Dubai's theme parks: The most elaborate sandboxes on earth?

Chicago Tribune

You are about to board the fastest roller coaster on the planet, the 150-mph Formula Rossa, the pride of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme park — where pride, like most everything else in this desert architectural playground, comes supersized.

But before you're launched from the confines of a glistening indoor pavilion that spans the length of seven football fields, there is the vital matter of adjusting your racing goggles — to keep the bugs out of your eyes.

The first theme park in the universe devoted to a luxury Italian sports car, Ferrari World is also home to the brand-new, 75 mph Flying Aces coaster, which boasts not only the world's steepest cable lift (51 degrees) and tallest loop (170 feet), but presumably the most fearless riders on earth.

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Not a car fan? No worries, because Ferrari World is but one spoke in many wheels.

Formerly the exclusive domain of Southern California and Central Florida, world-class theme parks are now springing up at roller-coaster speeds in the United Arab Emirates. Where once stood sand dunes, skillfully engineered immersive environments now allow visitors to interact with internationally familiar pop-culture icons. Included in the mix: Smurfs, dinosaurs, Marvel superheroes, protagonists from the Cartoon Network, "Hunger Games," "Ghostbusters," "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda," "Hotel Transylvania" and, the jewel in the crown, blockbuster Hindi movies.

"We've got something for everyone, from ages 5 to 100," said John Hallenbeck, general manager of the Hollywood-inspired Motiongate Dubai, which welcomed its first guests in December. Mostly made up of family groups from the Arab states, the audibly enthusiastic crowds — some 5,000 to 6,000 people a day, a park rep told me — tend to filter in not first thing in the morning, as in American parks, but starting late in the afternoon, after the midday heat.

Talk about an oasis. Adjacent to the 2,000-acre Motiongate, as part of a $2.85 billion resort complex collectively known as Dubai Parks, are the new Bollywood Parks, Legoland and Legoland Water Park. Connecting them all is Riverland, a retail/dining area that also accommodates the 500 rooms of the Polynesian-themed Lapita Hotel, along with the construction sheds for the region's first-ever Six Flags park, due in 2019.

"Theme parks are new to the local culture," said Hallenbeck, a Wisconsin native and a seasoned executive of Universal Studios internationally. "People may get in line and not know what they are in for."

What they find inside Motiongate are five separate, tree-shaded zones set to different themes. While one remains under scaffolding in anticipation of a late spring reveal, eventually the park is poised to offer 27 rides, five of them roller coasters. The fastest, the smooth-as-silk 60-mph Madagascar: Mad Pursuit, is now operational and, like Disney's Space Mountain, runs its course entirely in the dark.

Among the park's distinctions: It's the first anywhere to unite rival studios (Columbia Pictures, Lionsgate and DreamWorks, the last of which is sheltered inside a giant soundstage); the first to exploit both "The Smurfs" and "Hunger Games" franchises; and the first in the region to offer a water rapids ride, the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs River Expedition.

And, yes: The ride vehicles are designed to carefully contain the flowing Arabian robes worn by some guests.

Far less sprawling, but abundantly charming, is the neighboring Bollywood Parks Dubai, which tips its turban to the Mumbai film industry's exaggerated escapist fare. Outstanding among the more than a dozen exotic attractions is the Lagaan: Champaner Cricket Carnival, a robust motion-simulator adventure based on a 2001 Hindi sports drama. (All ride narratives are in English, though safety instructions are also delivered in Arabic.)

"Bollywood is a lot about shows, and India is a lot about food," said general manager Thomas Jellum, emphasizing that his park, where at any given moment a live musical number breaks out on the grounds, places human experience above mechanical rides. In fact, a planned-for roller coaster remains in the blueprints stage, though Bollywood does boast its own pulsating landmark — the 850-seat Rajmahal Theatre, home to the elaborate stage extravaganza "Jaan-e-Jigar," a musical melodrama about twin brothers.

"Disney has its castle, and we have the Rajmahal," Jellum said of the Taj Mahal-like entertainment venue. "Inside is a full Broadway musical, with a cast of 70."

That's actually about three times the size of Broadway's largest cast, but Bollywood is about extravagance — and "Jaan-e-Jigar" requires a separate ticket for its nighttime performances. "This is very much an evening park," Jellum noted.

Elsewhere in Dubai, the stand-alone IMG Worlds of Adventure is an anytime park, given that its record-setting 1.5 million-square-foot expanse is completely enclosed, at times making it seem that you're inside an enormous shopping mall.

Open since August and named for its co-chairmen, Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari, the $1 billion IMG houses rides fashioned around Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, the Avengers and even the Powerpuff Girls, not to mention a haunted hotel maze restricted to those 15 and older, an upscale Iron Man restaurant and, in its prehistoric Lost Valley zone (one of four), the aptly named Predator coaster.

IMG Worlds of Adventure also has huge ambitions, seeking to attract 4.5 million visitors in its first year. Already, plans have been announced to build an adjoining park with nine more zones, including those for Pokemon, Barbie and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. To be called IMG Worlds of Legends, it is intended to span 2 million square feet.

Like all of the other parks in the region, it should help set the stage for Dubai's Expo 2020, the world's fair and tourism booster that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, hopes will do for his already popular emirate what the 1893 Columbian Exposition once did for a certain town in Illinois.

Stephen M. Silverman is a New York-based writer whose most recent book is "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: A New York City Holiday Tradition."

More: For Dubai tourist info, go to www.visitdubai.com/en-us.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: The first leg is a long one, but Emirates (which offers the only nonstop) and United fly from O'Hare to Dubai. From the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, in central Dubai, take the metro rail to the Ibn Battuta station (8 Emirati dirham, or $2.20 U.S.) and then taxi (about $14) to the Dubai Parks main entrance for Motiongate, Bollywood Parks and Legoland — about a 45-minute trip. IMG Worlds of Adventure, half an hour away, is also $14 by cab. Ferrari World, on man-made Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, takes roughly an hour by taxi (about $60).

Getting in: Check the individual park websites about various admission specials, including multipark and multiday tickets. As for standard daily adult entry fees, which include most rides and shows: Motiongate $90 (children under 12 and seniors over 60, $76); Bollywood Parks $78 ($67); Legoland $80 ($68); Legoland Water Park $65 ($56); IMG Worlds of Adventure $83 (children under 4 feet in height, $68, seniors over 60, $41); Ferrari World $75 (children under 4 feet tall, $63).

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