An integral part of the S$6.59 billion (US$4.9bn/€3.7bn) Resorts World Sentosa, Universal Studios Singapore brings the magic of the movies to this small but significant island nation. The concept for the park may not be new, but several of its attractions are, as Owen Ralph reports.
Resorts World Sentosa occupies a prime 49-hectare (121-acre) slice of Sentosa, giving a shot in the arm to this tourist island that already attracts around 5 million Singapore visitors a year. Genting International, the Malaysian conglomerate behind the Resorts World concept, hopes that Resorts World Sentosa will now attract around 13 million annual guests, 4.5 million of whom will visit Universal Studios.
The development is the largest yet from Genting to carry the Resorts World name, following the original Resorts World Genting outside Kuala Lumpur (previously known as Genting Highlands) and Resorts World Manila, which opened in the Philippines last year.
“All three are what we would call integrated resorts,” explains Robin Goh, assistant director of communications for Resorts World Sentosa (RWS). “In terms of content each has a gaming component, they have hotels, and they also have some family entertainment thrown in. As Resorts World Sentosa is the biggest development yet, we’ve got three mega attractions alongside the hotels and casino.”
The Singapore resort debuted this January after an almost three-year construction period. First to open were four of the planned six hotels, Crockfords Tower, Hard Rock Hotel Singapore, Hotel Michael and Festive Hotel Singapore. Together they offer 1,350 rooms and 10 restaurants.
A City Walk-style entertainment district called Festive Walk provides additional recreation, food and beverage opportunities including the Lake of Dreams light show. Voyage de la Vie, a Cirque du Soleil inspired theatre spectacular, plays five nights a week.
Located inside Crockfords Tower, the RWS casino opened on February 14 to mark the start of Chinese New Year. Along with the gaming rooms at Singapore’s new Marina Bay Sands development, it is one of two new casinos in a city that had previously imposed strict anti-gambling laws. Locals must pay a S$100 a day levy to enter, which shouldn’t stop the high rollers, and the new casinos are also expected to play an important role in attracting foreign visitors.
“People come to Resorts World Sentosa for different reasons,” notes Goh. “Some may come overnight by coach from Malaysia, those with families might just want to just visit Universal, but for visitors who prefer gaming we could throw in a park ticket to sweeten the deal.”
Universal Studios Singapore entered an extended soft opening phase back in March. The second Universal park in Asia, after Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, it will eventually be joined at RWS by the Maritime Xperiential Museum and marine life park, based around tales of Asia’s legendary seafarers, opening in 2011.
Guests at Universal Studios are reminded they are part of an “integrated resort“ thanks to RWS branding on all staff uniforms, maps and other literature. Even the park’s online presence is restricted to the Resorts World website. However, just as Genting could not have built the resort without the casino, it would also have faced a challenge developing a theme park without the support of a major operator like Universal.
“Universal has got a very strong brand internationally and that’s something that Singapore has lacked for a long, long time,” acknowledges Goh. “Rather than creating a generic park we wanted to bring in a brand in that would get people excited. Now there is no need to travel eight hours to Osaka or 15 hours to Hollywood to enjoy the Universal Studios experience.”
Universal Studios Singapore offers several unique experiences, and the overall feel is of a theme park rather than a film park. Of its 24 rides and attractions, 18 are either brand new or tweaked in some way compared to those at other Universal properties. Notable new lands include Madagascar and Far Far Away, the first full Shrek-themed zone in any park worldwide.
At 20-hectares, the Singapore park is relatively small. The whole park, including a lagoon, are constructed over the top of a 3,500-space underground car park. The lagoon doubles as a catchment area for a resort-wide water management system used for cooling and irrigation. Large canopies, meanwhile, shelter guests from the heat or rain in Singapore’s year-round tropical climate.
Clustered around the lagoon are seven themed lands, packed so tightly that it’s easy to miss the water feature at the centre unless you actively look for it. Creating a smooth transition from one land to another is a challenge for any theme park designer, yet here the close proximity of, for example, competing themes like Ancient Egypt and Sci-Fi City, required a particular amount of thought.
Several seasoned Universal professionals were involved in developing the park, including executive designer Kevin Barbee, who was heavily involved with the design of Universal Studios Japan, vice-president of operations John Hallenbeck, formerly director of attractions operations at Universal Orlando, and director of food and beverage David Hamano, who has worked at all three existing Universal Studios parks.
Marketing for Resorts World Sentosa, was made relatively easy thanks to Genting’s existing relationships with media and travel agents throughout Asia.
“There was a bit of education involved,” explains Goh, “For some markets, and I’m talking about places such as Vietnam, the Universal concept was hard for them to understand because it is has quite a lot American content.”
In Singapore, where a keen movie-going public is more than familiar with Hollywood fare, it was less of a problem. Yet with a local population of just 5 million, the resort must appeal to guests form much further a field. Exploiting Singapore’s position as a major Asia Pacific air hub, the target market is anyone within an 8-hour flight time, some 2.7 billion people. This in turn pits Universal Studios as a potential competitor to all of Disney’s operations in Asia.
On arrival at the park in Singapore, Universal guests may do a double take at the sight of the Far Far Away Castle, but it is surely just the natural theme park extension of the Shrek films’ “homage” to all things Disney. In this all-new land, visitors can enjoy the Shrek 4D Adventure; Donkey LIVE!, an interactive show featured Shrek’s wise-cracking sidekick; Enchanted Airways, a Vekoma junior coaster that runs out over towards the lagoon; and Magic Potion Spin, a themed children’s Ferris Wheel inside the heart of the castle.
On entering the park all guests pass through Hollywood. As well as a large number of merchandise and food & beverage outlets, this area is also home to Pantages Hollywood Theater, where audiences can enjoy the musical show Monster Rock.
An empty sound stage in New York provides the back drop to Lights, Cameras, Action! hosted by Steven Spielberg. Adopting a similar format to Twister …Ride It Out at Universal Studios Orlando, audiences watch in amazement as a hurricane hits New York City, triggering a series of special effects including a boat crashing through the wall. Over at Stage 28, guests can go behind the scenes and unravel the secrets of film production.
Below: Far Far Away Castle and Enchanted Airways
In the space age surroundings of Sci-Fi City, the park’s signature Battlestar Galactica duelling coaster stands idol. The ride suffered a major failure just one week after opening, and still no date has been set for its return. The attraction comprises a red and blue intertwined track. Cyclon (blue) is a suspended coaster, while Human (red) is a more conventional coaster, racing up 90km/h. Both feature Vekoma’s new four-abreast seating configuration.
An exciting addition to Sci-Fi City in 2011 will be the world’s first Transformers theme park attraction, combining high definition 3D with special effects and robotics as riders are caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. Months after its debut in Singapore, a version of the ride will open at Universal Studios Hollywood. For the time being, visitors to Sci-Fi City in Singapore can enjoy Accelerator, a futuristically themed tea cups ride.
In Ancient Egypt, Revenge of the Mummy is the headline attraction, featuring the same Premier Rides coaster technology as existing installations in Hollywood and Orlando but with different special effects. Notably there is no appearance of Brendan Fraser from the Mummy films. Treasure Hunters, meanwhile is a Jeep ride through an abandoned Egyptian excavation site, with added animatronics along the route. Ancient Egypt also features some of the park’s most imposing theming, with large tombs and stone sculptures peering down over guests.
Outside the gates to Jurassic Park, two giant dinosaurs welcome guests to The Lost World. Here there are two twists on rides from Islands of Adventure in Orlando. In Singapore, for example, Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure features a ride system by Hafema with circular rafts rather than large boats. Passengers float through the jungle, passing various dinosaurs and inevitably veering of course into the “danger zone.” Towards the end of the ride they travel through a darkened tunnel with various light effects, before travelling in an elevator towards the final splashdown, but not before an encounter with a T-Rex. This section of the ride is arguably less effective than on Jurassic Park River Adventure in Orlando.
Canopy Flyer, meanwhile, is a higher capacity version of the Pteranodon Flyers suspended coaster from Islands Of Adventure, with four-person ride vehicles by Setpoint. The Lost World is also home to the WaterWorld stunt show spectacular, Dino-Saurin’ flying jet ride and Amber Rock Climb, available for a S$10 upcharge.
Linking The Lost World to Madagascar is the aforementioned Far Far Away. Themed around the animated DreamWorks films of the same name, Madagascar is presently without a fully functioning signature attraction. Madagascar: A Crate Adventure is a riverboat journey (ride system by Hafema) through animatronic scenes featuring characters from the film including Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria. Still no date has been set for its official debut. For the time being, Madagascar guests can enjoy King Julien’s Beach Party-Go-Round, a richly themed jungle carousel. Acting as bookend to this section of the park and Hollywood is the giant cargo ship from the Madagascar films, which actually houses part of Crate Adventure.
The park’s 30 restaurants and food carts serve a mix of western and local cuisine, including a number of Chinese brands and six Halal restaurants. When it comes to live entertainment, however, Universal’s Hollywood routes shine through. All shows are performed in English, which seems acceptable in the former British colony, although resort-wide signage is bilingual.
According to Goh, some of the most popular attractions are not necessarily the ones you would expect: “People who have a very large appetite for thrills will seek out Revenge of the Mummy, for example, but if you come at the weekend you will see long queues for Shrek 4D, Enchanted Airways and Canopy Flyer because of our family demographic. Attractions that also get a lot of praise are Lights, Camera, Action and the WaterWorld stunt show, which is really amazing. In Singapore people do not like getting wet; the humidity is high and you don’t dry off quickly. That is why we only have one water ride, Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure, however you can get wet if you choose on WaterWorld and Lights, Camera, Action.”
How have Goh and his team faced complaints from guests over the non-availability of attractions such as Madagascar and Battlestar Galactica? “The truth of the matter is the park is still in soft opening phase, every theme park needs that settling in period. This is the first park in Singapore that has such technically advanced rides, and safety is of 100% importance. Thankfully a lot of guests have been very understanding.”
Attendance does not appear to have been effected by such setbacks and the “sold out” signs have made regular appearances this summer at the park gates, at the Sentosa Express station, and online.
“We keep telling people through Facebook, our Twitter pages and also our website to book in advance, especially if they are flying home the next day, to avoid disappointment,” says Goh. “However, just because we are sold out we are not being complacent. We are very mindful of prices and currency exchanges and have to make it affordable for the guest. At S$66 for a day pass, this is the cheapest Universal park in the world.”
Universal Studios Singapore appears to be well on course to reach its attendance target, and as the rest of the resort opens up at RWS, this will be a destination to keep an eye on. Sentosa has never been busier.
Sentosa – a new era
Sentosa has functioned as a dedicated tourist destination since 1972, when it was given its new name (the 500-hecatre island used to be known as Pulau Blakang Mati).
Since then around S$1 billion ($750m/€560m) of public and private funds have been invested, creating attractions such as the Images of Singapore exhibition, butterfly and insect park, nature trail, zipline adventure park, luging attraction, observation tower, cable car, 4D cinema, various other multimedia attractions, plus the Merlion, a giant half lion-half fish sculpture. The island also boasts over 3km of white sandy beaches.
Although Resorts World Sentosa occupies a relatively small chunk of the island, it enjoys a prime position directly opposite Singapore’s Southern Waterfront, and is the first stop on the Sentosa Express light rail system. A 710-metre causeway and a cable car system (currently out of use) also link Sentosa to the mainland.
At S$6.59 billion, Resorts World Sentosa is easily the biggest single investment in the history of the island, with attractions such as Universal Studios Singapore bringing a new level of world-class entertainment. But arguably it was the awarding of a casino licence to the Genting International, which beat off a rival bid from Kerzner International, that convinced the group to invest such a large sum of money and make it all possible. It seems that wherever there is fun, there has to be games.
Below: Canopy Flyer