REVIEW: Movie Animation Park Studios, Ipoh, Malaysia

After some delay and growing frustration from people who had bought annual passes back in early 2016 Asia’s first animation theme park – Movie Animation Park Studios – soft opened on 26th June, on the first day of the Hari Raya break.

The park seemed to have been well received by local Perakians and other Malaysians visiting family for the holidays with a good coverage from print, online and social media. So I decided to head up to Ipoh on their first Sunday to check-it out.

Driving from Kuala Lumpur you can’t miss the park: massive billboards all along the highway and very good signage from the exit toll and all the way to the park. Driving into the car park from behind and looking at the park from the other side of the lake provides a very nice sense of arrival.

My first encounter with the park was with the staff at the ticketing building who were very friendly and professional. They came up to me and made sure I could get in as quick as possible with my annual pass I had bought online. I was up for a very good start and I have to say that relationship with the staff never failed throughout the whole day. Staff members at the park are incredibly well trained, friendly and helpful. They look good, happy and more importantly they seem to really be on top of things. Believe me, it’s not easy in Malaysia.

Immediately after the gate visitors take a bridge across the lake and into Animation Square, which is made of two themed façade streets covered by a canopy. It was probably my least favorite area. The facades are a bit too heavily themed and there is no real unity; it lacks of interaction between the street and inside the buildings, leading to the feeling of standing in the middle of an asphalt road in the city, far from Disneyland’s Main Avenue or Universal Studio’s Hollywood Boulevard feeling!

I decided to explore the Fantasy Forest Zone first and was very pleasantly surprised; I think other visitors too as the zone was a lot busier than Animation Square. The theming is very well done with beautiful rockwork, water features, fake trees, etc. The layout is quite intricate and the overall storyline a bit hard to get. It seems some of it is based on the Adventurers characters created for the park but not known to anyone. Lots of things for kids (and parents) to have fun including a nice water play area and merry-go-round. Unfortunately the Tree House, Upside Down Pyramid and Adventurers Walk were all closed when I visited.

The indoor playground – Coral Kingdom – was very busy with kids enjoying the various active play elements and parents sitting in the cool air.

Next to the exit of Fantasy Forest is the BoBoiBoy 4D Theatre, which seemed to be one of the most popular attractions. After a short queue I got in and the theatre was packed with young kids (and their parents) all very excited to see the latest adventure of their favorite character BoBoiBoy. The 4D theatre is state-of-the-art with very smooth seat motion. The movie hits the spot, it is full of adventures and a bit funny at times but it could do with a bit more interaction with the viewers. Nice plug-in at the end of the show for the Tok Aba Kokotiam café serving BoBoiBoy’s famous hot chocolate at the exit of the theatre!

Now time to catch the 4:30pm Stunt Legends show, which is clearly the signature attraction of the park, especially on that day when a lot of attractions were closed: the entire Dream Zone, BoBoiBoy Hero Academy, Cartoon Factory, etc.

The arena was not full but busy with visitors excited about seeing Southeast Asia’s first car stunt show. Foreign and local talents try cheering the crowd before the show starts and then it’s on for 20min of car chasing, smoke and loud engine noise. The script did not make much sense to me (and to the majority of people I guess) but the colorful characters seemed to be entertaining enough and the crowd left happy. Overall the show delivers but might need a bit of tweaking to become more memorable.

The next attraction I went to was a bit of a let-down. Wormwhole Technologies is a mix of glow-in-the-dark, magic mirrors and 3D art. Maybe good for selfie-obsessed millenials but WTF is this doing here? It felt like a last minute afterthought to fill in some empty space.

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Next was a much better planned and executed zone, the Smurfs. Like Fantasy Forest, very good theming and a playful environment anchored by the Smurfs theatre with a meet & greet area and the Smurfs Partyland. The theatre offers a live show featuring Grandpa Smurfs in a story, which is a bit too complicated for the audience and in English, which is not necessarily widely understood. Overall acting, show set and A/V is good though.

Before leaving I tried a few of the Zamperla rides in the Lakeside Zone: Disk’O, Flying Carousel and Hawk. They seemed to be very popular with young adults and tweens (maybe because not many rides were open that day). But on the negative side they project the image of a carnival fair instead of an international theme park from the entrance of the park. This could become an issue in positioning and pricing.

Now let me share with you some of my general thoughts on F&B, retail and entertainment.

All F&B outlets I saw were at-the-counter service with limited menu selection and quite reasonable (too cheap?) prices. The interior design is on the simplistic side and did not visibly get visitors too excited. Even the giant starship restaurant, which looks really cool from the outside felt like a basic shopping mall food court inside.

On the retail the side my main observation is the lack of generosity in the merchandising. Shelves are not full and the range of products is very limited, even for BoBoiBoy and Smurfs for which you would think there are a lot of cool existing products to choose from.

And as far as entertainment is concerned it is a bit light for the time being without the Dream Zone. The Center Stage located in the heart of Animation Square is where small shows happen every 30min. In my time in the park I saw a short hip-hop dance number by a local group and a sing along by the park’s international and local talent crew. The main issue is the poor stage design, which makes it hard to see (especially at night) and to pull in the crowd.

After spending a few hours in the park I realized one thing missing was a good sound system to provide a sense of immersion. It just wasn’t consistent and often times contributing to a sense of emptiness or incompleteness of the park, in Animation Square for example.

One last note before the final judgment, on the visitors profile. A majority of them were Malay and to my surprise more middle-up than middle-low. This means a lot for the overall atmosphere and the future potential of the park: more ancillary revenues, more attractive for international visitors, more rewarding for staff, etc.

And now the final judgment! Overall I am feeling very positive about Movie Animation Park Studios. Of course the price, even at RM131 (USD30), was way too high for the little that was open when I visited but I would definitely give it another chance because what I saw was a great insight into what this park can become IF (and it’s a few big IF’s):

  • The staff remain as friendly, helpful and professional
  • The show content is improved and refined (sound system, better scripts, bilingual)
  • The F&B offering caters more to a middle-up crowd
  • The park fills up with more retail, more music, more mascots, etc
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Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia

When I first read the phrase ‘Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia’ referring to the Singapore-Johor corridor in a report from ECA I was a bit surprised and thought it was maybe a bit exaggerated. Universal Studios Singapore and LEGOLAND Malaysia combined are attracting fewer visitors than one single theme park in Orlando.

I have been spending a lot of time in Malaysia in the past year and I thought I would look into this phrase again, from a different perspective.

And yes, I think Malaysia is probably the Orlando of Asia but not so much for the number of theme parks and their attendance – Hong Kong for example beats Malaysia big time – but because it is where the future of our industry in Asia is being shaped. Let me explain why.

Recently I was having lunch with Aaron Soo (former CEO of Sunway Lagoon), who was back in Malaysia for a few days after having opened Wanda’s first indoor movie park in Wuhan, China. We started speaking about all the good things happening in or out of Malaysia:

  • First, Galasys is on its way to revolutionizing theme park ticketing with their cloud-based “Intelligent Tourism” concept; something that has been recognized by the founder of alibaba, who recently took a stake in the company;
  • RSG, the company behind Movie Animation Park Studios, managed to signed up both DreamWorks and The Smurfs for Asia’s first animation theme park, which is about to give sleepy Ipoh a serious shake;
  • The same RSG just announced a partnership with French video game publisher Ubisoft to build in Kuala Lumpur the world’s first next gen theme park where “every guest is a player, every ride is a playground, every visit is a game”
  • Actually, theme parks in Malaysia have recently become the first stepping stone into Asia’s Location Based Entertainment (LBE) for the world’s best entertainment brands (LEGOLAND, Hello Kitty, Thomas & Friends, Nickelodeon and 20th Century Fox) and even local brands (Malaysia’s animation sensation BoBoiBoy);
  • In the aquarium world, home-grown Aquaria will be expanding in Phuket in a partnership with the Central Group; and
  • Let’s not forget some of Singapore’s biggest attractions are actually Malaysian owned: Universal Studios (Genting) and KidZania (TAR)

We have Genting to thank for; they really started the Malaysian family entertainment industry 40 years ago with their first resort up in Genting Highlands. They were among the first to bring to Asia concepts such as a themed hotel or a large indoor theme park with First World Plaza featuring one of Asia’s first Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums.

But maybe more importantly it’s the people. Malaysia has a great pool of people who are well trained (they have often studied overseas) and know how to run international standard theme parks. They export very well and this is why you find them in Manila, Macau and everywhere in China (it’s an easy move for Malaysian Chinese in particular). But recently Malaysia has begun to attract industry people from other countries, seduced by innovative companies such as Galasys and RSG, and you can feel the energy; it’s all happening.

If you think of Orlando as a sunny place, which is home of innovative companies such as SeaWorld Entertainment, Ripley’s and countless design studios and ride manufacturers, Malaysia could very well become the Orlando of Asia. It already has the sun and a few emerging innovative operators! It just needs more studios and suppliers.

So if you too want to shape the future of our industry in Asia, join the party and move to Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia!

NEWS: Ubisoft® developing Next-Generation Theme Park

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – September 7, 2015 — Today, Ubisoft announced that it is developing a next-generation theme park. Combining a rich portfolio of world-renowned brands and an expertise in designing highly interactive gaming experiences, Ubisoft aims to revolutionize guests’ journeys. The project is being led by Ubisoft Motion Pictures, who has a successful track record of expanding Ubisoft’s game brands to theme parks with the launch of the award-winning* Rabbids Dark Ride at French park Futuroscope.

UBISOFT THEME PARK_RABBIDSFor its first next-generation theme park, Ubisoft Motion Pictures is partnering with RSG, co-owner and co-developer of Movie Animation Park Studios (MAPS). “Together we are creating a place where every guest is a player, every ride is a playground, every visit is a game,” said Jean de Rivières, senior vice president, Ubisoft Motion Pictures. “In RSG, we’ve found a partner with a successful track record in working with international brands, a shared ambition to design the family destination of the future, and a wealth of expertise in theme park development.” said Jean de Rivières.

The planned 10,000 square meter development will be located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – second most visited country in Asia** – and will feature innovative rides, attractions and shows inspired by some of Ubisoft’s biggest franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed®, Just Dance® and Rabbids®. The park will open in 2020.

UBISOFT THEME PARK_ASSASSIN'S CREED

“RSG is committed to redefining family fun, and video games have taken an increasingly central role in entertainment for all ages,” said Ramelle Ramli, Chairman, RSG. “Partnering with Ubisoft means we’ll work with their creative teams to develop the first of what we believe will be a revolutionary new theme park experience. We are confident that this partnership agreement highly benefits both parties and consolidates our presence in the global family entertainment market.”

Additional information about Ubisoft can be found at www.ubisoft.com. Additional information about RSG can be found at www.rsg-group.com.my.

About Ubisoft Motion Pictures

Ubisoft Motion Pictures was created in 2011 to expand the popularity of Ubisoft’s game brands to new areas of entertainment including television and film. It is responsible for the Assassin’s Creed live-action long-feature – set for release in December 2016 – and the Rabbids animated television series, currently in its second season. Four long-feature films are also currently in development. Recently, Ubisoft Motion Pictures has expanded into theme parks, developing specific rides adapted from the group’s hit brands as well as a full-scale next generation theme park concept.

About Ubisoft

Ubisoft is a leading creator, publisher and distributor of interactive entertainment and services, with a rich portfolio of world-renowned brands, including Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance, Tom Clancy’s video game series, Rayman, Far Cry and Watch Dogs. The teams throughout Ubisoft’s worldwide network of studios and business offices are committed to delivering original and memorable gaming experiences across all popular platforms, including consoles, mobile phones, tablets and PCs. For the 2014-15 fiscal year Ubisoft generated sales of €1,464 million. To learn more, please visit www.ubisoft.com.

About RSG (R-Segari Group)

RSG is the co-owner and co-developer of Movie Animation Park Studios (MAPS), one of the most unique and exciting family entertainment projects in the leisure and tourism landscape in Malaysia. Ramelle Ramli is the Chairman of RSG and founder of MAPS. He led the MAPS project from its inception. RSG’s expansion strategy includes the development of integrated family entertainment theme parks and resorts in Malaysia and Asia. To learn more, please visit http://www.rsg-group.com.my

© 2015 Ubisoft Entertainment. All Rights Reserved. Ubisoft and the Ubisoft logo are trademarks of Ubisoft Entertainment in the U.S. and/or other countries.

**2014 Themed Entertainment Association Award (TEA) for Outstanding Achievement

**Source: 2014 Tourism Highlights Report by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) ©

REVIEW: LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort

On 21st September I paid a long overdue visit to LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort. Opened in 2012 as Malaysia’s first international theme park it is now flanked by a waterpark and a 250-room hotel thus the name ‘resort’.

Well, to call it resort is a bit of a stretch. The complex is surrounded by construction works in the middle of nowhere, about 25km from Johor Bahru town centre; not really what I would call a resort location!

OK, enough negativism for this introduction; but I had to share this first impression I had when I got there (by public bus, that’s another story I will spare you); I was a bit scared I must admit. In fact, I had a good time and let me tell you why.

I will start by stating the obvious: it is an international theme park. And that in itself is quite a draw in Malaysia where, despite being one of the most developed country in the region, the level of quality (and maintenance) is not always up to expectations.

I had purchased my ticket online the day before (USD 45), which is quite high for Malaysia. Of course no discounts available the day before; Merlin Entertainments know their revenue management! I thought I could use the bar code on my mobile but that was not the case so I had to go to the ticketing counter first to redeem my ticket. Thankfully there was no queue.

Speaking of it; I must admit I was surprised by how quiet the park was for a Sunday, during School Holidays and just after the opening of Star Wars Miniland (supported by an advertising campaign). I would say at least 30% of the visitors where from Australia or the US and looked like theme park regulars (maybe living in Singapore), and the rest were Malaysian families with young children.

I started my visit naturally walking around the circular path, which would take me from Lego City to Land of Adventure, Imagination, Lego Kingdoms and finally Lego Technic. Visitor flow and signage are very well done; it’s impossible to miss any attraction. Also, I thought there was just the right amount of food & beverage kiosks and redemption games along the way, creating a nice sense of happening without being overwhelming.

Although I did not have food at the park I had a look at all their outlets and they looked appetizing as well as clean and well maintained. The choice of food is mostly international with only one Asian outlet. I wonder why they made this choice? I would have expected more demand for Asian food.

I was very impressed by the attention to details in the theming and the landscape; the park is full of surprises and funny things such as this old man snoring on a bench! It makes it fun and creates the magic that one would expect from a theme park.

The best ride is by far The Dragon, which is the main roller coaster of the park and boasts a nicely themed queuing area (inside the Lego castle) and dark area at the beginning of the coaster. Maybank is the ride sponsor and I found the brand integration very well done (Maybank logo is turned into a coat of arms). The same goes with the other park’s sponsors (Nissan, Coca Cola, Ribena, Walls, Canon), which are well taken care of.

On the down side of the product I would list the number of kids playgrounds (maybe 4 or 5), which present not particular interest and as such remained empty. It feels like they serve as fillers but don’t add much to the visitors experience.

The staff were all very nice and helpful; they were everywhere you would expected them to be and engaging visitors, especially kids. Knowing how difficult service training can be in Malaysia I have to take my hat off for the management of the park!

Now, Star Wars Miniland. This new addition to the park, which Merlin claims cost USD 2million is a series of 6 rooms each housing a giant Lego display inspired by the Star Wars video produced by Lego. Great displays if you’re a Star Wars fan but in my opinion a bit repetitive and not very interactive. If you don’t plan to go but still want to have a look you may watch this video I shot.

My final attraction before leaving the park was the Miniland at the centre of the park. Inspired by different locations in Malaysia and Asia, these scenes are very well done and certainly a treat for all Lego fans out there. Unfortunately the tropical Malaysian weather hasn’t been too nice with them and they start aging. I wouldn’t be surprised if the park replaced them by something else in the future.

Verdict? A very pleasant international theme park – and I insist on “theme” as the Lego theming is one of the highlights of the park – but very targeted towards young children and maybe more enjoyable for non-Asian children (food offering, hands-on activities). Not convinced by the product extension trying to cater to an older crowd (Star Wars Miniland). Not sure about the return visitors rate either. For me it was not so much the heat or the lack of shade (actually I thought it was fine and most people I saw seemed fine as well) but the lack of shows and the remote location that would keep me from visiting again.