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Anheuser-Busch launches multipark venture in Dubai

The complex in the Middle East will consist of four parks and be shaped like Shamu.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2008

Four Busch theme parks are planned for this Shamu-shaped island in a 5-mile string of fill islands off Dubai.
[Busch Entertainment Group]
[Getty Images]
Sea World and Aquatica theme parks would be the first to open in 2012 on the man-made, palm-tree-shaped island (background, top left) in the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai.

ORLANDO - Imagine Busch Gardens, Sea World and the Discovery Cove and Aquatica water parks all in one spot.

Now imagine that nearly 300-acre spot being in Dubai, on the world's largest man-made island, shaped like Shamu, that caps a string of fill islands stretching 5 miles across that, from the air, looks like a palm tree.

That's the multibillion-dollar vision Anheuser-Busch Co. and developers from oil-rich Dubai World unveiled Thursday.

"We have been very picky about where to launch our first venture overseas, and we're convinced we found the right partners and the right place," said Jim Atchison, chief operating officer of Busch Entertainment Corp. of Orlando, the brewing giant's theme park unit that includes Busch Gardens in Tampa.

In outlining the vision, project managers conjured up memories of what such global tourist magnets as Orlando and Las Vegas looked like 40 years ago.

"This will be the crowning glory of a complete city in a modern metropolis within a four-hour flight of 1.4-billion people," said Marwan Al-Qanzi, managing director of the project for Dubai World's Nakheel.

Busch is putting up no money to be a player. But it signed off on a license and management deal that will make its parks the drawing card of a massive tourist mecca mushrooming from the desert in Dubai and emerging on land pumped up nearby in the Persian Gulf.

Developers chose the palm shape for the islands to maximize the amount of beachfront.

It's the latest development for Dubai, which boasts the world's tallest building and hotel, and biggest man-made harbor.

Sea World and Aquatica would open in 2012. Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove, which offers guests a chance to swim with dolphins, would come after that in an unspecified year. The parks are destined for Jebel Ali, the second set of what will be a series of palm-shaped fill islands created offshore at Dubai, the most bustling of the seven United Arab Emirates. Jebel Ali is designed to have 15,000 hotel rooms, shopping malls and a resident population of 280,000 by 2020.

Dubai World recently also invested more than $1.6-billion in the $4-billion City Center megaresort/condo/mall/casino under construction in Las Vegas.

Busch, which reached the design stage before being aced out by Universal Studios in its first international expansion into Spain in the 1990s, thus joins the rush of big U.S. theme park brands expanding to new megaresorts in other countries.

In Dubai, Busch follows rival Universal, which recently announced a park 5 miles inland, and a Trump resort, a permanent Cirque du Soleil theater and a massive Atlantis Resort under construction.

Busch's development partner is privately held Nakheel, a development arm of Dubai World that's controlled by ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Nakheel, one of three major developers in Dubai, has $80-billion worth of projects under way or in the pipeline.

Dubai World also has a stake in a business called DP World, a company whose 2006 expansion gave it temporary control of contracts to manage some U.S. ports, including Tampa's. After U.S. security concerns were raised, DP World said it would sell those U.S. port operations.

In Dubai, the government envisions a massive desert playground for the Mideast, more than tripling its current population to 4-million by 2020. The emirate attracted 7-million tourists in 2007, almost twice as many as Pinellas County, and is forecast to draw 15-million by 2015.

In overseas expansion, Walt Disney Co., which invented the modern-day theme park in 1955, has led the charge.

Disney now has multipark resorts in Florida, California, France and Japan, and opened in a single park that has struggled in Hong Kong. It is reportedly scouting sites in Australia again.

Universal operates a joint venture park in Japan, has another under construction in Singapore and is expected to open in South Korea in 2012. Universal dissolved its partnership for Port Aventura in Spain.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

Why Dubai?

- Wealth: Lots of oil money.

- Entertainment: Free-trade zone at the crossroads of the seven emirates is a business and leisure hub of the Mideast.

- Development: The government led by prime minister and ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is spending tens of billions transforming bustling Dubai city into a world-class trade and tourism hub.

- Growth: Population should triple to 4-million, annual tourism double to 15-million by 2015.

Why not more here?

- Slow growth: With attendance flat again in 2007, American theme parks see their immediate future as adding attractions to keep domestic audiences coming back.

- Diversification: During domestic lulls, they are turning overseas to new megacities emerging as vacation playgrounds for the growing middle classes in developing nations.

- Competition: Many Americans have seen what parks offer, but it's all fresh overseas.

[Last modified February 28, 2008, 23:06:04]

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