How would you sum up the essence of Yas Waterworld?
It’s an amazing interactive waterpark, offering a fusion of elegant Emirati heritage with cutting-edge ride technology. There are 43 rides and attractions, several of them world firsts, and it is all sewn together by an enchanting story that runs through every element of the park.
What was the brief?
There were four main elements. Firstly, write a captivating story; secondly, involve Emirati heritage in the story and design; thirdly, create an authentic souk within the park, and lastly, incorporate some world firsts, with a particular request for a double flow barrel ride.
How did you begin to create the Yas story?
The story had to be something that was plausible, complex and three-dimensional. It had to have historical context – in this case the history of pearl diving – but also contemporary cultural relevance to the market. So the Emirati creatures of the story also exist in the region – sand vipers, camels and dolphins.
It also needed to be something that reflected the progressive nature of the region. Many people have a rather outdated and mistaken notion of what countries in the Middle East are like. So for our story, we chose a young female protagonist who would be the saviour and the heroine of the adventure.
We had to run this past Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and both he and the younger members of his family played an active part in naming the characters we’d created. The Sheikh even created his own character – a dolphin named Bubbles – that we incorporated in the story.
How do you engage the visitors with the story?
It all begins at the gate where the operator animates the story with life-sized dressed-up characters. As guests queue up, the narrative is graphically depicted on a series of boards, so they have the opportunity to fully comprehend the story as they wait in line. It’s also on the website, of course, if people want to read it before they arrive.
When they enter the park, guests immediately understand the context of what’s around them – the dhows in the lagoon, the hustle and bustle of the souk.
They walk through the souk to get to the changing rooms so the excitement starts right there with the noise and the smell of spices. By the time they’ve changed and are ready to enter the wet areas, they’re ready for the adventure.
What’s the first thing they encounter?
There’s a huge reveal when they leave the souk and enter the waterpark. Giant 6-metre-high [20-feet-high] doors open to give an amazing vista onto the waterpark and roller coasters. Jets are going off, coasters are whizzing by in all directions, there’s a lively bandit fort. They see a huge suspended pearl — which is at the centre of the PearlMaster story — rising 30 metres [100 feet] above the oasis. It’s really dramatic stuff.
Of course, it’s difficult to conceal everything from the visitor as Yas Waterworld is so large it can be seen from 4 kilometres [2.5 miles] away. However, visitors don’t really get the true sense of it until those huge doors part.
Have you catered for all ages?
Yes, there’s entertainment for everyone, from young babies to pensioners. The teenagers tend to head for thrill-seeking rides, but they can still engage with the story within each ride. Younger children tend to stay in the children’s area. For this reason, the water fortress there incorporates the whole story and all the characters in one place.
What is the mix of national and international visitors?
When it opened in January 2013, Yas was designed to cater for a 70 per cent local and national market, with 30 per cent of visitors expected to come from overseas.
It surpassed all targets in its first year, and as time goes on and Abu Dhabi grows as a leisure destination, it’s expected the balance will tip towards a predominantly international clientele.
What would you say is the park’s USP?
Its USP is that it truly is one of the first hybrid parks to be built – with highly innovative wet and dry coasters.
There are world firsts like Bubble’s Barrel — a double barrel flow pen — a hydro-magnetic tornado called Dawwama and the Falcon’s Falaj, a hydromagnetic family ride. Also, the Bandit Bomber is an interactive roller coaster with wet elements, where riders can operate laser guns that hit targets and cause water cascades to go off round the park.
But they are more than just thrilling rides as the detail of the story is in every-thing. For example, the motion of the Falcon’s Falaj, as it rises and then plummets and then rises again, is scribing the flight of the falcon in the story.
Do visitors have to follow the story in a chronological way?
No, not at all. They can enjoy elements of it all over the park – whether on a single ride or dining in the F&B outlets.
But for those who want a much deeper engagement with the story, there is a paid-for Quest experience, which can last from one hour to several days depending on what people sign up for. It’s never been done in a waterpark before.
There are over 60 elements of the Quest around the park that can be set off by the participant’s wristband – from secret caves opening and lights flashing to sudden cascades of water. Guests progress to the top level where they become a PearlMaster and control exclusive elements within the park with their wristband.
What were the main challenges of the project for you?
At Atkins we design everything in three dimensions and because of this the story drives the design and therefore the guest experience is very complex.
We have a saying in our company: “animate, animate, animate”. It doesn’t matter where a guest is in the park they must be having multiple experiences at one time, from unexpected vistas opening up to sound effects to transparent roller-coaster cars whizzing over their heads. It’s not just the big stuff. We take everything down to the minutest detail, such as what the hinges should look like on the doors. It’s all part of the immersion.
It was also quite a challenge to convince the client of our vision, but they went with it and once Yas was two-thirds built, they started to see what we’d seen all along and they couldn’t stop grinning.
Are you pleased with how Yas Waterworld has been received?
Absolutely. the LA Times best sums it up. They ran a story on the 20 best waterparks in the world and Yas was rated second only four months after opening, with Wild Wadi in Dubai, which Atkins also designed and which also has a strong storyline, rated fourth.
Before it opened, Yas Waterworld also received an award for innovation from the World Waterpark Association, and it broke all visitor targets in its first year.
Do you see any emerging trends in the waterpark industry?
There’s going to be a trend towards having much more meaning within parks. The Far East market in particular is keen on having culturally relevant attractions that the market can relate to.
As architects we can drive the waterpark market. When we designed Wild Wadi in 1999 the waterpark industry was in its early embryonic stages. We found the best rides manufacturers and challenged them to come up with something different to suit our needs. With Yas, we came up with the ride paths for experiences like the Falcon’s Falaj and commissioned the ride companies to create the ride. We’ll start to see a lot more of this in the future – the story and guest experience informing the design and not the other way around.
So will we see evermore thrilling waterpark experiences in the future?
Yes, and also the edge between wet and dry parks will become more blurred, and we’ll see a lot more hybrid parks.
Our mantra at Atkins is this: one third of what we deliver should be familiar and already exist in the market, one third should be an evolution of those things, and one third should be revolution, introducing something totally different.
Once guests have visited several big waterparks around the world, they’ll be looking for the next level of experience. The industry, which is still really in its infancy, must be primed to deliver it.