Motiongate theme park unites major studios in Dubai

Dubai is poised to become a theme park hub, on par with Orlando as a destination for thrill-seeking families. So what does it take to set up a world-class theme park? We spoke to the team leading the Hollywood-inspired park Motiongate, which will open in October as part of the Dh10.5 billion DXB Entertainments’ development in Jebel Ali offering 27 attractions, including five roller coasters. Here, Motiongate’s general manager, Guido Zucchi, from Italy, and Daniel Cuffe, the director of operations, and Elaine Hinds, the director of entertainment, both from the US, reveal the process of preparing to open a theme park.

Motiongate was designed with the collaboration of three big film studios – Motiongate, Lionsgate and DreamWorks. Have they been heavily involved?

DC: They have been involved from the very beginning of the creative process, not just in approving the design of the rides and costumes but also in terms of retail operations, marketing and entertainment. We’ve got craftsmen throughout America, Europe and Asia working on the ride props, show sets and animated figures, and artists from the film studios have been flying to these workshops to make sure everything is done correctly. We need their stamp of approval. This is the first time ever that three major film studios have united in creating a theme park.

How do you decide which 13 film franchises should feature in Motiongate?

GZ: We sat down with the studios and considered the relative brand awareness of these movies and how they would work as a ride experience. It is not taken for granted that a successful film can be a successful ride. Normally, studios decide on a second or third release of a movie franchise four or five years upfront, whereas a theme park ride can last much longer. Take Hotel Transylvania: the script and the setting of the movie is perfect for a ride, but we don’t yet know if a Hotel Transylvania 3 movie will be made – hopefully, yes. Visitors are initially attracted by the film themes, but there is a moment when the attraction becomes more important than the movie itself. Some rides last almost forever because they become classics.

What are the logistics of building a theme park from scratch?

GZ: Almost all the rides have now arrived in Dubai from where they were built in Europe and the US. It has been a big advantage logistically to have Jebel Ali Port so near. There are very few theme park ride manufacturers globally, so they are used to shipping rides around the world. Huge boxes are arriving but inside might be just one small item. Yesterday we had a very gothic-looking chandelier for Hotel Transylvania delivered in an enormous box.

What unexpected challenges have you faced?

DC: Some of the biggest challenges have been with what we call the dark rides, the rides through adventures, and bringing the actual film sets to life. We’re working with Sony Pictures for the Hotel Transylvania ride and bringing each room of the castle from the movie to life. We’re taking what have only previously been drawings and movies and bringing them to three-dimensional reality.

How does Motiongate’s business model differ from other theme parks?

EH: There is more of a street programme here than at other theme parks. As people are moving from attraction to attraction or retail to restaurant, they will constantly run into these actors who will talk to them as though they really are, for example, the Green Hornet looking for the bad guys. Within any theme park, there are restrictions – you have to be this tall, you can’t ride if you have a heart condition or you’re pregnant, but the thing everybody experiences is the streets. We’ve tried to create an atmosphere where, as you pick up your ice cream and turn around, there’s the Ghostbusters. I tell my staff that I never want to walk to the end of a street and not see anything happening.

Who have you been recruiting?

EH: We’ve identified 193 performers we want working at Motiongate. We did a worldwide audition tour and had over 2,000 submissions – for a brand new property to have that kind of turnout is unheard of. All the auditions were videotaped, so when we came back to Dubai, we literally locked ourselves in the conference room for a week, had every CV out and watched videos of every performer.

GZ: We are very active in hiring Emiratis at all levels. It’s more about attitude than experience. We are trying to find people who are passionate about satisfying guest expectations.

What training will the staff receive?

GZ: We will be like a university for some months. Trainers will first go through instructions on principles and general knowledge of the park, then each group will be assigned to their specific role with more in-depth training. Before opening a park, you need to have all your staff repeating over and over the same processes so that they become automatic – like driving a car. We cycle with empty rides, so people get used to it. Before opening, the staff also gets to experience the park as a visitor would and we’ll train them to be prepared to face whatever situation.

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