The World of Themed Entertainment is On Notice; whether or not we’ve Noticed.
This sharp, upward curve began with Universal’s opening of the Gates to Hogsmeade and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; for the first time meeting and surpassing the Theming Standard heretofore set by Disney. Disney has followed with New Fantasyland, and the lushness of those experiences have now been completely superseded by Universal’s Diagon Alley.
And Buckle Up! …as Disney Shanghai opens its doors to heightened levels of group intimacy and marvelousness…
The bar is irrevocably raised, the gauntlet thrown down, and not just among the Big Boys. Whereas, historically, Disney set the standard for immersiveness and Universal led the way in the visceral; now, over the past few years, even the Regional Parks have been upping their game; Cedar Point a leader among them.
Audiences are becoming more sophisticated and more discerning; the more they know, the more they expect. Getting people to part with their hard-earned money, to leave the comfort of home, of entertainment center and keyboard, is calling for more fully fleshed-out experiences of greater immersiveness and a more nuanced, intimate atmosphere than has been delivered in the past.
Nowhere is Noticing more crucial, nowhere is more money riding on more projects meeting a higher standard, than in the UAE.
The last time the UAE began opening up and announcing themed experiences as destination-augmentation was in the early 2000’s; as our industry press waxed rhapsodic about the “amazingly themed” shopping malls that were supposedly rising from the sands of the desert. Closer inspection revealed collections of repainted and refurbished carnival and FEC attractions; virtual sow’s ears dressed up and positioned as experiential silk purses to an audience with a lot of money and not so much exposure to the rest of the world…yet.
The West did itself a disservice at that time in not calling out the carpetbaggers who were taking advantage of the newly-rich spenders in the UAE, surrounding nations and markets. Writing in glowing terms about this second-hand collection of white elephants was, effectively, collusion in delusion and ultimately served no one.
It made us all look bad.
Later in that decade, just as money was starting to be spent in newly-vast quantities in the UAE for projects of massive vision; the bottom fell out of the market. The money disappeared, and along with it came the vaporization of a plethora of excitingly-envisioned projects the realization of which we shall never see. Whether or not those projects would have been well-executed will never be known.
It was a disaster, and it served to further undermine the image of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE as The Next Destination Paradise. Huge developments were stopped in their tracks. Some remain as Ghost Projects, still accessible to wander through and see what magic had been envisioned. When people visit the area, we take them on this “Tour of Broken Dreams” just to see the exciting models and images of extremely creative people, unrealized.
And now, we are coming up on Round Three, The Third Time.
Will this be the proverbial Charm, or will Dubai strike out? For, should this vision not be realized, there will be no Fourth Shot. The world will turn away.
Those of us spending time and working here are betting on the Vision.
In the time it took San Francisco to build a bridge, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, (Vice President of the UAE and Constitutional Monarch of Dubai) has built an entire country.
His Highness has a breathtaking vision and is making that vision reality as building after other-worldly building rises into the sky, as destinations materialize, as the future comes together, here.
The place is fantastic; a panoply of myriad cultures and people in one place, supporting the vision of this part of the world as pivotal in the future of the Globe…as key player in the next Moment in Global Evolution and power.
There is, though, a very real danger in the potential for shortfall; and that danger is deceptively called “value engineering.”
What we are seeing, here, as projects are being taken from plan to platform, is the aggressive shaving of the “unnecessary” in favor of carving a prettier budget and getting an ephemeral “more” for the money that is being spent. We call it the “Curse of the MBA,” as elements are eliminated, lessened or replaced by cheaper materials in the name of profit margin and getting a better deal.
What is missed is that, especially in the world of themed entertainment and destinations, that the 30% that is shaved from the budget may well cause the remaining 70% to become that much wasted capital; as the finished whole runs a very real risk of not achieving even the sum of it’s remaining parts.
The examples are here to see and learn from. Ferrari World, a survivor of the 2008 crash, is only now beginning to recover from the cuts made to budgets during building. Over the past year, as hoarding has come down and the results of millions of dollars in reparative investment are revealed, what is emerging is a more fully populated, energetic experience where something is happening no matter where the eye comes to rest.
Nearly five years after opening, the cavernous feeling is dissipating, the two-dimensional experiences are disappearing and the newly-present lushness and depth are creating a welcoming, curiosity-inspiring, even convivial atmosphere. One can feel the difference in atmosphere, already.
The atmosphere is lush, full and far more exciting than it was even months ago. Well-done, Ferrari World!
The Parks that are currently being built in the UAE are not going to have any time after opening to fix or repair the gaps in experience that are being considered as production moves forward. If audiences show up on Opening Day to an experience that is barren, two-dimensional, reflective of budget cuts; the word on that will be out, worldwide, by the end of that day.
Social Media can kill these projects in a matter of days, before there is time to “repair.” These must be done right, the first time; they must open as complete.
And thus, then, is uncovered a cultural achilles heel in the UAE.
Our interpretation of this is an inner clash of disparate cultures. A product of having the resources to buy or build virtually anything that is desired or envisioned that is compromised by thousands of years of the honorable culture of the souk and of bartering, woven into the DNA.
The Best is what’s wanted; but it’s wanted at a lower price and faster. When bartering for anything that is already manufactured and for sale, this is a social and economic exercise that poses no risk to the product. The seller and buyer square off on either side of the carpet on the block and, once a price is agreed, the buyer walks off with the product intact. The quality of the product has not changed at all during the exchange.
This does not happen with theme parks or shows. What costs a million dollars costs a million dollars. If forced to sell for less, the seller will make adjustments to the product simply in order to stay in business, to survive after this sale or build. Materials cheapen, warranties lessen, durability is mitigated, the product is compromised. It doesn’t take much of this to affect that experience and, though one’s audience may not be able to articulate what makes an experience less compelling, that audience may not return…and may spread the word that what is being sold as Amazing is really just OK.
There will be no Next Wave.
It is imperative that quality be paramount in importance as these experiences are built. Even now, the men and women responsible for ensuring quality in many of the projects being built are daily dismayed at the decisions being made that will affect the quality of the experience. There is a very real concern that what was originally envisioned as lushly themed and intimate will devolve into something spare, too spacious, raw-edged and of “painted brick”…
We see here, all the time, production large and small with the same shortfall in detail. At every level, from shopping mall to grand opening experience; too close a look at detail will reveal sloppy standards, careless execution, what can be interpreted as a cavalier attention to detail. The people in charge, here, are as smart as people any where else; so, what is it that makes poor production values acceptable?
Nothing makes it acceptable; and this level of execution affects the experience. Sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, but it is always affected. Whether a temporary show at a mall in Abu Dhabi, the Opening of a Dining and Entertainment complex on a beach in Dubai or the launch of a group of theme parks in the desert; completeness of execution, thoroughness of detail, lushness of experience is and shall remain paramount, or success will be elusive.
It is the responsibility of the industry press to do more than reprint press releases as these installations and developments come to be realized. Hard questions must be asked, clear eyes must be focused, we must closely watch the development and share the truth about what is being built…or we risk our own credibility.
The photo at the top of this column shows the lushness of Diagon Alley; the intimacy, the completeness, the fullness of the experience.
The photos, below, show what are evidently acceptable levels of production – projects, openings and shows presented as complete – that are, in fact, unacceptable; the existence of which dilutes what is sold as a finished experience.
No names and places. The purpose is not to name names and point fingers, the purpose is to wave flags.
There is time and there is money to do these projects correctly. That is what is sought.
“IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience” remains a free download from iBooks or iTunes. Grab it.
Show Plaza, during opening night
Staples and Screws
Main thoroughfare, Opening Day