRacer at RingºWerk, a smaller scale motor sport theme park next to Germany’s Nürburgring F1 circuit.
Rich Allen, CEO of S&S Worldwide, which built RingºRacer, has gone on record stating, “we are deferring the announcement about Ring°Racer’s operational speed to be made by the Nürburgring at the time they deem appropriate" – suggesting they made ramp it up to steal the record from Ferrari World.
“I am sure someone will try to beat us, but I am fairly sure we have a way in boosting the speed and boosting the power,” counters Flynn. “But it’s not just about riding a rollercoaster, it’s about giving people that feeling of being in a race."
When RingºRacer suffered delays last summer, it was a major setback for RingºWerk. Given the overall quality of Ferrari World, having a slightly less fast coaster shouldn’t be too much a problem, if indeed that’s what happens.