More than Just A Game
New City Walk district brings three
standalone attractions into the market
In a city and a region booming with attraction development, differentiating one project from another—delivering a truly singular experience—will be the key to success.
So says Jean-Marc Bled, the general manager for three standalone attractions in the new City Walk urban leisure district in downtown Dubai. Owned by Dubai-based real estate development company Meraas Holding, City Walk is a sprawling outdoor bazaar featuring a mix of shopping, dining, and entertainment. Bled oversees Hub Zero, a video game-themed family entertainment center (FEC); The Green Planet, a rainforest bio-dome; and Mattel Play! Town, an interactive edutainment facility geared to young children and their families. These attractions opened in 2016 in conjunction with City Walk, located about 1.5 miles northwest of The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa.
Bled started in the attractions industry with an eight-year stint at Disneyland Paris. He helped open KidZania Dubai in 2010 before moving to Malaysia to oversee another KidZania and new attractions at Puteri Harbour. Meraas brought him back to the UAE in 2013 to develop the attractions for City Walk; rather than going for one major installation, Bled says, the idea was to use three smaller attractions to appeal to a wide range of demographics, using Hub Zero’s high-energy FEC as the anchor.
“The gaming world is very popular, especially in Dubai, but it hasn’t really been translated into entertainment yet,” Bled says. “We wanted to take famous gaming IPs and turn them to an experience.”
Bled says it was “surprisingly easy” to sign an assortment of gaming brands, “because what we promised them was enticing.” Each IP has its own unique attraction within Hub Zero, rather than, say, three different laser-tag arenas themed to various games.
Bled and other Meraas officials figured Hub Zero would draw a strong teenage crowd, primarily boys; while they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the wider appeal for the FEC (particularly among girls), officials targeted younger children with the other two attractions. Mattel Play! Town, open since April 2016, is geared for children ages 2 to 10. It features five popular kids’ IPs: Angelina the Ballerina, Barney, Bob the Builder, Fireman Sam, and Thomas & Friends.
The Green Planet, open since September, is a multi-story bio-dome that serves an educational mission: teach a local populace living in a desert climate about the rainforest. “The crazy idea was to take a piece of the rainforest and put it here, in the middle of the city,” Bled says.
Both Green Planet and Mattel Play! Town offer educational programs, and work closely with the local education administration in Dubai.
Bled says the project certainly had its challenges, from managing all the different IP relationships to building three attractions all the while the City Walk district itself was under construction. But he says it was worth it to accomplish the goal of a diverse offering that caters to locals.
“The motto at Meraas is to do something that’s not already been done in Dubai,” Bled says.
Here is a closer look at the three City Walk attractions.
Hub Zero may have some of the standard FEC elements—laser tag, climbing wall, video games—but its theming, storytelling, and overall immersive experiences approach levels typically reserved for a traditional theme park. Open since July, the 161,000-square-foot facility boasts some of the most well-renowned videogame companies in the business, including Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Square Enix. There are 18 attractions in all, tied together via
a futuristic dystopian aesthetic straight out of “Blade Runner” or “Tron.”
As Bled was developing the Hub Zero concept, he knew not everyone who visited the FEC would be a fervent gamer, so some guests wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with all the IPs. That’s why several attractions within the facility offer preshows to familiarize guests with the particular brands and their worlds. Bled says this comes from his origins with Disney, where he learned how to “take a story and translate it into an experience—
Some of those stories include:
- Gears of War: Laser Siege—A two-level laser-tag arena themed to the popular Xbox “shooter” franchise. The environment includes virtual targets and media elements.
Resident Evil: Bio Terror—An interactive 3-D dark ride where players shoot a mix of virtual and physical targets. The game’s artificial intelligence adjusts to a player’s skill on the fly, making objectives more difficult to hit.
- Final Fantasy Escape from Midgar—
A motion-based simulator experience in a 3-D immersion tunnel. The visuals are powered by five sets of 3-D projectors set on curved screens in front and both sides of the 30-seat, open-air vehicle.
- Dragon Age: Flight of the Wardens—Uses a Robocoaster in concert with large curved projection screen.
- Asura’s Wrath: The Awakening—
A 4-D cinema with 46 seats.
- Plants vs. Zombies: Backyard Brawl—
A two-level soft-play structure, complete with air cannons and other interactive elements themed to the popular mobile game.
Hub Zero also features a bevy of sports- and action-related attractions. These include climbing structures, a high-ropes course, sports and driving simulators, a laser maze, and more. There’s also a retro arcade featuring classic cabinet games, a billiard room, private karaoke rooms, party rooms, and a retail shop that sells retro video games.
Bled’s most unexpected and welcome surprise in the whole facility, though, was one of the simplest elements to install. On Hub Zero’s second floor is an expansive LAN gaming area where 70 people can compete against one another on any of 50-plus games. Stations are rented by the hour, and the area also hosts scheduled tournaments, which Bled says have already been highly successful.
The FEC rounds out its guest experience with three separate food options: a café, an ice-cream truck, and a bar area serving smoothies, milkshakes, and mocktails. Hub Zero has been a single-ticket operation during its first year, as Bled sees how the market reacts to the new entertainment option; he plans to experiment with a pay-as-you-go pricing structure in 2017. Average length of stay is approximately three hours, and City Walk offers a combo ticket to include either or both of the other two attractions in the entertainment district.
The Green Planet
The Green Planet is a vertically oriented, glassed-in attraction built around an 82-foot-tall manmade tree. When guests enter the facility, they take an elevator to the top (fourth) floor and then wind their way back down to the main level along a spiraling pathway on the perimeter of the building. Along the way, they encounter approximately 3,000 different types of plants and animals.
While the central tree is fake, everything else in The Green Planet is very real. There are 50 different species of animals, and most of them are not kept behind partitions; everything from birds to butterflies to sloths are free to roam the breadth of the facility as they see fit. Visitors are prohibited from touching the animals, but there is a plethora of staffers on hand to share information about the plants and animals with guests. Bled says the goal was to keep educational signage to a minimum and rather rely on staff to provide most of the information.
Each of the four levels has a different theme and various exhibits detailing different parts of the rainforest ecosystem; average dwell time is about two hours. The entire rainforest area is kept at a realistically balmy 82 degrees Fahrenheit; guests pass through an airlock chamber prior to entering and exiting.
The attraction is operated by the zoOceanarium Group and offers a multitude of options for educational tours and birthday parties.
Mattel Play! Town
Billed as an “eduplay” attraction for children ages 2 to 10, Mattel Play! Town collects five of the most popular kids’ brands under one roof and provides a wide array of interactive activities and character meet-and-greets spread across 54,000 square feet of space.
- Angelina Ballerina—Girls make their own tutus and dance in a studio. They can also perform with Angelina herself and play with interactive screens.
- Barney—An entire floor is dedicated to re-creating the beloved purple dinosaur’s house. Here guests can cook in a pretend kitchen, play with musical instruments, and enjoy interactive games.
- Bob the Builder—Here the focus is on teamwork, as children work together to build walls and other structures with large blocks in a soft-play construction site.
- Fireman Sam—In this zone, children play on a firetruck while learning how to be safe at home.
- Thomas & Friends—This area offers a massive soft-play structure in the shape of a train, as well as a 4-D cinema.
Mattel Play! Town also has birthday party rooms and a café with exclusively healthy menu options such as lentil soup and steamed vegetables. Average length of stay is between two and three hours.
Other FECs in the UAE
Magic Planet—Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) owns 24 locations in eight Middle East countries, including a facility in Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Attractions include Robocoasters, mini-golf, and more.
Fun City—Landmark Leisure operates six different family entertainment brands in 11 different countries, with a total of 83 locations throughout the Middle East. FEC options include Fun City, Fun Ville, and Fun Works; the latter is a large facility in Abu Dhabi that mixes a traditional FEC with an edutainment product.
Sparky’s—The Al Hokair Group owns a variety of leisure entertainment facilities throughout the Middle East, including more than 30 Sparky’s FECs; there are four Sparky’s in Abu Dhabi alone, along with a facility in Dubai’s Al Ghurair Centre.
Tips for Working with IPs
Most of the attractions within Hub Zero and Mattel Play! Town are themed to intellectual property (IP). GM Jean-Marc Bled says working with brand licensors boils down to one crucial point: be proactive.
“They are partners—really involve them,” he says. “The better relationship you have with them, the better you’re going to work together, and the better results you’re going to get from them. As soon as the relationship starts to not work, nobody wins, and you end up wasting a lot of time.”
The key to building a strong relationship is constant communication. Bled recommends putting brand officials at ease by going above and beyond in keeping them in the loop on everything from marketing to performance projections.
“You need to remember these brands are venturing into something they don’t know, so there’s always caution,” he says. “The more you’re communicating with them and reassuring them that you aren’t going to mess up their brand, they’ll be more confident and enthusiastic to work with you. They allow us to venture into their worlds, so we need to respect that.”