Walk through the grand arched entrance of Universal Studios' Dubai theme park, and you step into... wind-swept desert.
No Hollywood thrill rides, no ticket kiosks, nostudio back lots. Even the guard house and the construction office satempty during a recent visit.
The planned park is part of a vision by Dubai officials to turna patch of sand on the edge of the Mideast city-state into Dubailand -a vast amusement complex twice the size of Walt Disney World studdedwith theme parks including Universal Studios, Six Flags and Legoland,along with resorts, the world's biggest shopping mall and the firstgolf course designed by Tiger Woods.
It is now unclear when or if much of it will ever get built.Dubailand has hit the harsh economic realities of the global downturn,much like the rest of Dubai, which once seemed unstoppable in its driveto build the biggest, the tallest, the most extravagant.
"At this point, it's kind of hard to sell," BobbySarkar, a real-estate analyst at Al Mal Capital in Dubai, said of theDubailand project. "Obviously it's not feasible currently."
Dubailand was conceived at a time when cash was readilyavailable and the pint-sized emirate was expanding rapidly, buildingman-made islands, ever-taller skyscrapers and gleaming luxury housing.Now in the world economic crisis, easy credit has disappeared, andDubai faces crippling debt and a glut of brand-new real estate.Thousands of foreign workers who flocked here seeking higher-payingjobs are pouring out of the city as layoffs mount.
"Was Dubailand a sound idea? In part yes," saidDavid Camp, director at ERA Aecom, whose consulting firm was involvedin early plans for the site. "But it got carried away, like most ofDubai."
Dubailand was launched six years ago as part of the emirate'spush to more than double its tourism numbers to 15 million visitors by2015. The hope was that their dollars, euros and riyals would keep theeconomy chugging ahead despite the emirate's dearth of oil reserves.
The project sprawls over more than 259 square kilometers ofdesert - bigger than Orlando, Florida, home of some of America's mostfamous amusement parks.
A few parts have been built, including a humble outlet mall anda fairground open only during the cool winter months. A sales center onthe outskirts of the site touts what Dubailand is supposed to become,promising dinosaurs and spaceships, Spiderman and Shrek. Two livetigers prowl a glass enclosure next to the reception desk.
But much of what is promised appears to be stalled and runningwell behind schedule. One of the more extravagant ideas - an artificialsnow park housed under a glass dome - has quietly disappeared from theproject's Web site.
Dubailand senior vice president Muhammad al-Habbai said in abrief written statement to The Associated Press that "there is nochange to the vision of Dubailand, and we can reaffirm that all ourprojects will be developed and delivered to completion." He gave notime frame, saying only that the project "was designed as a phaseddevelopment to be built over a number of years."
Neither Dubailand nor its overall developer Tatweer made officials available for interviews.
The idle appearance of the Universal Studios site suggests itwill not open next year as advertised at the sales center. UniversalStudios' parent, NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.,referred questions to Tatweer, which said only that work wasprogressing.
Ssix Flags, the New York-based amusement park chain, said plansfor its first Mideast park were "moving forward" but provided noadditional information. The company filed for bankruptcy protection inJune.
The Tiger Woods-designed golf course will not open as plannedthis year. Woods recently told The AP the project was delayed and is"out of my hands."
Dubailand said "consistent progress continues" at the course.Three of the 18 holes are completed, which it said confirms itscommitment to the project.
Union Properties, a local company building the world's firstFormula One theme park at Dubailand, said in March the racing-themedproject would be pushed back a year to 2010 because of a lack offunding. Analysts at Mideast bank EFG-Hermes have speculated theproject could be dumped altogether.
The opening of the Legoland park is expected to be pushed backtwo years from its original 2011 target, said Sally Ann Wilkinson, aspokeswoman for Merlin Entertainments Group, a British amusement-parkoperator that contracted with Tatweer to build the park.
For the international brands, Dubailand must have looked like a great opportunity.
"Around Dubai, and I'm talking about a radius of more than 3,000miles, there are no major theme parks. Given that, it is a good idea tohave a world-class theme park in the Middle East," said former Dubairesident and amusement-park enthusiast Stefan Zwanzger, who blogs aboutthe industry at Thethemeparkguy.com. "I'm not sure it makes sense tobuild 10 or 11 theme parks at about the same time."
The deals were typically structured as licensing agreementsthat left the international companies with little financial risk,according to regulatory filings and analysts. Partnering companies ineffect got paid while gaining a toehold in a part of the world with abooming population and little competition.
But they also left at least part of their reputations in thehands of Tatweer, a company linked to the emirate's ruler that is nowstruggling.
Complicating problems for Tatweer is its planned merger withanother Dubai developer, Emaar Properties, which declined to comment onDubailand. The plan calls for publicly traded Emaar to swallow upTatweer and two sister companies in a deal widely seen as stemming fromDubai's real-estate bust.
But industry observers say the slump could also be a blessing, giving Dubai a chance to rethink its priorities.
"What Dubai thought they'd done was create this everlastinggrowth market.... The world was booming. Whatever crazy idea you cameup with, people said, 'Yeah I'll buy it,'" said Camp, the consultant.
"The fundamental issue is Dubai had far too grandiose ideas forfar too short a time," he said. "It was a bit like a toddler trying todo a 100-meter sprint rather than trying to just walk around thefurniture a bit."