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Making a splash in the gulf

It has only been open a month but already it’s got more than 50,000 Facebook fans. Mark Hansford finds out why the people of Abu Dhabi are going mad for a water park.


Yas Waterworld: Tourism revenue is key to Abu Dhabi’s 30 year plan

There cannot be many instances where the opening of a few waterslides can be heralded as a significant macro-economic move for an entire country. But that’s exactly the case with Yas Waterworld, a kind of slide n’ splash meets Disney World for the people of Abu Dhabi.

“The brief was for this to create the best waterpark in the world, and I would say that was spot on as it gave us flexibility to introduce a number of world firsts”

Kevin Johnson, Atkins

The water park opened last month and is already going down a storm, with more than 50,000 likes on Facebook and visitor numbers easily meeting expectations of 6,000 a day. It takes some getting your head around as Abu Dhabi is, after all, a conservative, Muslim country where public displays of flesh are largely frowned on. It is also a country where the relentless heat makes standing around in the sun with your torso exposed inadvisable.

It all sounds a bit frivolous and daft, and sounds dafter still when those behind it put its opening up there alongside the restarting of construction of the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi and the unveiling of the city’s new central business district as key to the oilrich Emirate’s future prosperity.


Planning: Effective sequencing of construction work was vital

But it’s true; the £105M Yas Waterworld is a key output in Abu Dhabi’s 30-year plan that aims to move its economy away from oil and towards the more sustainable finance and tourism sectors. Specific areas or precincts have been identified for specific activities. The Louvre is now under construction in the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island; the new Central Business District is about to open on Suwwah Island, and Yas Waterworld now joins the Yas Marina race track and Ferrari World as key draws to the Recreation and Leisure District on Yas Island. Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is highly structured. “While all precincts in the city are mixed use, in certain of them a characteristic economic activity predominates,” it says. “Without going too far down the road of over specialisation, the special character of certain precincts should be developed and brought out, such as the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, and the Recreation and Leisure District on Yas Island.”


Project timeline

  • December 2009: Atkins invited to make an expression of interest along with six other companies
  • January 2010: Design competition launched. Atkins invited to submit technical and financial proposals for the project, along with three other companies
  • Mid-February 2010: Design competition closed
  • End February 2010: Atkins appointed
  • March 2010: Detailed design and theming begins
  • December 2010: Design and theming completed
  • March 2011: Main contractor ALEC appointed
  • April 2011: Construction begins
  • February 2013: Park opens


And if special character is what Abu Dhabi’s rulers wanted, special character is what they’ve got. “The brief was for this to create the best water park in the world, and I would say that was spot on as it gave us flexibility to introduce a number of world firsts and to look at really spectacular theming,” enthuses Atkins design manager Kevin Johnson to an assorted collection of local and international trade journalists, brought together to witness the park first hand.

Four of the rides are currently unique to Yas. The longest - the 550m long Bandit Bomber - is the longest suspended roller coaster in the Middle East and the world’s first rollercoaster to incorporate on-board water and laser special effects. The Bandit Bomber is important as it marks Yas’s evolution from purely water-based park to an adventure attraction complete with interactive rollercoasters.

Building the park has been an intense experience since Atkins was awarded the design contract in February 2010 after a “challenging” selection process run by client Aldar.

“The big engineering challenge here was to have the right people. Without that you are going to end up with substandard quality”

Madhi Samhouri, Atkins

A rapid 10 month design process ensued, before tenders could be invited and contractor Al Jaber LEGT Engineering & Contracting (ALEC) was appointed in February 2011.


Key feature: The slides radiate from the crag housing Dana’s Pearl

Two years of detailed 3D design and construction supervision then followed before the 11ha site and its 43 rides, slides and attractions was ready for its eager audience.

And throughout, a fictional story drawing together the diverse attractions was key. “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,” says Johnson.

Atkins designer Kate Lockey agrees the story is vital. “A key focus for me was to ensure that the vision and storyline we promised our client back at the bid stage was maintained during the build and the design aesthetics retained throughout,” she says.

As a result, a story has been developed around Dana’s missing pearl as a central feature of the park. The pearl is on top of a crag - well, a cunningly disguised reinforced concrete and steel tower - and then all the ride platforms come off that.


Who’s who

  • Project developer: Aldar Properties
  • Main contractor: Al Jaber LEGT Engineering & Contracting (ALEC)
  • Project manager and operator: Farah Leisure Parks Management, a wholly owned subsidiary of Aldar
  • Architecture, design and theming: Atkins
  • Pools and aquatic engineering: Water Technology
  • Equipment: Neptune Benson, Herborner Pumpenfabrik, Siemens, Omniticket Network, Agilysys, Water Safety Products, The Lifeguard Store, RaveSports, WaterWars, and Grosfillex
  • Rides and slides: Whitewater West Industries, Wave Loch, Vekoma Rides Manufacturing and ProSlide Technology

The rides themselves are designed by their manufacturers, although Atkins designed the ride path for the rollercoaster that sweeps through the park. “Everything was done in 3D,” notes Johnson. “There is no way we could understand the complexity of this park without it, especially as it’s all about views and vistas.”

This is also evident in the structures. Atkins was asked to reflect traditional Emirati architecture in Waterworld’s design. A key objective was to remain honest to the architecture, while introducing light-hearted elements of over-sized structures and colour.

“If you actually look at the evolving Emirati architecture, it’s not a specific language like baroque because it’s a series of interpretations,” explains Johnson. “But you can boil it down to the skeleton. Buildings tend to be made of plain rendered walls based on coral stone. They have simple features. They tend to be square, rectangular or a circle. They are always covered in shade. They allow wind to blow through but not the sun to penetrate. So if you then follow through a descriptive language of understanding the principal factors of Emirati architecture, you can recreate it.”

The technical challenges of creating the water park were demanding. The many rides and complicated special eff ects required sophisticated bespoke design as the 55.2km of pipework and 20.2km of cabling had to be located almost entirely underground to prevent interference with rides or with the visitors’ enjoyment of the park.


Attraction: The park includes water slides and rides

So with those guiding principles, construction progressed under the watchful eye of Atkins senior resident engineer Madhi Samhouri. Because, as ever in the Emirates, a keen eye on construction quality is needed. “The big engineering challenge here was to have the right people. Without that you are going to end up with substandard quality. That was a big challenge from day one,” he says. “Many systems are interlaced with each other, and all equipment effects other equipment.”

Packages of work were given to a variety of sub-contractors, but there would be some crossover of elements. For example, aged timber details appear in many places around the site, and it was imperative that all the timber looked the same. With different subcontractors providing timber, great control was applied to ensure that there was similarity throughout the site.

Effective sequencing of construction work was also vital. In some cases rides had to be installed before theming, but in others, the theming had to be completed before the ride could be installed.

Getting all the mechanical and electrical equipment - pumps mainly - ready for systems testing was the second big challenge. “Pumps have long lead times when it comes to manufacture,” Hadri notes. Designing and installing the water distribution system also required 3D modelling. “The critical point is the pipework, and pumps have to be designed in 3D or else when you start construction you have clashes everywhere,” he says.

With most of this pipework installed in deep trenches, the third challenge on site was health and safety - something not always top of the agenda in the Middle East.

“We have deep trenches and a lot of working at height,” says Hadri. “Working at height was very much a concern as there was a lot of welding on site. We had only one lost time injury and that was minor.”

Atkins has courted controversy in the Middle East before with its Dubai snowdome and is keen to stress that key sustainability strategies have been built into the project. These include native, low water use landscaping, a subsurface irrigation strategy to minimise evaporation loss, reduced evaporation rates from pools and rides through intelligent design and shading, and even the placing the central crag complex in such an orientation as to maximise the shading eff ect on pools below.

A strategy for diverting more than 60% of constructional and operational waste from landfill is also in place, with building insulation and minimal glazing yielding signifi cant savings in air conditioning loads. An onsite chlorine generation system reduces the cost and energy of regular chlorine delivery.

And an advanced building management system (BMS) allows full control of 90% of the rides’ aquatic systems and enables the operator to continuously and remotely monitor the project water supply and discharge. This advanced BMS allows early identification of unforeseen pool leaks and controls energy consumption in a flexible and efficient manner.

But all that’s in the background. What it’s really about is the rides and that theming. And for that, the last word has to go to Johnson.

“For me, it’s all about the guest experience,” he enthuses. “And not just on the amazing rides. At every turn on their journey around the park they will experience incredible theming and spectacular views.” So far, 50,000- plus Emeratis agree.

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