REVIEW: Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park

Exactly three years after the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, I am back in Shanghai to visit the city’s latest mega theme park: Haichang Ocean Park, which opened in November 2018.

Located on the east side of the city – near the sea – and 20min walk (or 10min in a shuttle bus) from the Lingang Avenue subway station (line 16, 1h from the city centre). The walk is actually quite nice, through a landscaped park, which was full of pink flowers on that day of spring. But I don’t think many people walk to the park! I took the shuttle on the way back, too tired from a day at the park.

Seeing how many people were going to the park in the subway, I knew this clear and beautiful Sunday would be a busy day at the park, still benefiting from a big novelty factor. At 9am the park entrance was buzzing with people – mostly groups – getting ready for their “ocean park” experience.

The entrance area is quite standard with ticketing on the side and entrance gates in the middle in two tiers (bag search first then ticket control). I was almost alone at the ticketing counter and only one of the many counters was open. Clearly things have changed a lot in the time between design of the park and opening; Chinese consumers have shifted to mobile in a big way. This is a good thing to know for designers working on parks in China.

Now let me tell you about the layout. The park is divided in two zones separated by a river and linked by two bridges as well as a small cable car. This is one of the few similarities with Hong Kong Ocean Park.

Two signature rides weave through the two zones. Steel Dolphin is a long Intamin coaster flying across one of the bridges and dropping low just in front of the entrance gate, giving a nice high to visitors as they enter the park: visibly very popular among young adults, big queue. Lava Drifting is an extra long river rapid featuring conveyor belts and waterpark-style slides, which I had never seen before. Lots of point-of-views providing a fun and cooling water element to look at from various areas in the park.

Each zone is home to several themed areas (polar, volcano, sandcastle, snow kingdom, etc), each housing a cluster of attractions anchored by marine life.

For example the polar cluster features the arctic hall with polar bears and beluga whales as well as the Polar Adventure 4D theatre, which tells the story of a penguin and his friends traveling from the South Pole to Shanghai Haichang Park. The movie using proven visual tricks such as the big snow slide or the roller coaster ride is overall average and skewed towards young kids.

I thought I would try one of the other multimedia attractions to get a feel for the quality and execution level. I opted for Journey Under the Sea, a 4D motion dark ride with suspension and rotation. The queue was not very long but extremely slow (I realized later they had only 1 of 5 vehicles in operation). Although the animation quality was good, the theming and animatronics were very average. The only novelty factor is the underwater tunnel, which makes sense for an ocean park but unfortunately with poor transition to the rest of the experience. It felt like an afterthought.

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Haichang is probably better at building large walk-through marine life exhibitions. Although far from Disney quality of theming, these exhibitions are well laid-out and seem to meet the needs of a (largely group) Chinese audience with large circulation, lots of small tanks and interactive touch-screens popular with kids. Some of the features such as the underwater tunnel, the gigantic whale shark tank (inspired by S.E.A. in Sentosa) were very popular.

It is clear Haichang wants to target a very wide audience of kids, youth, parents, grand parents and groups. The park is designed as a giant walk-through with some dedicated areas for specific age groups: the two abovementioned signature rides for youth and a kids’ rides area on the other side of the bridge.

Shows are designed to structure an average day at the park and provide value for visitors, taking easily up to 3h of the day. From mini shows and parades (dancers, mascots, jet skis, etc) to scheduled shows in the exhibition areas (feeding sessions, amazing beluga whale underwater show) and signature shows in their massive dedicated theatres: the killer whale show and the dolphin show.

The (controversial) killer whale show, produced by an international team, is about a young boy dreaming his killer whale plush becomes real. The show called « together » features good tricks, including the popular people splashing with the whale’s tale. For the dolphin show, Haichang made the choice of an indoor theatre allowing for higher production value including the popular rain curtain with light projections. Besides, the tricks are fairly standard and the clowns act before the show pretty average too.

Overall it seems to be all about making it big and loud to impress (bold outdoor theming, big shows) but with a lack of immersion (poor indoor theming, poor multimedia rides), which makes all the difference with the amazing Shanghai Disneyland.

Still, I should highlight some interesting novelties such as the extra long river rapid combining waterpark slides and flume ride, and the underwater tunnel inside the 4D motion dark ride.

The park embraces new technologies with face recognition gates and touch-screen food ordering displays like at McDonald’s. But interestingly visitors still prefer to use paper maps!

Lastly, this review of a Chinese theme park would not be complete without mentioning some minor copyright infringements. On your next visit, I invite you to look for look-alike of the following IP’s:

  • Little Mermaid
  • Olaf
  • Penguins of Madagascar
  • Star Wars
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REVIEW: Sea World, Gold Coast, Australia

The Grande Dame of Gold Coast, Sea World was founded in 1923 and acquired by Village Roadshow in 1993, who made significant investments bringing international IP’s (Cartoon Network then Sesame Street and now Nickelodeon) and world-class rides.

The park known for its dolphin show is a hit with adults and kids of all ages. A lot less ocean-themed that Asian marine parks (Hong Kong Ocean Park, Ocean Kingdom), it is beautifully integrated in its natural setting, a land spit in the heart of Gold Coast, with great bodies of water surrounded by quality landscape and rockwork including the stunning Shark Bay (above and below) featuring great corals.

The long and narrow layout with attractions dispatched along the central alley works best for a family park, making for a very simple and intuitive visit. A typical day at the park starts with a visit of the various animal exhibits while everyone is still full of energy and curiosity, leading to the dolphin show at 11h15am and then it’s fun time either at Nickelodeon Land for the young ones, Castaway Bay for the older ones or Shark Bay and Seal Harbor.

The 2 newest areas, Castaway Bay and Nickelodeon Land, are perfectly themed and feature a great choice of rides hitting the spot. Australians and international tourists (mostly Asian) can have a bonding blast at the splashing boat ride, kids of all nationalities can freely enjoy the popular Paw Patrol show and the water jets of the Reef at Castaway Bay and young adults can chase the thrill at the Sky Climb (ropes course) and Sky Fortress (adventure course).

I personally fell in love with the Jet Rescue coaster (Intamin), which I thought was one of the most relevant and best use of a roller coaster; the ride was extremely smooth and it did feel like you were on a jet ski. How convenient! I could not try the new Storm coaster, which was under maintenance, but thought the theming (industrial container port) incorporating the old abandoned Viking’s Revenge flume ride was really cool.

But of course the star of the park is the dolphin show, which doesn’t disappoint: a new take on education show with a great use of music and pre-recorded voice, making it uplifting and less focused on animal performance.

REVIEW: Warner Bros Movie World, Gold Coast, Australia

Almost 10 years after my debut in the industry I finally made it to Gold Coast to check out Village Roadshow’s theme parks, which serve in many ways as benchmarks in Asia.

My first stop is Warner Bros Movie World, their most popular parks and home of numerous IP’s from DC Comics and Warner Bros. I am very interested to see how they treat IP’s that are not their own in the context of several IP setbacks in Asia (Dreamworks at Movie Animation Park Studios and 20th Century Fox at Resorts World Genting).

It is a beautiful hot summer day in the first week back to school but right in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday so lots of Asian visitors (Hong Kong, Mainland China), some Australians and quite a few New Caledonians and Arabs. I bought a 3-day multi-park pass, which cost me only AUD129.

My views in a few words

Definitely worth the visit, great value for money, a good offering for all ages (Looney Tunes for young kids, great coaster for young adults and shows & shaded main hub with lots of tables and seats for families) and for all visitor origins (popular IP’s).

The quality of the music playlist, F&B offering (good variety, fresh and reasonably priced) contributed to make the park grow on me as the day passed. I arrived a bit skeptical and overwhelmed by an overload of slightly “dated” theming and left simply happy with a big smile. What more could Village Roadshow ask for?

What I particularly liked

  • SUPERMAN Escape roller coaster – Definitely the most popular ride in the park (45min wait). Simple and on-point theming with great consistency between the waiting area (MRT train station) and the ride (MRT train track with waste water flowing, walls falling). Super smooth and great speed sensations.
  • Good choice of roller coasters for young adults with DC RIVALS HYPERCOASTER, GREEN LANTERN and ARKHAM ASYLUM, all very smooth and featuring well positioned viewing areas where friends can watch and take pictures.
  • Wild West Falls Adventure Ride – fun flume ride in a Disney-quality environment (quality Wild West theming and beautiful landscape).
  • The Looney Tunes kids area – very cute, well themed, arranged around a square with benches under the shade of a big tree (where old people were sleeping) and featuring cool kids attractions such as the covered Junior Driving School with a track designed as a mini Warner Bros Movie World theme park, the adorable Speedy Gonzales’ Tijuana Taxis and a popular water play area.
  • In-park pricing from the AUD59 family meal combo (2 adults, 2 kids) to the merchandise deal combos in a bag.

What I didn’t like so much

  • JUSTICE LEAGUE 3D – Another case supporting my theory that 3D shooting dark rides are totally overrated and probably imposed by ride manufacturers for the lack of better options: poor animation quality, shooting device not working half the time, storyline all over the place, in short boring and frustrating.
  • Merchandising is a bit messy with different quality levels and too many brands.

What I am not sure about

  • The park made an effort to address the strong Asian visitorship with Chinese New Year decorations, but they looked a bit simple. A good idea but failing in execution.
  • AQUAMAN – The Exhibition features amazing (and surely expensive) props from the movie but the lack of interactivity and dark setting is probably not ideal for a theme park like this.
  • This leads to my comment on the treatment of IPs. There is a lot of IP content and theming but the treatment is not quite consistent and it shows the park owners don’t own the IP’s (one of the main concerns for our industry). For example the treatment of DC IP’s is from a different generation and it would be very expensive to change it all each time a new movie is released. Another example is the SCOOBY-DOO Spooky Coaster Next Generation, which even after upgrade still looks outdated.

 

PICTURES: SUPERPARK MALAYSIA

SUPERPARK (SPRPRK) MALAYSIA just opened at Avenue K as part of the renovation of level 3 and 4 of the mall.

This brand of activity parks from Finland is already operating in Hong Kong and Singapore. Here are a few pictures from our recent inspection.

There are over 25 different stations involving some sort of active play. Although adults/parents seem to enjoy a few of them (RoboKeeper, bowling, SuperHoop), the majority is geared towards young kids (no teens) with ice skating, street soccer, trampoline, zipline and tube slide being the most popular stations.

The bright and hip interior and the apparent quality of the equipment (the owners are playing the made in Finland brand) make the park visibly attractive to a group of urban well-to-do “hipster” parents from Kuala Lumpur.

Here are a few pictures. Enjoy.

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Main Entrance

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Waiting Area

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Reception

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Lockers

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Gates

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Safety Rules

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SuperHoop

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SuperBall

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Sliding Mountain

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Tube Slide

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Street Soccer

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SuperClimb

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RoboKeeper

REVIEW: Desaru Coast Adventure Waterpark

Although now open since July 19, I waited until the Xterra Special Edition weekend to visit the park. The waterpark is part of the new Desaru Coast destination developed by Themed Attractions Resorts & Hotels (TARH) and special events are a big part of their marketing strategy to put the destination on the map, thus them moving Xterra from Langkawi to Desaru Coast.

I sat down with the SVP of Operations Yusmady Yatin who shared with me a few things about the park. It is one of the biggest waterparks in SE Asia and they were inspired by Waterbom Bali to spend a lot of money on landscaping. The park can comfortably take up to 6,000 people a day and is already achieving 3,000 people on weekends, only a few months after opening. The market is majority local families from Johor and thus the focus on kids offering (11 kids slides, dedicated kids zone) and safety (120 lifeguards).

After my chat with Yusmady I decided to take 3 of my friends and experience the park for ourselves. We came in from the dedicated hotel guests entrance from the Hard Rock Hotel, which works really well in making guests feel special. The hotel is wrapped around the entire waterpark with amazing views from the lobby over the wave pool and the coaster at the back.

These are probably the two biggest attractions of the park. Tidal Wave Beach is one of the biggest wave pools in SE Asia holding more than four million gallons of water over nearly three acres. Kraken’s Revenge is a combination roller coaster and splashing flume ride, which we all loved. It provides great views of the park and the beach at the back and it’s just enough thrilling but not too much. I liked that the huge restaurant (not yet open) will have views of the splashing area of the coaster, making the dining experience entertaining.

My friends and I particularly liked the music in the park: the right sound level, the right tunes. Together with the lush landscaping it helped putting us – and 3,000 other visitors – in the right chilled mood for a day at the waterpark. The staff was very friendly and helpful.

We had a drink at the swim-up bar just off the lazy river; juices were fresh and tasty and the music was even different there so we were in our own little relaxing capsule.

From a design point of view everything works: the circulation, the shower and locker blocks, the shaded rest areas, etc. However there are not that many attractions yet (Yusmady tells me they already have plans to add more). The 4 main slides had long queues and were not that interesting, yet still fun of course. The cabanas were all empty; maybe too expensive for local visitors.

TARH have high ambitions with this park; they are expecting more than 600,000 visitors per annum, which is more than what Waterbom gets in a destination like Bali with over 10million visitors p.a. The product is not quite on par with Waterbom yet but it’s definitely on the right track. Let’s hope the service remains tip top and that the destination picks up with new hotels opening (Westin, Anantara, One & Only). How the park will deal with very different visitor profiles, from local Johorians to rich Singaporeans, is the key to their success.

REVIEW: Houbii Urban Adventure Park, Jakarta, Indonesia

So I took advantage of a work trip to Jakarta to take my nephews to the new Houbii Urban Adventure Park in the wealthy suburb of Pondok Indah (South Jakarta). Let me share with you some of my impressions and pictures of the place.

First, you can’t miss it. Standing on its own besides the popular Pondok Indah Mall and on the main road, the modern warehouse seems to have been purpose-built for this massive adventure park, with ample on-ground parking space on the side.

After climbing a few steps and passing the main glass door, we were welcome by smiling staff standing in the middle of a bright lobby conveniently bringing together ticketing, lockers, shoe racks, retail and toilets (including a few showers). Pop music and yummy pizza smell contributed to put me in the mood for a fun afternoon!

The ticketing process took a bit long as everyone needs to sign an online waiver first (using a self-service computer), rent special grip socks (unless you already has a pair) and wait for bracelets to be printed with your name and play session time (it goes by 2-hour slots). The place is not cheap for Indonesia; I paid over IDR 700,000 (USD 50) for 2 adults and 2 kids.

No turnstile to get in but just a staff member checking on bracelets. Once inside it’s one big open play area with high ceiling and plenty of natural light. The interior is a mix of industrial (wood, steel) and bright pantone colors. It works well. It feels quite sophisticated and definitely fun, well suited for Houbii’s market of wealthy families and expats living in South Jakarta.

Although it calls itself an adventure park it is more of a big trampoline park complemented by adventure attractions such as ropes course, ninja course, foam pit, fun walls and big slide. The most popular attractions with my nephews (3yo and 5yo) were the foam pit (and its diving board), the dodge ball playground and ninja course.

Houbii does a good job at providing game play for kids of all ages although a lot of the areas are not accessible to kids under 110cm. It was good to see kids playing in groups (some of them clearly met on the day) and challenging each other. Regrettably I didn’t see many adults playing with their kids; I guess it is something Indonesian parents are not quite used to yet. But adults seemed to be quite happy seating upstairs in the cool café overlooking the playground, flanked by a seemingly popular party room!

REVIEW: Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad, India

My annual trip to India took me to Hyderabad, a city known for its historic sites, its food, its pearls and for one of India’s best theme parks: Ramoji Film City.

Ramoji Film City is an active film studio built by Ramoji Rao, an Indian businessman, film producer, educationist, journalist and media entrepreneur. When it opened in 1996 it became the world’s largest film city as certified by the Guinness World Records.

The park is spread across a sprawling 2,000 acres 1h drive South East of the city. Every year it welcomes up to 1.5million movie fans from all over India (not so much from Hyderabad) as thousands of movies in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi were shot at the studios.

As I arrived from the main road all I could see was the giant Ramoji sign on the hill and the ticketing building (INR1,150 for Adult, INR950 for Child). From there, buses take visitors to the park entrance further inside the giant property. On a hot and dry summer day it very much felt like Hollywood with green oasis in the middle of rolling brown hills.

We got dropped in the Fundustan Zone (theme park rides and kids entertainment), where the beautiful red open buses start the Studio Tour. This is clearly the most exciting part of the day as we are about to see how movie sets come alive.

The tour is very well planned. It starts with a guided drive-through of some of the outdoor sets (Princess Street, North Town, Central Prison) followed by a walk-through of the Bhagavatham movie (Ramayana tale) set and the train station from Chennai Express.

Then everybody gets back on the bus for a few more stops: the gardens (Japanese, Mughal), the Eco Zone (bonsai park, butterfly park, bird park) and the Kripalu Caves. This reminded me of some of the popular ‘hybrid’ parks in Indonesia e.g. Taman Safari, Jatim Parks. I am never too sure if the owners just keep adding these attractions to increase the entertainment value or if there could be some educational reason. But here at Ramoji Film City it seemed even movie fans enjoyed the slight digression!

And now the last stop – and the highlight of the tour – before the final drop off at Movie Magic is the stunning set of the epic Baahubali movie, which got everybody very excited with its blue/green screens and giant props ideal for selfies.

Movie Magic is where the tour ends and it’s just above the Fundustan Zone (and the bus stop to the park exit). This is more of a “Universal Studios” type of zone with western themed facades (incl. a Statue of Liberty), a few attractions (incl. a making-of similar to Cinemagic at Bollywood Parks, Dubai) and live shows. I watched a good 15min black-light show inside the theatre; they also had a stunt show and cultural dance I didn’t get a chance to see.

Overall the experience is high quality thanks to a great maintenance and very helpful staff (they even helped me book a cab back to the city using their personal Ola app). The magic of going behind the scenes works for all ages and therefore everybody is excited and in a good mood. Combined with well-positioned food carts, photo opp (operated by DEI) and 5 restaurants offering 5 distinct menus and atmospheres, I would think the park does a healthy per cap, allowing in return for good maintenance and well trained staff.

Ramoji Film City ticks all the boxes of a successful theme park:

  • Location on a highway within 1h from the city centre of India’s 5th largest city
  • An owner with a vision, attention to details and reinvestment strategy
  • A healthy business model with synergies between the studio and the park
  • A strong drawing power: beloved Indians movies
  • A semi-guided experience for the entire family, which can’t fail
  • Good supporting facilities (hotels, adventure park) for the MICE market