SeaWorld Abu Dhabi Shimmers
A stunning achievement in design, animal care, and imagination, the new theme park in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) raises the high-water mark of what partners in the global attractions industry can accomplish.
Even more impressive: how Miral, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and dozens of IAAPA members collaborated during a worldwide pandemic to construct an ocean inside the massive five-story structure (building code in Abu Dhabi registers the facility as a high rise).
Within the edifice live more than 100,000 animals ranging from dolphins, sharks, penguins, and sea lions to walruses, rays, and birds. Their state-of-the-art habitats are accompanied by rides, roller coasters, live entertainment, educational presentations and performances, and imaginative diningspread across 1,969,796 square feet—all under the same roof—that are infused with new technology developed for the park.
“We want to be the most impactful and influential entertainment leisure destination in this region of the Middle East,” Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi, Group CEO of Miral, tells Funworld.“We thought of everything in this park.”
Al Zaabi and Miral gave Funworld an exclusive look at the park that opened May 23 and access to the dreamers, designers, and visionaries who created—and now operate—one of the world’s leading marine life centers and theme parks.
The Call that Changed the World
In 2010, John Linn’s phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line said, “John, I’ve got an idea. Can we meet at IAAPA Expo this year and talk about it?”
The call from Glenn Davidson, Miral’s advisor of theme park development, to Linn, SeaWorld’s vice president of global theme park development, set in motion fresh ideas. The conversations led to creating the first SeaWorld park outside the United States.
Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi says he looked worldwide for a partner to collaborate with on the construction of a marine life theme park. Yet, one entity kept bubbling to the top.
“Who is the expert?” Al Zaabi says he asked in meetings. “Of course—with no doubt—SeaWorld would be at the top with their experience managing many facilities in the U.S.,” he tells Funworld. “They share with us the same values, the same interest, the same vision.”
Linn says the mutual affection for Miral only continued.
“It gave us confidence that they understood the importance of brand; and they showed the importance of quality; and they understood the importance of the guest experience. That's critical to delivering a park such as this,” Linn says.
With an alignment in theory and trust in each other, the first sketch of SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi was drawn in 2013.
Miral tapped PGAV Destinations—a longtime design and engineering partner of SeaWorld’s—to contribute to the design of the new park.
“Putting the theme park inside was a major decision and it drove every other decision that we possibly had after that,” says Mike Linenbroker, vice president at PGAV, who relocated to the UAE for three years to aid in the park’s construction. He says a hybrid indoor/outdoor facility was first drafted, but with average summer temperatures soaring above 105°F, the decision was made—with animal comfort the priority—to enclose the entire facility, with the exception of a roller coaster launching out a side orifice.
Opening the Front Door
When guests enter the new park, they step inside a soaring atrium complete with regional flowers, live trees, and cascading waterfalls—as water is the theme linking each of the park’s eight realms. A series of escalators beckons guests to move higher into the structure, while others looking to take selfies may linger on a network of staircases. Once inside, the first themed realm reveals itself. Abu Dhabi Ocean is a recreation of a timeless Emirati fishing village, complete with dhows (a traditional sailing vessel native to the region) floating on an inland lake, and pathways that look like they were sculpted from sand. The design is rooted in the UAE’s history.
“There's a really wonderful opportunity to tell stories that you can only tell, truly, in this place that helps delineate the parks from one another,” says Cynthia Sharpe, senior principal at Thinkwell Group, who served as executive creative director for entertainment at SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi Ocean unfolds to reveal a ticketing area, annual pass center, guest service counter, and contains the admission turnstiles. Just past the main gate are touch pools similar to those found at the entrance of Sea World San Diego.
“The first thing we would like our guests to do is touch water,” explains Rob Yordi, general curator (and one of the first two professionals SeaWorld appointed to help lead the park).
Guests are encouraged to gently touch sea stars, small sharks, rays, and sea cucumbers by educators who roam the space sharing facts and answering questions.
“One of the things I learned very early on coming on the project over seven years ago is the thirst for people wanting to know what was off the coast. We wanted to build a realm that shows them everything,” Yordi says.
Abu Dhabi Ocean is also home to artistic, life-size animal walkabout characters that navigate the space, interacting with visitors. A theater hosts two shows, one telling the story of pearl diving and another with mermaids. Both performances place actors in the water inside a specialty-built habitat.
“The engineering on this is fantastic. You get a view through the actor’s pool into the Arabian Gulf habitat,” Sharpe says, adding there is a clear piece of acrylic set in the water separating the marine life from the actors. “The animals have the choice if they want to swim up to their window where it looks like they are in the pearl dive show, but they're not. But there’s this really unique interplay.”
One Ocean Defies the Conventional
Vibrant Hub of SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi required new innovations
The massive cylinder-shaped hub of SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, named One Ocean, features three-dimensional sets and marquees around the perimeter leading to different realms, a grand staircase in the center descending to the park’s sprawling Animal Care Center, and a continuous 43K LED screen that envelopes the entire room, in 360°, as a seamless video screen displays animals filmed in nature and coastal landscapes—aided by no computer generated images.
“SeaWorld was adamant that they wanted this to be real,” says Thomas Jakobsen, senior producer at Thinkwell Media. “They wanted people to walk into the space and see sea life in a scale and size that they had never seen before.”
That meant Jakobsen needed to create a new camera rig holding nine cameras capable of shooting 360°. He developed a sample rig, outfitted it with nine waterproof cameras, and jumped into an Olympic-size pool in Oregon for testing. Following some editing, Jakobsen had a proof of concept to show Miral.
They loved it and encouraged Jakobsen to shoot along coastal locations around the world. Knowing they would need expertise of underwater film makers, Thinkwell Media partnered with MacGillivray Freeman, a leading producer of IMAX films often seen
Because of the sheer size and 43K resolution of the One Ocean screen in Abu Dhabi, the filmmakers would need to use a 25K camera. One problem: no 25K cameras existed at the start of the project. (By comparison, the most recent iPhone shoots in 4K.)
“This has probably been the most challenging project I've worked on in my entire 43 years in this industry,” says Terry Brown, vice president of technology and digital postproduction with MacGillivray Freeman.
Brown quickly got to work and developed a new rig that could hold nine cameras with special lenses and be submerged underwater.
“It was super difficult because the rig is 150 lbs. It took four people to get it from the boat into the water,” Brown shares with Funworld.
In addition to the underwater rig, Brown’s team developed a massive drone with a third camera rig. The flying unit also proved heavy; so great, the drone was just shy of being classified as a helicopter.
Editors in India then needed 12 months to compile all the footage from the 18 cameras and digitally stitch together every frame of video to create a massive panoramic video.
Today, the continuous screen plays 114 minutes of video recorded from Antarctica to Norway, and Mexico to the Galápagos Islands. While this is the first SeaWorld park without killer whales, orcas are not forgotten. They appear in the video inside One Ocean and
Realms from Around the World
From Abu Dhabi Ocean, a pathway passes under a massive aquarium, known as the Arabian Gulf Habitat, home to many native gulf species that leads into One Ocean. The circular space defines the hub of SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi’s classic hub and spoke layout, with portals leading to each realm positioned around the perimeter of One Ocean, a realm in itself.
The eight realms inside the park include:
- Abu Dhabi Ocean: Showcasing inhabitants of the Arabian Gulf and local architecture
- Antarctica: Snowcapped home to penguins
- Arctic: Norwegian-inspired habitat full of walrus, sea otters, and the Hypersphere 360° ride designed by Attraktion and Intamin
- Endless Ocean: Home to one of the world’s largest multi-species aquariums spanning several levels
- MicroOcean: A children’s area with four rides proved by Zamperla and a climbing structure
- One Ocean: The immersive central hub of the park and home to the Animal Care Center
- Rocky Point: Northwest U.S.-themed habitat home to sea lions and seals, along with the sea lion amphitheater
- Tropical Ocean: Habitat to dolphins, rays, tropical birds, flamingos, the dolphin amphitheater, and the Manta Coaster provided by Intamin
While the MicroOcean realm is designed as a children’s section, most realms feature active and passive play elements.
“We believe in a very deep way that play is learning. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be intentional; we just want kids of all ages to get out and play and be open to the education we can bring to them when the moment is right,” says Mitchell Magill, corporate director of entertainment experiences for SeaWorld’s Global Theme Park Development division. Of all the realms, only one takes visitors to the bottom of the sea.
An escalator leads guests from One Ocean into what is designed to be an underwater sea base, with sections that appear as if they were added over time by explorers (following the construction technique used to build the International Space Station).
The Endless Ocean realm is a habitat unto itself—descending 20 meters deep—and home to more than 60,000 sharks, rays, tropical fish and other animals.
“One of the things we did in design for this habitat is how you can’t see the whole habitat from one view. You have to go to different spaces to see different versions,” says Yordi.
Inside what the park labels as “the world’s largest multi-species aquarium,” corridors, tunnels, and rooms made completely of acrylic—along with additional escalators needed to transport guests—provide visitors with majestic views.
“We didn't want it to be a typical aquarium,” says Linenbroker with PGAV. “Typical aquariums are basically a box and you're on the outside looking into the box. We wanted to get you inside the box, looking back out as much as possible.”
One way the park does this is through the Oculus window (depicted on the the opening page of this article). Stretching four levels, the concave piece of acrylic greets guests in a wow moment. Diners at the upscale Fathom 11 restaurant use the circular window to peer into the habitat as part of a shared experience. Elsewhere in the habitat is a reflective space inside a quiet cavern where the Endless Vista awaits. The piece of acrylic stretches 20 meters and is cantilevered over a visitor’s head (see this issue's cover photo).
“When you stand at the base, and stand under it, the water is up over the top of you,” explains Yordi. Clax manufactured the window pieces from acrylic off-site. They arrived at the park by boat, taking advantage of the canals around Yas Island, according to Linenbroker.
“Acrylic was probably one of the more challenging pieces on the project, as it was probably the most elaborate acrylic job in the world,” he says.
In the rear of the habitat stands a 20-meter-tall projection screen framed by rockwork. Broadcasting digital imagery of swimming marine life creates the impression that Endless Ocean continues well beyond the exterior walls of the park.
“You may be walking past the habitat and see a humpback whale go by. You truly have an endless view, hence, the Endless Ocean,” Yordi explains, who looks for opportunities to go diving inside the habitat. But he’s not alone. As SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi’s general curator, Yordi and his team designed programs to allow those certified in scuba to also dive in the habitat. Additionally, the SeaVenture program allows guests to don a helmet supplied with oxygen and walk across a ridge inside Endless Ocean with an interpretive guide.
We know the kids are the next generation that’s going to help save the world. We need them to be empowered.
— Rob Yordi, General Curator, SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
A Rescue Center All Its Own
Operating separately from SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi is the Yas SeaWorld Research & Rescue center. While the facility is adjacent to the theme park’s voluminous building, Yas SeaWorld Rescue & Research is its own entity (the facility is not listed on the park map since it’s not open to traditional park guests). The center was created with three goals in mind: conduct research in the region; rescue animals in need, rehabilitate them, and return them to their native habitats; and educate.
“A facility like this will be a game changer for the region,” says Dr. Elise Marquis, who became the director of Yas SeaWorld Research and Rescue more than a year before the park opened. Inside are several well-appointed operating rooms, quarantine areas, portable CT (computer tomography) machines, and even dedicated space for animal physical therapy.
The facility is a passion project for Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi, who remembers the love and care his grandparents exhibited towards their animals during his upbringing. He’s ensured Yas SeaWorld Rescue & Research has state-of-the-art equipment—from boats to wildlife ambulances—to treat animals who are rescued, rehabilitated, and then returned.
“All together, it means we can do so much; so much more than just rescue; so much more than just research; so much more than just education. Altogether, we’re very powerful,” Dr. Marquis tells Funworld.
Al Zaabi hopes Yas SeaWorld Rescue & Research will also inspire children in the region to think of marine biology, caretaking, and research as a new career field—a path previously not common in the Middle East.
“I brought my kids a number of times to see the facility and I watched their eyes,” Al Zaabi shares. “My daughter asked me, ‘Dad, can I do my internship this summer at this facility?’ She would love to study sustainability in the future.”
Already, Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD)—the largest environmental regulator in the Middle East—and Miral signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on marine conservation, research initiatives, and marine wildlife rescue efforts.
The new SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi opened with the need for 1,000 positions to be filled, according to Thomas Kaferle, the park’s general manager. He estimates SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi filled 20-25% of the open positions with employees from Miral’s other three theme parks on Yas Island.
“We worked closely with our sister parks and created a strategy so that we were able to offer opportunities to those colleagues that have been around for a while,” Kaferle tells Funworld. That included identifying colleagues (the name Miral gives all frontline employees) who were ready for advancement, while not creating a talent drain at the other attractions on Yas Island (see below) or at SeaWorld parks in the United States, where ambassadors hold expertise in animal care and water quality.
“It really helped as we got into this operating period … being able to tap into that group for their experience and their knowledge of running their parks helped us,” he says.
Miral’s international colleagues qualify for complimentary housing and meals at the company’s employee housing village. They also receive complimentary meals around the clock in the Colleague Canteen at the park. Kaferle says SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi operates 24 hours a day, with animal husbandry, life support (pumps and filters), custodial, and security staff always on duty. Therefore, the employee cafeteria is always open with a menu that appeals a broad range of tastebuds.
Providing stellar guest service is also a goal of Kaferle. He says the park’s orientation and training program includes “wrapping our story of the park around our colleague orientation programs.”
Ensuring colleagues understand the mission of the park and its role in the region to educate visitors began before day one.
“We've really tried to bring them in to the story—make them part of it,” he shares.
There is no shortage of technological advancements at SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. There are innovations visitors can see, feel, hear, and taste.
Miral’s Facepass system uses facial recognition for entry and payment at each point-of-sale location inside SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. The technology first deployed at other Yas Island attractions in 2021 and was fully implemented at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, where devices resembling an iPad will recognize a guest’s likeness. Al Zaabi believes facial recognition is a benefit for parents with older children who may explore the park independently.
“Using facial recognition, they can pay without calling you or having the risk of giving them a credit card,” Al Zaabi says.
The park’s Hypersphere 360° ride is a breakthrough in cinematic attractions that’s 10 years in the making. Developed by Attraktion, built by Intamin, and featuring content developed by Medici Media (formerly Mousetrappe), the 6-minute experience suspends riders along a ring inside a dome theater stretching 17 meters in circumference. Much like the classic Rotor ride, a hidden door allows riders to enter. Once seated and safely under a shoulder harness, the floor drops and the ring gently spins for up to six rotations per minute, giving riders the feeling of floating.
“I got goosebumps,” says Markus Beyr, CEO of Attraktion after his first ride. “It’s really incredible.”
Hypersphere 360° uses 7,300 LED panels positioned above and below riders displaying 75 million pixels that transport guests beneath the world’s ocean to see marine life not present in the park.
“Wherever you look, there is something happening,” Markus says. Construction of the dome’s panels took almost a year, since 200 different sizes of panels were installed like a jigsaw puzzle.
Outside the ride, many of the lighting systems embedded in the animal habitats replicate a full spectrum of light mimicking natural sunlight. The lighting pattern also follows seasonal sunrise and sunset times. In addition, thematic lighting creates an Aurora Australis that appears on the walls of the penguin habitat.
The park’s soundscape—scored exclusively for the park by a collection of composers led by Thinkwell’s Jon Baker and Dan Rudin and recorded in Nashville, Tennessee—has different versions.
“It’s a symphonic score that has a theme for every realm of the park that culminates in One Ocean, and then, that One Ocean theme flows back out into the park,” says Magill, SeaWorld’s corporate director of entertainment experiences. Complementing the symphonic One Ocean story are beds of sound effects—like in a movie—that transition the park from day to night, above water, and in underwater viewing areas.
Water used in the marine habitats is pulled from the Arabian Gulf, treated, and then used to fill the habitats. When the park is done with the water, it is again treated through the state-the-art filtration system before returning to the coastal areas of the region.
In addition, inside Tropical Ocean, a rainstorm takes place during the dolphin presentation, with water raining from the ceiling above.
Food and beverage is also unique at SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Many quick serve restaurants offer dishes made to order by chefs. While Umberto’s serves Italian fare in Antarctica and Spice Island offers Pan Asian at Tropical Ocean, menu items are freshly prepared in front of guests just after ordering. Also unique are the restaurants in Antarctica, Tropical Ocean, and Endless Ocean that offer seating next to the habitats, giving diners the opportunity to see animals above or deep below the water as they eat.
Yas Island's Growth Strategy
Miral Group CEO Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi sits down with Funworld to share his vision
“In 2007, we developed a clear vision for Yas Island to be the entertainment and leisure hub for the world,” Al Zaabi says while sitting along the saltwater habitat found inside the Tropical Ocean realm at SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. With palm trees above, dolphins breaching feet away, and a flock of flamingos caterwauling in the distance, Funworld sat down with the Miral Group CEO as the sun set on the eve before the park’s opening day.
“After 52 months of construction, you see all this around you,” he says. “It’s very quiet, it’s very calm. It’s nice. I think people will buy an annual pass to come here just to enjoy a coffee and sit here.”
Yet, Al Zaabi is not one to sit still.
“Every time I drive around here, I see these facilities standing tall changing the horizon of Yas Island, attracting tourists from different parts of the world to enjoy their time here,” he says.
Located 10 minutes from the Abu Dhabi International Airport, Yas Island has transformed into a vacation destination with a collection of gated attractions. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi (opened 2010), Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi (2013), Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi (2018), and CLYMB Yas Island, an indoor skydiving flight chamber (2019), join Yas Beach, Yas Marina, Yas Mall, Yas Links (one of the first golf courses in the UAE), and Yas Marina Circuit—home to Formula 1 racing. The new Etihad Arena plays host to concerts, performances of Disney on Ice and “Hamilton,” and professional sporting events.
Currently, Yas Island operates free shuttle buses connecting the attractions to hotels on the island. Yet, Al Zaabi’s vision includes a gondola system to link all the attractions together.
“The view from a cable car would be amazing,” he believes. “I want people to see Yas Island as one destination connected where you can keep your car in one place.”
In November 2022, Miral and Warner Bros. Discovery announced a new Harry Potter land will be added to the Warner Bros. Abu Dhabi theme park. Al Zaabi says the new addition will feature attractions not yet seen.
“I can promise you this will be a unique experience. It won’t be an ordinary ride,” he says with a grin.
Miral is also responsible for Yas Island playing a key role in supporting Abu Dhabi diversify its economy through the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 initiative. The plan transforms the Emirate's economic base through global integration that creates enduring benefits. Abu Dhabi—the national capital of the United Arab Emirates—affirms petroleum and gas as chief industries in the region. Al Zaabi sees tourism as a path towards diversification. (The flight time from many European capitals to Abu Dhabi is the same as flying to Orlando).
“We want Yas Island to be the top travel destination worldwide. And that can only be achieved by only having world-class facilities and theme parks to attract tourists from around the world,” he concludes.
Moving the Mission Forward
In May, Global Humane—the international brand of American Humane—announced both SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi and Yas SeaWorld Research & Rescue had earned the Global Humane Certification. The designation verifies a high-level of animal welfare at zoological facilities and aquariums. To receive certification, both entities passed a rigorous third-party assessment reviewing the well-being of animals in the park’s care.
“Conservation and education will always be our top priority at this park. Everything we do here, is about delivering that message,” Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi says. “We want our customers to leave this facility to become an ambassador of animal care—to be in love with animals.”