SeaWorld's new indoor park may be a glimpse at the future of the brand

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IMAGE VIA STAND WITH SEAWORLD | FACEBOOK
  • Image via Stand with SeaWorld | Facebook
Late last year, SeaWorld Parks announced that it was partnering with Middle East-based Miral Asset Management to build its first international SeaWorld park in Abu Dhabi.

SeaWorld had been hinting at the new park since 2014, when it confirmed it was renewing plans for a Middle East expansion.

At the time of the press release in December 2016, few details of the new Abu Dhabi park were shared, but earlier this month Miral Chairman Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak confirmed one major new detail: The park will be indoors.

Miral, who is financing the new park, has plenty of experience with indoor parks – Yas Island, where the new SeaWorld park is being built, is also home to the world’s first Ferrari World theme park. Miral is also working on a Warner Bros. theme park for Yas Island, it will also be indoors.

Indoor parks are nothing new for the Middle East, which is sweltering hot during summer. The Legoland in Dubai has a large indoor section, as does the MotionGate Dubai theme park.

The SeaWorld park, though, is unique for a number of reasons. With SeaWorld struggling to revive the brand, many analysts have pointed to smaller regional attractions, similar to the Sea Life Aquariums operated by Merlin, as a potential answer. Merlin has had tremendous success with these smaller attractions, which require less upfront development cost and a smaller time commitment from guests.

This new indoor park in Abu Dhabi could be a great way for SeaWorld to test the waters of a large aquarium-style attractions ideal for environments where a traditional SeaWorld park couldn’t operate.

At one time SeaWorld did have a park park in Ohio but the limited operating season and expansion agreements doomed the park. This first indoor SeaWorld park in Abu Dhabi would give SeaWorld Parks a chance to try out various indoor concepts before applying them to other future attractions. It would also help SeaWorld lower its own research and development cost. This type of shared upfront expense is common in the theme park community. Disney often does it with its co-owned Asian parks (the Tron coaster heading to the Magic Kingdom is just the latest example).

It’s likely the SeaWorld park will be similar to the Ferrari World park nearby, with the majority of guest areas indoors and certain large attractions, like the roller coasters, having the majority of their track outside. When it opened the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi was the world’s largest indoor theme park, though last year that title shifted to the brand-new IMG Worlds of Adventure park in Dubai.

Early park renderings of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi showed one large round dome with smaller round buildings coming out from it. This indoor/outdoor style would be similar to the Legoland in Dubai but would also mean a smaller indoor footprint. With Miral losing its claim to the world’s largest indoor theme park to Dubai last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them trying to regain the title with the SeaWorld park.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby is no stranger to smaller indoor attractions; while at Herschend Family Entertainment Manby oversaw the purchasing and management of two aquariums. It’s that very experience that has many pointing to his potential future plans for SeaWorld, though rumors of his demise at the company have only heated up since a recent shift in the Board of Directors.

Miral Chairman Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak also said that the SeaWorld park will be an immersive experience. Local design firm Falcon’s Creative Group, which has worked with SeaWorld on various attractions and was the primary design firm for the IMG Worlds of Adventure, is currently working on a large indoor marine-focused immersive attraction that will open next month in Times Square, the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. That entirely indoor attraction will feature no animals but will use the latest technology to tell the story of the ocean’s inhabitants. The indoor SeaWorld could go a similar route. SeaWorld has already confirmed that the new park will not have orcas. The marine life park chain has also begun to embrace technology to further its storytelling with new virtual reality experiences opening recently at SeaWorld parks in San Diego and Orlando with another strongly rumored to be coming to Busch Gardens Tampa next year.

In the original press release video shared by SeaWorld the new park was called a "marine life park and research center." It will house United Arab Emirates' first dedicated marine life research, rescue, rehabilitation and return center. SeaWorld has been shifting to focus on its rescue efforts in recent years with new attractions featuring fewer animals, more education, more technology, and a more rescue-centered approach. That will likely only be magnified with this new park.

We still have no word on if this new park will have the long-rumored hotel with underwater suites, similar to those at Resorts World Sentosa or Dubai’s Atlantis The Palm resort. There is also some rumors of the nearby Yas Waterworld water park being rebranded as an Aquatica by SeaWorld water park though neither party has given any indication of that change.

The new indoor SeaWorld Abu Dhabi Marine Life Park and Research Center will open by 2022.

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