Cover Story - A Legend Rises from the Sea - October 2018

Leo Zhang

Atlantis Sanya emerges on China’s southern shore

Story by Michael Switow
Photography by Leo Zhang

Walk into Aquaventure, Atlantis Sanya’s new 200,000-square-meter water park on China’s Hainan Island, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the centerline of Neptune Tower, a rising pyramid that evokes the spirit of the mythic sunken city. Bisecting this six-tiered winged building is a 25-meter-high, copper-toned vertical slide called the “Leap of Faith” that plunges riders through a tank of blacktip and zebra sharks.

There’s nothing like it in China. Launched at the end of May, one month after Atlantis Sanya’s official opening, Aquaventure is part of a RMB 11 billion development built near the southernmost tip of the country. It has close to 40 attractions, including a 2-kilometer-long river and several unique hybrid slides.

“This is the best water park on the planet,” exclaims Alan Mahony.

You could be excused for thinking that Mahony is biased. After all, he’s an Atlantis Sanya vice president and took the helm of Aquaventure in January. However, few people in the industry have an Asia-Pacific pedigree more extensive than the 50-something Australian.

After working at theme parks found on Australia’s Gold Coast for 10 years, Mahony opened China’s first water park, Big Hippo Water World, in Guangzhou in 1996. Since then, he’s launched, managed, consulted, and worked with more than a dozen leading parks, including Chimelong, which welcomed 1.4 million visitors in his first season; the Beijing National Aquatics Center, built for the 2008 Summer Olympics and also known as the Water Cube; Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia; and Cartoon Network Amazone in Thailand.

“What makes Atlantis Sanya so exciting, and why I’m so proud to be a part of it, is that it’s taking the water park industry in China, and really in Asia, to a whole new level,” he says. “This is going to shape future development across the region.”

Mahony lists four factors that make Aquaventure a leader: amazing theming, innovative interactivity, a next-generation river, and the right mix of hybrid rides.

LEO ZHANG
The team at Falcon’s Creative Group took special care to ensure Aquaventure’s smallest details evoked the setting and themes of a sunken city. 

Theming & Design

Nowhere in the park do you just see slides or ladders. There are two main towers—Neptune and Poseidonia—each in the mold of an ancient Atlantis pyramid and each with four rides. Even the children’s playground, a ProSlide RideHouse, has three-dimensional mermaids, octopuses, and playful fish throughout.

“Most water parks tend to place a little bit of theme in buildings here or there, or call a name a theme, but they never really deliver the themed experience because it’s very difficult to do in a water park,” Mahony says. “At Atlantis Sanya, the towers give you the feeling that you’re in this sunken city. The rides come through the themed tower—you ride one within the tower—before coming out into the sunlight or through the aquarium.”

At the same time, Mahony paid special attention to ensure that the theming did not interfere in any way with the smooth running of the park.

“We’ve designed the park first to make sure that we give the ultimate guest experience and guest movement around the park, then worked with our partners like RAD Architecture and Falcon’s Creative Group to add the motifs.”

KEN ZHANG

On “Aquaduct,” riders pass through an underwater tunnel, allowing them to see the aquarium’s sharks and rays.

Innovative Interaction

“Leap of Faith” may be the most talked about (and watched) thrill in the park. But the most popular is the “Aquaduct,” a more family-friendly slide in the same tower, which also takes riders through the shark tank. 

The pipeline starts with four sweeping turns—90 degrees to the right, 180 degrees to the left, and so on—before straightening out and dropping riders into the aquarium. At this point, the translucent pipe flattens out. Riders have about 90 seconds, and are going slow enough, to see the marble rays, cownose rays, and sharks circling around them. 

To ensure that more families could enjoy this experience, Atlantis Sanya worked with ProSlide to lower the ride’s height minimum to one meter. There are also three choices of tubes: single, double, and a special version made for a parent with a small child. 

“What we’re finding is that the Chinese love the thrill of going through the aquarium, but most importantly, they like to share the experience with family and friends,” Mahony says.

Next Generation River

Immediately after walking into the park, the first ride visitors are likely to try is the “Rapids River,” a 2-kilometer system with the capacity to easily entertain 2,000 people for an hour at a time. 

Soon after the first entry point, tubers are carried up a conveyor belt and then released into the river. Gravity takes over from there. 

“We have a river system that’s in a class of its own,” Mahony says. “It’s not just the length or capacity or the theming. What makes it so exciting is it feels like a real experience of river tubing.”

Rocks, tunnels, and two types of wave generators—torrents pushing tubers forward, pneumatics oscillating the height of the river—ensure excitement. There are six sections of rapids, multiple entry and exit points to facilitate movement around the park, forks in the river, and wide, slow-moving “lazy” sections.

LEO ZHANG

“Tornado Spin” is among Aquaventure’s 30-plus ride experiences, ranging from a water roller coaster to children’s water slides.

The Right Mix

Many of Atlantis Sanya’s guests have never visited a water park before, which leads adults and children alike to often first try one of the nine slides on “Splashers,” the modified ProSlide RideHouse, before moving on to bigger thrills. The smaller slides in the play structure are a few meters high; the largest is 16 meters.

In total, there are 15 ProSlide rides and some 30-plus ride experiences, including a water roller coaster (China’s first RocketBlast) and Mahony’s personal favorite, the “Tornado Spin,” a world-first hybrid fusing a Tornado 60 with a BehemothBowl 40.

A surf rider by Murphy’s Waves is set to open in October. There’s also a dual-bay wave pool, with a stage jutting into the middle where local DJs, Ukrainian dancers, and musclemen perform in the evening.

Mahony credits ProSlide CEO Rick Hunter for creating rides that don’t stop after a drop, and notes that Hunter’s stint in the 1970s as a professional downhill skier clearly influences his designs.

“Look at the movements, the curves, and the turns. They’re really designed to give you high speed, high thrill, and high turns,” Mahony says admiringly.

One such ride is the “Speed Loop.” Riders stand in a capsule on top of Neptune Tower. When the floor drops out from beneath them, an exhilarating freefall is quickly followed by a 360-degree loop.

In addition to China’s first year-round water park, Atlantis Sanya features the world’s largest open-air aquarium, several unique opportunities for animal interaction, and state-of-the-art marine protection and conservation facilities. A 1,800-seat theatre is under construction. Beachfront property development adjacent to the hotel—three high-rise condos and 197 villas, all of which have been pre-sold—has helped fund the resort.

LEO ZHANG

Beyond Aquaventure water park, Atlantis Sanya offers luxurious accommodations in its 48-story hotel and marine animal encounters at The Lost Chambers Aquarium.

Lost Chambers

The focal point of the seaside resort is a shining steel 48-story hotel, designed by the architectural firm HOK. Easily seen from a distance, as well as from all the slides, the hotel resembles a huge sail, or two giant fins, depending on the angle. It has 1,314 rooms, including more than 150 suites and five two-bedroom duplexes that offer stunning underwater floor-to-ceiling views of the aquarium and which list for nearly US$16,000 per night.

Atlantis Sanya features 21 restaurants, including a Gordon Ramsay steakhouse and the deluxe Ossiano Underwater Restaurant & Bar, which serves Russian caviar and seafood from across the globe.

Natural light filters through the waters of the 13-million-liter Ambassador Lagoon; it’s one of the largest open-air aquariums in the world. Two giant thrones sit at the bottom, along with other “ruins” of Atlantis. The giant spider crabs, jellyfish, and rays, like most of the 86,000 marine animals there, are from China, though there are also rare South American freshwater arapaima that come to the surface regularly to gulp air.

Visitors can snorkel or scuba dive inside the Ambassador Lagoon, wear a bubble helmet, and walk on the floor of the shark tank, or feed stingrays. The Dolphin Cay area also offers up-close encounters in shallow water with Pacific white-sided dolphins, and interactions with sea lions take place at Sea Lion Point. It is the first attraction in Asia with an up-close beluga whale experience.

“Other parks in China do a kind of interaction that is visual,” says Lucio Conti, vice president of Dolphin Cay and Lost Chambers at Atlantis Sanya. “People normally sit and watch a dolphin show or a sea lion performing. Here, what we do is different. We believe that your memory is absorbing much more information when you are in the water, in the environment with the animal next to you.”

Atlantis Sanya’s veterinary lab is state-of-the-art. Conti’s team conducts nearly a half-dozen monthly tests (blood, gastric, urine, fecal, and blow-hole) to monitor the health of each marine mammal. The animals are also monitored around the clock.

Hotel guests receive free access to the water park and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. Outside visitors pay RMB 358 for the water park and RMB 198 to enter the aquarium. Intimate animal encounters can cost RMB 888.

Transforming the Industry

Atlantis Sanya is the world’s third Atlantis, following resorts in the Bahamas and Dubai. Company officials expect it to welcome more than 2 million tourists and generate RMB 2 billion in direct consumption a year. When Funworld visited, the hotel was running at 90 percent capacity. The average length of stay is three nights.

The Bahamas resort is no longer part of the same ownership group, but Atlantis, The Palm and Atlantis Sanya are both run by Kerzner International. Atlantis Sanya is owned by Fosun International, a Chinese conglomerate.

“Sanya is China’s most promising international coastal city. But business and economy hotels have saturated the Chinese market, so the biggest opportunity is in vacation products,” explains Chen Bo, assistant president of the Fosun Group and vice president of the company’s tourism group.

Chen says his company chose to partner with Kerzner because of its track record. “By choosing a foreign model that has proven successful, the leadership of the team and growth of the product will be much better.”

Fosun intends to “become a global leader in family vacations,” and Atlantis Sanya is well-aligned with the company’s strategy. Fosun also owns Club Med, which specializes in premium all-inclusive vacations packages, and has significant stakes in Cirque du Soleil and the British travel agency Thomas Cook. Before Aquaventure opened, Cirque du Soleil had a three-month run in Sanya. Guest bookings are often made through Thomas Cook. Fosun announced in July that it plans to spin off and list its tourism business on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

“Consumers in China are hungry to experience the absolute best in water parks. We’re energized by that demand,” says ProSlide CEO Hunter, who spent several days on the slides with Atlantis Sanya’s Mahony prior to the launch. “The work we’ve done so far in the region—crowned with the amazing Atlantis Sanya resort—is just the beginning. The future of water parks in China is very bright!” 

While Atlantis Sanya is still in its first year, Mahony thinks that it is already setting a new standard for the region.

“When Disney entered China, other players began lifting their game. People understood that in order to compete, they had to provide better theming and immersive experiences. In the same manner, Atlantis Sanya is going to lift the design, development and operations of water parks throughout Asia.”

Falcon’s Creative Group Speaks ATLANTEAN

Aliens, water slides, and a love story shape the new Atlantis Sanya resort.

“We were charged to reinvent the style of what Atlantis means and what Atlantis could be,” says David Schaefer, vice president of Falcon’s Creative Group.

Hospitality management company Kerzner International and developer Fosun International tapped Falcon’s Creative Group in autumn 2014 for developing The Lost Chambers Aquarium and Aquaventure Waterpark.

The shift meant creating a story concept that is a departure from the tropical paradise theme found at the other two Atlantis-branded resorts—Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas (opened 1998 and no longer part of the same group) and Atlantis, The Palm, built on a man-made island in Dubai (opened 2008).

“We embrace ‘Atlanteans’ (Falcon’s name for guests at Atlantis Sanya) as an alien-type race that has a portal to the Earth. They’re friendly, underwater beings,” says Schaefer. There’s even a love story between an alien princess and a humanoid, a modern take on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid.” An evolved nouveau, organic theme replaced the archeological dig setting found at the first Atlantis properties.

The new Asian resort features a striking hotel tower with a clean, modern edifice. 

Falcon’s Creative Group’s Chuck Yex spent nine months on scene as art director, where he oversaw details like affixing letters from the Atlantean language to the façade of water park structures.

“It gave continuity from what was inside the hotel in the aquarium, out to the water park,” Yex says. “Since the client embraced the design, they really charged us with making this the best of the three [Atlantis resorts]. And that’s how we think too—if we’re going to get involved in something, it needs to be the best.”

—Scott Fais