From tornado to whirlpool, thrillseekers at Yas Waterworld are having their senses stormed by state-of-the-art rides that enthrall and appal in equal measure - thanks to the genius of two men who have loved waterparks since they were children. Nick Leech reports
It's difficult to look at the enormous, chequered funnel that is Dawwama, the hydromagnetic tornado ride at the heart of Yas Waterworld, and not think that the laws of physics have been bent somehow, if not broken.
"This is the longest, fastest, biggest tornado ride that's ever been built," explains Mike Oswald, the park's general manager, proudly. "The technology existed, but the manufacturer had never done it in a six-man configuration before," adds the park's assistant manager, Tim Mow.
"Obviously, a bigger boat requires a bigger slide tube but then we said, what would happen if we put this big 60ft tornado at the end?"
To answer and as if on cue, a large yellow inflatable complete with screaming adults shoots out of a tube before us and into mid-air before it is caught by the "tornado" in question. After swinging, pendulum-like, from one side of the funnel to the other, the dinghy disappears down a further giant tube. The effect is like watching a ship disappear helplessly into a whirlpool: terrifying, but impossible to resist.
Mr Oswald and Mr Mow know what they're doing. The former is a former general manager of Wild Wadi Aqua Park in Dubai who has worked in North American waterparks for 22 years, while Mr Mow is a veteran with 26 years' experience.
It is that insight, into how parks work and what makes visitors tick, that made them central to the development of this 15-hectare, 43 ride, Dh900 million project. This is not the first time they have worked together. Mr Oswald was 16 when he started working in waterparks.
"On my very first day on the job, one of the first people I met was Tim Mow. We both went our separate ways but we came back together 20 years later."
If Mr Oswald and Mr Mow have almost 50 years' collective experience between them, the architectural design team from Atkins - responsible for Yas Waterworld's engineering and Emirati-inspired theme - is equally experienced with an even longer track record in the UAE.
Led by Tom Wright, the architect behind the Burj Al Arab, the team included designers who had also worked on the architecture, interiors, and branding of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Wild Wadi Aqua Park in Dubai. By the time this team was appointed in 2010, however, Mr Oswald and Mr Mow had started to develop a concept based on a very early design that eventually informed Aldar's final brief for the park.
"Designing a park is a lot about feelings and experiences," says Mr Oswald. "When I looked at that first design and where the attractions sat, the distance between them, the theming, the story. It was a great park but it wasn't the park that we wanted. The original was bigger - the size of the guest area was double the size of this park - but we wanted to create a richer experience."
As Kevin Johnson, Atkins's associate and technical manager for Yas Waterworld explains, that "richness" expresses itself in three ways: in the park's level of detailing, in the amount of bespoke design and construction it contains and, most directly, in its inspiration by traditional Emirati culture and traditions. For Mr Johnson, the elements overlap.
"There was an overarching mandatory item on the brief we were given from the client, and that was that the entire park had to have an endearing story … The story then embedded itself all around the park."
After entering through the park's main gate, visitors to Yas Waterworld pass through a pearling and fishing harbour in which 100-year-old fishing boats, imported from Dubai, are moored. After passing through a covered souq, visitors will be confronted with what Mr Johnson describes as the "main reveal" Jebel Dana, a rocky crag made of more than 1.2 million kilograms of steel and more than 46,000 square metres of artificial rock work, topped by an enormous pearl.
As Mr Johnson explains: "Any themed waterpark is immensely complicated, it's like bespoke filigree jewellery where no one element is repeated but if you take a typical office building, the floor plates tend to be identical. With 46,000 square metres of hand-carved, hand-painted rock work there is no mass production.
"We had up to 200 staff fixing, carving, laying and painting concurrently. They started off at 60 square metres a day when they came on to the project and were up to 200 metres a day by the end."
For Atkins, the need to get the park's local narrative and Emirati-inspired detailing correct meant research trips to Al Ain, Bastakiya, heritage villages and libraries while Mr Oswald and Mr Mow spent a month visiting ride manufacturers as well as other waterparks around the world, picking and choosing existing elements and then trying to come up with something unique.
"It's all about supersizing," Mr Oswald explains. "You take the bits and pieces that you like and then you combine them and make a totally different attraction that's just amazing. Most other parks around the world don't have a lot of theming, they just have some steel towers sticking up and that's it. We wanted to create an experience so that when you walk through the door you go, 'Wow'."
The result is what Mr Johnson describes as "the next dimension", a waterpark that combines wet and dry elements to appeal to different genders, age groups, and family members.
"This is a hybrid between pure theme park and pure waterpark. You can spend a whole day in this park without ever putting on your swimming trunks. It allows you to bring the whole family. Grandma might not want to get soaking wet but she still wants to have fun with her grandchildren."
While trunks may not be essential, the role that modern technology plays in the park is. When any of the project team talk about the development of the project, superlatives abound. Yas Waterworld has the largest surf-able sheet wave in the world, the only interactive water bombing roller coaster in a waterpark, the world's first rattler flume ride - but many of these will make little sense to those outside the industry.
Claims about the park's water efficiency, however, have a broader currency, as Mr Oswald explains. "A normal park would use about 220,000 gallons of water a day. This park is super-efficient, we only use about 160,000 gallons a day. That's a lot less water than any other waterpark that's comparable. We're in the Middle East, that's a difficult climate, but we're still using about 25 per cent less water than a normal water park would use."
Given the scarcity of Abu Dhabi's water resources, the intimate relationship between water consumption and energy use in the emirate, its carbon footprint and environmental aspirations, 160,000 gallons of water still sounds like an awful lot.
But remarkably, the park has been through the Urban Planning Council's Estidama sustainable design process - it was awarded a one pearl rating - and boasts water savings of more than 25 per cent when compared with waterparks elsewhere.
As Mr Oswald says, such efficiencies are not just ethical issues, they also make sound business sense.
"We already wanted to create the most efficient park. Firstly, it's the correct thing to do for the environment and, secondly, it makes the most profitable waterpark. Then we started working with the guys at Estidama and they challenged us to look at different areas: the landscape, the plants, and the irrigation system."
The fact that Yas Waterworld uses only a tenth of the daily water budget of local golf courses will mean little to its visitors as they're propelled around the park's tornado, flumes, and tubes. They will be queueing for the serious business of fun, something that seems assured when the park is seen from the inside. It's a subject about which Mr Oswald will always have the last word.
"If you look at the core fundamentals it's about making people have a great time and give them lasting memories. It's about creating a magical experience they can immerse themselves in. We still love waterparks like we did when we were kids, but now we get the chance to actually make the things for real."