PICTURES: Millenium Park, Kolkata, India

Recently I went to India for a holiday. This was my fourth trip to this amazing country. When in Kolkata I was lucky to visit the popular Millenium Park by the Ganges river, which was full with families having fun on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.

Here are a few pictures and some of my thoughts.

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Millenium Park is in the heart of town, next to the administrative centre, and therefore very easy to reach for middle class families who solely rely on public transportation. It is where small boats depart on cruises on the river, an experience not to be missed with singers performing classic Indian tunes.

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The robust children playground is one of the most popular attractions. No matter how rich or poor, how developed or not, active play and interaction with other kids always work!

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Lots of families with kids, parents and grand-parents enjoying watching each other have fun, this is the recipe for success.

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Some mild thrill as leveled playing field for kids, teenagers and adults. Feeling a bit scared and dizzy and sharing it with other people is one good way of creating lasting memories, something our industry is built on.

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I loved watching these teenage girls race these bumper cars with so much passion and laughter.

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The best for last. This rocking boat is handled manually by this man who uses a wheel on a driving belt to push the boat and give it speed, very DIY. Who said our industry had to be high-tech!?

REVIEW: Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm

Already a very popular attraction visited by more than 5million people and ranking high on tripadvisor, Penang Butterfly Farm recently underwent a major upgrade and became Entopia, a Nature Learning destination. And it’s well worth a visit.

The location, next to Escape Park, has its pros and cons. It’s only minutes away from the major family resorts of Batu Ferringhi but a good half hour drive from Penang city centre. It doesn’t seem to deter school groups and tourists thirsty for nature exploration, who are showing great support to the new facility, and I wanted to find out why. So I recently went and here are a few of my observations.

It starts with a strong and relevant presence on the main road; the building is covered in foliage (vertical gardens) with good signage and a neat looking ticketing and entrance. It feels like we’re in good hands!

The ticket price is higher than Taiping Zoo’s at RM49 (US$11) for adults and RM29 (US$6.5) for children but if you search online you will find lots of discount offers that make it very affordable for every kind of visitor.

The facility is made of large outdoor gardens (Natureland) and a two-storey indoor discovery centre (Cocoon).

The best way to introduce the exhibits is maybe quoting the website: “Entopia is a place designed to inspire visitors to experience nature in a new way. We wish to share the unheard lessons of our natural world with everyone, especially the young. Entopia is a movement to live in harmony with nature – a rallying call for Penangites and the world to get involved! As a centre for nature learning, we bring the best of the insect world and the plant world together for everyone to experience the harmony in nature. It’s a living classroom to learn new things, have fun and share the love of nature. Today, we are pleased to unveil to all our visitors a real-life blueprint for a paradise for invertebrates, plants and humanity.”

This truly transpires in all aspects of the facility starting with the well-themed, well-curated and very entertaining mystery cave featuring amphibians, scorpions, spiders and snakes, which I had the chance to be guided through by a very knowledgeable and jovial tour guide.

Natureland exhibits feature good signs with relevant information, good audio with ambient music and voice recording. The choice of species is just right, not too many. The atmosphere under the butterfly dome is very pleasant, just the right temperature, water features and great photo opportunities.

After Natureland the natural path goes along the café for those in need of a break and then onto Cocoon, the indoor discovery centre. Visitors start with the upstairs exhibition area first, which features nice interactive displays to learn more about butterflies, including their place in some myths and legends, classification and life cycle. My favorite is a small back-of-house type room, where visitors can learn about butterfly breeding with actual breeding going on. Before going down visitors can sit in a cinema room, which is showing a BBC Earth movie. I guess it is more aimed at the school groups market.

The lower part of Cocoon is dedicated to a very cool crawling insects themed exhibition area featuring a dedicated ants room and another room for snails, beetles, etc featuring great jewel tanks placed inside fake tree trunks.

The last exhibition area put me a bit off. It looks like a very themed children museum, where each of the 5 small rooms teaches things about butterflies in association with a theme e.g. a bridal shop, a toy store, a candy store, etc. I guess this is meant more for kids but my childhood must be very far now because I really didn’t understand much of what was going on. I’d be interested to know if kids actually engage. Maybe I’ll learn something about how to create kids exhibitions!

Then it’s classic: a nice big store before the exit, and even a specialty store for nature enthusiasts with material for terrarium, etc: great idea to engage the community.

Overall the experience is world-class and I have to congratulate the staff on a great and visibly passionate attitude as well as a strong attention to details, which results in a very clean and well maintained facility.

I mentioned earlier what struck me at Taiping Zoo was the sense of generosity given by the place and its operator. Well, I find the same applies to Entopia. Just look at how full the entertainment program is and you will feel there’s more than you need or expect. So maybe generosity is one of the keys to success for our industry in the region? Good thing I’m feeling generous in 2017!

REVIEW: Vinpearl Safari Park, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

In a series of reviews of zoos and safari parks here is Vietnam’s first and only safari park, recently opened on Phu Quoc Island by Vingroup.

A bit of background first. For the readers who don’t know Vingroup, it is the Wanda of Vietnam, the country’s largest developer and now a well-diversified conglomerate. Strong from the success of their first integrated resort (opened in 2004) in Nha Trang, featuring a cable car, aquarium, water park, amusement park and marine park, they embarked on a more ambitious project in Phu Quoc featuring an amusement park, water park, night spectacular and a safari park.

Phu Quoc has been earmarked as the Phuket of Vietnam but the destination has been struggling to develop – mostly because of environmental and manpower issues – when Danang soared and became in less than 10 years the leading beach destination in Vietnam. An example of such environmental issues is the very poor waste treatment; we had to drive past open-air waste collection along the main road to reach the safari!

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Following the opening of Vinpearl Land will be the opening of Sun Group’s own integrated resort as well as the Grand World casino project under construction next to Vinpearl. This will be the end of the charming Phu Quoc island where all you could see were fishermen villages, nuoc mam factories and pepper plantations, and the beginning of yet another global tourism destination probably very Asia-focused i.e. Vietnamese domestic, Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, etc. The island already welcomes more than 1million visitors p.a. and direct international flights to China and Singapore will start in 2017.

We visited Vinpearl Safari Park on Sunday 1st January 2017, which was a very busy day for the park. There were a majority of Vietnamese visitors (mostly in groups) despite a high ticket price (VND500,000 or US$22) and only a few foreigners (Mainland Chinese, Russian). The type of tourists who can afford a holiday in Phu Quoc – where hotels charge minimum US$100 per night – can probably afford such ticket price. Vingroup clearly doesn’t target school groups or Vietnamese middle class families.

As we walked into the park we were greeted by English-speaking staff, who informed us we could wait for a shuttle to take us to the safari bus or walk around the zoo for about 1km, which could take us up to 2hours. We decided to go have a look at the zoo to get our money worth!

The zoo is very average for a new zoo. It does not adopt any of the new design approach. There is not much shade and the landscape is very boring as they have not made much effort to enhance the rather poor native forest, which can be found around Phu Quoc. Rock work is very basic and not very well executed. The attempt to provide an audio system failed and there is only one area with soundscape: in one of the aviaries, which is much nicer as a result. Everything is visible: keeping facilities, pipes, pumps, feeding containers, etc. Another mistake is the size of the enclosures, which is too big and therefore it is hard to see the animals, when on top of that there is acrylic or fencing between you and the animals.

After more than an hour walking in the heat of the zoo we finally made it to the start of the safari journey. Big disappointment: the vehicles are normal transportation buses like the ones you can see in the city, with people standing in the middle as they were packed on the day of our visit.

The 30min safari journey took us through a few large (and bare) enclosures where we saw tigers, lions, rhinos, ostriches, antelopes, a bunch of young giraffes and lots of zebras. The guide spoke Vietnamese, English and Chinese; she was giving very basic info and she was not much of an entertainer.

Speaking of entertainment, there was very little show component. When we arrived there were supposed to be black African performers in costumes to greet visitors but it felt very awkward, as nobody really knew what to do, neither the performers nor the visitors. The only other form of entertainment is the animal show located near the entrance, which we didn’t go to.

Vinpearl Safari Park seemed to meet the expectations of its visitors but overall I found it sad. There was no magic, which I would expect from an animal-based attraction. There was no life either and it felt the people owning and operating it had no real passion for wildlife. It makes me feel a bit angry actually. It is small things; like landscaping, enclosure design, animal shows, etc. They don’t cost much and yet they make such a big difference. Why bother investing so much money to deliver a very average experience, which will be neither memorable nor educational when you could make it so much better for the same investment? Wait, I think I know the answer: because the owner and operator is a real estate developer!?

Taiping Zoo: probably one of the best attractions in Malaysia

The first time I heard about Taiping Zoo was working on the feasibility study for Movie Animation Park Sudios, Malaysia. We had to proceed with a review of key attractions in the Malaysian state of Perak (between Kuala Lumpur and Penang) and Taiping Zoo came as one of the most popular ones. And yet Taiping is a rather small town between Ipoh and Penang. How special can their zoo be?

I have to admit I didn’t bother visiting at that time. But a few days ago I took advantage of a trip to Penang to make a proper and long-awaited stop in Taiping to visit the zoo and adjacent lake gardens. Little did I know I was about to experience on of the best attractions not only in Perak but probably in Malaysia!

It all started with a delicious noodle soup with sambal at Restoran Kakak, which came highly recommended on google. After a short walk in Taiping old town, which looks a lot like a mini Ipoh, I got back in the car for a mere 5min drive to the zoo.

The experience starts as you drive through the beautiful lake gardens to reach the entrance of the zoo. Everything is carefully thought-out with ample (and reasonable) parking on the other side of the road and a small underpass to reach the main building in all safety.

The entrance ticket is reasonably priced at RM17 (US$4) for adults and RM8.5 (US$2) for children including access to the tram; that is more than three times cheaper than Singapore Zoo!

The visitor mix was very diverse with a few large Malaysian Indian families (including grand parents, cousins, etc), lots of Malay and Malaysian Chinese families with young kids and even a few foreigners. It seemed everyone was having a good time and it resulted in very well behaved visitors, who were even engaging discussions or helping out other visitors. It was a rare experience seeing such behavior in Malaysia.

I have to say it is hard not to enjoy the day in such a setting with beautiful tall trees, lots of water bodies, lush foliage protecting from the sun while cooling off and the amazing sound of the rainforest everywhere you go. The layout is very good with a central hub flanked by a small café, kids play area and big shaded area, and to and from the central hub a number of wide paths taking visitors to the various exhibits. The way finding is good, so is the information displays at the exhibits.

Now this is where Taiping Zoo surprised me; the animal exhibits are truly world class although the zoo is more than 55 years of age. You can hardly see any cage and the enclosures are very generous; sometimes a bit too much and it’s hard to see the animals among the overgrown plants. Thanks to a good maintenance and what looks like a real passion for wildlife Taiping Zoo delivers one of the best zoo experience with a much appreciated patina of age, which provides almost an Avatar kind of feeling!

The highlights for me – and visibly for most of the visitors – were the very entertaining monkey exhibits where animals were visibly having fun, playing and singing.

Taiping Zoo is a great family day-out activity with just the right amount of walking surrounded by nature and adjacent to the beautiful Taiping lake gardens, which are also worth going to Taiping for.

 

It is such a contrast with Bukit Gambang for which I wrote a very harsh review a while back. And this is the difference generosity makes. It is clear that the owners and operators of the Taiping Zoo have been and continue being very generous with space, landscape, maintenance, not only for the visitors but also for the animals. And this extra mile they are going is resulting in a complete buy-in from the visitors who have been patronizing and respecting the zoo for many years. No wonder it is the pride of Perak!

Fiesta Carnival and the number one lesson for property developers

When Fiesta Carnival opened in 1971 in Cubao – back then a suburb of Manila – it was the first indoor amusement park in the Philippines, and probably Asia. At a time when the country was the most advanced in the region J. Amado Araneta, a visionary and a great believer in family entertainment, decided to complement his Araneta Coliseum (home of the famous Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975), New Frontier Cinema (Asia’s largest at the time) and ice skating rink with an indoor leisure and amusement center covering close to two hectares.

By the 1990’s, Fiesta Carnival began to lose its appeal among the children who have become more enamored with mall-based entertainment, computer gaming, not to mention the appeal of grander amusement parks especially with the opening of Laguna-based Enchanted Kingdom during that time. Fiesta Carnival soon degenerated as a run-down amusement park that was plagued by incidents of theft and other petty crimes. Jorge Araneta decides to close the park and bring Shopwise supermarket in the building. The ice skating rink was also closed.

Fast forward another 20 years and things are changing, back to entertainment. Earlier this year the New Frontier Cinema reopened as the KIA Theatre and is now welcoming some of the hottest bands on tour in the Philippines, Art in Island – off the trendy Cubao Expo – is the country’s biggest trick art museum and Araneta Centre is considering a new-generation indoor family entertainment centre for the extension of its Gateway Mall.

Does this mean we are (finally) seeing the end of the Retail is King era that saw retail driving all property development? Times are definitely different with online retail affecting the expectations of mall visitors. Lifestyle, community and family entertainment are now the key words we hear from every property developer.

I believe that those who understand it and truly believe in it, like Jorge Araneta, will be the big winners of tomorrow, because what Fiesta Carnival brought to many families are collective memories that will never be forgotten. And that is what successful destinations are made of. #jointhemovement!

REVIEW: Hub Zero, Dubai

Having worked on a concept of video game theme park for a client, I was looking forward to my stop-over in Dubai to go see the newly opened Hub Zero at City Walk.

Dubbed to be “the region’s first immersive gaming theme park” according the press release issued by Meraas, this 15,000sqm indoor theme park offers “an extensive e-Sports LAN gaming zone and a children’s play area, in addition to event rooms, retail space, and food and beverage offerings”.  Jean Marc Bled, General Manager, Leisure & Entertainment at Meraas, adds: “the experiential entertainment at Hub Zero will challenge visitor perceptions and revolutionise how gamers see and experience video games. We are confident the stimulating and engaging journey will compel visitors to come back time after time.”

If you read my previous post entitled “Why video games are the future of theme parks” you will understand why I got excited about Hub Zero. And so I went hoping to get a glimpse of the future of theme parks and maybe my first ‘gamified’ visitor experience.

I got there after my visit of IMG Worlds of Adventure at around 8pm on a Saturday (the end of the weekend in Dubai). City Walk was not very busy that day and Hub Zero even less busy, which I thought was not a good sign for the end of the weekend.

Hub Zero occupies its own building in this al-fresco retail complex. The entrance lobby is very big and impressive, with a bit of a futuristic look & feel (of course, it’s video games!). Tickets for the ground floor area (gated) can be purchased from the ticketing counter and an escalator leads visitors to the first floor (non-gated), which features the e-sports gaming zone, billiard room, karaoke rooms, old-school video games arcade (think Pac Man, pinball, etc) and a café.

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I decided to go upstairs directly and see if I could look at the ground floor from the top. I was virtually alone on the 1st floor but the view was quite good and I got a feel for the entire place.

Most of the attractions are media and IP-based (e.g. Resident Evil, Battlefield, Gears of War) and include VR experience, dark ride, 5D cinema, laser tag, laser maze and simulators. There is also a kids and toddlers Plants vs. Zombies themed play area, which looks a bit like an after-thought.

I will not make any assumptions on the performance of the park but judging from what I saw it doesn’t feel like people are rushing through the doors. Why is that?

First I was told City Walk is having a slow start as the concept of an al-fresco mall is very new for the region and people probably still prefer big enclosed malls such as Dubail Mall (only 15min walk away and packed that night!). This doesn’t help Hub Zero, which probably needs more eyeballs for a new concept and a new brand not borrowing from any of the big video game publisher brands i.e. it’s not a Nintendo park or a Ubisoft park.

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Second I am not convinced the gated park approach is the right one. It is minimum AED160 (USD43.5) to access the attractions on the ground floor. Yes I know Dubai residents are wealthy but it is still a lot of money for a teenager or a student, which seems to be the main target audience. In a region where FEC’s are very popular maybe Hub Zero should have tried to give the FEC model a new twist… maybe using the principles of gamification! Instead of a series of video game-based attractions dispatched along a circular corridor, why not try to take the visitor into a video game, where he/she becomes a player of the park?

Third I think the choice of theming is too segmenting. It assumes all video game players are geeks and like futuristic stuff. It’s not the case. There are all sorts of people playing video games, including girls and young kids. These are the ones Hub Zero should have thought about and catered for with the same elements that make a theme park successful: fun and immersive theming, experiences bringing people together, live entertainment, etc.

REVIEW: IMG Worlds of Adventure

The world’s largest indoor theme park! When you work in the industry, you’ve got to see that! So I jumped on the first opportunity that came about; I arranged to stop over in Dubai on my way back from the IAAPA Expo in Orlando.

I had wanted to purchase my ticket online before going thinking it would save me time once there but I had to give up, it was way too hard. I don’t regret as I got a similar 10pc discount at the park by presenting a coupon I grabbed at my hotel; and there was no queue when I go there! Wait a minute. No queue at 3.30pm on a Saturday only weeks after opening? That’s not good!

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The park is located in the middle of nowhere about 20min taxi from the city centre. The access from the highway is very complicated as the park is on the wrong side of the road coming from the city centre. It doesn’t help that the whole surrounding area is under construction with miles of hoardings advertising for future phases of the project or maybe some residential development, and the harsh climate is making the outside of the building look a bit beaten already!

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Once inside everything has been designed for big attendance so it’s huge! Very wide paths, very long queue lines (empty), lots and lots of restaurants and retail stores, etc. I can’t believe I was there on a weekend and yet the park was almost empty. Most visitors were Arab families, Russians or Eastern/Central Europeans and the odd UK tourist!

The place reminded me of TransStudio in Bandung, Indonesia (but without a mall attached to it). I guess it’s the nature of indoor theme parks; it’s hard to have a strong focal point like Disney’s castle or nearby Bollywood Parks’ palace. The indoor didn’t feel too oppressing at all and it could have been very pleasant but something was not quite right.

There’s nothing wrong with the hardware. There is no lack of rides, good F&B and retail outlets and great IP’s. I think the problem lies in the very poor show/live entertainment program and lack of enthusiasm from the staff (there are too many of them and they are bored), which makes for a rather weighty atmosphere. The only uplifting moment came as I was leaving when a group of Bedouin dancers started a traditional dance near the exit, which I enjoyed but is it really ‘on brand’?

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I will focus on the Cartoon Network (CN) Zone because it was the one I was most interested in for a project I am working on. It is actually the most interesting and felt busier than the other zones. The CN visuals work very well in the signage, facades and even floor patterns. It’s fun and colorful without being tacky. The use of a lot of the flat surfaces for mega-size video projections makes it lively and happening.

The layout is smart with a big circular building (with Back-Of-House in the centre) and outlets all around opening up onto a path wrapping around and distributing the main attractions:

  • Gumball is a shooting dark ride; a bit light on the theming, maybe too much 2D
  • Powerpuff Girls is a hardcore rotator ride, which I didn’t find very ‘on brand’ but people in the Middle East love this kind of rides
  • Ben10 is a 5D cinema; I thought the 2D look of the cartoon turned into 3D worked very well visually but the storyline was a bit all over the place
  • Lazy Town is a highly themed active play area

The show at CN Live (the only show in the entire park) is based on Lazy Town. After a slow start (people started leaving) it became a bit more interesting when kids were asked to stand up and make superheroes moves. The show was then suddenly stopped apparently for technical issues!

The F&B outlets are well themed and seemed to have interesting and relevant menus (see pictures). The karts are also quite cute.

The highlight is clearly the retail, which is amazing! Every attraction has a dedicated outlet and it’s very ‘on brand’, there’s also a general CN Store and a CN Classics Store. I only bought a few items but I could have gone crazy!

And now just a few words on the other zones.

Lost Valley is a dinosaur-themed zone featuring the park’s signature roller coaster coming out of the building (lots of twists and turns) and Forbidden Territory, a very smooth hydraulic dark ride. The zone is very big and very well themed. There’s a cool play structure (Adventure Fortress) with a huge tower and slides coming down.

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The Marvel zone was a ghost town when I visited. The dark futuristic look makes it look quite sad and old-fashioned, and there is way too much retail. That being said the rides again are of very good quality. I tried Spider-Man Doc Ock’s Revenge: a very good indoor spinning coaster with good theming. There is also Avengers Flight of the Quinjet, a 3D flight simulator and Hulk Epsilon Base 3D, a stereoscopic cinema dome.

The most popular attraction (and the only one with a queue) was actually the Haunted Hotel, the only non IP-based, located in IMG Boulevard! Great décors, not too scary. People loved it.

It is hard to summarize everything in just a few words. I would just say there’s nothing wrong about IMG Worlds of Adventure but it just does not feel quite right! Maybe it’s just that feeling you get when you’re inside a huge air-conditioned box in the middle of the desert with nothing around, not even a hotel!