Hollywood and theme parks have been walking arm in arm for years. But can they swim in sync?
Dubai, the second largest of the United Arab Emirates, is known for its gargantuan commercial building projects. The latest to be proposed is the world’s largest underwater theme park.
The creator of this five-acre aquatic experience is Los Angeles-based Reef Worlds, whose team includes film and television designers, dive-site developers, and marine biologists. CEO Patric Douglas notes that while scuba diving and snorkeling are a $3-billion-a-year business, most seaside venues don’t offer much in the way of special underwater experiences. “Many five-star resorts have one-star waterfronts,” says Douglas. Reef Worlds estimates there are 500,000 square miles of oceanfront at Caribbean and Asian hotels and resorts with limited appeal to adventurous tourists.
Douglas has been promoting the economic and ecological benefits of what he calls “habitat tourism,” which would give resort owners a way to monetize the waters off their beaches, while relieving some of the pressure from aquatic tourists on natural underwater reef systems that are endangered or dying.
Artificial reefs have been around for decades. Most were created with everything from sunken battleships to old tires—and most, says Douglas, are boring. “Who wants to look at a concrete triangle?” he asks. Reef Worlds intends to create “dynamic reefs” that would attract sea life, making them places people actually want to explore, he says. In Mexico, the company is developing an underwater art garden featuring 200 works of art that will take their cues from Mayan and Aztec iconography. Douglas calls this “Mayan Gods in 3D.”
Douglas says Reef Worlds will be able to bring in projects at 10-20% of the cost of a typical resort water theme park, which can run $70 million to build and $10 million a year to market and maintain.
Reef Worlds’ “Pearl of Dubai” project will be located in the waters around the World Islands development. Renderings suggest the park might be modeled after the mythic Lost City of Atlantis. Reef Worlds has five projects in varying stages of development in Dubai, Qatar, the Philippines, and Mexico.
Reef Worlds has had less success in the Caribbean: two years ago, Douglas found no takers when he offered $4.5 million to resorts in Jamaica to install underwater parks there. “It’s a vision thing,” he says, “and we’re playing the long game.”