Game Change

Diagon Alley

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 Disney has followed with New Fantasyland, and the lushness of those experiences have now been completely superseded by Universal’s Diagon Alley.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


main show plaza opening night

Staples and Screws

Staples and Screws


Main thoroughfare, Opening Day

Main Thoroughfare, Opening Day


10 thoughts on “Game Change

  1. Every word of this! This is so important, not just for the Emirates but for developing countries everywhere. I’ve seen it in China and India, Central Europe, all over the world.

    On the one hand you have sharp local operators trying to squeeze every centime they can out of the budget (whether to save the money or put it to another use). They haggle the quality out of a thing and ruin the vendors.
    On the other hand, there are certain vendors. Carpetbaggers is exactly the right word. They rush in when the cash is flying, grab stacks of money, and wait for the opportunity to exit on a technicality, having delivered little of worth.

    So often it’s very talented people who end up trying to fix a dollar’s worth of mistakes for fifty cents, and the product simply can’t be saved. It gives the business a bad name, it wrecks careers, and it leaves the public without the superb amenities (like Universal is now creating) that should be available.

  2. Whenever people choose to participate in themed experience, or a sci-fi/fantasy movie, or even a good book, they come willing to suspend their disbelief and accept, at least initially, the illusion being presented as a kind of separate reality. If the fabric of the illusion is peeled back, however inadvertently, to reveal a shabby reality lurking beneath, poorly framed and an insult to their intelligence, most people will be willing only to suspend their participation.

    Have I accurately assimilated the gist of your essay? If so, then you conveyed it well (once again). If not, it’s probably the fault of my skewed perception rather than your delivery.

    Always enjoyable to see you lay it down like that.

  3. I can certainly attest to the completeness of the experience on the Harry Potter ride. The waiting in line is already magical as is the view of the towering castle.

    And, as you know, the ‘Tour of Broken Dreams’ to me is ‘Potential, on hold’.

    Finally, for those MBA’ers that want to strip everything to its essential: the only persons capable of doing that are Mondriaan and Koolhaas, both (Dutch 😉 ) artists.

  4. A really well written and informed article one which is right on the mark and should be a recommended read for anyone planning a Park whether in the UAE or anywhere else.
    I wouldn’t be too hard on the MBA;ers as strategically someone employed them to value engineer these projects, after two hangovers the powers that be in the UAE are learning that over indulgence can give you a serious headache so it may be just be that they are treading carefully until they establish what their level of consumption is?

    • Okay, Stephen, I’ll be nice to the MBA’s…after all, it IS The Season…

      Thank you for reading and for commenting; and it’s good to hear from your sector that this assessment has merit. If only the Powers That Be, here in Dubai, would look past their immediate Circle…

  5. Excellent article which to mind crystallises the need for projects to be led by Producers and not Architects and Accountants. Yes, there must always be respect for the budget and the design must stay within the parameters of the feasibility study. But it is the art of the show producer to imagine and create the experience. Too often the creative solution is sought after the architectural design and after the MBA’s have written up their check lists of yesterday’s experiences.
    We may not all have Universal or Disney’s budgets but we can all choose to stick to simple theatrical disciplines, both in design and execution, to ensure that we maintain “the suspension of disbelief”.

    • Hear! Hear! Rory… If ONLY these companies would bring in Producers and actual Entertainment people during the design phase, and keep them integral to the process; giving them the authorized priority to Protect the Experience… If only… 😉

      • And, Kile, if ONLY architect were ALLOWED to be producers of their own imaginations, and not hired as monkeys to materialise what already was decided by management… Architects are artists as well, but the kind of most often (+95% ??) strangled to shut their mouths and “produce generic plans on time”.
        I’ve been struggling all my life with that mentallity, and I was happy to receive JUST 10% commissions where the owner deliberately asked me be to “please” deliver a real experience… all others cut you off, down to blunt program delivery, even if you TRY to do better. We get the constant feed back that we’re just “nessessary tech monkeys”.
        It is what makes the world, on average, so UGLY ! …..
        And, sorry for my rant (pointing to Rory’s comment here), I’m completely done with the constant blaming ON architects, from anyone. Give us SPACE, we ARE artists !

        • Thank you, Helwig. Yes, what is important is that no-one work or design in a vacuum of their own discipline. That what is built is built through collaboration so that people can move through it and experience the Experience that is envisioned; that the infrastructure will support the features that are offered, that what it build will survive desert sun and sand, temperate wind and rain or near-polar snow and ice depending on where the Thing is built…and it will fully support and deliver the Experience. The art of the Architect, the technology of the Engineer, the Story – above all, the Story – must be protected by S/He who Produces. Unenlightened budget shaving and “value engineering” runs the risk of negating the work of all the Collaborators. IMHO: Experience First, opinion of the Accountants Later.

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