Starting off slowly? No way! We managed to pack in two parks at Dubai Parks and Resorts plus the huge Global Village all on the first day of our Arabian Adventure in Dubai.
Stepping off our Emirates A380 flight and into the very impressive Dubai International Airport, the 37 of us who had taken an overnight from Heathrow met up with the rest of the group of members of the European Coaster Club to begin our adventure in the United Arab Emirates. The number of people on the trip was so large that we had to split up over three coaches, which proceeded in convoy down Sheikh Zayed Road (the longest road in the Emirates) toward Dubai Parks and Resorts.
Dubai Parks and Resorts currently hosts three theme parks, a waterpark, a hotel and a restaurant/shopping district all on the same site. While Disney and Universal both have resorts offering multiple gates, these started with a single park and grew over time. When it officially opened last December, DPR became the first resort in history to launch with multiple theme parks on site on the same day.
The three theme parks are connected by Riverland, which hosts an array of shops and restaurants set around a central river that runs through the resort. Our coaches dropped us in the coach park near the entrance to Riverland, and we walked through the nicely themed buildings and around the river to our first park of the trip, Legoland Dubai.
Barely a couple of hours after stepping off our flight, we began our first ERS (Exclusive Ride Session) of the trip, on Legoland's Dragon rollercoaster. Unfortunately there was only one train in operation, which meant the ERS was more of a first-riders-of-the-day kind of thing rather than a repeat-riding experience, but it was very kind of the park to lay it on for us.
As with other versions, The Dragon begins with a dark ride through various scenes inside the castle. Dubai's version is almost identical to that of Legoland Windsor's, apart from a surprise drop at the end just before the train emerges into the sunlight outside. The rest of the ride is a nice enough sweep around the area next to the castle, before it re-enters the station.
After a ride on the park's other coaster, Dragon's Apprentice, we went in search of breakfast and ended up in the Knight's Table restaurant. We were greeted by a whole load of genuinely friendly and enthusiastic staff. Unfortunately they didn't have much in the way of breakfast type food on offer, so we settled for burgers and chips. These turned out to be identical to those on offer at Merlin's branded Burger Kitchen restaurants at their UK parks - tasty but not particularly high quality. It seemed to be a similar story at the parks other food outlets which were all serving the same kind of food as at other Legoland parks - burgers, pizza, hotdogs and ice cream - without any attempt at providing more interesting localised fare.
With hunger satisfied (kind of!) we took a tour around the rest of the park. Very similar to Atlantis at Legoland Windsor, Dubai's Submarine Adventure was well presented with lots of fish and sharks to see on the underwater expedition. Another highlight was the Lost Kingdom Adventure, again a well presented version of the laser gun dark ride from other Legoland parks.
Interestingly, aside from the park's spectacular Miniland which is housed under a giant dome, Submarine Adventure and Lost Kingdom Adventure are among very few rides at the park that take place inside. Most of the others are in the open air. Some of these are underneath giant sun shades, but others sit in direct view of the sun. Given Dubai's climate (even on the March morning we visited temperatures were up around 35°C), it is an interesting decision.
Overall, the park felt very much like a standard Legoland, albeit a rather small one. Miniland was great, and the rest of the rides were all good quality proven Lego rides from other parks around the world. However, it all seemed a bit "cookie cutter" - everything was lifted straight from the standard Legoland catalogue and operations manual. Hopefully, as the park develops further, some more unique attractions can be added to make it feel a bit different from everywhere else.
A park which definitely can be described as feeling a bit different from everywhere else is Bollywood Parks Dubai, our second park of the day, which is right next door to Legoland. It was the best presented park we visited on the whole trip, and that was immediately evidenced by the spectacular entrance plaza. Theming is a major strength of Bollywood Parks, with the park being highly decorated throughout. With the hot Dubai weather, it very much feels like you could be in India.
There is an obvious question though - why the pluralised Bollywood Parks, rather than Bollywood Park? Erm ... dunno, sorry. Moving on...
Bollywood Parks is a theme park without a single rollercoaster. Instead, its attractions are a mix of the latest in virtual reality/3D technology and live action shows.
The first ride we tried turned out to be my favourite in the park - Krrish: Hero's Flight. This is a 4D flying theatre based around Krrish, a Bollywood super hero: the super hero of the world no less. It uses the latest generation of flying theatre tech, which is capable of throwing riders around a lot more than previous versions, and also incorporates high quality projection and smell effects. As for the story itself, its a bit wacky, but fun. We start on a tour around India, which soon goes wrong meaning Krrish has to come and save us. As our tour continues with Krrish at the healm, Earth is suddenly attacked by aliens. Krrish, with us in tow, has to go and sort the mess out. Just the average day in the life of a superhero, I suppose.
Krrish shares a building with Ra.One: Unleashed, a 4D cinema with a cool preshow. We are special invited guests of the company, visiting to be the first to see the revolutionary Game Glove Controller. In the preshow, a live actor dons the glove and, via an awesome special effect, morphs into a digital avatar which proceeds to describe the details of the invention. Visitors are then led through to the 4D cinema to experience the glove tech for themselves.
After these two experiences, we went for a wander around the rest of the park. There's a lot to see apart from the rides, with lots of immersive and very detailed theming. We also caught some of a dance show taking place on one of the park's outdoor stages - it was full of life and colour, and seemed to be attracting a crowd. Well, I say crowd. Apart from the 130 odd coaster enthusiasts, there weren't a huge number of other visitors to be seen. This was a common theme during the trip - all the new UAE parks are currently largely deserted. Apparently they're expecting numbers to pick up as they get closer to the world Expo which will be held in Dubai in 2020.
So, following a ride on Lagaan - Thrill of Victory, an almost indescribably odd "cricket" simulator, and having had my photo taken sitting on one of the vehicles parked around the area (only then to notice the "please do not touch" sign ... oops!), we met up with several other tripgoers in line to watch the park's major daytime show, Dabangg - Stunt Spectacular Show. Hosted inside a giant warehouse, it lived up to its name: it was hugely loud. The show begins with a group of "terrorists" firing guns in the air, and the noise doesn't let up from there. The show has a minimal story - girl gets kidnapped, boyfriend has to rescue her - but its largely a mix of dancing, stunts and explosions. Given the cultural sensitivities, the romantic elements of the story are fairly low key.
Time was ticking, and I was keen to have another ride on Krrish, so we headed back over there next. We found a few more ECC members in the queue, so enjoyed a mini half-front-row takeover.
By this stage most people had seen the park, although consulting the map a few of us discovered the Rock On show was about to start. The fools that we were, we stopped and asked a nearby staff member where the Rock On venue was and he duly pointed us towards a large doorway off one of the main park thoroughfares. It looked a bit deserted, but given the emptiness of the park we weren't surprised. The staff on the other side of the door were quite surprised, however, to see us as we ventured through ... into an evening nightclub venue. Turns out, Rock On is both the name of the park's nightclub and also one of its daytime shows, the latter being a small group of musicians standing on a street corner opposite the nightclub entrance. Ahhh ... all makes sense!
Our time at the park over, we headed back to the coaches, and onward to our hotel - the very new Hilton Garden Inn next to the Mall of the Emirates. The hotel is very new - everything is clean and shiny, and we even found some bits still wrapped in plastic! The room was a typical Hilton Garden Inn room - clean, tidy and very comfortable.
At this point, having had an overnight flight followed by a full on day at two theme parks, sensible people would have called it a day and settled down for a quiet meal and an early night. Instead, after some much needed showers, the group congregated back at our coaches and we headed off to Global Village, our third main stop of the day (which by this time was more evening than day).
Global Village is described as the largest cultural and entertainment destination of its kind in the world. However, I don't think many of us really imagined the scale that we saw. It attracts over 5 million visitors each year, similar numbers to Europa Park. Global Village, though, achieves this in half the time - it is only open for six months of the year. While it didn't feel overcrowded, it was busy and had a good atmosphere.
The main reason for the ECC trip to visit was Fantasy Island, a large fair towards the back of Global Village, which is run by Mellors, the UK-based fair family. Amongst the various rides on offer is the old powered Mine Train coaster from American Adventure, which has now found a new permanent home in Dubai. At Global Village, however, the power has been turned up to 11. I've never experienced such as fast powered coaster, and really felt the need to hold on!
Global Village is much more than rides, and we spend a lot of our time there exploring the huge pavilions which dominate the site. Each of these represents a different country, and most have large and impressive facades. Inside each are market stalls offering "local" products from the country represented, although mostly these were cloth, perfumes and foods.
Not having eaten since Legoland much earlier in the day, we also managed to fit in time to find some food. There is a large variety on offer, but I settled on trying something new. Never having eaten camel before, a camel burger seemed the natural choice. Luckily it was very tasty - much like venison, it had a strong but not unpleasant flavour.
After looking inside a few more pavilions - Egypt, with its pharoahs and sarcophaguses was a particular highlight - the time was approaching 9:30 and we headed back to the coaches for the return trip to our hotel. Ali our coach driver had to divert around some of the late night Dubai traffic, and we ended up passing by Global Village about fifteen minutes into our journey, much to the amusement of the passengers on the coach. In fact, Global Village is so centrally located, it became a recurring trip joke that everywhere we went we would pass it at least once!