Cover Story - Outta the Box - January 2019

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Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi redefines themed entertainment indoors

Story and photos by Scott Fais

LIKE A MIRAGE IN THE ARABIAN DESERT, the sleek 183-foot-tall water tower on the horizon of Yas Island is dwarfed only by the gargantuan golden box behind it. Stretching 1.65 million square feet, the new Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi theme park is so massive, 28 professional American football fields could neatly fit inside. While the park’s attractions are concealed under a roof as guests arrive, the sheer volume of the structure generates anticipation.

“People think and ask, ‘What are the disadvantages of having to stay inside a box?’ And I saw it completely the other way around,” says Mark Gsellman, vice president of theme parks for operator Farah Experiences. “We can produce things here that you could never produce outdoors.”

With 29 custom-designed roller coasters, dark rides, circulars, film-based attractions (four in 3D), and a flume under the same roof, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi can redefine Webster’s definition of the word accomplishment.  

Funworld was granted special access to the creative spaces and passionate faces behind the world’s newest theme park.

Designing for Decades

Craig Hanna remembers the day in 2007 well. Hanna and Thinkwell CEO Joe Zenas were summoned to the backlot at Warner Bros. in Burbank, California, for a secret meeting.

“It was like you were getting called to the principal’s office or something amazing was about to happen, but you didn’t know what,” recalls Hanna, Thinkwell’s chief creative officer. In the meeting, the design firm learned one of the world’s largest indoor theme parks was headed to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Warner Bros. selected Thinkwell to be its creative partner.

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“We walked out of that meeting and said, ‘I can’t believe this. It seems impossible!’” Hanna says.

During the drive back to Thinkwell’s office, Hanna says he pinched himself several times before sitting down his executive team to share news of the partnership.

“The room fell quiet, and then the questions began,” he says. “What does this mean? How many people will this take? How long will the project take?” were all asked. By 2011, designers had drafted more than 7,000 pages of drawings, and 20 Thinkwell staffers relocated to the UAE to aid in oversight and provide art direction. In all, more than 1.3 million man-hours went into creating the park, with a level of detail that astounds.

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The “Justice League: Warworld Attacks” ride begins inside the soaring Hall of Justice. (Credit: WARNER BROS. WORLD ABU DHABI)

A New Level of Detail

Upon entering the structure through what appears to be a soaring reproduction of the Warner Bros. golden shield logo, visitors find a ticketing plaza that feels like a bustling terminal at a modern airport. Loads of natural light fills the concourse home to ticket windows and a guest relations office. Upon venturing forward, visitors enter a corridor and leave the outside world behind as they make their way to Warner Bros. Plaza. With a soaring ceiling, the Art Deco, Rococo, and Spanish Revival architecture recreates a 1920s Hollywood. Yet, the billboards are modern LED screens showing rotating ads for current movies and attractions at the park.

“It gives you the feel of Hollywood’s grandiose history but modernizes it with signage and graphics, along with the music playing,” says Dave Cobb, principal of creative development with Thinkwell. 

To keep noise levels low, Cobb says the design team studied the retail environment of the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
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“Acoustics play a big part in comfort and perceived quality and reality of the space. We really wanted to make sure the sound was as neutral as possible,” Cobb says.

To help shape the sound of different areas, five composers directed several 80-piece orchestras that recorded original soundtracks. 

The ceiling of the plaza completes the atmosphere as the use of LED lighting provides the illusion visitors are back outside.

The Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi park is laid out in a figure eight, with the plaza serving as a hub, connecting five other lands to its central location.

When visitors meander to the left of the plaza, they enter a porthole leading to the highly-themed realm of Metropolis. Here, the ceiling again feels as if you’re outside during the golden hour.

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The sky in Metropolis recreates the golden hour.(Credit: WARNER BROS. WORLD ABU DHABI)

“There is always something heroic, something aspirational about that sunset,” says Cobb in the DC-inspired area. By theatrically controlling the sky, Cobb and the design team were able to set the mood of the area. In the Gotham City land, there are no overhead lights; rather the area is darkened, adding to heightened sense of peril as villains like The Joker and Harley Quinn inhabit the space. Through a porthole awaits Cartoon Junction, Dynamite Gulch, and Bedrock. In these immersive lands, diffused lights on the ceiling are in the shape of clouds and create no shadows, just like the flat nature of a cartoon series.

“We wanted to make sure as you go through the park, the environments felt very different—not that there was a roof, or one ceiling solution to the entire place,” Hanna says.

The amount of detail work at eye level is incredible. 

“Every square inch of this park has been reviewed by Warner Bros. in one form or another. Literally, the handle on the doors were approved by them to ensure these iconic brands were authentically represented,” says Gsellman of the partnership. 
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The vast majority of facades and structures are concrete and were sculpted by hand, according to Gsellman. No two bricks on a facade are the same, with artisans from the Philippines, China, South Africa, and London working together to sculpt cement in unique ways.

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Hand-carved Warner Bros. characters join guests aboard “Cartoon Junction Carousel.” (Credit: WARNER BROS. WORLD ABU DHABI)

Next Generation Rides

The rides at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi are poised to become legends in their own right.

“Batman Knight Flight” opened in late November and joins a collection of custom-designed rides that are resetting the bar. On “Batman Knight Flight,” riders step through a secret panel at Batman’s office, only to find themselves recruited as a test pilot for a new drone-like flying patrol vehicle. The ride features a ride unit connected to a robot arm that immerses guests in film-based projections and detailed sets while navigating a track.

“The nature of the ride system is almost like you’re looking through a shoebox—you have blinders on,” says Cobb. “We lean into the mysterious, cluttered nature of Gotham City for inspiration.”

“Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey” is an awe-inspiring 5D flying theater experience. 

“To me, ‘Green Lantern’ is one of the top five rides that I have ridden in my life,” claims Gsellman. “The reaction I have when I am riding it still surprises me. I cannot stop holding onto the seat. We may change only five degrees or so, but it’s enough to make you feel as if you’re falling.”

Designers at Thinkwell used Superman’s universal appeal to create an attraction everyone can enjoy. “Superman 360: Battle for Metropolis” features a non-motion platform, where guests are surrounded with action. With no rider height requirement, everyone from children sitting in a stroller to those using a wheelchair can experience the attraction—without the need to separate families.

“Scooby Doo: The Museum of Mysteries” is a dark ride where three vehicles chase each other and then split up, navigating their own secret passageways and eerie corridors while looking for clues.

On the “Cartoon Junction Carousel,” figures from Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera look like fiberglass, yet they were really hand-carved at The Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio. After each character was completed, a computer scanned it. A computer-controlled lathe then recreated the figure. The second set of animals will be pressed into service should its hand-carved twin need repairs later.

The ride systems—from Alterface, Brogent Technologies, Dynamic Structures, ETF, Intamin, Moser, Oceaneering, and Zamperla—all feature custom cosmetic accents, special effects, or a storyline and ride base that is unique for the park.
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“We set out to deliver an immersive fan experience that celebrated our beloved brands and with the help of our partners far exceeded all expectations,” says Peter van Roden, senior vice president, global themed entertainment at Warner Bros. Consumer Products.

Top of House is Behind the Box

“I happen to like things in boxes,” says Gsellman, speaking of the park’s structure almost lovingly as an asset (and shield from the 115-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures outside on summer days). Built from the sand up, “the box” sits atop a crawlspace containing utilities. Guest areas were designed in such a way that visitors will never see a support holding up the roof. All load-bearing columns are hidden from guest view, as not to ruin the illusion the ceiling is a sky. 

Offices and a production kitchen on the second floor are connected to many of the 17 restaurants by a secluded network of elevated service hallways dubbed “top-of-house.”

“You never see it,” says Cobb. “I was there for over a year on site and got lost all the time. You have to leave bread crumbs!”

Additional top-of-house hallways, known as “clean corridors,” are used to transport food, preserving strict halal dietary standards dictating food handling standards. Each clean corridor leads to an elevator, where food drops directly into food service venues at the guest level. Honoring UAE customs was important; Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi features prayer rooms and a private room for women only. Anticipating needs of all visitors led to a more robust product.

“When you take a group of people who see things differently, and you utilize those different views and combine them into one, it becomes a strength,” says Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi General Manager Don Strickler.

The comfortable nature of the park is bringing folks back.

“We have annual passholders who entered 20 times in the first 90 days,” says Gsellman, adding many feel safe bringing their children and allowing them to roam. “They are not worried about them, because they are inside the box.”

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Food and beverage team members hold menus and engage in conversations with guests, where they answer questions and encourage sales.

A Bite Out of the Ordinary

The menus at the park were just as carefully crafted as the thematic elements of the six themed lands.

“We cater to every taste under one roof,” says Food and Beverage Director Jeffery Critchley.

With such a wide international audience visiting the park, French, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American cuisine are offered daily.

The Starlight Restaurant provides table service and can stay open 30 minutes after park close for hungry guests as they meander towards the exit. Designed as a classic Art Deco Hollywood-style theater using pressed, white linen tablecloths, The Starlight serves steaks, lamb chops, and meat skewers. Guests in a hurry can order items to go through a walk-up window. The Ace O’ Clubs restaurant offers Indian specialties, while Hall Of Doom presents itself as a subway station serving Asian food. The Hollywood Trattoria is known for Italian dishes and famous for its cannolis for dessert. Huckleberry Hound Pies offers fruit pies. Big Belly Burger is the first working version of Lex Luthor’s dining franchise from the Superman realm of stories. 

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Inventing the Bronto Burger

Perhaps the most buzzworthy food item can feed eight people in the Flintstones-inspired Bedrock section of the park. Food and Beverage Director Jeffery Critchley was given a blank page and told to imagine what a diner would have looked like 65 million years ago. Inside the stone walls, diners can try and devour “The Bronto Burger,” an oversized hamburger on a mountainous bun that measures the circumference of a frisbee.

“It’s 100 percent dino meat,” Critchley jokes. “It’s something that Fred Flintstone with his ravenous appetite would eat in a restaurant,” adding no single individual has consumed the oversized burger alone. The Bronto Burger has become a must-share for families, who will cut up sections of the burger and then pass plates around the table for all to enjoy. Besides sharing a bite, diners are also sharing the Bronto Burger on social media. It’s become the must-try item when visiting.

Meanwhile, food and beverage offerings near children’s attractions are designed to allow parents to sit and “recover” with a coffee and a snack.

Critchley says partners at Warner Bros. tasted and approved everything, ensuring food items were inspired by the park’s characters and the worlds they inhabit.

In front of each restaurant, outgoing employees stand along guest pathways holding menus. They not only serve as ambassadors for their establishments, but also are well-positioned to answer general park questions. During a conversation, each will often ask guests if they have tried items on their menu yet—a genuine conversation that can spark increased sales.

Shopping as an Attraction

Merchandising also plays a role in the storytelling of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Around 65 percent of the products sold are exclusive to the park. Besides traditional T-shirts, there are designer figurines, gourmet candies, custom toys, and even products for adults. A men’s toiletry travel case comes in the same bright colors as found on a superhero costume, while the rubbery material of the case is reminiscent of Batman’s suit. At Daffy Snacks in Cartoon Junction, the candy store can personalize candy using an ACME-themed 3D candy printer. Special editions of the Daily Planet are offered alongside carefully selected merchandise in Metropolis. In the Dynamite Gulch land, Yosemite Sam Rootin’ Tootin’ Gas is themed to resemble a gas station. Inside, home goods feature Warner Bros. characters like The Jetsons and Marvin the Martian.

“We wanted retail to be just as much of an experience as riding a ride, watching a show, or meeting a superhero,” says Gsellman, who was surprised by how many Emiratis gather and are content to linger on a weekend night.

“People will come here and hang out here for a few hours, and then maybe they will go to another store,” he explains.

The No. 1 sellers are DC Superhero capes and Bugs Bunny ears.

“We can sell hundreds and hundreds on a big day,” Gsellman confirms with a smile.

Role of a Lifetime

At the heart of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi are its people. With an importance placed on diversity, the primary goal of recruiting is to find employees who enhance the experience for visitors. That requires the workforce from 52 different countries to know English. While Arabic is the official language of the UAE, the majority of visitors will speak English. (An airplane ride from London to Abu Dhabi is the same duration as a flight from London to Orlando.)

“Our team members look like our customers. It’s a perfect blend to have the right caliber of people with a can-do attitude and passion,” says Aaron Moss, a food and beverage manager from the Bahamas.

Roughly 675 people are assigned to Warner Bros. World, while an additional 600 team members are part of the Shared Services group, who also hold roles at Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the two other parks developed by Miral Asset Management located next door. 

“It’s so rich for so many reasons. They each bring something different from their culture,” says Bianca Sammut, the general manager of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and a native Australian.

Park operator Farah Experiences houses many of the employees in one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments located 15 minutes away, along with providing transportation to places of worship and local malls.

“It’s so cool to be able to recruit people from all over the planet, and it’s a true reflection of the UAE’s rich diversity,” Gsellman says.

That’s Not All Folks!

“As with any good theme park, you always design in expansion space,” hints Cobb.

Already, a phase two is on the drawing board, with several “expansion zones” already earmarked, according to Gsellman. 

“Our developer Miral has seen the response by the guests here, and I think they are eager to build new products,” Gsellman says.

While he won’t elaborate on what size or commit to a timeline, Gsellman does point to how certain hallways that now end with a fire door or a blank wall will become a porthole to fun in the future.

“We will just pound through that wall and into a new box!” he says excitedly, once again illustrating the potential of BOB: Benefit Of the Box.

AlZaabiMohamed Al Zaabi’s Vision for Yas Island

The corporate offices of Miral Asset Management feel like a bustling airport. Floor-to-ceiling glass in the lobby give way to security checkpoints. Several stories up in the circular building that resembles the Volkswagen logo, Mohamed Al Zaabi’s office overlooks Yas Island in the distance—that 10 years ago was nothing but sand.

“We love math,” says Al Zaabi. “We said, ‘Guys! If we want to attract 48 million visits a year and we want to have people who call Yas Island home, we need to contribute to making Yas Island a top 10 destination worldwide for family fun.”

And Yas Island is well on the way. Within the first decade of operation, the destination went from zero to 27 million visitations.

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The CEO of Miral, Al Zaabi supported the $1 billion budget for Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi—and isn’t done, promising to open a new attraction or hotel every year. “Clymb,” a new indoor skydiving attraction, is set to open in 2019, while the first SeaWorld park outside North America will open in 2022.

“What’s missing on the island is the marine life is not there. People would love to come closer to animals and see their behavior,” says the avid horseman and deep-sea diver.

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will be Miral’s fourth and largest park to date, with plans to open the first marine animal rescue and rehabilitation center in the Middle East. 

“We want to be part of a journey where a new generation of Emiratis, the residents living in this country, can have better knowledge of animals and, maybe one day, become animal experts in marine life,” he says.

Before then, Al Zaabi plans to open a high-speed cable car system to transport guests from Yas Island hotels to the theme parks within four or five minutes.

 

IAAPA Leadership Conference 2019

Experience Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi and more attractions in Abu Dhabi/Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as part of IAAPA Leadership Conference 2019, taking place Feb. 26-28. Turn to p. 42 for an in-depth preview of the event’s tours and presentations. For more information and to register, visit www.IAAPA.org/LeadershipConference.