Move over Orlando. Not content with boasting the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski slope and a palm-shaped island, Dubai is now also striving to become the theme park capital of the world. With five new fun zones opened since 2016, you can now go ghost-busting, snap a selfie with a dinosaur, plunge into a shark lagoon and team up with superheroes without ever leaving town.
In fact, an entire amusement park district, called Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR), has sprung up in the southern suburb of Jebel Ali, complete with a Polynesian-themed hotel and an outdoor shopping and dining strip. Throw a couple of established water parks into the mix, and you’ve got one heck of a destination for the thrill-thirsty. Here’s the lowdown on your options.
Dubai is quickly becoming the theme park hub of the Middle East © Bas Thuys / EyeEm / Getty Images
Best park for adrenalin junkies: IMG Worlds of Adventure
Whack! Pow! Boom! Bing! Like a comic strip bursting to life, the world’s largest indoor theme park is a cacophonous plunge into the realm of superheroes, dinosaurs and ghouls. The brainchild of Emirati entrepreneurs Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari (IMG), the park’s four zones deliver an enticing jumble of rides and attractions ranging from mild to wild. Superheroes rule the thrill-packed Marvel zone, where you can become part of a Thor vs Loki showdown on a lunch-losing top-spin ride, or help Spider-Man save New York on a spiralling roller coaster.
The pre-teen set can get in on the action in the Cartoon Network area by fighting an evil robot with the Powerpuff Girls or cheering on Ben 10 in a 5D cinema enhanced by smell and touch. Unique to IMG is the dino-centric Lost Valley, a Jurassic land populated by dozens of fantastically detailed animatronic lizards and prowling specimens that you can pose with. Its top ride, the stomach-churning ‘Velociraptor’, blasts you from prehistoric jungle into the blinding Dubai sunlight and back. The park’s most popular attraction, though, is the walk-through ‘Haunted Hotel’, where live ghosts and zombies scare the bejesus out of anyone who dares to check in. It’s the highlight of the central IMG Boulevard, which also pulls in chill-seekers with refreshments and souvenirs.
Hollywood meets rollercoaster at Motiongate Dubai © Tomasz Ganclerz / Shutterstock
Best park for film buffs: Motiongate Dubai
Dubbed ‘Hollywood in the Desert’, DPR’s Motiongate has more than two dozen rides, attractions and live shows inspired by classic and new blockbuster films, and grouped into zones named for the movie studios that created them. Just past the reel entrance gate is the fairly low-key Columbia Pictures area, where you can become a ghostbuster, board the ‘Green Hornet’ rollercoaster and tour the spooky Hotel Transylvania. The heart of the park is the indoor DreamWorks zone starring the studio’s most beloved animated characters from Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. This is also where you’ll find the white-knuckle ‘Madagascar: Hot Pursuit’ rollercoaster, although speed junkies also gravitate to the even scarier ‘Capital Bullet Train’. The latter is in the Lionsgate zone, which is entirely themed around the studio’s Hunger Games franchise. Little ones drift over to the adorable Smurfs Village where diversions include play areas, a live show and an easygoing rollercoaster.
Celebrate the best of Indian cinema at Dubai's Bollywood Parks © riyas.net / Shutterstock
Best park for high-energy spectacle: Bollywood Parks
It’s perhaps a tad ironic that the world’s only theme park celebrating India’s famous movie industry is in Dubai and not Mumbai. But even if you’ve never watched Dabangg, Sholay or Krrish, you can still get a kick out of the attractions based on these and other Bollywood blockbusters. Budget about half a day for this family-friendly DPR park with its plethora of action-packed 3D and 4D motion rides. Top draws include ‘Don: The Chase’, where you race around Dubai to hunt down a crafty mafia boss, and ‘Sholay: The Hunt for Gabbar Singh’, a dark ride that has you aiming a laser gun at nasty villains. The visuals and special effects are great, but don’t expect too much in terms of plotline. The park is especially strong when it comes to live entertainment, such as its explosive stunt show, flamboyant song and dance performances, and a lavish musical extravaganza presented in the palatial Rajmahal Theater (separate tickets required).
If you have kids in tow, Legoland Dubai is an essential stop © Umar Shariff / Shutterstock
Best all-rounder for kids: Legoland Dubai
The latest entry in the Legoland empire has 40 rides and attractions spread across six themed lands – Factory, Lego City, Imagination, Kingdoms, Adventure and Miniland – that are squarely aimed at entertaining pre-teens. You won’t find any white-knuckle rides at this DPR park, just gentle ones like the charming ‘Dragon’ that coasts through a medieval castle or the ‘Submarine Adventure’ that delivers close-ups of sharks and coral. There’s also plenty of interactive stuff, especially in Lego City where kids can earn their drivers’ license, pilot a plane and put out a fire. Grown-ups, meanwhile, are especially enchanted by Miniland, where more than 20 million Lego bricks replicate local landmarks like the Burj Khalifa and such regional wonders as Petra and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. You’ll need at least a full day for the park, two if you add in a visit to the adjacent water park.
Legoland Water Park is a laid-back introduction to Dubai's liquid playgrounds © riyas.net / Shutterstock
Best water park for kids: Legoland Water Park
The newest kid on Dubai’s block of watery adventure zones, DPR’s Legoland Water Park rubs shoulders with its dry cousin Legoland Dubai and is tailor-made for families with little tots. With its 20 raft, tube and body slides, a gnarly wave pool and a lazy river ride negotiated in a Lego raft you have built yourself, it’s smaller and gentler than some of Dubai’s older liquid playgrounds but still easily offers a full day of fun. Among the biggest hits are ‘Twin Chasers’, a side-by-side slide where you can race dad or sis, and the ‘Splash Out’ slide with its 18m drop.
Wild Wadi Waterpark was Dubai's first and still one of its best © Maremagnum / Getty Images
Best water park for adults: Wild Wadi Waterpark
Dubai’s first aquapark has lured water rats since 1999 and packs plenty of fun into a fairly compact frame. Its 30 rides and attractions are loosely themed around the adventures of Juha, a character from Arabic folklore. Little ones can keep cool in ‘Juha’s Dhow and Lagoon’, a play structure with more than 100 activities, while hardcore thrill-seekers should rev up their courage for the aptly named ‘Jumeirah Sceirah’ slide, the ‘Master Blaster’ watery rollercoaster and the ‘Wipeout Flowrider’ surfing wave. Add a beach, a lazy river and bonus views of the iconic Burj Al Arab into the mix and you’ve got all the ingredients for a splashingly good time.
Brave the Tower of Neptune at Aquaventure Waterpark © Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock
Best park for thrill-seekers: Aquaventure Waterpark
The designers of this massive palm-dotted park on Palm Jumeirah have calculated how to plunge, zoom, hurtle, churn, catapult and pummel you in innovative and wicked ways. Nervous nellies need not apply to take the epic ‘Leap of Faith’ down a near-vertical acrylic tube into a shark-infested lagoon. The slide is the top draw on the ziggurat-shaped Tower of Neptune, while the nearby Tower of Poseidon is famous as the launch pad of the serpentine ‘Aquaconda’ that has you slithering through a dark and twisting tunnel on the world’s largest diameter raft slide. For little kids, a splash zone has oodles of easy slides, water cannons and tipping buckets to elicit hours of happy squeals. Overall, though, this park is more geared towards teens and grown-ups.
Tips on buying tickets
Dubai’s theme parks don’t come cheap, but there are ways to ease the pain by buying tickets online, checking the park’s website for special promotions, buying multi-day passes or taking advantage of seasonal discounts (usually in summer, but beware of the heat!). Some hotels include park admission in their room rates. Checking into the Lapita Hotel, for instance, comes with unlimited access to all four DPR parks, while rates at Atlantis The Palm include admission to Aquaventure. Guests of any hotel affiliated with the Jumeirah group (including Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Al Qasr Hotel and Mina A’Salam) can make unlimited visits to Wild Wadi Waterpark.