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!

Construction Update: Movie Animation Park Studios, Malaysia

Having heard that this theme park under construction in Ipoh, Malaysia is not opening in December as planned but probably in April 2017, I thought I would stop by on my way to Penang over the end-of-the-year break to report on the status of construction and share a few pictures.

The entrance building and car park were finished early 2016 and it seems most of the rides have been delivered by now. The theming in Animation Square is almost done and you can actually see it from the highway itself. I wonder if that will be covered later as I don’t think visitors of the park want to see the highway from the square! It looks like the structure for the stunt show is also done. The main areas requiring more work are probably the Dreamworks Zone and the Blast Off Zone.

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View from the main entrance building of the bridge, Animation Square and Megamind Megadrop at the back

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View from the main entrance of Fantasy Forest at the front and Stunt Legends structure at the back

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Panoramic view from the entrance building

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View of the starship restaurant being built in the Blast Off Zone

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: The Mind Museum, Manila

I have been going to Manila since 2004 and the first time I went to Bonifacio Global City a.k.a. ‘The Fort’ there was really not much, maybe a few high-end condos mostly for expats. Now there’s a massive Shangri-La hotel, some of the best restaurants and clubs in Manila, and even themed attractions since the opening of The Mind Museum (2012) and KidZania (2015).

I was in town working on a new project in another part of town but I had some free time on my last day and decided to visit the Mind Museum on my way to the airport. I was curious to see the outcome of a collaboration between JRA and the Science Centre Singapore, which won the THEA award for outstanding achievement as a science museum in 2014.

The Mind Museum is a project by the non-profit Bonifacio Art Foundation, which is financed by the Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation together with private donors and a few sponsors (well acknowledged throughout the museum). It is a good example of public-private stakeholders coming together to build a landmark facility for a new city as opposed to fully government led. This is one thing developers in the Philippines are very good at; just look at the success of areas like Makati, Rockwell, Alabang, Araneta Centre, etc.

I went on a Friday afternoon and it was busy! A few school groups, some families and quite a number of teenagers and young adults, mostly couples. Entrance tickets are priced at PHP625 (USD12.5) for adults, PHP475 (USD9.5) for children (and foreign tourists!) and PH190 (USD3.8) for public school students. This is in line with privately owned attractions in the region and reflective of the purchasing power in Metro Manila.

Being a stand-alone building it provides a number of advantages such as the Science-in-the-park outdoor area, a covered open space in front of the outdoor ticketing area for activation and exhibitions, and a high ceiling. The inside is not that big, and a lot smaller than the Science Centre Singapore for example.

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The layout works well with most of the exhibitions on the ground floor and a 1st floor wrapping around leaving a nice atrium in the centre. The content is ambitious with 250 interactive exhibits through five interconnected stories: AtomEarthLifeUniverse, and Technology. There is also a dedicated teenagers area and Mind pods classrooms on the 1st floor.

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I enjoyed the Technology part the most as it is more what I would expect from a science museum. The piano stairs were my favorite; I loved listening to the different notes as my feet were passing captors walking down the stairs: simple yet memorable.

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The museum has been open for 5 years and it shows. Most of the stations are well worn out and some are even broken. This is where maybe the design by JRA was more suited for a Western market than an Asian market like the Philippines, where school groups are bigger and people in general maybe less aware of how to handle interactive exhibitions. I thought there was also too much text, which no one was reading.

The show component comprises of a live lab demo, a few movie rooms and an auditorium on the first floor. I would have suggested more show and maybe less interactive stations, which is an easier way to manage kids groups and convey a message in this part of the world.

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So here is the verdict. The Mind Museum is a very praiseworthy initiative with all the good intentions. The ambitious variety of topics in such a small space is double-edged: it includes many aspects of schools curriculum but it lacks of depth and of a strong storyline. The museum would benefit from a consolidation into 3 areas (instead of 5) and an open show area in the centre. Maybe for the upcoming renovation, hopefully soon!

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!

REVIEW: Bollywood Parks, Dubai

Let’s start with a bit of context. I visited on a Sunday (work day in Dubai) only 3 days after opening of the park. I took the red line from the city centre all the way to the end and caught a taxi (AED35), which took me there in less than 10 minutes. The road, signage and landscape approaching Dubai Parks & Resorts are as good as Walt Disney World in Orlando! The taxi drop off is at the beginning of the themed Riverland dining & shopping village, which is very similar to Shanghai Disneyland’s village. I ate a cheeseburger menu (AED30) at one of the most expensive McDonald’s featuring the latest in design and service (touch screen, staff offering desserts at the table, etc).

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Bollywood Parks was not opening before 2pm so I had time to walk around the new nearby Outlet Village and get a glimpse of the Lapita hotel and the 2 other parks: LEGOLAND (open) and Motiongate (opening Dec 2016). The entire site is still more or less under construction but you can tell it will look fantastic when it’s all done!

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I had purchased (or attempted to purchase) my ticket online but there was a small hiccup and I never received my confirmation (apparently they are having issues with their online ticketing in some countries). After 3 emails and 1 call I was still not able to get to the bottom of it but I won’t bore you with the details. These things happen when you open. The most important is that the team (and Guest Service Manager Hessa) was able to deal with me and make me feel welcome, and even a bit special!

So as one would expect Bollywood Parks is really about the sing & dance; the number of rides is limited so if you want the thrill you will be better served at the nearby Motiongate or the future Six Flags (opening 2019).

To get it out of the way here is a quick review of the 3 rides and 1 attraction open on the day of my visit.

  • Lagaan: Thrill of Victory is a motion simulator, which takes you on a roller coaster ride (literally) in the imaginary world of wooden puppets hitting a cricket ball: you! The choice of going without 3D glasses gives justice to some of the most beautiful visuals I have seen since Arthur: the 4D Adventure at Futuroscope; so poetic it makes you smile when the ball (you) rebounds onto parachutes showing portraits of the Lagaan movie stars.
  • Sholay: The Hunt for Gabbar Singh is a good quality 3D shooting dark ride where you will enjoy being thrown odd things at and shoot them: bottles, grenades, fruits, etc
  • One Unleashed is a 5D cinema featuring a great preshow with a live actor turning into a hologram. The movie is of good quality, the storyline is very efficient and the 5D effects are well synchronized, not too many and including some nice scented effects. Of course having Shah Rukh Khan in the cast helps!
  • Cinemagic featuring Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was my favorite attraction and probably the most ‘on brand’. This 30min journey in the making of a movie trailer is hosted by a wonderful live actress. It involves a lot of audience participation and it is run at a perfect pace. People loved it and told me they felt they stepped into the world of movie-making for the time of the show. Hats off to the crew! Another example showing there’s nothing better than true audience participation and sharing a moment together with your friends/family or even people you don’t know.

There are another 2 rides but they were closed when I visited. Don: The Chase is a dark ride on tracks and and Krrish is a soarin-type ride. That’s it my friends: 5 rides and 1 attraction for this brand new park!

The overall layout, theming, landscape (with water features) and soundscape are all very well done and although the park was still quiet when I visited I could tell it will be very nice as soon as it gets a bit busier. The only little hitch is the view over the LEGOLAND water park from some of the areas in the park; not good!

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The Retail and F&B are on the light side. They will need to improve if they want to milk that cow! And this is where I think IMG Worlds of Adventure is doing a better job. A lot of the retail is based on the film franchises the park has but I wonder how strong they are for people to buy souvenirs and how will they take advantage of future Bollywood hits?

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Now let me tell you about the shows because that’s really why you want to go visit Bollywood Parks. Starting from 3.30pm it’s non-stop in various areas of the park. You will be running from one stage to another and you won’t even notice the night falling! My favorite was BP Remixed, which was a mix of some of the most famous movie songs featuring a Shah Rukh Khan look-alike. Good fun.

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Crew members are having as much fun as you are and it makes for a great staff interaction. I couldn’t help but to start a conversation with a few of them. They were all passionate about the park and of course about Bollywood movies! They told me more than 60% of the staff was from India and that’s why it feels so good! In general staff came across a lot more friendly and professional than IMG Worlds of Adventure I had visited the day before. Later I was told all the management went through a dedicated college course and some of them even got sent to Orlando to train. That explains.

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Bollywood Parks is much better seen at night when the magic of music, dance and lights falls on the beautiful setting of the park. The team at Dubai Parks & Resorts understood it and it is clear they want visitors to come late, which explains the Dabang Stunt Spectacular show programmed at 7.30pm, the first resident Broadway-style Bollywood musical in the UAE at Rajmahal Theatre (separate ticket) located in the heart of the park and the Rock On!! Stage restaurant and night club open until 2am. I am not sure what the experience would be for someone who comes at 10am when the shows have not started yet and the only way to escape the heat is by doing the only 6 rides and attractions in the park!?

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So in summary Bollywood Parks is a small park but well themed, well executed and full of energy and action to be experienced at night, which I believe will be a hit with locals and visiting Indians! I spoke with 2 couples whom I saw repeatedly around the park, one from Hyderabad, India and the other from Saudi Arabia; I thought that was quite representative!

A few questions I am asking myself though. Would this work better in India? When you see how passionate the staff is and when you’ve experienced service in some of the hotels in India, you would think this is something they can pull together over there and the market would be a lot bigger. Also, is Dubai the right location? Are there enough leisure visitors? The slow start of IMG Worlds of Adventure is not a good sign; let’s see how Dubai Parks & Resorts does.