- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Wonder Woman, King Kong and Shrek are heading for the Persian Gulf as part of the rush to build what could become the world’s largest theme-park playground.

But even as the ink dries on billion-dollar deals in the United Arab Emirates, movie studios are grappling with ways to make their signature characters and amusement parks fly in the conservative Muslim region.

Politically sensitive characters such as Captain America could be left at home. Prayer rooms will join the list of accommodations, and menus likely will feature falafel and humus alongside pizza and hot dogs.

Investors, studios and park operators are all aiming to cash in on what some observers call the Middle East’s decades-long fascination with American culture. Hollywood movies are popular in the region, and Western fashions are hot commodities among residents who travel abroad.

“On the one hand, they hate America. On the other hand, they love America to the bone,” says Michael Izady, an expert on Middle East culture who teaches history at Pace University in New York.

The theme-park market is open — with no major facilities currently operating in the Middle East.

The projects are no-brainers for entertainment companies that have jumped at what amounts to free brand expansions with no capital at risk. Few details have been provided about the deals, which entertainment companies simply describe as licensing arrangements for intellectual property and help on designing the parks and attractions, with no mention of possible royalty payments.

Their investment partners have money and land to build the parks but lack the star-powered attractions to draw the millions of visitors needed to make them profitable.

Dubai, one of the seven constituents of the UAE, has thrived and turned into a magnet for the wealthy as oil money has flowed in. The government wants to more than double the number of annual visitors from nearly 7 million last year to 15 million by 2015.

In recent months, eight major licensing deals have been struck between oil-rich investors and entertainment giants such as Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment Inc. for theme parks and other attractions.

The first, a $2.2 billion Universal Studios park based on franchises such as King Kong and Jurassic Park, is set to open in an area dubbed Dubailand on the city’s desert outskirts in 2010.

Designs for the parks are moving quickly, despite lingering doubts about the long-term availability of financing and the lack of highways and other infrastructure to support the huge developments. Several projects are planned for a man-made island being reclaimed from the sea called Palm Jebel Ali.

Most of the parks are proposed for Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the region’s most Westernized and cosmopolitan cities, where expatriates outnumber local citizens, bars and restaurants serve alcohol, and foreign women stroll some beaches in bikinis.

Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. home entertainment group, is convinced that Superman, Batman and other DC Comics characters licensed by Warner will be accepted readily by those who visit the park from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Even the bare-shouldered Wonder Woman shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows “unless we depicted her as a Muslim woman,” says Mr. Tsujihara, who is spearheading the Warner theme park in Abu Dhabi.

Even so, “we probably wouldn’t have her running around in costume around the park,” he says.

With plans to help build a $1 billion theme park in Abu Dhabi by 2011, Marvel Entertainment Inc. is downplaying Captain America, a World War II creation draped in the American flag, in favor of attractions based on popular characters such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men — none of whom carry the same political baggage.

“One of the things that’s nice about our characters is they’re either about individuals helping people or they’re about teams of people of different types, like mutants, that band together and solve problems,” Marvel chairman David Maisel says.

“If anything, that’s a good message for today’s world with all the different cultures,” he adds.

Park designers also plan to tweak the models used for North American theme parks.

Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. will include beer-tasting zones in its four-park complex anchored by SeaWorld, set to open in Dubai in 2012. The discreet zones will receive little advertising, in accordance with UAE government guidelines.

“Realistically, Dubai is a very cosmopolitan market. It’s not unlike visiting Paris or New York or London or Berlin or Milan,” Busch Entertainment president Jim Atchison says.

The Walt Disney Co., the world’s largest theme park operator by far, is notably absent from the rush to the region. Disney parks and resorts chairman Jay Rasulo says Disney is studying the market.

Some observers say the cultural barriers might be easier to overcome than financial and infrastructure hurdles. Massive construction on a variety of projects is causing traffic jams as road construction has failed to keep pace with the building.

The scale of the theme park plans, estimated to cost a total of at least $20 billion, puts them on par with developments in Orlando, Fla., home to a dozen parks including Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios.

“Up until very recently, the Middle East has been theme-park deprived,” says Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine. “They’ve suddenly joined the 21st century.”

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