How Warner Bros. Cast Its Spell On Abu Dhabi

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

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.

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