Model maker has high hopes for Dubai Legoland

London // If you thought it was difficult moving your child’s tottering Lego tower, imagine what it must be like to transport the world’s largest Lego constructions from one side of the world to the other.

For Merlin Entertainments, the British attractions operator, it is all in a day’s work.

Merlin’s Lego master builders have been building what is now the world’s largest ever construction in Lego in its workshops in California.

The Burj Khalifa replica now takes pride of place in Dubai in the city’s first ever Legoland theme park, which opens later this month in the huge DXB Entertainments theme park complex.

Around the world, theme parks have become integral to tourism strategy and there are high hopes for DXB, formerly known as Dubai Parks and Resorts, which contains Legoland Dubai, the seventh Lego park by Merlin.

Ben Thompson, the senior marketing executive at Merlin’s new openings division, says the Legoland and Legoland Water Park in Dubai was first proposed about 10 years ago.

“It took a long time to get the right site and the right partners, for the other parts of the park assembled. Then the economic crash delayed things for a while,” he says.

Around the world, Merlin Entertainments develops and operates theme parks on different financial models. In the Dubai case, Merlin is the manager, running the park on a day-to-day basis under contract.

All the investment in the park has come from the master developer Meraas, which is the majority owner of DXB Entertainments – a DFM listed company.

The DXB complex will feature several parks under one umbrella – besides Legoland and the Legoland Water Park there is Bollywood, a Bollywood themed venue; Motiongate – a feature film attraction – and Lapita, a Polynesian-themed family attraction.

For the Merlin team, Dubai is a huge challenge but one that the company expects to prove very successful. “This is a unique place and this is a unique project,” says Mr Thompson, who spent some of the summer in the park in a hard hat, in 45 degree heat.

“It is a bit of a calculated gamble because Dubai is quite an unpredictable place. It’s a place which is constantly changing and growing, with new sites and islands being created,” he says.

Tourists from outside Dubai, drawn from across the GCC as well as from Asia and Europe, will be one of the main targets for the internationally recognised Legoland brand.

With 78 million passengers passing through Dubai International Airport last year, Dubai is becoming a more viable place for theme park businesses to operate.

In its first full year of operation, DXB Entertainments is targeting 6.7 million paying visitors in 2017 as part of the UAE’s attempt to fulfil Dubai’s vision of attracting 20 million visitors by 2020.

“We will have a strong marketing plan locally targeting the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the GCC states,” says Mr Thompson.

“We think of these as extended domestic markets. We are also three hours from India and Iran, and five to eight hours from the UK and Europe. There is also a small but growing market from China and Asia. We are marketing to all of those populations, setting up travel packages to the park so that people can book directly from home.”

The recruitment policy at the park reflects the international nature of Dubai and of the prospective visitors.

“It’s going to feel like the most international park that we have ever built. The staff – there will be 1,000 employees for both Legoland and Legoland Water Park – are recruited from 54 nationalities. It’s a real melting-pot flavour from around the world,” says Mr Thompson.

Lego fans can expect to see some of the familiar aspects of other parks including a Miniland at the heart of the park – featuring Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque as well as the Burj Khalifa. There will be 20 million bricks in Miniland alone and 15,000 Lego models across the whole park, made of 60 million bricks.

“The concept of a park built for children and families is really strong: things like the experience of getting your Lego driving licence. We won’t mess with a tried and tested formula, but we will adapt it to reflect the environment.”

That means Lego characters that will be clad in traditional Emirati dress, or in western or Asian dress or as cops, cowboys or spacemen, depending on the specific theme. Also, expect to see some of the latest ideas and interactive features that have come out of development at Lego HQ in Denmark. Merlin works closely with the family-owned company that created the best-selling construction toy and many of its staff formerly worked at Lego.

A full range of accommodation and retail will open around the parks next year so that visitors can come and spend several days exploring them. Indeed, Mr Thompson reckons it is impossible to get around the whole Legoland park in a single day. It does offer 40 rides and 20 water slides in the water park.

What will be different from a European Legoland is the provision of sun shelters and indoor spaces to cope with the extreme heat of the Arabian Gulf. Merlin expects to have peaks in visitors either side of high summer, but expects Dubai to be a year-round resort. “We don’t really know what the flow will be like,” he admits.

Major rides – such as the Dragon Ride – will still be outdoors but there are a large number of trees on the site to provide extra shade and covering in all the public spaces.

For the first time ever, Miniland – what Mr Thompson calls the heartbeat of each park – will be indoors under a large air-conditioned dome-like structure. Here the Burj Khalifa will take pride of place alongside other replicas of landmarks from the region, including the pyramids and Petra, the famous archaeological site in Jordan’s south-western desert.

The park is currently in its ride-testing and handover phase, with lots of people with paint pots applying the finishing touches.

The food and beverage outlets are also going in, with the Lego-themed icecream and the popular Brick Burger. Friends and family of people working on the park will get to experience Legoland Dubai in the next couple of weeks, as an extensive dry-run takes place.

After a decade of planning, designing and dreaming. It is almost time to go sightseeing Dubai-style, in miniature.

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