While Dubai might have a reputation as being a playground for the rich, this family-friendly city should be known as a playground for the little ones too. The desert climate means that most activities are indoors, but there is no shortage of running room for even the most energetic mini-travellers.
Dubai has started to bill itself as the theme park capital of the world, and its action-packed adventures will thrill older kids. Combine that with choice sights and activities with just the right level of education for some sheer ‘unadulterated’ fun for all ages.
Cool down from the heat of Dubai at Aquaventure Waterpark © PitK / Shutterstock
From paddling-pool initiates to the most adventurous adrenaline junkies, kids of every age will dive right in at Aquaventure Waterpark. Aquaventure is likely to be a highlight of any kid’s visit to Dubai, but some of the rides can be downright terrifying, so take it slowly and work your way up rather than risk getting freaked out by the craziest rides right at the beginning. Older children will rave about rides that test the bravery of even the most courageous. Drifting in a tube around the River Ride is a great way for the whole family to ease into the water. Even if this ‘lazy river’ seems too slow, ‘flash floods’ every 30 seconds will spin you along and get you into the flow.
IMG Worlds of Adventure
IMG Worlds of Adventure is the world’s biggest indoor theme park with a mind-boggling variety of attractions spread across an area the size of 28 football fields. There are four zones including Marvel, Lost World (a dinosaur-themed area with animatronic beasts), IMG Boulevard and Cartoon Network (great for the littlest ones), plus a just-opened 12-screen cinema complex that shows 3D IMAX and promises 7-star comfort. Cartoon Network has a world of imaginative activities for smaller children (although most rides are suitable for kids taller than 1.2m): you can help the Powerpuff Girls protect Townsville, save the town of Elmore from a chaotic school science project or take a flight through the Land of Ooo.
Green Planet houses more than 3000 plants and animals in a glass dome surrounding a towering manmade tree © Mark Eveleigh / Lonely Planet
Only in Dubai could an entire tropical rainforest ecosystem be created amid 45°C desert heat. Green Planet houses more than 3000 plants and animals, including monkeys, iguanas and hornbills, in a glass dome surrounding a 25m-tall man-made fig tree. Visiting the biodome is ideal for slightly older kids with an interest in wildlife, but The Green Planet’s suspended walkways and rope bridges provide a taste of adventure that will excite younger children. The Green Planet has highly trained and enthusiastic guides, making for an incredible educational experience even for adults – and the kids are likely to have so much fun that they hardly notice how much they’re learning.
Colourful Indian blockbusters come to life at Bollywood Parks Dubai © riyas.net / Shutterstock
Bollywood Parks Dubai
Made up of five different zones based on Mumbai’s legendary movie industry, Bollywood Parks is a great place to ham it up to the colourful and kitsch soundtrack of Indian blockbusters. There are stunt-shows and 3D (and 4D) rides, but to enjoy the experience to the full, be sure to take in a few of the dozens of live performances that take place each day. ‘Stars on Steps’ is a live song-and-dance show to a backdrop image from massive LED screens that brings to life the magic of India's temples and palaces. 'Show Me Your Jalwa' offers a hilarious chance for the whole family to work on their Bollywood dance steps while the 'Kids Korner' concentrates on pint-sized choreography.
Make a game plan and then tackle Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping centre © Gordon Bell / Shutterstock
With 1200 outlets, Dubai Mall is the world’s biggest shopping centre. It’s also an experience in its own right, with an ice rink and a giant aquarium to keep you entertained even if you don’t happen to be a dedicated shopper. The Toy Store and the famous Hamleys are favourites with the kids, and most of the internationally known children’s clothing brands are represented here. The mall is so astonishingly huge that it helps to do a little advance research and know where you want to go to avoid mid-shopping-spree tantrums.
Get in character at Motiongate Dubai © Tomasz Ganclerz / Shutterstock
Motiongate Dubai is the region’s biggest Hollywood-inspired theme park. The Smurfs Village offers great rides for small kids, and teenagers might manage to muster their nerve for the dramatic rollercoaster inspired by The Hunger Games. Apart from a whole selection of rides for kids, Motiongate also has several ‘edutainment’ areas, such as Flint’s Imagination Lab where kids can unleash their inner mad scientist among science-themed slides and in a laboratory maze.
Let the little ones loose on Dubai's Kite Beach © Nadia Leskovskaya / Shutterstock
The kitesurfers who once dominated Kite Beach have moved farther along the coast, and the balmy, rippling waves are now the exclusive preserve of local families, expats and just a handful of in-the-know travellers. It’s particularly pleasant in the early morning to stroll along the 2km-long waterfront promenade with the iconic sails of Burj Al Arab looming above the skyline ahead of you. A big hat and lots of sunscreen are crucial dress code – even by 10am, it can be roasting.
Snow bunnies and shredders can carve up the slopes at Ski Dubai © S-F / Shutterstock
Snow bunnies can carve some gentle turns – and take a few harmless tumbles – on Ski Dubai’s learner slopes while budding ski-champs can tackle the 400m (60m drop) advanced run. With the desert sun melting the tarmac in the car park outside, it’s an irresistible novelty to be able to suit up for a winter wonderland and chill-out in a delightful -4°C.
It’s open season for zombie hunting at Hub Zero, where many of the virtual reality challenges are directed at exterminating swarms of snail-paced attackers. Fun racing games are stacked alongside dramatic simulator rides (along with games that involve a fair amount of gun play). There’s little here to entice small children, but this is a sort of doomsday heaven for older kids with a taste for electronic games and virtual reality thrills. The emphasis is definitely on action, and there are some challenges, such as the Mission Impossible where you have to twist through a room webbed with laser alarms, which you can do in a team and seem to be big favourites with kids who are guaranteed to enjoy watching their parents make fools of themselves.
Lose yourself in The Lost Chambers at Atlantis The Palm © Mark Eveleigh / Lonely Planet
Far from being ‘lost’, The Lost Chambers are justifiably one of Dubai’s most popular drawcards for families. The centrepiece of this vast aquarium complex set in Atlantis The Palm is the 11.5-million-litre tank known as the Ambassador Lagoon. Little children are invariably thrilled to watch gracefully swimming sharks and giant rays swooping like spacecraft and of course, it’s not long before you’ll be playing ‘find Nemo’. While there’s enough educational info around the countless smaller tanks to make the experience unforgettable for older kids, concentrations might start to wane after an hour or so. For a great family day out that will appeal to everyone, combine the Lost Chambers with a visit to Aquaventure Waterpark, which is in the same complex.
Ride the roller coasters of the desert on a 4WD dune-driving excursion © Mark Eveleigh / Lonely Planet
Racing in a 4WD across the billowing dunes just outside the city – almost a roller-coaster ride in itself – is an unmissable part of a trip to Dubai, and the wilderness is surprisingly accessible. Happy Adventures Tourism offer an evening dune-driving excursion that includes a range of activities such as sand boarding, camel riding, henna painting and a buffet barbecue dinner with live performances. You’re likely to return to your hotel after 9pm, so morning drives might be better suited to younger children. Arabian Adventures offer more exclusive Morning Dune Drives – farther away from the package crowds – that feature a wildlife safari in Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
Where to stay
Sheikh Zayed Rd is the main artery of the city, running through Downtown Dubai. Many of the city's major kid-friendly hotels are on this strip and are ideally situated for easy travel connections to either the main tourist sites (to the south) or the old town (Deira and Bur Dubai, to the north).
Fairmont Dubai is ideally located within an easy taxi-hop of most sights and just across the road from World Trade Centre metro station. The hotel can arrange babysitting for toddlers, and there are two kids’ pools where the little ones can cool down. Room rates are great value for money and include wonderful breakfast buffets that will set the whole family up for a day exploring.
Shangri-La, also in downtown Dubai, is a great choice for families, with kids’ fitness classes, karate, zumba, ballet and even ballroom dancing. The hotel has a special offer for guests that allows up to two children (under age of 6) to eat free at the Dunes Cafe all-day dining buffet.
Middle Eastern staples like falafel and shawarma will delight even picky eaters © Zurijeta / Shutterstock
Where to eat
For a fun dining adventure for kids of all ages, check out Rainforest Café in Dubai Mall. Feast amid tropical showers and even occasional thunderstorms while keeping an eye peeled for mechanical butterflies, jaguars, crocodiles, orangutans and gorillas.
Noire, a spot where you dine in complete darkness, was awarded ‘best experimental restaurant in the Middle East’. Although it might be far from ideal for toddlers (although at least you can’t see the mess!), this visionary – no pun intended – concept, featuring waiters in night-vision goggles, is sure to brighten mealtimes for older kids. ‘Have you finished what’s on your plate?’ ‘Who knows!’
How to get around
Taxis are comfortable, efficient and relatively inexpensive (about Dhs10 for a 3km ride). A taxi from the airport to a downtown hotel will cost about Dhs50. The Dubai Metro is well run and child-friendly and connects most of the major sights. Children under five travel free on public transport, and there are specially guarded carriages reserved for families and women.