A sand storm, the world's largest indoor theme park, and a giant hedgehog ... all things we encountered on Day 3 of the European Coaster Club's trip to the United Arab Emirates.
After the heat of the first two days, Monday dawned much cooler. With the coolness came wind, and with the wind came sand. The views of Dubai we had enjoyed had been replaced by a murky gloom. A sandstorm had blown in and was whipping up clouds of dust, but luckily this was the day we were going to visit IMG Worlds of Adventure, the world's largest indoor theme park.
The site on which IMG sits is massive - our coaches had to drive around most of the perimeter to get from the highway to the Worlds of Adventure entrance. The main reason for the extended detour was because, not content with having just opened a brand new theme park, IMG has already begun construction of a second sister park on the neighbouring land.
Even from a distance, the Worlds of Adventure building looks massive, only dwarfed by the huge empty car park beside it. Admittedly we'd arrived early as we were going to have an ERS prior to park opening but, although certainly fuller than Dubai Parks and Resorts, the park was to be very quiet all day.
Our ERS was on Spider-Man: Doc Ock's Revenge, IMG's spinning coaster from Mack. The coaster spins around a nighttime cityscape, before briefly popping out and soaring over one of the main park thoroughfares. The ride itself is really good fun, and I managed 5 rides during the ERS. My major criticism though was the quality of the theming. The queueline and station look good, but the cityscape is just "cardboard cut-out" skyscapers coloured with UV paint. Its the kind of theming you'd expect from a local family-run park, not a destination aiming to be world-class.
Following the ERS, we were taken into the park's large and very impressive Cartoon Network Live theatre for a talk from one of the park's managers. Before he came on stage, however, we were welcomed by the park's dance troupe who gave an exclusive performance of Worlds of Adventure's daily park opening ceremony dance just for us. It was a very nice touch, and showed what a talented cast IMG have been able to recruit.
The presentation itself told us all about the various areas of the park, some stories about its first few months of operation, and then gave us a look at the sister park which has been construction next door and will open in 2020 as IMG Worlds of Legends.
Although the presentation was interesting, we were keen to get out into the park and explore. We were advised to head first to Velociraptor, the park's only outdoor rollercoaster, due to the worstening sandstorm which might force the ride to close. Velociraptor is a Mack launch coaster, with the layout being a clone of Blue Fire at Europa Park. Given that Blue Fire is one of my favourite rollercoasters, I was excited to try this version but ended up being slightly underwhelmed. Unfortunately the heat and the desert seem to be taking their toll on Velociraptor, which is already feeling quite rough, unlike the smooth gracefulness of Blue Fire. Although it would have been nice to ride it again, I wasn't overly disappointed to see that it had indeed been closed later in the day.
The park's other coaster is Predator, a standard Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter. There's nothing wrong with it as such, but it was just rather boring. Of the three rollercoasters at IMG Worlds of Adventure, Spider-Man Doc Ock's Revenge is a clear winner.
One thing highlighted in the park presentation was their food, and the amount of effort they have put into it. IMG were keen that their offering should be much higher quality than the standard "park food". We decided to try out Chang's Golden Dragon, their Chinese restaurant. The food was amazing - I tried the crispy duck pancakes, and they were some of the best I've ever had, not just in a theme park but in any Chinese restaurant.
Straight after lunch we headed for the Haunted Hotel, IMG's live actor walkthough, which was about to open. We were told that it was by far the most popular attraction in the park and would attract a long queue. Given it was only open for a few hours a day, it was best to get there early. This advice proved correct: we arrived at the entrance about 10 minutes before the attraction opened, and there was soon a long queue behind us. While not overly intense, the maze has been done well - theming is good, and the actors perform some classic scares.
As we came out of The Haunted Hotel, The Lazy Town Show was about to start back in the CN Live theatre, so we opted to watch that before continuing to explore more rides. The show was very colourful and featured some catchy tunes. The show's underlying theme is that children should eat healthy food rather than evil sweets - a message that largely flew over my head at the time but upon reflection was rather strong and contrived.
The rest of our time at Worlds of Adventure was taken up trying out some of the other rides and simulator experiences. The Forbidden Territory is billed as IMG's major dark ride, but was a disappointment: again it had good ride hardware but some of the theming was pretty poor. The 4D/simulator attractions were much more impressive - Avengers and Ben 10 being two of my favourites.
Overall, IMG Worlds of Adventure is a great park, and being indoors underneath a giant air conditioned dome is a major plus. They have some great rides, but they are let down by the quality of theming in some attractions, especially since their rival Dubai Parks and Resorts is just a few miles up the road and excels with this. Hopefully though, theming can be fixed, if IMG are prepared to throw a little more money at it.
We left IMG Worlds of Adventure late afternoon (with coach driver Ali taking a somewhat "cross country" route out of the car park and then driving the wrong way down one of the park roads, laughing with us as he went), for a short drive back into central Dubai to visit Sega Republic, housed on two levels of the Dubai Mall.
The park entrance features a large Sonic the Hedgehog overhead, and he along with various other Sega characters can be found throughout the park. The major attraction for the coaster club was the park's spinning coaster, which is where most people headed for upon arrival. Not wanting to get stuck in a big queue, a few of us went first to explore some of the other rides, and found ourselves first at Halfpipe Canyon. Two pairs of riders are strapped onto two large snowboards, and then have to rock their feet backwards and forwards to "power" their board up a giant halfpipe, competing with the other pair to gain the highest score. It's a fun experience but definitely tiring, and probably quite hard to imagine without seeing it!
Having let it eat through the queue of coaster enthusiasts, we then headed for Spin Gear, the Gerstlauer spinning rollercoaster for a walk-on ride. It was a really fun ride, and I enjoyed it so much that we went around straight away for a second go.
The park treated us to a pizza buffet, so we rejoined the rest of the group as we all squeezed into Sega Republic's party room for some gratefully received sustenance. The park were very generous, and there was plenty of pizza to go around. In fact, they insisted that we took the leftovers with us, and I ended up carrying a pile of pizza boxes back to our hotel on the coach!
With some time to spare back at the hotel before bedtime, a small group of us headed over to the neighbouring Mall of the Emirates. As well as a huge range of shops, the mall also hosts a giant indoor ski slope. This is like Tamworth Snowdome on a massive scale - all air conditioned down to -2C while the temperature outside is regularly in the 30s or higher. Some things in the UAE are both astonishingly impressive and slightly (but lovingly) bonkers!
Having taken a walk around and seen the ski slope, we settled down for a traditional(?) evening ice cream sundae before heading back to the hotel to get prepared for the next day of Arabian adventures.