How Warner Bros. Cast Its Spell On Abu Dhabi

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We all know how hard it is to build sandcastles. Sculpting the base is the easy part but it usually collapses like a house of cards when it comes to putting the turrets on top. So spare a thought for property developers in the city of Abu Dhabi.
In just three years they transformed a 153,000 square meter stretch of desert into Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the largest indoor theme park ever built. It premièred in July with the kind of glitz and glamour you would expect to find on the opening night of a movie.

Confetti rained down and costumed characters of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck looked on as an over-sized red button was pushed by Warner Bros. Entertainment chief executive Kevin Tsujihara and Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the park’s developer, government-owned Miral Asset Management. Warner’s parent WarnerMedia is the first Hollywood studio to have its own theme park in the Middle East and it took more than the wave of a magic wand to get there.

In a bid to compensate for its depleting oil reserves Abu Dhabi’s government is diversifying its revenue and banking on boosting tourism. It is throwing its weight behind theme parks and has covered the $1 billion cost of building Warner Bros. World. The Prince Charming behind it is Al Mubarak, a graduate of Boston’s Northeastern University and a self-confessed comics and cartoon fanatic.

“I am a big fan of the Warner Bros. movies and their Intellectual Property (IP) whether it is DC, Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera,” he told us in an interview. “I watched the cartoons growing up, read the comics growing up, still read the comics today and still watch the movies. They are some of the best movies I have ever watched.”

In addition to being the head of Miral, which specializes in building visitor attractions, Al Mubarak is also chairman of Aldar Properties, the leading real estate developer in Abu Dhabi. With assets of $10 billion and more than 75 million square meters of development land it is an economic powerhouse so it’s perhaps no coincidence that Al Mubarak’s favorite superhero is also a titan of industry.

As he explained to local newspaper The National, Batman is his superhero of choice because his alter ego Bruce Wayne uses his vast fortune as a force for good. “During the day he is a businessman who is making billions and billions of dollars, and he uses that money to strengthen his body and his soul. He gets all the gadgets..and he fights crime for the best of the community.”
His affinity for the caped crusader is one of the reasons that he made a beeline for Batman’s owner Warner. His mission began 11 years ago when state-owned Abu Dhabi Media launched a $1 billion fund with Warner for movie and video game development. It fuelled Looney Tunes games and the 2009 fantasy film Shorts, starring James Spader. This led to the theme park partnership but casting that spell involved more than just money.

Warner is a relative newcomer to the theme park industry. Its first outpost, Warner Bros. Movie World, made its début on Australia’s Gold Coast in 1991, 36 years after Disneyland in California kick-started the industry as we know it. Europe had to wait until 2002 for its first Warner park, which opened in Madrid, and although it is still operating, its sister park in Germany dropped the Warner brand when it changed ownership in 2005.

Unlike rival studios Warner generally doesn’t own its parks so doesn’t need an in-house design division for them. Instead it relies on outside agencies meaning that the styles and standards of the attractions can differ from park to park. Al Mubarak’s aim was to build a park which could compete with the best in the world so he needed a design agency which is as much of an animation aficionado as he is. He found it.

The Los Angeles-based Thinkwell Group was founded in 2001 by former Universal Studios park designers who didn’t want to relocate when the company moved its creative team from the west coast to Orlando. They set up a boutique design studio which has gone on to get a reputation for creating some of the industry’s most immersive and engaging attractions thanks to their passionate approach.

Thinkwell has designed attractions for Universal Studios Singapore and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Hollywood but perhaps its best-known work is across the pond. In 2012 Warner swung open the doors to a backstage tour of Britain’s Leavesden Studios where all eight Harry Potter movies were made. It takes guests deep behind the scenes of them by showcasing concept art for the characters, models of all sizes, costumes complete with video descriptions and of course props.

They range from rows and rows of wands to cabinets containing full-size robotic creatures from the films which move at the push of a button. Then come the actual sets where the movies were made. You can walk past the wonky buildings of Diagon Alley and even step into the famed Great Hall of Hogwarts Castle.

It is manna from heaven for fans whilst anyone else will still be spellbound by the attention to detail. Testimony to this, as we have reported, up to 6,000 guests stream through the turnstiles every day in peak season driving annual revenue to more than $115 million.

Warner produced all of the movies about the boy wizard so you wouldn’t have thought it would need assistance to make the tour. However, such is Thinkwell’s reputation that Warner partnered with it right from the start on master planning, design and installation of the tour. Its success put Thinkwell in pole position to take on the task of creating Warner’s first-ever indoor park.
Thinkwell produced the 29 rides, shows and attractions in Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi which alone involved creating more than 7,000 pages of drawings and 2,300 pieces of production-ready art. In addition it conceived, created and produced all of the media and acted as a co-ordinator by bringing in specialist subcontractors. They included designers GDE Creative and Wyatt Design Group as well as audio-visual experts like Electrosonic, Pixomondo and Blur Studios, which has worked on blockbuster movies such as Avatar and Thor: The Dark World.

Thinkwell was also Warner’s ‘brand assurance’ representative and had hundreds of hours of meetings with the studio as well as monthly trips with its executives to the site and vendors around the world. Then came construction.

In June Miral’s talented chief executive Mohammed Al Zaabi told Construction Week that it will have taken “about 39 months by the time we open the park, and [has logged] 32 million man hours so far, with more than 6,800 engineers working on the project.” It paid off.

In a recent interview, the park’s general manager Mark Gsellman said that “the partnership with Warner Bros. has just been fabulous, they’re have people here in one form or another every day. Every square inch of the park they’ve blessed, approved, given their art direction.” One key decision ensured from the start that it would hit the mark.

Daytime temperatures in Abu Dhabi regularly hit 75 degrees in winter and in summer the mercury soars above 95. The heat comes from all angles and feels like standing in front of a huge hairdryer. It’s so hot that you can’t even cool down with fans which spray mist as the water warms up the moment it hits the air.

It makes outdoor parks impractical so instead Thinkwell decided to house Warner Bros. World inside a giant golden structure which resembles the hangar-like soundstages at the studio’s lot in California. Shelter from the heat isn’t the only benefit of the park being indoors. It also allowed Thinkwell to control all aspects of the environment from the lighting and sound right down to the temperature. It has made the most of it.

Rides themed to Wonder Woman, Superman and co are on a street from Metropolis complete with a Daily Planet newsstand and phone box. Batman and arch nemesis the Joker have their own gloomy home in Gotham whilst the oversized boulders of Bedrock tell you that you’re in the Flintstones’ world. Next door is the Grand Canyon-inspired Dynamite Gulch and the toon town of Cartoon Junction.

Bigger is usually better in theme parks. New lands are added to them to drive publicity and taller castles are built to lure guests in. Not at Warner Bros. World. Less really is more there as Thinkwell took the bold step of drastically reducing the amount of the park which is on show to guests as they walk around. Just 30% of the floorspace is visible with the remainder being the rides themselves which are hidden behind internal walls. It reduces the walking time inside the park and makes it seem even more packed with rides. That’s just the start.

The real magic of Warner’s park is that design isn’t just used to make things look pretty but to immerse guests in a fantasy world which is all around them.

You usually know what you’re in for when you head towards a theme park ride as a hulking building looms beyond the entrance. It breaks the fantasy and spoils the surprise. In contrast, at Warner’s park the elaborate entrances to many of the rides are set into the internal walls which has a magic touch as it means that you don’t know what you’re getting until you step inside. It makes the doorways seem like portals to different worlds.

This is put to great effect in Cartoon Junction, where Hanna-Barbera stars like Scooby-Doo are said to live next to Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny from Looney Tunes. The ride entrances in Cartoon Junction are actually the front doors of a row of brightly-coloured town houses with sloping roofs. Some only have small signs hanging in front so it can be hard to tell the rides from the shops which are also in wonky-walled buildings. Warner says that each brick was individually carved and painted by hand whilst all of the windows are different shapes and sizes. They are just as elaborate inside as out.

The queue for one roller coaster winds through a house which looks like it has been trashed by Tom and Jerry. As you get deeper inside you go under the floorboards and pass the mouse’s bed inside a over-sized sardine can. Every last detail seems to have been thought of. Even the queue railings look like Jerry has made them from ear buds and bits of rope.

There’s hint of things to come on the wall at the end of the line in the form of a huge blueprint which appears to have been scrawled by the mouse. It shows an elaborate contraption for stealing cheese and transporting it back to his den. Continuing this theme, the ride cars are shaped like slabs of cheese and spin as they zip down the track in pitch darkness with giant statues of Tom and Jerry lighting up as you pass them.

At the end of the row of houses is a spooky-looking mansion which is home to a Scooby-Doo ride. Instead of taking the lazy route and just creating scenes themed to the cartoon, the ride makes it seem like you’re on a mission to solve a mystery.
The ride cars look like the famous Mystery Machine van and are trackless so they appear to dart around the spooky set looking for clues. They take varying routes and stop in front of different models of museum pieces which come to life. It encourages guests to ride again to see how it changes.

The climax is a recreation of the cartoon’s classic hallway chase as the ride cars pirouette in and out of doors on a long corridor pursued by a ghost which has taken control of one of them. The cars’ paths are plotted by a computer so they can criss-cross each other in what appear to be near misses but are actually carefully controlled.

So much passion has been put into the land that it even appears to have been designed like an actual town. There’s a theater where Bugs and Daffy perform for kids, shops, the wealthy landowners’ mansion which has been taken over by ghosts, and even a factory where everyone works.

Remember ACME and its wacky cartoony killing machines which injured the user but not the target? There’s a ride here where you work as a deliveryman for it. The queue for Ani-Mayhem takes you through ACME’s offices where Thinkwell’s passion for the product is shown in gags which ACME is famous for.

The queue passes empty awards cabinets and piles of forms in trays with the only one which has run out being the waiver and release of liability. The furniture and elevator-esque music even has a 60s vibe evoking ACME’s origins in the heydays of Looney Tunes.

The ride itself is like Disney’s finest on steroids. Disney parks are home to rides that see you firing a virtual shooter at a 3D screen whilst other attractions are trackless and some allow riders to interact with the scenery. Ani-Mayhem does all that and stars toons like Tweetie Pie and Sylvester who are rarely seen in theme park rides. They help you hit parcels on 3D screens and in the physical sets with a gun in the shape of a barcode scanner.

Kids will go ga-ga at the characters but nostalgia is the lure for adults as Al Mubarak knows only too well. “Here we have lots of IPs so you have people who are fans of Hanna-Barbera and fans of Looney Tunes. You get the fanatics of Superman and Batman and then you have the nostalgic parents or the adults who want to come and relive their childhood when they watched Tom and Jerry or the Flintstones on TV.

“I think a great thing is that it is quite a universal theme park. People have watched and loved these characters whether they are from Europe, Asia or the Gulf. Some characters make sense a lot more here. An example is Tom and Jerry which has much more of a fan base in the Arab world and in Europe than they do in the US so it was important for us to have those characters as part of our park.”

It feels like a shrine to Warner and the homage is much more than skin deep. Above the entrance to Cartoon Junction is a wrought-iron sign featuring the ACME name and motto, ‘Caveat Emptor’ which is Latin for ‘Buyer Beware.’ No stone is left unturned. A cartoony rocket is embedded in the window next to the Ani-Mayhem entrance and the window opposite appears to have been smashed as it was fired through it.

Even the ride names indicate that Thinkwell has mined deep into Warner’s library. An innovative roller coaster winds around the rock formations in the Grand Canyon-inspired Dynamite Gulch area. Called Fast and Furry-ous it isn’t a nod to the Vin Diesel movies but is the name of a 1949 cartoon which was the first to feature Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner he endlessly pursues.

It would have been easy just to slap pictures of the characters above the entrance sign but instead it puts you in the middle of the story. It starts in the queue which passes the coyote’s lair, complete with models of the outlandish weapons he built to try and catch the Road Runner. The coaster itself is meant to be one of them as red rockets cover the wheels of its cars which hang underneath the track so that riders’ feet dangle down.

At the ride’s summit there’s a model of the coyote lighting a rocket and then you’re off. Coming full circle, at the finale there’s a model of the same rocket embedded in the ground as the coyote has failed again. It’s one of many blink-and-you-miss-it moments as the ride races by so fast but that too is done to encourage repeat rides.

You won’t find any movies being made at the park though it often feels like you’re on a set. Being indoors allows the scenery to be more elaborate than if it was outdoors as there is no danger of it getting damaged by wind, overgrown with foliage or faded in the sun. It allowed Thinkwell to create the kind of detailed scenery which many other parks can only dream of.

It comes into its own on the gloomy streets of Gotham. Some of the windows in the building facades are cracked whilst others are boarded up or have curtains which are only partly pulled to. Bricks look weathered and soot-stained, there’s graffiti on the walls and posters are peeling off them. The mock skyscrapers even appear to be taller than they actually are thanks to some design trickery known as forced perspective. The upper floors are only a fraction as tall as the ones lower down the towers which makes it look like they are narrowing at the top as skyscrapers usually would.

Down at ground level, fake manhole covers are embedded in the cracked tarmac, steam billows out from underneath them and shadows of moving people are even projected onto the windows of the train in the station. Sounds of police sirens in the distance and crashing waves play from hidden speakers. Its eerily convincing and the only thing missing is a director leaping out and saying ‘cut.’

The scenery even tells a story. One of the gargoyles above a restaurant in Gotham is missing its head but Britain’s Sun newspaper noticed that it is on display in the shop opposite. It’s no coincidence as the outlet is styled as a Pawn Shop which sells salvaged wreckage from superhero battles (memorabilia to you and me).

“When I walk around in Gotham City, it is Gotham City. The steam that comes out of the sewage holes, the smell, the sounds. The quality of the theming is really fantastic,” says Al Mubarak. The elaborate sets allow guests to get stunning photos which look like panels from comic books. Millennials in particular post them on social media and, as we recently reported, this is known to drive traffic to theme parks. Even the rides in Gotham are photogenic.

A dirty-looking spooky circus tent contains trials set by the Joker including a corridor which seems to be turning and a maze of mirrors that are so polished they seem to be endless. The rides are cleverly based on the beloved cartoon versions of the heroes, not the ones in the new movies which have had a more mixed response.

The highlight is a ride which sits inside a miniature version of  the iconic Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. It starts out like a planetarium show but suddenly turns into a 3D adventure thanks to the seats being attached to a robot arm so that they appear to float in front of one of the world’s largest domed screens. It is 124 foot in diameter and shows footage in pin-sharp 4K resolution.

Themed to the Green Lantern character, the ride is like being thrust into an ‘80s sci-fi film as you soar over psychedelically-coloured planets and duel with fire-breathing dragons. It’s a spellbinding experience as you get blasted with mist and air when creatures roar whilst smells of pine are pumped in as you skim over alien forests.

Perhaps the biggest trick in the park’s spell book is one which none of its rivals can boast about. In many of the lands, the curved ceiling is cleverly painted to look like the sky complete with projections of clouds and vivid changing colours as the sun sets. It actually appears to be endless and it’s only on standing still and peering that you can see it is painted onto wall tiles.
The sky comes into its own in the main plaza which looks like an old-fashioned square and is lined with art deco architecture. It hosts Warner’s equivalent of a fireworks show where scenes of classic movies from Superman to the Lord of the Rings are beamed onto billboards above the buildings and even the ceiling itself.

During the Harry Potter segment, projections magically turn the ceiling into a night sky before the villainous Dementors fly past the moon and onto the surrounding buildings. The high-tech wizardry then transforms them into the walls of the Great Hall at Hogwarts complete with detailed brickwork and stained glass windows.

“We wanted to develop a world-class experience for our fans in the region and Miral has been the right partner,” says Pam Lifford, President, Warner Bros. Global Brands and Experiences. “The level of detail they delivered created an environment that truly brings our stories and characters to life and immerses fans into a world where they experience a lasting emotional connection to our brands.”

It gives Warner a flagship which can stand toe-to-toe with the finest from Disney and Universal and, in design terms, it ranks amongst the most significant parks ever built. If it kick-starts high-octane growth in the Middle East theme park sector it could even prove to be the most important park in the modern era. Early signs are encouraging.

According to The National, almost 15,000 tickets were sold before the doors opened. Indeed, the end result is so ground-breaking that Warner is already talking about exporting the model and it is easy to see how it could be just as useful in a cold climate as a hot one.

In a recent interview with Attractions Management magazine, Peter Van Roden, Senior Vice President of Global Themed Entertainment for Warner Bros. Consumer Products, said “it’s certainly possible” to roll the model out. “We have lots of discussions and we have a number of plans in the works.” If they come off they would add even more weight to Abu Dhabi’s status in the industry and that really would be a happy ending.

Diving deep into the detail of Warner Bros. World

Not since Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a theme park provided such detailed fan service as Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi delivers through its six themed lands. The creative team that designed this park, led by Thinkwell’s Craig Hanna & Dave Cobb, has crafted immersive environments that effectively sell the illusion that you are standing in iconic locations such as Superman’s Metropolis and the Roadrunner’s American West… leaving you to forget that you’re actually walking around inside a giant box in the Abu Dhabi desert.

Warner Bros. World is able to sustain this illusion because Thinkwell’s design team has filled the park with detail that reflects and reinforces each land’s IP. While casual visitors will enjoy the beautiful views and impressive facades throughout park, dedicated fans of each franchise will geek out discovering all the thoughtful details and Easter eggs on display.

The press event to which I was invited allowed me less than six hours walking around inside Warner Bros. World — not enough time for a geek like me to appreciate the full extent of detail within park, which might take multiple full-day visits. Fortunately, I spent about 90 minutes of those six hours walking around the park with Dave, who pointed out many of the details that I missed on my first lap.

Let’s start with three examples of what I will call “ley lines” in the park’s lands. Next the entrance of the Acme Co. factory in Cartoon Junction, you will see an Acme rocket, crashed into a window.

Acme rocket

But if you look in a straight line the opposite direction, you will see the path that the rocket took through neighboring buildings, leading back to a bundle of Acme rockets, minus the one now sitting in the factory window.

Good designers uses this technique to help remind visitors subconsciously that they are standing within a space bound by the laws of physics. Therefore, even thought it appears fantastic, it is real. (There’s another great example in the exit gift shop of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which depicts the destructive flight of a cannonball.)

You’ll find another exampled in Warner Bros’ World’s Gotham, up in the second-floor windows of the abandoned subway station building that’s now the Hall of Doom. It’s the charred damage of an explosive blast that carries across the land. But my favorite detail from this scene is the decapitated gargoyle next to the charred window.

Charred damage

Want to know what happened to that gargoyle’s head? It’s “for sale” in the Pawn Shop gift store across the street.

Gargoyle's head

And, oh yeah, the batarang that knocked it off is on display in the shop, too. The entire store is filled with the detritus of superhero battles, depicted in DC Comics and the land. The pawn shop’s owner is making his bank by collecting the remains and selling them to fans. (The store IRL is selling T-shirts and other Batman-themed souvenirs. Again, not enough time to fully document!)

You don’t always need to look up to see these design lines. In The Flintstones’ Bedrock, you might notice a set of Mammoth tracks leading from the Warner Bros. Plaza entrance toward the Bedrock River Adventure flume ride. In the middle of the path, the tracks cross a planter. So what’s posted next to those tracks inside the planter?

Mammoth crossing

My favorite attraction in the park was the Animayhem shooter ride, which is set within the Acme Co. building in the factory town of Cartoon Junction. Above the street, you can see the factory gate, emblazoned with the Acme motto, “Caveat Emptor.”

Acme factory gate

Which is Latin for… “Buyer Beware.”

The queue for Animayhem is a tour of “Mad Men”-inspired, mid-century-styled Acme design studio, where you find fan service gems such as the motivational slogan, “Quality is our #1 Dream!”

Quality is our #1 Dream!

And look what form the company has run out of on its paperwork table.

Missing release forms

Deep in the extended queue of the ride you will find the Acme Co.’s awards cabinet.

Acme Co.'s awards cabinet

Um… not much there except cobwebs, right? Well, there is this:

Caveat Emptor Award

It’s the “Caveat Emptor Award” for “Achievements in Legalese”… and it is adorned with an asterisk. Brilliant.

Dave explained the unpublished history of Cartoon Junction. It’s an old railway town, which made it an attractive site for the Acme factory, which would ship its defective products all over the country from here. The mansion at the end of the town was owned by the railway baron, who filled it with collectibles from around the world. He’s long passed, and now the abandoned mansion is haunted museum, making it the perfect location for Scooby-Doo! The Museum of Mysteries.

The backstory for the Scooby Doo building reminded me of the story of Harrison Hightower and Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror, BTW. But the Scooby-Doo ride is filled wit fan service, as it tracks the story beats and conventions of Scooby-Doo episodes, including a chase across a hallway, Shaggy looking for food, and finally pulling the mask of the perp while he complains about “you meddling kids.” If you’ve never seen an episode of Scooby-Doo, you can appreciate the amusing dark ride. But if you are a fan, you can appreciate that the ride’s designers have shown that they are fans who get what this franchise is all about, too.

One more detail in Cartoon Junction. Here’s a billboard for another Acme product posted next to the portal into Gotham.


Here are three of many moments of fan service within Batman’s hometown. A wanted poster for Joe Chill, who killed Batman’s parents:

Wanted poster

Graffiti from the Court of Owls, who are “always watching.”

Court of Owls

And the take a look at the domed roof on the abandoned subway station building that is now the Hall of Doom, the Legion of Doom’s headquarters. If you watched the Super Friends animated TV series in the 1970s, you might recognize the homage to the Hall of Doom from that show.

Hall of Doom

Next door in Metropolis, the inside of the Hall of Justice will leave you feeling like you are standing within the Pantheon of gods.

Hall of Justice

The queue of the Justice League ride lies on the far side of the Superman statue. Within it you will find boards that explain who all these superheroes are, for visitors not familiar with the IP. But longtime fans might recognize what is revealed later in the queue, that the “villain” the superheroes are fighting in this trackless dark ride is Black Mercy, which first appeared in the Superman comics in 1985.

Black Mercy

Outside the Hall of Justice, note the paper for sale inside the news box on the street. It apparently references a moment within the ride (which I did not get to experience).

News box

And the directory for the office building (facade) next to the Hall of Justice includes names pulled from DC Comics, including Emil Hamilton, Starrware Industries, and Cale-Anderson Pharmaceuticals.

DC building directory

I didn’t get a photo, but I also wanted to note Dave’s backstory for why the Marvin the Martian and The Jetsons rides are located within the Roadrunner’s Dynamite Gulch. The IRL reason is that these are carryovers from a sci-fi themed land that didn’t make the cut in the design process, but that the developers nevertheless wanted to save. So how to explain their presence in the American West. Well, that part of the land is its “Area 51 1/2,” the secret government facility to house the aliens and time travelers who crash landed here.

Nice. Even that loose end has been pulled tight.

In all, I couldn’t find anything haphazard in Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. There was no surface unfinished (though two rides did remain incomplete in that they were not sufficiently tested to be open for the preview event.) Warner Bros. World offers a thematic consistency in its placemaking that I have not seen on a park-wide level since Tokyo DisneySea.

Right now, based on what I saw in my brief visit, I would place Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi among the top five theme parks in the world for consistently convincing placemaking in its lands, joining Tokyo DisneySea, Disneyland in California, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

This article was originally published here.

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi: Reinventing the movie park for the 21st Century

How do you top the world’s largest indoor theme park? By building an even bigger one, of course. That’s what destination developer Miral has done in Abu Dhabi. Blooloop profiles Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the latest showstopper at Yas Island. 

This article was originally published on

The UAE’s (United Arab Emirates) newest theme park opened to the public on July 25, following an inauguration two days earlier. The 1.65 million square feet (153,000 square metres) facility represents an investment equivalent to US$1 billion.

Yas Island
They don’t do things by halves at Yas Island. Located on the northeast side of Abu Dhabi’s mainland, 10 minutes from its international airport, the leisure and entertainment hub first rose to prominence in 2009 with the opening of the Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The spirit of Formula 1 was celebrated again a year later with the launch of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. At the time it was billed as the world’s biggest indoor theme park. At 240km/h, its signature Formula Rossa ride remains the planet’s fastest roller coaster.

A passion for super heroes
Yas Waterworld, which opened in 2013, has been named as one of the best waterparks in the world. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious and expensive. Then there’s Yas Mall, which sits between Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World. It’s the largest mall in Abu Dhabi, and by definition very large indeed.

All three theme parks are operated by Farah Experiences. As a movie park, Yas Island’s third theme park clearly adds something fresh to the mix. Yet the local press has suggested that this particular kind of park wouldn’t have arrived in the Emirate were it not for a passion of the Miral chairman. You see, Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, who also chairs the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, is super into super heroes.

“He’s a visionary leader,” says Peter van Roden, senior vice-president of global themed entertainment for Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “He is also this huge comic book and IP fan; the perfect partner.”

Step through the shield into an immersive world
When guests make their way through the park’s iconic Warner Bros. shield, they will be able to explore six themed zones. All in air-conditioned comfort. Warner Bros. Plaza is there to welcome them. There’s also Gotham CityMetropolis (pictured below), Cartoon JunctionBedrock and Dynamite Gulch.

Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi
Spread across these immersive lands are 29 state-of-the-art rides and attractions, featuring characters from DC Comics, Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera. A particular favourite of Al Mubarak is Superman.

Thinkwell, the LA-based global design and production agency, acted as creative lead from start to finish, bringing in several subcontractors as required. Among these was Wyatt Design, which served as key design consultant on several areas. LifeFormations created over 100 animatronic figures used in six attractions. Aspen Creations, based in Dubai, did the fabrication and installation on a number of areas including Warner Bros Plaza, Cartoon Junction, Bedrock, The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure, Fast and Furry-ous, Bronto Burgers, Gotham City and The Riddler Revolution. Other suppliers included Animax Designs, Inc., Blur, Ears Up Sound DesignElectrosonicGDE, Louis Berger, Smart Monkeys, Pixomondo, Pure Imagination and Ted King Entertainment.

Everything, including the park’s two roller coasters and flume ride, is indoors. Unlike at Ferrari World, where four coasters escape outside. The vast building in which they are housed shimmers in a gold finish. In the UAE, you wouldn’t expect anything less.

Warner Bros. – back in the themed entertainment business

It’s 16 years since Warner Bros. last lent its name to a new theme park. Namely Parque Warner in Madrid. Whilst Warner Bros. Movie World (founded 1991) still operates on Australia’s Gold Coast, the German outlet of the same name was rebranded simply as Movie Park when it changed ownership in 2005. So why did the Hollywood studio decide now was the right time to return to the themed entertainment business? And why Abu Dhabi?

“The process started 10 or 12 years ago,” says van Roden. “Specifically, under our chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, there has been a real focus on building franchises around our DC, animation, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings IP [intellectual property]. Kevin has brought us into this new world and allowed us to think big. That lead to discussions with Miral, which had this vision not only for Yas Island but also for Abu Dhabi in general. We were looking, and they were ready. It’s lead to a really great partnership.”

Fully realised worlds
“Warner Bros has an almost 100-year legacy of producing and distributing high-quality entertainment to global audiences,” says Tsujihara. “This world-class attraction continues that tradition in grand style. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi literally brings our characters to life and provides fans a truly unique immersive entertainment experience.”
One character conspicuous by his absence in Abu Dhabi is Harry Potter. “That was not a deliberate decision,” says van Roden. “Pretty soon after starting the masterplanning for the park, we settled on this mix of DC and animation. We didn’t want to overreach, you know? Not putting too many different IPs into this park is to its advantage because you can fully realise each of these worlds.”

Warner-Bros.-Plaza at Warner-Bros-World-Abu-Dhabi
Making memories, not movies
Unlike a handful of earlier movie parks, or indeed Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (home of the Harry Potter backstage tour), you won’t find any film-making going on at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Rather, this is an entertainment park that celebrates the silver screen and small screen intellectual properties within in. As families enjoy the richly-themed experiences and interact with the characters inside the park, they will surely make memories for many years to come. Yes, there will be selfies.

“This is not a ‘behind-the-scenes’ park, says Craig Hannachief creative officer at Thinkwell. “At Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi we treat the characters as living and working in the park. Where would they live? Where would they eat and where do they work? That was the basis for the stories, rides, shows and attractions in the park.”

Different moods
“There is such a mix of environments,” says van Roden. “You move from this classic Warner Bros. Plaza and into the animation side. I think all of us have wanted to walk through Bedrock and meet The Flintstones some point. Dynamite Gulch is this cartoony kind of wild west, home to Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. Then you’ve got Cartoon Junction with this really bright, stylized sky and a beautiful Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera carousel.

“On the other side of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is this really cool Metropolis. However it gets darker and darker as you move into Gotham where the DC Super-Villains have taken over. The different moods created inside each of these lands is incredible, and the lighting is absolutely stunning.”

The indoor advantage
The prime reason for the park being indoors is obviously the local climate. “It’s 109 degrees [Fahrenheit, 43°C] outside right now,” said van Roden, speaking to Blooloop the weekend before opening. “Being able to walk into an air-conditioned box is a wonderful thing.”

Yet in most movie parks, the majority of major attractions and pre-shows are already inside buildings. All Warner Bros. World has done is bring the other attractions and the themed environments that link them inside too. “That has been a huge advantage,” says van Roden. “It gives the park this intimacy. We can really control the lighting, the sound, the ceiling heights; the way you transition between these immersive environments.”

“Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is special,” says Hanna. “We took advantage of the fact that we were indoors to fully immerse guests in worlds and stories in ways that can’t be done outdoors. Like the perpetual night of Gotham, the continual ‘hero hour’ of Metropolis, or the always ‘sunny’ Cartoon Junction.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 18, 2018: Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi on July 18, 2018. Christopher Pike,
Storytelling techniques, technology and rides systems
Today’s technology means Warner Bros. has been able to create an entirely different park to those that it put its name to in the latter part of the 20th Century.

“We determined the best mix for the broadest demographic and developed experiences with certain technologies and ride systems in mind,” says Hanna. “For example, the dark rides Scooby-Doo: Museum of Mysteries, Ani-Mayhem and Justice League: Warworld Attacks take advantage of being trackless in ways never before seen in theme parks.”

Dark rides – such as Ani-Mayhem – are a great way of telling stories. Another is Batman: Knight Flight, which marries a dark ride with a dynamic motion system and state-of-the-art special effects. Flying theatre fans will enjoy Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey, which transports audiences to distant galaxies. Featuring an i-Ride system by Brogent Technologies, it’s the first attraction of its kind to be supplied with 3D glasses.

There’s a more traditional ride system at the heart of The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. Yet this family-friendly flume ride from Intamin is a lot of fun as it takes visitors on a voyage through prehistoric suburbia.

Even the park’s roller coasters immerse riders in an adventure. Tom & Jerry’s Swiss Cheese Spin is a spinning coaster that uses backlight effects to keep guests on the edge of their seat. Then there’s Fast & Furry-ous, a suspended family coaster from Intamin, which van Roden particularly enjoys.

Every attraction tells a story
“Like each of the rides, Fast & Furry-ous has its own soundtrack. It’s perfectly timed to the ride as Wile E Coyote chases Road Runner around the track. I’m laughing every time I get off it.”

Van Roden also singles out The Riddler Revolution – pictured above – perhaps one of the most elaborately-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster installations ever. “You feel like you are going to hit the edge of this building as its breaks through. It’s absolutely thrilling, and clearly one of the best rides in the park. The beauty of this park is it’s not like we spent all the money on a few e-ticket attractions and then bought some off-the-shelf rides to fill in the gaps. Every single attraction has a story.”

International audience and local considerations
In designing the park, Thinkwell considered the market and demographic makeup very carefully.

“We wanted to make sure the park appeals to an international audience,” says Hanna. “Plus we looked at the attractions next door at Ferrari World to ensure this park was distinctive and balanced. Whether you’re a local, an expat family, or a tourist there will be unique things to see, do and taste around every corner.”

“There was a discussion about language very early on,” says van Roden. “It was decided that English should be the base language, with Arabic supporting in certain areas such as signage and restaurants. That’s because Yas Island as a destination attracts people from from Europe as well as to the East, so the common language is English.”

A market within a four to five hour flight time
There were other considerations to make when it came to the local audience. “We have some wonderful prayer rooms, and have addressed all the appropriate things in terms of dress and diet. But overall there were very few adjustments to make. The UAE is quite forward-looking in terms of openness within the Middle East. This park is very much a statement of that.”

Van Roden says the park’s core market is expected to be those within a 100-200 mile (160-320km) radius, comfortably taking in all of the UAE. Yet European, Indian and South East Asian visitors are also in its sights. “The number of Chinese visitors who booked for opening day was remarkable. There is a strong market within that four to five hour flight time.”

The UAE’s increasingly diverse attraction mix
“I think increasingly the UAE is becoming a destination in itself,” says van Roden. “People are coming to visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai together. We have some visionary leaders intent on building enough travel hooks between all the beaches, hotels and shopping malls. It’s all about moving beyond being that weekend destination. Abu Dhabi is really adding to that with museums and culture. The Louvre, down the road from us, is absolutely mind-blowing.”

And how long might Warner Bros. World keep families entertained?

“You know, I think this is an all-day affair if you are going to wander through it all, see everything and ride everything,” declares van Roden. “It adds to the length of stay for Yas Island and the entire region.”

A record breaking indoor theme park
Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi snatches the title of world’s largest indoor theme park from IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi before it. All three feature licensed intellectual property of one kind or another. So too do the trio of properties at Dubai Parks and Resorts, which launched in late 2016.
IMG’s creator, the Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group subsequently announce

d plans to build an even bigger theme park. If it comes to fruition, the 2 million sq ft IMG World of Legends will be crammed with dozens of brands from multiple IP providers. Yet plans for a 20th Century Fox movie park in Dubai have been put on hold amid concerns about oversupply of parks in the region.

IP quality vs. quantity
Van Roden isn’t worried that the UAE has gone OTT on IP. “I don’t think it’s overload,” he says. “The way the UAE is developing as a destination, I think there is plenty of room to grow. We didn’t come in and try to blow everybody out of the water by putting 20 IPs in there. We thought we are going to build the best theme park in the region. And I really think we’ve done that; up there with our friends at Disneyland Paris in terms of quality for EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa].”

“The DC film franchise is a juggernaut and continues to grow,” he adds. “The great success of Wonder Woman, and we hope the future success of Aquaman and other films coming down the pipe, is really exciting for us.”

Giving classic brands a new lease of life
Van Roden concedes the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera brands might not be as powerful as they once were. But he believes they are a great fit for the park, and that their inclusion within Warner Bros. World can nurture a new generation of fans.
“These are iconic IPs that, even if they are not at the top of their media game, within the immersive environment of a theme park can help relaunch a brand in a lot of ways. That is actually part of our strategy.”

Above all, “we have built a park to grow into, with partners who have an interest in the future. We are already having discussions about what we can do next.”

That may include future attractions that are partially outdoors.

An Orlando model for the Middle East?
Peter van Roden joined Warner Bros. Consumer Products in March of 2016. He has more than two decades’ experience in creating location-based entertainment – from touring exhibits to theme parks – for media companies including Sesame Workshop and National Geographic. So whilst everyone is still finding their feet in the UAE theme park market, he’s certainly not green around the gills.

Craig Hanna, too, has a good pedigree in both themed entertainment and working with major film/TV brands. He works out of LA for goodness sake. So how does the Thinkwell executive rate the industry’s potential in this particular corner of the Middle East?

“The UAE is trying to transform its economy. Its offer to tourists with an ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality is a bit like what Orlando did. Already the UAE is seeing huge growth in tourism. This park will give Yas Island a strong and distinctive competitive advantage. I’m not an economic advisor, so I can’t look into my crystal ball and predict where the cap for these parks will be. However, I would ask you this: When will Orlando reach a critical mass of theme parks?”

About the construction of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, van Roden says: “Construction is always an interesting thing, a life of compromise and communication. I will say Miral has been an incredible partner. You go into these big projects looking for someone who brings value. It’s not just about coming along with a cheque book. And the value of Miral is that they are a world-class building and construction company. They have unbelievable people working for them; their resources and connections in the marketplace were second-to-none.”

Finding a creative force to bring the park to life
Thinkwell was appointed to lead the design effort in Abu Dhabi following several previous Warner Bros collaborations, including Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.

“Disney has Imagineering, Universal has Universal Creative,” says van Roden. “While we have the IP and storytelling expertise, we do not have that creative design house. So in partnering with an outside firm we looked for someone that could take on the roll of master designer and provide overall creative management. That’s hard to find. Thinkwell brought that capability, and they were able to scale themselves up to take on a project like this.”

“We have worked on this project for more than 10 years in one form or another,” says the company’s Craig Hanna. “Hundreds of Thinkwellians and hundreds more talented, creative and passionate people all over the world were involved. We have seen it through from blue sky concept through to opening, producing more than 2,300 original art files. These range from the park’s map to can labels on props on shelves. We produced all shows, rides and attractions as creative and technical integration leaders. And we conceived, created and produced all media for the park. We are extremely proud of the work we’ve done on it. I think that passion shows everywhere you look.”

Abu Dhabi’s theme park future
The fate of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi now lies in the public’s hands. Unlike many new theme parks, there was no soft opening period. There was, however, about a week of trial runs as invited guests, travel agents and military got to sample its delights. This proved invaluable to general manager Mark Gzellman and his team to fine tune operations. The inauguration event on July 23 was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice-president and ruler of Dubai.

Van Roden says Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi can comfortably accommodate anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 guests per day. The annual attendance target is between 1.5 and 2 million. Now in its eighth year, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi entertains over a million. Yas Waterworld welcomed 550,000 visitors last year. So Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi must work hard to achieve the visitor numbers expected of it. Its offer is arguably more inclusive though than Ferrari World.

The UAE’s theme park capital?
A fourth theme park has already been announced by Miral for Yas Island. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2022 and will be the first SeaWorld outside the USA and the first without orcas. This Abu Dhabi entertainment hub certainly looks like giving any competing operations in Dubai a run for their money. Can Abu Dhabi become not just the sovereign state’s capital, but its theme park capital too?

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi – six immersive lands
Here are the themed zones that make up the world’s largest indoor theme park, and the key attractions within them.

1. Warner Bros. Plaza
Art-Deco inspired building facades feature in this entrance portal to the rest of the park. Streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and themed shopping outlets. Among these, the Warner Bros. Studio Store and Superstar Souvenirs offer an exclusive range of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi apparel, collectibles and stationery. In addition, guests can enjoy Warner Bros. Cinema Spectacular. This symphonic celebration uses projection mapping to bring the Warner Bros film library to life.

2. Gotham City
Home to Batman, the caped crusader has vowed to crush the sinister criminal underworld
that lurks deep beneath this urban landscape. Rides and attractions as follows:
Batman: Knight Flight. An exhilarating dark ride featuring robotically controlled flying Batwing vehicled capable of sudden manoeuvres including drops, climbs, spins and rolls. This ride combines a high-tech flight simulator with immersive scenery and state-of-the-art special effects.
Riddler Revolution. A custom-themed Zamperla Disk’O Coaster. Supervillain Edward Nigma lures guests into a run-down shipping warehouse for a thrilling nightmare.
Scarecrow Scare Raid. A rousing flight experience with dramatic aerobatics and whirlwind barrel rolls.
The Joker’s Funhouse. A villainous twist on the classic walk-through carnival attraction featuring Batman’s biggest foes.

3. Cartoon Junction
The land where Warner Bros.’ most iconic characters and animated worlds can be discovered. Highlights include:
Ani-Mayhem. An interactive dark ride where passengers use barcode scanners to deliver ACME packages and accumulate the most points to become ACME Employee of the Month!
Tom and Jerry Swiss Cheese Spin. A family‐friendly spinning Twister Coaster from Zamperla featuring added blacklight effects.
Scooby-Doo: The Museum of Mysteries. Dark ride that follows the comical cartoon dog through a spooky museum filled with fun and frights.
Cartoon Junction Carousel. A colourful twist on an amusement classic featuring Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters.
Daffy Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. A ‘jump’ tower that bounces young riders up and down with Daffy Duck.
Tweety Wild Wockets. Here kids can spin “awound and awound” as they try to avoid Sylvester the cat on this mini jet ride by Zamperla.
Ricochet Racin’ with Taz. A giggle-inducing children’s car ride (Zamperla Speedway) that whips racers around the track.
Meet Bugs! (And Daffy). A participatory live character show experience featuring Bugs Bunny and friends.

4. Metropolis
The Manhattan-like skyscraper city mixes 1930s Streamline Modern styling with 21st Century state-of-the-art materials. Rides and attractions as follows:
Superman 360: Battle for Metropolis. A 360-degree action spectacular that pits the greatest comic book hero of all time against the Man of Steel.
Justice League: Warworld Attacks. Dark ride featuring immersive theatre experience and special effects.
Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey. 86-seat i-Ride flying theatre by Brogent Technologies that transports guests across to extraordinary worlds. Enriched with special and visual effects, including 3D.
Teen Titans Training Academy. A multi-level play area featuring a zipline and other physical activities.

5. Dynamite Gulch
An animated storyland where guests will encounter Wile E Coyote and Road Runner. Experiences include:
Fast & Furry-ous. Suspended Family Coaster by Intamin. Passengers climb onto the ACME Road Rocket 9000 for an exciting journey through the desert cacti and chasms in pursuit of Road Runner. Beep! Beep!
Jetson’s Cosmic Orbiter. An Aero Top Jet by Zamperla where guests can pilot their own futuristic spaceship.
Marvin the Martian: Crater Crashers. Bumper cars, supplied by Zamperla.

6. Bedrock
Yabba-Dabba-Doo! This age-old land powered by birds and dinosaurs is home to The Flintstones. Here guests will find:
The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure. This Intamin flume ride invites passengers to embark on a scenic boat ride …with a big splash finale!
Bronto Burgers and Ribs. Here guests can dine in prehistoric cars, or just stop for a photo opportunity and eat inside the diner.
Bedrock Boutique. Selling everything the modern stone-age family could need!

Warner Bros. World impresses in its Abu Dhabi debut

With so many canceled projects and half-baked debuts, I would not blame any theme park fan for giving up on the region. But stick with me here. Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi will erase your frustration and remind you why you fell in love with theme parks. It’s the simply the most remarkable park built in the last few decades by a company not named Disney or Universal — and it’s better than some of their parks, too, even out of the gate.

At 38 acres, Warner Bros. World now becomes the world’s largest indoor theme park, beating neighboring IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai. But it’s what is inside this immense structure that best distinguishes this theme park. This is a gorgeous place to spend the day, rich with detail and in storytelling. It’s the work of true theme park geeks who understand fans’ need for authenticity in detail and wonderful spaces to inhabit.

I’m going to be writing a lot about this park over the next several weeks — it’s simply too important to the ever-emerging history of theme parks to ignore. But I would like to introduce you to this park with some photos and video of the attractions that impressed me in the few hours I had inside the park today during its media preview.

My favorite attraction in the park was AniMayhem, an adventure through a Mad Men-era Acme Products plant. You’re training to scan the many product packages that Acme’s shipping out the door. Of course, because it’s Acme, your scanner is just going to blow up the packages to reveal the anvils, bombs, and magnets, but hey, you earn points!

Animayhem is my new pick for world’s best shooter. This trackless ride through the Acme factory includes lush practical sets and the sharpest 3D I’ve seen in a theme park ride.

Not only does the ride blend its media and practical effects well, it throws character-driven Looney Tunes gags into every game, allowing riders to enjoy the experience as a narrative dark ride even if they never bother to play the game. And the finale is just perfect, with Bugs and Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Rabbit,” a Michigan J. Frog send-off, and a final drive through the iconic “That’s All Folks” rings IRL.

Moments like that make clear that the design team for this park, led by Thinkwell’s Dave Cobb, deeply understood its source material. The Fast and Furry-ous family inverted coaster isn’t a Vin Diesel pun, for another example. It’s a callback to the title of the original Roadrunner cartoon episode, which debuted in 1949. For U.S. theme park fans accustomed to Six Flags typically doing little more than slapping a Warner Bros. name on a coaster to “theme” it, this little beauty comes as a welcome surprise, with its immersive setting and show scenes. We are riding underneath one of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme rockets — out of control, of course.

Likewise, The Flintstones Bedrock River Adventure echoes every story beat from the classic Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon: Mr. Slate pulling the bird’s tail to signal quitting time, Fred sliding down the Brontosaurus’ tail on his way out of work, and the episode “ending” with Fred, locked out of his home, banging on the door for Wilma.

On Scooby-Doo! The Museum of Mysteries, I expect the day to come when riders here will yell out the classic lines from Scoody-Doo episodes, like in the stretch room on Disney’s Haunted Mansion: “And I would have gotten away with it… if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Heck, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi even manages to make a Disk’O coaster interesting. Here’s off-ride on The Riddler Revolution. (Couldn’t get on ride. Sorry.)

My second-favorite attraction, among those I had time to experience, was Green Lantern: Galactic Odyssey, a planetarium show inside a convincing reimagining of LA’s iconic Griffith Park Observatory, here instead in the beautiful city of Metropolis. But Green Lantern isn’t just going to let us watch a simulation of the cosmos, when he can take us into the real thing.

This Brogent Technologies I-Ride theater brilliantly transports us into a series of wondrous environments, where we discover that the only thing more powerful than a superhero (or villain) is our collective will. It’s a deep statement for a theme park, though camouflaged within one of the more intense flying theater-type rides I’ve experienced.

Unfortunately, I did not get to experience two of the rides I had been anticipating most: Justice League: Warworld Attacks and Batman: Knight Flight. Justice League will use Oceaneering trackless vehicles in a Transformers-style ride as we attempt to escape an infestation of “Black Mercy” plants that will destroy humanity. And Knight Flight will feature Batwing vehicles mounted, Forbidden Journey-style, on the end of robot arms on a track.

However, Knight Flight avoids infringing Universal’s patent by not running a continuous, Omnimover-style belt of moving robot arms as the Harry Potter ride does. Instead, each robot arm will move separately on the track from scene to scene. That should allow for some more intimacy on what otherwise can feel like an industrial experience. But the tech challenge of pulling that system together means it faces at least a few more weeks of “technical rehearsal.”

Still, I saw enough here tonight to convince me that the United Arab Emirates finally has a world-class theme park that will appeal to entertainment-franchise-loving fans. Coupled with the also-impressive Ferrari World Abu Dhabi next door, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi now makes Yas Island a compelling multi-theme-park resort — the first truly great one outside the Disney and Universal families.

Update: Here is the full show video from the Cinema Spectacular, which plays nightly in the Warner Bros. Plaza:

And here is more on the Easter eggs of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, including photos.


This article was originally published here.