In just a few short months, the first integrated theme park and resort in Dubai looks set to define the region’s theme park industry of the future.
“It is a legacy for residents and tourists who will come here again and again,” – Raed Kajoor Al Nuami, CEO of DXB at the official inauguration of Dubai Parks and Resorts, December, 2016.
Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR) officially opened its doors in December 2016. As the largest integrated theme park destination in the Middle East, spanning 30.6 million square feet of land and filled with over 100 rides and attractions, building a legacy is key to the success of the park and to the future landscape of Dubai.
“This entire resort was built to drive the vision of his highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum for Expo 2020, which is to get 20 million visitors to Dubai. I don’t know how you’d achieve a number like that without something of this size and calibre being built,” says Brian Machamer, Vice President, Theme Park Operations, DPR.
The calibre and magnitude of DPR is a true sight to behold, with three theme parks, a water park and a themed hotel integrated into the overall experience as well as over 50 themed retail, dining, and entertainment experiences on offer within the 234,000 square feet “gateway” between each park.
Spared no expense
As we walk around each park, Motiongate, Bollywood Parks, Legoland and Legoland Water Park, as well as the Riverland “gateway” it is somewhat overwhelming with a seemingly never ending offering of entertainment, food and activities. With Dubai Parks and Resorts, it really is a case of sparing no expense.
Make no mistake, DPR has something quite literally for everyone, all with the goal of serving that ultimate vision for Dubai.
“With DPR, you want to influence people’s travel patterns and help create a more well-rounded experience. That is what’s going to take the average three-night stay of a tourist up to seven nights, which is ultimately what the city needs to take the next step and hit 20 million overnight tourists and beyond,” Machamer says.
DPR is of course not the only theme park in the region, and Matthew Priddy, CTO of DPR, believes that only together can that goal be achieved.
“We look at other venues as complimentary. Together it’s our goal to have a regional destination for tourists, not just something to do when you’re here,” he says.
One such venue will be but a stone throw away from DPR. Though there are still new developments to come late this year, including a Lionsgate Hunger Games themed section of Motiongate, DPR has already begun construction on Six Flags Dubai, the first Six Flags branded theme park in the region. With an open date planned for late 2019, the 3.5 million square ft., AED 2.6 billion park will consist of 27 rides and attractions tailored towards the thrill seekers of all ages.
Building a vision
As we sit down in the Lapita Hotel, the 504 room Polynesian themed hotel located right in the heart of DPR and part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, we rewind the clocks to 12 months ago, when everything was still under construction and almost a lifetime away from the wonder that stands before us today.
Needless to say, to get to where they are today, both Machamer and Priddy have had quite a frenzied year that has not been without its challenges.
“It’s been a very busy year to say the least,” says Priddy. “To try and pull off what we’re trying to pull off is such a monumental thing.”
This is a feeling shared by Machamer.
“To deliver a project of this size to the quality that we have, with the great feedback we’ve begun to get from visitors, it really fills us with a great sense of achievement,” he adds.
Both Machamer and Priddy can call upon rich histories and experience in the theme park industry, with a combined 70+ years that has seen both men working on parks with Universal Studios and Walt Disney.
It is this experience that allows Priddy to reflect on the last year and boldly state that there were no surprises along the way.
“This is actually my eleventh theme park, and as they say in Texas this is not my first rodeo,” he says.
DPR may have been officially opened in December, but LEGOLAND was the first part of the parks to be opened in late October, followed by Bollywood in November and Motiongate in December. This staggered opening approach granted DPR a sense of breathing space, as each section of the park is made up of various different vendors and multiple themes. With the gradual opening, this made the management element of each park that little bit easier.
“Looking at it we thought, it’s better to open 100 percent of 80 percent, rather than 80 percent of 100 percent,” says Priddy.
Through subsequent opening, Priddy and Machamer were able to ensure that the necessary pieces were in place, both technically and on an operational aspect. This created a mentality where they could strive to get everything right on the first attempt, and then follow on that success with the subsequent and ultimately seamless opening of the other areas of the park.
There is also a third benefit of this approach, marketing. Subsequent opening results in subsequent marketing “hits”.
“Now you can go back into the market and say, we have even more stuff online. It provides us with that multiple marketing hit which of course will bring more footfall,” says Priddy.
One such example of this will be the completion of the Lionsgate Zone, a new area of the park within Motiongate as part of the aforementioned Hunger Games franchise. A huge international draw, this will of course attract a new range of tourists, both first time visitors and previous visitors to the park.
A bumpy ride
To look at the exceptional, often breath-taking work that has gone into the park, both on the design side and structurally, it would be foolish to believe that it has been a 100 percent seamless challenge free process.
With the park now open and tourists experiencing the numerous parks within the park, this presented Machamer with an opportunity to begin tweaking various different elements to paint a better picture of visitor behaviour and how it can be used to better serve new and existing visitors going forward.
And with such a diverse offering, in what is a very young and growing industry in Dubai, these lessons learned at an early stage can and will define said industry for years to come.
“Experimenting with the different park operating hours has been a very interesting challenge,” says Machamer.
For example, the LEGOLAND area is predominantly targeted towards families with young children which often results in families visiting the park earlier in the morning. Much like the subsequent opening of the park itself, Machamer used this knowledge to test the impact of opening LEGOLAND first, followed by Motiongate and then Bollywood an hour later, providing those families with just the right amount of time before wanting to move on.
There is an added bonus to this experimentation. The staggered opening hours presents a great opportunity for the retailers and vendors situated in Riverland to tailor their services to capitalise on this flow of people.
The doors are open, the heat is on
Walking around such a huge park in the middle of the Dubai desert, the searing heat is something that you are all too aware of. During the winter month’s this does not present such a problem, but as we approach the summer season, with average temperatures of around 41 degrees C, the staggered opening hours will be something that will only continue to be experimented with further.
Much like the benefits of subsequent opening of the overall park, this will allow Machamer to get things right.
With the summer heat intensifying, DPR has the DreamWorks Zone. This enormous indoor facility, which can fit five A380 aeroplanes inside the entire building from wing to wing, is home to major DreamWorks IP’s including Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar, and How To Train Your Dragon.
“It has 12 separate attractions within the building alone, it’s a theme park within a theme park and we definitely want to use that to our advantage in the summer months,” says Machamer.
With the park fully operational and visitors experiencing what there is to offer, this is a key shift in the paradigm of designing, constructing and preparing to operate a theme park of this magnitude.
“When you open a theme park it takes a few months to really burn in the right systems, attractions and let the operators and the maintenance teams to get comfortable in their roles,” says Priddy.
“You can practice all you want but it’s not the same in practice where its polite, it’s predictable. The real experience comes with real guests, experiencing different nationalities, different cultures.”
But before any of this can be put into practice, both Brian and Matthew had to ensure they had the right team, from the people in the offices working alongside them to the people out in the field, facing customers and contributing to the overall experience of the park.
“Theme parks are new to Dubai and one of the biggest challenges, and ultimately successes, was recruiting the management teams and frontline staff,” says Machamer.
With integrated parks, how will the team deal with the management of the many different parts?
The answer, is through a double matrix system of management.
“We have technical specialists and we have project teams. The vertically of these specialists and the horizontality of the project teams pass through one another and it is that intersection that is used as an information and support point,” says Priddy.
This is where Priddy is, in his own words, still out in the field “kicking ass”.
Priddy’s role sees him digging out any problems and issues that he can locate in the park, pinning these problems down and working in that system to identify what solution is needed and assisting in the enrolling of that solution.
With the park now open and months of training, scrutinising every detail of operations, the success of the park will ultimately always be defined by the voice of the most important element – the visitors.
Machamer beams at the very mention of feedback, as the park is [at the time of writing] already seeing guest satisfaction scores sitting high in the 80 percent range. Achieving such a high rate is no small feat when factoring in the new industry, the new culture of theme parks in Dubai as well as pulling together around 4,000 employees with varying degrees of experience at this level.
“It’s extremely important to have the right technical services team in place to ensure ride operational uptime is as high as possible,” says Machamer.
The staff represent the physical embodiment of what the park and both Brian and Matthew want to be seen as, and both men cannot speak highly enough of the work that the operations team do to serve the public.
The end is only the beginning
Standing in the centre of Riverland with each park almost acting as three of the four pillars of the earth, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking now the park is running the work must be over?
This is what Priddy means when says he’s still out there kicking ass. There are still a number of attractions that will be opened in due course inside DreamWorks, the Lionsgate Hunger Games section and of course major construction on Six Flags. Coupled with the day to day operations of running a theme park, the finish line, if there is one, is by far nowhere in sight just yet.
“One of the most horrible feelings I’ve ever had was waking up the next day from opening and it suddenly all feeling over,” says Priddy.
With the rush and the non-stop work to get to the point of opening, the day it arrived almost crept up on the team and that presents the next challenge; getting back into the swing of things.
“It’s about keeping people motivated, ensuring they have the right resources that they need to get back to it, Priddy continues. “My role in this is about saying; I’m here if you need me, I’ll remove any roadblocks in the way of success. When you’re successful, we are all successful.”
Technology, data and DPR
Despite its size and scope, DPR is very much in its infancy. Machamer has already seized the opportunity to experiment with opening times and entertainment offerings, but the key is how the company can store and ultimately utilise the data captured through this process.
DPR employs Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands, mobile devices, smart kiosks and digital signage through a complete omnichannel customer interaction solution. This allows the team to collect the all-important data. A simple scan of the wristband captures the time, location and duration a visitor will spend at any given park.
Machamer also utilises an e-wallet system in which visitors can store up value on their tickets to use in shops and restaurants throughout the park as well as presenting DPR the opportunity to introduce offers and promotions.
When you think of a theme park anywhere in the world, fun and (in most cases) embarrassing photos taken while on a rollercoaster or ride is an image synonymous with the theme park experience. DPR’s image capture partner, Picsolve, is integrating its DigiPass technology with the Dubai Parks and Resorts ticketing system provided by VGS (snAPP).
Visitors can have all photos taken of them loaded onto their ticket and be readily available at any shop within the resort.
“You can put all the pieces of the puzzle together and generate a complete picture of any one visit,” says Machamer.
When it comes to data, is there any possibility of ‘too much’?
“Sometimes yes, but at this stage it’s better to have more,” Machamer answers. “We have no history and a lot of assumptions have been made. Every day is a new day, so once we get that data only then we can start making educated decisions and be certain about our assumptions.”
Five parks, Six Flags
Looking to the future, Machamer will continue to monitor and develop DPR while also working to complete construction of Six Flags for that 2019 opening date.
“We want to make sure the rollercoasters have steeper drops, taller loops and are faster,” says Machamer.
Both Machamer and Priddy are approaching Six Flags with the key lessons learned from the construction of DPR, with the assumption that this particular park should be a much more seamless operation.
“We have a more experienced team, guys who have been working together for a number of years,” says Priddy.
With the change in emphasis geared towards thrill seekers, this means that DPR will be implementing rides and machinery that are pre-engineered operating systems and not prototypes, much like those within DPR.
By the time Six Flags officially opens, DPR will be a much more mature operation and Machamer sees this as a key opportunity to achieve his specific goal for the company to be industry leaders.
“We strive to be industry leaders when it comes to fundamentals such as guest services and safety, as well as introducing new attractions to drive repeat visitation,” he says.
“By the time Expo2020 Dubai comes around, we will be firing on all cylinders.”
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