Will theme parks and superheroes fly in Middle East?

Investors, studios and park operators all believe that a Middle Eastern fascination with American culture will equal big bucks at Disney-like parks.

ferrari theme prk 88 224 (photo credit: )
ferrari theme prk 88 224
(photo credit: )
Wonder Woman, King Kong and Shrek are heading for the Persian Gulf as part of the rush to build what could become the world's largest theme park playground. But even as the ink dries on the billion-dollar deals in the United Arab Emirates, movie studios are grappling with ways to make their signature characters and amusement parks fly in the conservative Muslim region. Politically sensitive characters such as Captain America could be left at home. Prayer rooms will join the list of accommodations, and menus will likely feature falafel and humus alongside pizza and hot dogs. There's even a move afoot to offer Bollywood dance shows to lure Indian visitors. Investors, studios and park operators are all aiming to cash in on what some observers call the Middle East's decades-long fascination with American culture. Hollywood movies are popular in the region, and Western fashions are hot commodities among residents who travel abroad. "On the one hand, they hate America. On the other hand they love America to the bone," said Michael Izady, an expert on Middle East culture who reaches history at Pace University in New York. The theme park market is open - with no major facilities currently operating in the Middle East. The projects are no-brainers for the entertainment companies that have jumped at what amounts to free brand expansions with no capital at risk. Few details have been provided about the deals, which entertainment companies simply describe as licensing arrangements for intellectual property and help on designing the parks and attractions, with no mention of possible royalty payments. Their investment partners have money and land to build the parks but lack the star-powered attractions to draw the millions of visitors needed to make them profitable. Dubai, one of the seven constituents of the UAE, has thrived and turned into a magnet for the wealthy as oil money flowed in. The government wants to more than double the number of annual visitors from nearly 7 million last year to 15 million by 2015. In recent months, eight major licensing deals have been struck between oil-rich investors and entertainment giants such as Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment Inc. for theme parks and other attractions. The first, a $2.2 billion Universal Studios park based on franchises such as King Kong and Jurassic Park, is set to open in an area dubbed Dubailand on the city's desert outskirts in 2010. Designs for the parks are moving quickly, despite lingering doubts about the long-term availability of financing and the lack of highways and other infrastructure to support the huge developments. Several projects are planned for a manmade island being reclaimed from the sea called Palm Jebel Ali. Most of the parks are proposed for Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the region's most Westernized and cosmopolitan cities, where expatriates outnumber local citizens, bars and restaurants serve alcohol and foreign women stroll some beaches in bikinis. Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. home entertainment group, is convinced that Superman, Batman and other DC Comics characters licensed by Warner will be readily accepted by those who visit the park from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Even the bare-shouldered Wonder Woman shouldn't raise too many eyebrows "unless we depicted her as a Muslim woman," said Tsujihara, who is spearheading the Warner theme park in Abu Dhabi. Even so, "we probably wouldn't have her running around in costume around the park," he said. With plans to help build a $1 billion theme park in Abu Dhabi by 2011, Marvel Entertainment Inc. is downplaying Captain America, a World War II creation draped in the American flag, in favor of attractions based on popular characters such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men - none of whom carry the same political baggage. "One of the things that's nice about our characters is they're either about individuals helping people or they're about teams of people of different types, like mutants, that band together and solve problems," Marvel chairman David Maisel said. "If anything, that's a good message for today's world with all the different cultures," he said. Park designers also plan to tweak the models used for North American theme parks. Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. will include beer-tasting zones in its four-park complex anchored by SeaWorld, set to open in Dubai in 2012. The discreet zones will receive little advertising, in accordance with UAE government guidelines. "Realistically, Dubai is a very cosmopolitan market. It's not unlike visiting Paris or New York or London or Berlin or Milan," Busch Entertainment president Jim Atchison said. The Walt Disney Co., the world's largest theme park operator by far, is notably absent from the rush to the region. Disney parks and resorts chairman Jay Rasulo said Disney is studying the market. Some observers said the cultural barriers might be easier to overcome than financial and infrastructure hurdles. Massive construction on a variety of projects is causing traffic jams as road construction has failed to keep pace with the building. "The development in the UAE is outrunning the ability of the infrastructure to keep up," said Keith James, president of Jack Rouse Associates, which is helping develop a Ferrari automobile theme park in Abu Dhabi to open next year. "I'm not going to say they're not going to happen, I just don't know that they're going to happen on the tight timeframe that everybody is talking about," he said. "There's simply not enough labor and design effort to pull it off." The scale of the theme park plans, estimated to cost a total of at least $20 billion, puts them on par with developments in Orlando, Fla., home to a dozen parks including Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios. "Up until very recently, the Middle East has been theme-park deprived," said Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine. "They've suddenly joined the 21st century." The parks will also provide Dubai, and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi, with an economic buffer against diminishing oil reserves, expected to run out in Dubai in a decade or more. Funded by sky-high oil prices, government-backed companies in both areas have gone on a worldwide investing sprees, taking stakes in everything from casinos and cruise ships to electronics makers, banks and ports. Studios and their UAE financiers are taking a risk with the theme parks, said Ibrahim Warde, adjunct professor of international business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. "There are two separate issues," he said. "One is whether, financially, all those projects will come to completion. The other question is if they do, will the customers show up?"