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Interview
Sabrina de Carvalho

As Gardaland prepares to open its latest attraction, Magali Robathan speaks to chief executive Sabrina de Carvalho about the quest for innovation at the much-loved Italian park


In the early 1970s, Italian entrepreneur Livio Furini visited Disneyland in California. Blown away by his trip, he decided that he wanted to create something similar in Italy, and bought the land to build a theme park on the shores of Lake Garda.

When Gardaland opened in July 1975, it was the first theme park of its kind in Italy. Almost 50 years on, it is one of the largest in Europe, attracting nearly three million visitors a year. Owned by Merlin Entertainments since 2006, the resort is home to Gardaland Park, Gardaland Sea-Life, Legoland Waterpark, Gardaland Hotel, Adventure Hotel and Magic Hotel.

De Carvalho joined Gardaland in May 2022, after almost two decades at Germany’s Heide Park Resort, initially as marketing director and then as divisional director from 2013 to 2022.

New attraction for 2024
Gardaland is constantly evolving, adding new parks, attractions and shows, and 2024 is no exception. After teasing details of its new attraction for months, de Carvalho reveals details of the park’s new drop tower ride.

“Our new attraction is a 25m-high drop and twist tower,” she says. “It’s been designed for thrill seekers and has a high scenographic impact. A majestic 16m-high wolf with enormous jaws wide open will sit at the heart of the new attraction. Our adventurers will have to free him from a curse that has petrified him.”

The new attraction, which opens in June, has been designed to be multi-generational in its appeal, adds de Carvalho. “We can’t wait to inaugurate this new Gardaland icon,” she says. “It promises to be a fun experience and a real adventure.”

Adventurers will ride along to the sounds of ‘a ritual chant surrounded by glistening symbols and spectacular lighting effects’. They will ascend and descend the tower several times, repeatedly rotating around the axis, before reaching the highest point of the attraction and then plummeting down through dense clouds of smoke.

Jumanji adventures
De Carvalho joined Gardaland as it launched its first Jumanji-themed attraction, Jumanji – The Adventure. Following a 2021 multi-territory exclusivity agreement between Merlin Entertainments and Sony Pictures Entertainment, Gardaland was chosen to create the world’s first fully themed Jumanji ride.

The deal supports Merlin’s broader global strategy to engage and work with leading IP and brands across its estate, as well as Sony Pictures’ global strategy to grow and expand location-based entertainment by using its film and tv brand to immerse audiences more deeply in the studio’s stories.

Jumanji – The Adventure opened in April 2022, alongside four fully-themed Jumanji hotel bedrooms in Gardaland Hotel. It is a dark ride featuring multi-motion ride vehicles by Oceaneering and media effects by Framestore, with a 21-ft-tall stone giant animatronic at its heart.


“Our guests love Jumanji,” says de Carvalho. “Jumanji is synonymous with adventure, imagination, fun, action and play, so the brand blends perfectly with the values of Gardaland.

“In summer 2023, we continued our successful collaboration with Sony Entertainment with the opening of Jumanji – The Labyrinth,” she adds. “Jumanji – The Labyrinth is Gardaland’s green lung with a 180m-long jungle labyrinth featuring more than 2,000 real plants. Our guests absolutely love it. It offers an immersive experience with unexpected tricks when you take a wrong turn.”

Merlin Entertainments also chose Gardaland as the site for the first European Legoland Waterpark, which opened in 2021, adding to the theme park’s existing second gate, the Gardaland Sea Life Aquarium.

A special place
When Attractions Management interviewed Merlin Entertainments CEO Scott O’Neil in 2023, he said part of his strategy was to invest in Merlin’s theme park estate to bring all of the parks up to the level of the best of them, citing Gardaland as an example of a “truly world-class resort”. I tell de Carvalho this, asking what she thinks makes the park speciaL.

“I thank Scott for his words,” she says. “Gardaland is a special place – it’s been very easy for me to fall in love with this amazing resort and its wonderful people. I think Gardaland stands out as a reference point on the Italian and international tourism scene for many reasons.

“Our standards our exceptionally high, whether that’s for the themeing, rides, food or accommodation. We have more than 40 attractions here for all ages, our streets are full of magic and our shows are enthralling.”

The stunning setting also helps, de Carvalho adds. “Guests can stay in one of our three hotels – the proximity to Lake Garda and the extraordinary beauty of the neighbouring towns means that many of our guests extend their stay here. Plus the generally mild climate allows our guests to fully enjoy the experience even during the colder months.”

Gardaland’s constant search for new attractions also keeps it ahead of the game, says de Carvalho. “We renew ourselves yearly, based on feedback from our guests, adding evening events in the summer and new themed attractions. This contributes to making sure Gardaland is always up to date.”

The highs and the lows
Looking back over the past couple of years heading up Gardaland, de Carvalho reflects on her highlights, and the main challenges.

“The biggest challenge was learning Italian,” she says. “Communication is very important to me and a big part of my leadership style, so not being able to communicate in the way I was used to was a significant challenge for me. I love to interact with colleagues but also with guests, so having to hold back wasn’t easy, but it did give me the chance to observe, listen and learn.”

As for her highlights, she says it is hard to choose, eventually settling on the late night events held during the summer months.

“It’s such a different atmosphere in the park when we open until 23.00 and 01:00 in the summer period, with music events, light shows and special entertainment. It just becomes a whole new experience and almost feels like a different theme park.”

Looking ahead
So what does the future hold for Gardaland?
As well as launching its new attraction, 2024 will see Gardaland aiming to strengthen its position as a leading destination for travellers coming from the DACH region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) as well as consolidating its presence in emerging markets, with a particular focus on Slovenia, Croatia and France.

“We’re already at work for next year and we’re excited because it will be the 50th anniversary of the park,” de Carvalho says, promising that details of the anniversary celebrations will be released when they are finalised.

The coming years will also see the company continue on a journey of cultural change, she adds. “We’re becoming even more people-focused, not just in terms of guests but also in terms of our staff.


“We’re creating a culture that is agile, drives innovation, and where we all feel we belong and can be ourselves.”

GARDALAND TIMELINE

1975: Livio Furini opens Gardaland, Italy’s first themed amusement park

2004: Gardaland opens Gardaland Hotel, making it the first park in Italy to offer themed accommodation

2006: Merlin Entertainments acquires Gardaland

2008: Gardaland Sea Life Aquarium opens as part of the resort

2016: Gardaland’s Adventure Hotel opens with 100 themed rooms in four settings: Arctic, Arabian, Jungle and Wild West

2019: Gardaland Magic Hotel launches with 128 rooms featuring three different settings: Enchanted Forest, Magic Ice Castle and Great Wizard

2021: Europe’s first Legoland Waterpark opens at Gardaland, supplied by WhiteWater. It features swimming pools, waterslides, interactive water games and themed attractions and zones, including Miniland, home to 100 monuments made from Lego bricks

2022: The park launches the world’s first Jumanji-themed ride, family-friendly dark ride Jumanji – The Adventure, as well as four Jumanji-themed rooms in Gardaland Hotel

2023: The park launches its second Jumanji-themed attraction, Jumanji – The Labyrinth, an immersive walk through experience

2024: Gardaland will launch its latest attraction in June 2024, a 25m-high drop and twist tower

Gardaland launched in 1975, making it Italy’s longest-running theme park Credit: photo: Gardaland
Gardaland launches a new 25m-high drop and twist tower attraction in June Credit: Photo: Gardaland
Major attractions include the Raptor wing coaster by Bolliger & Mabillard Credit: Photo: Gardaland
The Fuga da Atlantide splash ride Credit: Photo: Gardaland
Gardaland’s mascot Prezzemolo and his friends welcome visitors to the park Credit: Photo: Gardaland
WhiteWater worked with Merlin to create the Legoland Waterpark at Gardaland Credit: Photo: Gardaland
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2024 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Sabrina de Carvalho

Interview

Sabrina de Carvalho


As Gardaland prepares to open its latest attraction, Magali Robathan speaks to chief executive Sabrina de Carvalho about the quest for innovation at the much-loved Italian park

Gardaland launched in 1975, making it Italy’s longest-running theme park photo: Gardaland
Gardaland launches a new 25m-high drop and twist tower attraction in June Photo: Gardaland
Major attractions include the Raptor wing coaster by Bolliger & Mabillard Photo: Gardaland
The Fuga da Atlantide splash ride Photo: Gardaland
Gardaland’s mascot Prezzemolo and his friends welcome visitors to the park Photo: Gardaland
WhiteWater worked with Merlin to create the Legoland Waterpark at Gardaland Photo: Gardaland
Sabrina de Carvalho Gardaland

In the early 1970s, Italian entrepreneur Livio Furini visited Disneyland in California. Blown away by his trip, he decided that he wanted to create something similar in Italy, and bought the land to build a theme park on the shores of Lake Garda.

When Gardaland opened in July 1975, it was the first theme park of its kind in Italy. Almost 50 years on, it is one of the largest in Europe, attracting nearly three million visitors a year. Owned by Merlin Entertainments since 2006, the resort is home to Gardaland Park, Gardaland Sea-Life, Legoland Waterpark, Gardaland Hotel, Adventure Hotel and Magic Hotel.

De Carvalho joined Gardaland in May 2022, after almost two decades at Germany’s Heide Park Resort, initially as marketing director and then as divisional director from 2013 to 2022.

New attraction for 2024
Gardaland is constantly evolving, adding new parks, attractions and shows, and 2024 is no exception. After teasing details of its new attraction for months, de Carvalho reveals details of the park’s new drop tower ride.

“Our new attraction is a 25m-high drop and twist tower,” she says. “It’s been designed for thrill seekers and has a high scenographic impact. A majestic 16m-high wolf with enormous jaws wide open will sit at the heart of the new attraction. Our adventurers will have to free him from a curse that has petrified him.”

The new attraction, which opens in June, has been designed to be multi-generational in its appeal, adds de Carvalho. “We can’t wait to inaugurate this new Gardaland icon,” she says. “It promises to be a fun experience and a real adventure.”

Adventurers will ride along to the sounds of ‘a ritual chant surrounded by glistening symbols and spectacular lighting effects’. They will ascend and descend the tower several times, repeatedly rotating around the axis, before reaching the highest point of the attraction and then plummeting down through dense clouds of smoke.

Jumanji adventures
De Carvalho joined Gardaland as it launched its first Jumanji-themed attraction, Jumanji – The Adventure. Following a 2021 multi-territory exclusivity agreement between Merlin Entertainments and Sony Pictures Entertainment, Gardaland was chosen to create the world’s first fully themed Jumanji ride.

The deal supports Merlin’s broader global strategy to engage and work with leading IP and brands across its estate, as well as Sony Pictures’ global strategy to grow and expand location-based entertainment by using its film and tv brand to immerse audiences more deeply in the studio’s stories.

Jumanji – The Adventure opened in April 2022, alongside four fully-themed Jumanji hotel bedrooms in Gardaland Hotel. It is a dark ride featuring multi-motion ride vehicles by Oceaneering and media effects by Framestore, with a 21-ft-tall stone giant animatronic at its heart.


“Our guests love Jumanji,” says de Carvalho. “Jumanji is synonymous with adventure, imagination, fun, action and play, so the brand blends perfectly with the values of Gardaland.

“In summer 2023, we continued our successful collaboration with Sony Entertainment with the opening of Jumanji – The Labyrinth,” she adds. “Jumanji – The Labyrinth is Gardaland’s green lung with a 180m-long jungle labyrinth featuring more than 2,000 real plants. Our guests absolutely love it. It offers an immersive experience with unexpected tricks when you take a wrong turn.”

Merlin Entertainments also chose Gardaland as the site for the first European Legoland Waterpark, which opened in 2021, adding to the theme park’s existing second gate, the Gardaland Sea Life Aquarium.

A special place
When Attractions Management interviewed Merlin Entertainments CEO Scott O’Neil in 2023, he said part of his strategy was to invest in Merlin’s theme park estate to bring all of the parks up to the level of the best of them, citing Gardaland as an example of a “truly world-class resort”. I tell de Carvalho this, asking what she thinks makes the park speciaL.

“I thank Scott for his words,” she says. “Gardaland is a special place – it’s been very easy for me to fall in love with this amazing resort and its wonderful people. I think Gardaland stands out as a reference point on the Italian and international tourism scene for many reasons.

“Our standards our exceptionally high, whether that’s for the themeing, rides, food or accommodation. We have more than 40 attractions here for all ages, our streets are full of magic and our shows are enthralling.”

The stunning setting also helps, de Carvalho adds. “Guests can stay in one of our three hotels – the proximity to Lake Garda and the extraordinary beauty of the neighbouring towns means that many of our guests extend their stay here. Plus the generally mild climate allows our guests to fully enjoy the experience even during the colder months.”

Gardaland’s constant search for new attractions also keeps it ahead of the game, says de Carvalho. “We renew ourselves yearly, based on feedback from our guests, adding evening events in the summer and new themed attractions. This contributes to making sure Gardaland is always up to date.”

The highs and the lows
Looking back over the past couple of years heading up Gardaland, de Carvalho reflects on her highlights, and the main challenges.

“The biggest challenge was learning Italian,” she says. “Communication is very important to me and a big part of my leadership style, so not being able to communicate in the way I was used to was a significant challenge for me. I love to interact with colleagues but also with guests, so having to hold back wasn’t easy, but it did give me the chance to observe, listen and learn.”

As for her highlights, she says it is hard to choose, eventually settling on the late night events held during the summer months.

“It’s such a different atmosphere in the park when we open until 23.00 and 01:00 in the summer period, with music events, light shows and special entertainment. It just becomes a whole new experience and almost feels like a different theme park.”

Looking ahead
So what does the future hold for Gardaland?
As well as launching its new attraction, 2024 will see Gardaland aiming to strengthen its position as a leading destination for travellers coming from the DACH region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) as well as consolidating its presence in emerging markets, with a particular focus on Slovenia, Croatia and France.

“We’re already at work for next year and we’re excited because it will be the 50th anniversary of the park,” de Carvalho says, promising that details of the anniversary celebrations will be released when they are finalised.

The coming years will also see the company continue on a journey of cultural change, she adds. “We’re becoming even more people-focused, not just in terms of guests but also in terms of our staff.


“We’re creating a culture that is agile, drives innovation, and where we all feel we belong and can be ourselves.”

GARDALAND TIMELINE

1975: Livio Furini opens Gardaland, Italy’s first themed amusement park

2004: Gardaland opens Gardaland Hotel, making it the first park in Italy to offer themed accommodation

2006: Merlin Entertainments acquires Gardaland

2008: Gardaland Sea Life Aquarium opens as part of the resort

2016: Gardaland’s Adventure Hotel opens with 100 themed rooms in four settings: Arctic, Arabian, Jungle and Wild West

2019: Gardaland Magic Hotel launches with 128 rooms featuring three different settings: Enchanted Forest, Magic Ice Castle and Great Wizard

2021: Europe’s first Legoland Waterpark opens at Gardaland, supplied by WhiteWater. It features swimming pools, waterslides, interactive water games and themed attractions and zones, including Miniland, home to 100 monuments made from Lego bricks

2022: The park launches the world’s first Jumanji-themed ride, family-friendly dark ride Jumanji – The Adventure, as well as four Jumanji-themed rooms in Gardaland Hotel

2023: The park launches its second Jumanji-themed attraction, Jumanji – The Labyrinth, an immersive walk through experience

2024: Gardaland will launch its latest attraction in June 2024, a 25m-high drop and twist tower


Originally published in Attractions Management 2024 issue 2

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