World's Biggest Theme Park Rises in World's Biggest Playground

Consider it the world's largest playground.

Rising in the desert of Dubai is Dubailand, a theme park complex of immense scale that its creators hope will catapult the city into one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.

The city-state of Dubai, often called the "Las Vegas of the Middle East," also hopes to become the region's answer to Orlando, Florida.

By 2012, the Dubailand complex, a landmass roughly the size of Orlando itself, is set to be home to a crop of major theme parks. Six Flags, Universal Studios, Dreamworks, Marvel and Legoland will all open Dubailand outlets, their first in the Arab world. Universal Studios Dubailand will be the first to open in 2010.

As a business proposition, Dubailand is a massive real estate project that combines hotel, entertainment, residential and retail subdivisions.

The Tiger Woods, a golf course designed by Tiger himself, will be lined with luxury homes and a boutique hotel. Dubailand's Falcon City will have life-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. Beauty Land will house several spas, while Palmarosa development will feature what Dubailand calls a "wellness resort and health farm." Sports City will have massive stadiums and an Formula One racetrack. The Bawadi strip, inspired by the Las Vegas strip, has hotels and shopping.

The one thing Dubailand won't have is gambling, which is banned by Islamic law.

"We want to cater for the whole family and all ages," Mohamed Al Habbai, Dubailand's senior vice president, told ABC News.

"HIT Entertainment, Legoland, they cater for different criteria of age between 2 to 9, then Universal Studios comes to play for the teenagers, then others with a different criteria."

"The plan is pretty fantastic," said Kyle McCarthy of the Family Travel Forum, a New York-based consultancy. "I was impressed with the variety of attractions geared to different ages."

The project involves a vast development of infrastructure and human resources. As designed, Dubailand would sustain 2.4 million residents and workers — nearly twice Dubai's population today.

"Dubailand is way too big for a typical traveler — there's only so much you can do with kids before they wear out," says McCarthy, the travel expert.

"But having that mass is going to have its own appeal because people want to see what it's like."

Dubailand is part of the city's ongoing aim to diversify its economy away from oil. For the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, tourism is one of the core industries the country is working to cultivate.

Dubai has invested heavily in branding itself as the Middle East's premier tourist destination with strong Western appeal. The city's rapid growth has made it a draw for American companies seeking new revenue by expanding into the oil-rich region.

"We are thrilled to bring the first DreamWorks Animation dedicated theme park to Dubai," Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, said in a statement.

Nick Varney, head of Legoland's parent company, said "choosing Dubai for the newest Legoland Park reflects the fact that Dubai is becoming a major holiday destination."

Despite roping in major American brands, Dubailand is not aiming everything at American tourists. Rather, as Al Habbai describes it, they are also targetting the 1.8 billion potential visitors who live within a five-hour flying radius from Dubai.

To bring them in requires adjusting the theme park experience to a diverse target audience.

"When we bring in Universal, Six Flags, Legoland it's not cut-and-paste … we need to cater for different market, the emerging market," said Al Habbai, who describes doing market research on tourism habits in 27 countries.

"For people coming from China, when they come to the theme park they don't go right they go left. For the German by 5 o'clock sharp they want to have their dinner … For the Persian people they want to have more an open space … the Japanese or the Chinese also they want to interact with animals, so we can bring that element also."

Dubailand is clearly trying to avoid the mistakes some think were made by the Walt Disney Company, a theme park powerhouse and the parent company of ABC News. Disney was criticized for failing to accommodate local tastes and cultural norms when it first opened Disneyland parks in Paris, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

So not all of the parks' attractions are American imports. Dubailand is planning a theme park based on Freej, a popular cartoon created in Dubai whose main characters are four Arab old women. The Holly-Bolly Hotel and Resort on the Bawadi strip is inspired by a fusion of Hollywood and Bollywood, its Indian counterpart.

Portions of Dubailand are already open, but the major theme parks have yet to be built. Dubailand expects Universal Studios to open in 2010, Legoland and Six Flags in 2011, and Marvel and Dreamworks in 2012.

"It's hasn't been as quick as they initially hoped, largely because it's a very big project and there were some basic planning issues," says Colin Foreman, who covers Dubai real estate for the Middle East Economic Digest. Foreman says that because of its size, Dubailand has had to run traffic impact studies and contend with bureaucratic holdups.

But any delays won't erode Dubailand's head start on becoming the only major theme park destination in the Arab world.

"If you look for the destination leisure resorts you'll see it spread between North America, Australia, and the Far East. But in this part of the world there's nothing there," says Al Habbai.

The only competition may come from home. In Dubai's Palm Jebel Ali, Nakheel developers are planning a four-park Busch Gardens and Sea World complex. In neighboring Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, plans are underway for separate MGM and Ferrari theme parks.

In taking the lead on leisure travel the city is looking to make Dubai a hub for leisure travel, setting a target of 15 million annual visitors by 2015.

Dubai has set a number that's large and ambitious – like the park it's building.