Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

My main reason to visit Abu Dhabi was to visit the newly opened Ferrari World Theme Park which after a downplayed opening at the end of October eventually opened properly for it's soft-launch on November 4th. My visit took place on the following weekend during the F1 Grand Prix event and festivities.

Rather weirdly the entrance to the park is not under Ferrari log on the south side of the building but via a walkway on the north side. Also in the Emirates the working day starts later than we in the West are used to. The park itself doesn't open until midday. So this not a park to get to too early. With a late opening comes a late closure and this park stays open until 10pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, so night time riding is also possible here. In the initial entry hall there are a number of concession stands including a starbucks for those that need to star their day with a coffee. From there an escalator takes you up to the walkway that leads over the road and into the park proper.

Welcoming you on the walkway are a cacaphony of car engines and later in the day a couple of photographers to take your picture next to the brand logo. In the entrance hall the ticket booths and a guest reception are located down the right handside of the space, on the left is the exit gift shop. There is a locker area, which is perfect to those who wish to visit the park on the way to or from the airport. When I visited they weren't ready but for a 35 durams (£3) I was able to leave it at reception. During the soft opening some of the rides weren't open so the park had knocked a third off the entry price bringing the premium ticket down to the price of a normal entry. With the ticket you get a holder and lanyard, which has a different colour each day, you also get a very simply presented park map, which has a semi-hardback cover, putting it above the norm. Once you have the ticket you then enter the barriers and open them by touching your ticket against the gate wall, indicating that the ticket has an RFID chip in it somewhere. Whether customer behaviour is being tracked around the park isn't known but given there are no turnstiles in the park and it would be significant outlay just to get you through the gate I'm sure the technology is being used somehow. Would this be the first park to do this? The perks of the VIP ticket include access to the fastpath queue line that featured on pretty much every attraction and access to the VIP lounge.

Round the main hall to the left is the first of the attractions. Galleria Ferrari is a small showcase of about 10 Ferrari cars for you to photograph, but not climb over as some kids did; a security guard makes sure of that. Around the side of the room there are a small number of interactive touch screens showing some further information on the company and the cars.

The Racing Legends attraction uses the Spiderman dark ride technology but with the cars spinning on a single axis and no tipping movements. It's a dark ride taking you through the history of Ferrari racing successes including Nurburgring and Daytona amongst others. The sets consist of a mixture of large and small screens, props and lots of cars, including one that looked like it was supposed to follow you but didn't. One clever effect features a tunnel shaped projection screen that you move down simulating a race down a country road. It's not a thrilling ride at all but it does give a good back story to the Ferrari racing story.

Junior Training Camp is the childrens playground with a number of different play areas. In the first section the children are able to race remote controlled cars under the watchful eye of a member of staff who ensures the attraction isn't turned into a robot wars arena. Another section features a small number of toddler friendly vehicles for them to ride around in. Between those is some climbing apparatus. In one corner of the area there was a car that I thought the kids had ripped the bumper off, however I soon realised the car is designed to come apart and gives the children an opporunity to play pit crew; a nice idea! Next to this there's a windtunnel attraction that in one pod shows how wind tunnels help a car become performant. Having had the lesson you're then given the opporunity to make yourself streamlined by entering the second pod and having a fan blow the wind at you.

Formula Rossa is the signature attraction and the real reason for coming to the park. The 149mph Intamin rocket coaster has taken the top speed record away from the Americans overtaking Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. (I'm not considering Nurburgring Racer as it has yet to open) Overlooked however is the fact that this coaster has the sixth longest track too. As big as the park is there's no way this coaster would fit so with only the station under the main structure the track runs out into the surrounding area. Fortunately it's not all desert, the immediate area has had gravel and flowerbeds put down reducing the likelihood of sand being blown up into the track.

There's an observation balcony overlooking the launch track for those that want to watch; those that wish to ride descend to the lower floor beneath it. The station is functional with minimal theming, just some screens to show you how to prepare for ride and some Italian trancey techno music playing over the speaker system. The 16-seater cars have a bigger body than most coasters and do need to be climbed into. The restraints consist of standard Intamin lap straps, fortunately not as tight as the ones found on Megalites. In addition to the strap there's also a lap bar which will be pushed in firmly, not a ridiculous stapling but enough to ensure you're in there snugly. The park staff are taking the ride safety seriously but forunately letting the public have their say too. Being someone who wears glasses I was asked by more than one ride operator to remove them, but showing them a strap and telling them I was happy to ride with them gave no resistance and I was allowed to proceed. They got the balance just right; make the riders aware of the risks but let them have the final say. Something that other parks could learn from.

Riders in the front are asked to wear safety goggles, those with glasses don't need to. The station crew are also armed with a number of red jackets that those locals that were wearing the national dress of long flowing robes and headwear. The ride was being well run with single riders being called forward to fill the available seats however some uncertainty in the riders, a few with last minute nerves, and lots of issues with loose items being taken on board slowed the throughput down a little, but to be honest the crowds weren't big enough to stress people out and the excitement of impending rides and watching trains depart kept people excited.

My first go was in the back row as it was available for a walk-on. That felt fast but there was a strong feeling of being pulled along and not really accelerating, but the ride was certainly swift and very enjoyable. As there was no queue I ran around again and this time chose the front row, riding with an Australian Grand Prix Fan and this ride could be summed up in one word; insane!

The acceleration in the front is superb, as you pick up speed and you feel your face starting to pull back you get the feeling of Kingda Ka and Dragster all over again, but this one keeps on going beyond those rides both in speed and forces. Although the hill is braked and causing much debate in the coaster enthusiast community, its probably for the better as your face continues to be pulled back all the way to the bottom of the first drop and into the first sweeping bend. The hills are not particularly forceful and didn't really offer any major airtime and the turning transitions are taken much better than on I305, the last big Intamin speed coaster at Kings Dominion. Airtime is really only offered on the final camelbacks before the coaster hits the brakes. In the front my eyes were streaming for the first half of the ride and the sensation of having survived made the ride a true adrenalin rush, something that I find harder and harder to obtain as I ride more rides. Later rides in the day on a varied selection of seats showed that the hills in the middle of the circuit can offer airtime. On the left hand side just before the third hill the ride appears to come really close to the supports, adding a "whoa!" moment to the ride, so the best seat is front left. I was also quite fortunate to enjoy/endure a rollback where the car ceased accelerating and coasted up the first hill before gradually being rolled back into the station. With the car taken off and two cars sent empty, we were allowed back on for another go!

Perhaps not a surprise given the speed of the ride and what the acceleration does to most peoples' faces there is no onride photo stand but you can buy t-shirts and other souvenirs of the ride back in the main building at a little concession stand. I don't recall seeing the ride t-shirts in the exit shop so best purchase it here.

Later in the day I took a walk around the ride to try to take some photos, with variable success. With the aid of some sandy steps that had been left lying around I was able to get some OK ones of the launch, hitting the brakes and when I then got closer to the ride I was hit by a pair of goggles that flew off the ride.

So why did I like it? It's a proper coaster ride which most rockets aren't, I'm thinking the Stealths, Dragsters and Kingda Ka here. Whilst it's design primarily that of a speed coaster the design does still include some airtime, not a lot but it's there. It does the "Speed Coaster" bit properly obviously with the launch as fast as it is and long sweeping turns that are kept close to the ground to give that extra acceleration effect. Yes it slows down as soon as it hits the first hill but its still a fast ride beyond that. Secondly the transitions do not hurt or need to be learnt (this is where it's nearest rival I305 goes horribly wrong), this is partly due to the lack of overheads. I was never a fan of those horrible restraints that seemed to leave bars at neck height so that if a turn was taken too quickly my neck would take the blow. This ride doesn't put the cage around the rider at all and you have plenty of freedom to raise your arms and move around and just enjoy the ride. Finally I was experiencing the ride with the general public who were totally into the ride. Had I gone on with a lot of enthusiasts who all moaned that it didn't offer lots of airtime or wasn't as fast as another ride they do like then I'm sure I wouldn't have come away with as much of a good impression. Reading a lot of boards on this ride, a lot of the enthusiast community have already made their mind up that they don't like it before they've even experienced it, which is a shame.

Il Podio is Italian for "The podium" is a small restaurant themed around the staff restaurant at the Ferrari factory in Maranello. They sell a selection of international food including shawarma, skewered meat, strudels, italian ice cream and various fruit crumbles.

Ferrari Past & Present is a gift shop themed around a garage and offering a selection of branded merchandise, toys, remote controlled cars and rather weirdly a pick-and-mix toolkit.

Viaggio in Italia is a flying simulator ride of some kind, I would guess similar to the Soaring rides at the Disney parks. However I don't know for sure as this attraction wasn't ready for the soft-opening and closed on both days. Close by is a small coffee shop called "Espresso Rosso" that not surprisingly offering all those ridiculous named coffees that you're probably used to and that I detest. I can't say if they had tall skinny fluffy moccachoccchino or not. They do have some good gelato though.

Driving with the Champion had the longest queues, although shouldn't have done. A pre-show, in which only a dozen people were invited to at one time, gives the back story of a new employee to the Ferrari factory being overkeen and trying to impress his rather relaxed boss with a lot of new ideas only to be given an initiation of riding with an anonymous champion. The champion happened to be Fernando Alonso edited into the film in such a way that should circumstances change he can be easily replaced. The ride itself is on of those multi-seat simulator rides 2/3 of which were down, which would explain the long queues and sparse attendance in the pre-show. The movie itself is quite fun in a cheesy way with my favourite part being when the car has to weave through some cows that have strayed onto the road. There are water sprays for when the car hits the puddles etc. I enjoyed it!

Junior GT is a driving school area for the little ones to take their mini-ferraris around some small roads.

I almost missed the "Carousel Racing Future Stars" attraction the first day, lost in amongst the red cars of the rides around it. A multi-speed single level carousel featuring a selection of cars and bikes for the kids, small and large to ride in. I only ever saw it running once simply due to the lack of participants.

"Junior GP Pilota Racing" is a large race track set up for the kids to drive around. The track width is wide enough only for one car removing any competitive element. Because the track is lengthy and kids can't be trusted members of staff were walking around the track chaperoning the cars to ensure they were ok but in a non-obtrusive manner at all. I'm not sure how this would be policed at capacity.

The "Cinema Maranello" attraction is best described as Wacky Races meets the Stella commercials, featuring a 1920's country race with a collection of international stereotypes: "The Gentleman" from Britain, "Baron von something" from Germany etc... Of course we knew Italy would win, but I didn't expect him to get the girl too. A 200-seater cinema with plush red leather seats and a running time of around 15 minutes. Well shot and uniqe to the park but not a big crowd pleaser, a few of the locals walked out half way through. The shows here seemed to run every half hour up to 1930 so if you're staying late be aware of the early finish time of this one.

At the back of the park is the Scuderia Challenge attraction. This area is full of simulator rides of which there were 3 kinds. The back wall consists of 8 tri-screen simulators that race either F40s or F1 cars around a recreation of the Yas Marina F1 circuit (the big race track next door to the park). In the centre of them is a large screen showing external views of the leader for people to watch, when they weren't looking over the shoulders of the riders. With most of the riders not trained F1 drivers and who didn't appreciate the necessity of the brake pedal, most races ended up with a mass crash at the first corner. On my race I managed a respectable 3rd, it was the hairpin that got me! As the throughput is so slow on this you have to collect a ticket in advance, recommendation is to there early, when I got my ticket at 2.30 I had to come back at 5 to take part in my race.

The other simulators are much larger full-size replicas of the F1 car, complete with original wheel, and the F40, complete with various parts salvaged from a real one. Instead of 3 screens to fill your field of view these have large single concave screens wrapped around the vehicles. These simulators are much better but so much harder to ride and are the nearest you'll get to riding a real one probably. As there are only simulators the waiting time is longer, much longer in fact. To give you an idea my ticket collected at 2.30 had me coming back at 9.30 to ride. Because of the slow throughput and to dissuade the majority from riding, the big simulators require an upcharge of about £10. This was the one part of the park where people were complaining, clearly upset at the time they had to return back. To the park's defence though on purchasing the main entrance ticket to the park the staff do warn you of the delays and do tell you to head there immediately to get the ticket.

"Pit Stop Refreshments" is a small eaterie featuring American food for those who are less inclined to leave their western diet comfort zone. Close to this is the VIP lounge, which offers a quiet room, free snack food and free drink (fruit juices, fizzy drinks and water) for those that have paid for the privilege. I definitely got my moneys worth here returning time and time again to fill my tanks. There are also magazines on the park that you're allowed to take if you're looking for a souvenir. I don't recall any park having VIP areas, it's a nice touch if a tad elitist. I took this late in the day when the fruit juice was pretty popular.

"La Garra Pit Lane Show" is a show that runs towards the end of the day, featuring a mixture of stomp style miming and circus acts, a veritable "Cirque de PitLane" if you will. It's quite cheesy but some of the pit girl dancers were nice and there was a quite brilliant piece of LED baton twirling that created animations as they were swung around. If you have a fantasy that involves dancing pit-lane girls or tumbling mechanics then you'll enjoy this.

The "The Pit wall" attraction is a small area featuring recreations of the telemetry rooms and pit stops, and not much more to be honest. There's supposed to be pit stop challenge here where you get to change the wheels on the car against the clock but this wasn't open when I visited so I can't comment on how it is.

Bell Italia is an autopia style attraction that allows the riders to drive their cars (in as much as the guide rail will allow) around a scenic recreation of Italy. Proudly claiming that the scenery involves around 48,000 miniature trees it was a shame that some of the recreations were a little poor. Venice in particular featured the cathedral and tower on a flat square, and nothing else. Some of the other Italian landmarks I couldn't name, perhaps I need to get to Italy some more Popular with the kids this did pick up a small queue. I did take a little delight in one parent who chose to take the drivers seat upsetting the child next to him.

The park really missed a trick with the G-Force drop tower that is located in the centre of the park. It should have gone above the top of the building but doesn't because the roof dips at the centre. So whilst blasted up all you get to see is reflections on the glass panes. I really wanted this to blast you from an air-conditioned sanctuary of the station out into the desert heat offering a distant view before dropping you back, but it doesn't. In an attempt to keep the ride interesting passengers are kept in their seats for a second go. A real disappointment.

"V12 Enter the Engine" is the park's water ride themed around the internal workings of the Ferrari engine. A nice idea but I hope that what I experienced was not the finished ride as I came away a little disappointed here too. The station crew hand out ponchos to the kids and proper yellow rain coats for the adults; I have no idea why as you don't get that wet (perhaps if the boats were full it would be different). The Ferrari branded boats leave the station and enter a vertical lift system, which I didn't expect, before circling back down to station level through a mixture of themed sets and drops. The screen before the big drop at the end, which was supposed to distract you, was not working taking away the element of surprise. Screams from the boat in front also gave the game away. I'm hoping what I rode was just the soft-opening version of the ride and that there's more to come. If anything the rain coats will lead to some interesting photos.

The cuisine at the Rosticerra Modena restaurant is primarily of the local Arabian kind. I had a lamb kebab from here, which was almost too much for me to eat with 4 very decent sized pieces of meat, flatbreads, rice and some pickled salad (including bizarrely a pickled carrot). I think I made a really good choice choosing to eat here! They also offer carved meat, rotisserie, mezzehs and some local pizza combinations. There's also a lounge area above it from which you can look out over the Bell Italia ride. I stumbled into it thinking it was the VIP lounge area mentioned earlier but it wasn't. The place was quite swish so I have a suspicion I wasn't supposed to be there.

"Made in Maranello" is the second dark ride to use the Spiderman ride concept again using only single-axis rotation. This ride, which was closed on the first day but open on the second, is themed around the factory that builds the Ferrari cars and features a mixture of effects, screens and theming. The nearest comparison I think is the Test Track attraction at Epcot but without the test track at the end. There were a couple of nice touches such as the UV wire-frame car models over head giving the appearance of you starting the attraction in a CAD application. Towards the end a tipping molten metal bucket in the foundry set gives the one scare in the attraction but again I have a feeling that the ride was a partial experience most notably in the wind tunnel room where nothing happened.

"Fiorano GT Challenge" is the other coaster attraction featuring a pair of three Ferrari Spiders that dual in the desert outside of the park. Built by Premier Maurer Sohne (thanks Jeremy) using the same ride system in the Italian Job attractions the cars are dropped out of the station and into the first of four LIM launch sections that ensure the cars are kept moving through the twisty circuit. The cars must cross over at least a dozen times through the duration of the circuit making it perhaps the most dueling coasters out there.  There is no viewing platform for this ride unfortunately and the only way to watch it is through some fairly filthy windows, unless of course you fancy a walk outside the park in the desert heat. The ride itself is a lot of fun, the hills aren't huge and the launches are nowhere near as fast as the coaster on the other side of the building, but the dueling aspect makes this ride a lot of fun indeed and a ride I was happy to ride over and over again, helped again by the small queues that allowed me to quickly rejoin. The ride operators here were very good trying their best to get some rider participation before the cars were despatched and they were more than happy to allow re-rides as long there was nobody queueing. The desert friendly goggles are not mandatory on this ride, you could choose to wear them if you wished. Like the Rossa ride, those riders in the traditional garb were asked to wear red jackets. The Ferrari Spider car trains are very cool too, just a shame they don't have the doors that the Italian Job minis used to have. This ride is also barely lit in the dark, which is a shame. If they could get the headlights working on the cars then I think that would add a really nice touch.

The last of the 3 spiderman dark rides is called "Speed of Magic" and this is the one that features the full 6-axis car and the 3D glasses. The backstory to this one features a young boy who unable to complete a video game is offered the keys to his dad's Ferrari to help him (yep! I know). The video game opponent named Nello takes the opportunity to escape into the real world and makes off with the keys, whilst Max is fumbling around for something under the bed. Realising what has happened Max challenges Nello to a race and this then leads you into the station for the ride itself. Featuring a number of screens and scenes between them this doesn't come close to Spiderman at all and is barely better than the poor equivalent ride at La Qua. The screens, that you spend quite a bit of time in front of, or the projection lenses were filthy and really spoiled the quality of what was being projected. I didn't feel the 3D perhaps for the same reason. There's no clever segues between the screens and the sets that divide them, the majority just have you spinning between them. The racing takes you through some cliched sets including a mountain, snow, lava, and rather peculiarly for a chase attraction, an underwater sequence (which does feature a nice Ferrari coloured Manta Ray, the best bit of the whole ride IMO), the finale takes place on a futuristic race track that looks like a large Wipeout game. Again I don't know if I got the full ride; disappointingly I suspect I did. A shame, but perhaps I'm just been spoiled by having ridden Spiderman. The majority of cars returning to the station featured a lot of people clapping and cheering who obviously found the ride better than I did.

Mamma Rossella is an eaterie inspired by a family restaurant close to the Ferrari factory in Italy, this is the park's Italian restaurant featuring pasta, parma ham and pizza dishes. I didn't eat here but there was a fair number of locals who chose to do so. Across from Mama's is Ristorante Cavallino which is the posh restaurant that looked a lot more formal than all the other places to eat. Perhaps too intimidating for most it was the least busy.

What I liked about the park

By far the best aspect of the park for me was the staff who should be commended for excellent customer service and friendliness attitude to the visitors. They seem to have a diverse workforce, I spoke to people from the Phillipines, China, Japan and Africa. The Brits and Arabs seemed to be in the more senior position and removed from the front-line a bit. It's always a good sign when you're remembered from the day before although a clear sign that the park isn't busy...or perhaps it was just that I hadn't shaved for the week leading into the trip and my dishevelled appearance helped me to stand out.
The park is spotless. Although it's new there's a noticeable clean up crew keeping it that way, and in the city that has the lowest crime rate there are no signs of vandalism to the rides or attractions bar some very excitable kids who chose to climb around the cars and jumped a queue, admittedly a queue that consisted of me and one other. A team of polishers also ensured the cars on display were kept in the best condition.
With the exception of the shot tower, none of the rides can be found in any other park, which makes it a destination for those who are looking for unique attractions.
But in terms of rides, Formula Rossa is amazing and to most will be the biggest reason to visit the park. Being the record breaker that it is it had attracted a small crowd from the Grand Prix and was the only ride to advertise a queue waiting time, in this case only 30 minutes.

What I didn't like about the park

It's incomplete, but then I was visiting during the soft launch, which was reflected in the reduction in the ticket. Rather strangely for a soft-launch at no point was I asked what I thought. It would have been a perfect opportunity to realise what else could be done. It would have been nice to also know what was missing from the rides that were open, my suspicion is that there's more to come for the majority of the rides but not being informed leaves me with an incomplete view and I, like most people would come away with the impression that we saw all there was.
Some parts of the park were a bit spartan, particularly the entrance to the dueling coasters which features a very large corridor with very little going on in it. Some lights standing alone gave a clue that perhaps some more display cars were yet to arrive for show.
You have to go out of the park to photograph the coasters and the side entrances were closed meaning you walk all the way out and back to the only entrance again. It would be great to be able to walk out amongst the Rossa and Fiorano tracks too, a particular common complaint of those interested in photography.
The park opens at midday and the orientation of the park means that the sun goes down behind the first drop of the Formula Rossa ride, which killed the photos that I was taking there. Theres a carpark near to the coaster too that would offer an excellent photo opportunity if it wasn't for the fact that from that angle the car travels away from you.
The biggest issue the park has to address, and which I think it could do very quickly is to inform the city's taxi drivers how to get to the park. The park is being advertised quite heavily in hotels featuring on city park maps etc but neither taxi driver I used knew of it and were inadvertantly taking me to the Grand Prix despite signs in the area indicating the way to go.

A final pic as I left the park.

and some video to finish up with.
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