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Disney's new competition -- Dubai

Disney's new competition -- Dubai

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It's everywhere - you just don't know it yet.

Perhaps you heard about an indoor ski mountain that opened there last weekend.  Or maybe you recall last month when Michael Jackson was visiting and he walked into a shopping mall ladies room 'by mistake'. You might not have even known that it's where Bill Clinton was speaking when he called invading Iraq "a big mistake".

The City of Dubai keeps popping up in the news left and right.  It's slowly found its way onto the radar, but it's still not a household name ... yet.

Even if you have heard of it, you might not realize is that Dubai is going to be Disney's strongest competition for international tourism in the next decade.

Euro Disney skimped on building the half-formed Disney Studios in 2002 and has met with underwhelming results ever since.  Attendance for the fiscal year 2005 (ending September 30) dropped from last year, and revenues from the Disney Village shopping and dining complex (their version of Downtown Disney) fell 3%.

Meanwhile on the other side of the globe Hong Kong Disneyland, which just opened on September 12th, has already had to offer discounted prices for local residents.  Shades of the California Adventure failure, anyone?

Where are European tourists going?  The Australians?  Middle Easterners?  What has caught their eyes more than Hong Kong's half a Magic Kingdom (With no "it's a small world"?  No "Pirates of the Caribbean"?  No Frontierland?!?) or the hardly expanded Disneyland Resort Paris?

How about a city with themed hotels, legitimate wonders of the world, more shopping that you can know what to do with, internationally-renowned golf course, golden beaches and more five-star hotel rooms than three- and four-star rooms added together?

Can you tell I just visited Dubai over Thanksgiving?  I'm sure it's fairly transparent.  I'm pretty hyped on it right now.  But more than anything I was completely amazed at how this place really has out-Disneyed Disney.  More than Las Vegas in the mid-1990s when they were still angling for the family crowd, Dubai is the next Disney. The most incredible part is that they're only getting started.

Backtrack - the history.  Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula, right next to Saudi Arabia and Oman, across the Persian Gulf from Iran.  And although the American perception is the Middle East's a scary or dangerous place, that's not the case in Dubai.  I swear that they have more Dunkin Donuts than Boston does.  It's home to every fast food place from Pizza Hut to Round Table Pizza.  Heck, one mall there has THREE Starbucks!  This is not a culture that hates Americans (although give them a generation or two raised on McDonalds and then we'll talk.)

Probably (before the Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton things) Dubai was best known as the home to that sail-shaped hotel.  You know, the one you see on the Travel Channel every once in a while?  It's the Burj al Arab, or "Burj" for short, and the media has had a field day with it since the opening in 1999.  It's the world's tallest hotel. It's got an underwater restaurant, and real 24 carat gold furnishings and fittings.  Even though technically it's not possible, the Burj is rated seven stars.  And at night it's lit up with colored lights - switching from blue to purple to pink ... not unlike a certain castle I know in Central Florida ... 

 Of course, the Burj at night is best viewed from the Madinat Jumeirah, an oceanside resort hotel and mall that's themed as an Ancient Arabian city.  There's a nice winding man-made river running through the impeccably landscaped foliage, next to restaurants and coffee shops.  And on a autumn night when a warm wind comes off the ocean, well, it feels like many nights I've spent alongside the World Showcase Lagoon ... again in Central Florida.  But instead of looking up to a brilliantly lit up oversized golf ball, I'm looking up to a brilliantly lit up oversized sail ...

I don't mean to be glib and boil down an entire society to several jokey Walt Disney World references.  In fact, part of the wonder of Dubai is that the experience is not just a twenty minute movie that leads you into a dark ride that then empties into a well-themed gift shop.  For all of its Disney facade (of which it has plenty) it also is a real city.  Down by the Creek at night there are neon lights, stray cats, people smoking flavored tobacco out of hookahs and those stereotypical marketplaces where the vendors say things like, "Pretty shawl for the pretty lady ..."

Dubai is just that, a society of contrasts.  East meets West, modern city and ancient desert, old world charm and 7 star hospitality.  The kind of place where you have camel racing on one side of town, and the world's only indoor black diamond ski slope on the other, all while it's 110 degrees fahrenheit outside. 

 But the city is aiming for more.  Constantly more.  The government predicts that 15 million visitors will come to Dubai annually by 2010, about three times the current number.  And I don't doubt it at all.  The construction on the horizon in Dubai is staggering. Literally, the horizon is staggering.  I counted around fifty skyscrapers being built at once in the Marina section of town.  Just one section of town.  It's said that roughly 22 percent of the world's supply of construction cranes are in Dubai right now.   And I believe it.

But they're not just building buildings.  They're creating experiences.  Take the indoor ski mountain, Ski Dubai.  While it's not the first (apparently there are over a dozen other indoor ski parks in the world, who knew?)  it does boast the world's first indoor Black Diamond expert trail.  Located in the Mall of the Emirates, a kind of Mall of America centerpiece to an already shopping-centered town, Ski Dubai opened last Friday to glowing results.

The mountain will have five different slopes of varying difficulty when the entire complex is open, covering three football fields of trails.  That may not sound impressive, but when the average low for the month of January is in the high 50s, well, then you're talking. The entire building is cooled to 17 degrees overnight, when 30 tons of snow are made.  During the day the park is kept at just under freezing, to make sure the snow doesn't melt, but also to not offend the no doubt somewhat temperature sensitive locals. 

 The whole experience will cost around $30 for a two-hour ticket, which also includes rentals of skis/snowboard and all of the hats, gloves and warm-weather clothing associated with the sport.

Doesn't this sound like something Disney would do?  I can totally picture this next to Blizzard Beach in Florida or perhaps in the Timon parking lot next to California Adventure in Anaheim.  Well, it actually sounds too epic and expensive for the recent slate of Disney-owned Disney theme parks (2001's California Adventure, 2002's Disney Studios in Paris or 2005's Hong Kong Disneyland).  Maybe something the Oriental Land Company would do at the Disney parks they own - Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea.

Anyway, beyond Ski Dubai and the Mall of the Emirates, the Ibn Battuta Mall (where Michael Jackson was confused by the rest room signage), the Burj al Arab resort, the Madinat Jumeirah resort there are a few other projects I'll get to next week.  Islands in the shape of palm trees, islands in the shape of the seven continents, man made surf reefs, the world's tallest building, and just what is Dubailand? Stay tuned!
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