What Makes Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi Unique?
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They say you should never meet your heroes, and that you shouldn’t work with children or animals. But what if you get the opportunity to actually work alongside one of your heroes… and he’s a wisecracking rabbit?
As a child of the 70s, I grew up watching Looney Tunes, Hanna Barbera and the Super Friends every day after school and again on Saturday morning, and they became an intrinsic part of my personality in a way that only a few other pop-culture canons have. In particular, I was obsessed by Looney Tunes, which deeply informed not only my sense of humor, but also my awareness of things like classical music & jazz, political & social commentary, and even what “camp” humor meant (after all, Bugs was my first exposure to drag), and by my teens I realized just how savvy and grown-up those original classic cartoons were. There’s probably not a day when I don’t quote Bugs Bunny during casual conversation (“I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque”, “My stars, such an interesting monster”, “What a maroon!”, “Could that’ve been a Gremlin?” and “Think fast, rabbit” being particular favorites in heavy rotation).
Being asked to translate that iconic world of Warner Bros. Classic Animation & DC Entertainment characters into a theme park wasn’t just a personal childhood dream come true, it was an extraordinarily daunting responsibility for the entire team. We all saw it as a huge opportunity and responsibility to elevate what we knew and loved about these characters — that they weren’t just “for kids”, but rather slyly sophisticated on so many different levels, for both kids and adults — and bring that to life in a whole new immersive way that’s never been seen before.
This was partially a response to the local audience — the history of the actual movie studio, its iconic Spanish-revival architecture, the production of the first “talkie,” all things that most Westerners have at least a passing knowledge of — mean absolutely nothing to a polyglot audience made up of mostly non-Western cultures. The audience here knows Warner Bros. characters not through a Western lens of cinematic nostalgia, but through watching shows on their digital tablets, or streamed onto their flat screens with their families at home. The “making” of Warner Bros. cinematic and animated media doesn’t resonate there as much as it has in the West — just the stories and characters and worlds they inhabit.
A large-scale project like this is always innately collaborative — and as the team dug into these stories and character worlds during concept design, it was clear that everyone on the team had their own personal favorites, something that spoke to them on a deeper level than just a “cartoon”. For me, it was capturing that 1940s American gusto, optimism and unique evolution of slapstick and vaudeville tropes into the entirely new animated art form of Merrie Melodies. Art Director Allie Dunn dug into mid-century modern to envision how the swanky headquarters of the ACME Company might have looked in the 1950s.
Designer Scott Johnson grew up on the modern-stone-age suburbia of The Flintstones, obsessing over every tiny visual gag and joke in Bedrock. Composer Lou Fagenson wrote custom scores for our Scooby-Doo & Flintstones attractions with a staggeringly encyclopedic knowledge of the Hanna-Barbera musical canon of his youth. Masterplanner Brad Kissling is a lifelong fan of DC Super Heroes, and brought his love of comics to life by realizing the physical urban locales of Metropolis and Gotham City.
We all poured our hearts into every last detail, because we knew we were the first to ever be given the opportunity to realize these characters and stories at this scale, at this level of immersion. Not only did we want to please our clients, and ultimately entertain the park guests — we wanted it to be something we ourselves would completely geek out over if we came to visit.
Ultimately, obsessive detail and immersive scale are only a component of what makes this park completely unique — a means to an end, if you will, and a fantastic privilege for us to indulge in as designers thanks to the staggering scope of this project. The thing that makes it most unique is the heart and soul of the team behind it, and their dedication to putting their genuine, authentic love of these characters into every attraction. My favorite story from my last day in the park before coming home: I saw a group of young local Emirati woman enjoying the park in full Abaya (black cloak and headwrap), and above each of their smiling faces, atop their headscarves, sat a pair of souvenir Bugs Bunny ears pointing skyward (the Bugs ears are a huge hit — take that, Mickey). I said to them, “I really like your ears!” Without hesitation, one of them flashed an enormous ear-to-ear grin and said giddily, “they make me so happy!”
Designing this park feels, in many respects, like passing the torch of everything the team has always known and loved about these characters to an entirely new audience. They may arrive with only a basic familiarity, but by the time they leave the park, we want them to fall in love just like we have our entire lives.