With a striking setting close to Riyadh, Qiddiya is one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest giga-projects. Following the announcement last August of a partnership with Six Flags, Blooloop talks to two of the executives delivering this and other theme park experiences.
Expected to open in 2023, the 32-hectare Six Flags Qiddiya, set against the Tuwaiq mountain range, will be the largest and most heavily themed Six Flags yet.
Qiddiya is described as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) pre-eminent entertainment, sports and arts destination. The 334 square kilometre site will comprise a 231 square kilometre natural area as well as a 103 square kilometre developed area.
Larger than Walt Disney World, the developed area will be divided into five zones: Resort Core, City Centre, Motion Zone, Eco Zone & Golf Community. Six Flags Qiddiya will be found in the Resort Core.
Phase I will also include a water-themed park filled with rides, shows, attractions, sporting elements and a fully integrated resort hotel. “It will be a water park unlike anything you have seen anywhere in the world,” says Don Potts, Qiddiya’s President of Parks & Attractions.
In addition, the destination will feature a ‘speed park’ with race circuits, showrooms, retail, a driver’s club and luxury hotel. The motorsports venue will apparently place equal emphasis on spectator and driver. Partners for this and the water park will be revealed at a later date.
Start your engines
Backed by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, the Qiddiya Investment Company has ambitions for the site to become the motorsports capital of the world. It already enjoyed a moment in the spotlight on 17 January, when it hosted the final podium celebrations for the 2020 Dakar Rally. This included a 20 km Qiddiya Grand Prix and a closing ceremony featuring projection mapping onto the Tuwaiq mountainside.
The rust coloured backdrop to Qiddiya is breathtaking and the whole site is being constructed with “careful consideration to the natural patterns that have been etched on the site throughout history.”
Perched on the clifftop will be an indoor concert arena, outdoor stadium and luxury housing. There will be road access to all areas of the site and various transportation modes to move people around.
Further facilities planned in phase I (in 2023) include a performing arts complex, a retail, dining and entertainment (RD&E) district and two golf courses. The plans also show that there is room for a further theme park in future phases.
The masterplan for the site was created by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) from Denmark. A second phase from 2024-26 will be followed by the third phase from 2027-30. All this is in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. This aims to create a vibrant society, a thriving economy and ambitious nation.
By 2030, Qiddiya hopes to attract an annual attendance of 17 million in the entertainment area alone. The wider resort is expected to contribute SAR 17 billion ($4.5 billion) to the Kingdom’s GDP.
Opened in December, an on-site office serves as the base for Qiddiya’s development team of more than 150 people. Last year, a headcount showed citizens of 19 countries on board. By 2023, Qiddiya will directly employ approximately 17,000 team members, rising to 25,000 by 2030.
In September, the first 60 Qiddiya scholarship students began studies at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Their scholarships, offered in co-operation with Saudi’s General Entertainment Authority, include job training at Six Flags parks in the US.
11 months into his Parks & Attractions role at Qiddiya, Don Potts brings with him four decades of industry experience. This includes 13 years as Senior Vice-President of Operations at Universal Studios Florida, as well as executive positions at Picsolve and Orange Lake Resorts. As part of the leadership team at Qiddiya, he works closely with CEO Michael Reininger (ex-Disney).
It was in his Universal days that Potts first worked with Brian Machamer, who was appointed President of Six Flags Qiddiya in November. “We spent 10 years together at Universal Studios Florida and on the expansion of the Universal Orlando resort that took place in the late 90s.”
Six Flags Qiddiya
During a career lasting over a quarter of a century, Machamer went on to oversee theme park developments in Singapore, Malaysia and the UAE, for Genting as well as Dubai Parks and Resorts. Prior to starting with Six Flags, he spent seven months in Saudi at NEOM, another giga-project allied to Vision 2030.
His induction to the world’s largest regional theme park operator included a two-week trip to the United States. “In Texas, where our corporate office is located, I got to meet with Mike Spanos, Six Flags’ new CEO who had just taken over from Jim Reid-Anderson. At the IAAPA convention in Orlando, I spent time with all the vendors we will be working with during the development of Six Flags Qiddiya.”
During his time in the States, Machamer also visited a pair of parks in Texas, plus two more in California. “Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio is a bit of a model for the park at Qiddiya from a baseline standard. So it was good to see that park, as well as Six Flags Magic Mountain, one of the bigger parks in the group and very coaster orientated.”
The most fully-themed Six Flags park to date
So how will Saudi Arabia’s own Six Flags park look? Most of the company’s US properties are amusement parks first, with theming second. However, this will be the first completely themed Six Flags park, inspired by the diverse regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Arabian peninsula. A masterplan and concepts for the park have already been prepared by FORREC and the Thinkwell Group.
“Six Flags Qiddiya will have a huge range of indoor and outdoor attractions so that it will be possible to enjoy the park all year round,” says Machamer. “The design process resulted in a meticulously considered arrangement. This complements the epic natural landscape and encourages discovery, trial and enjoyment.“
“We have to be careful not to put everything inside a box,” says Machamer, mindful perhaps of the limited number of entertainment options enjoyed by Saudi citizens to date. These are mainly shopping malls, restaurants and family entertainment centres.
Despite the desert location, the climate is different from Dubai. “The big difference is that when the sun goes down you don’t have that high humidity. We will have fans, misters and all that stuff. But part of going to a theme park, in my opinion, is all about having that outdoor experience. In this region, from October to April, everyone wants to be outdoors.”
Hot weather (and hotter events)
There are approximately 100 days a year when Riyadh is particularly hot (up to 45°C/113°F during daylight). During this period, the opening hours will be adjusted. This will allow the park to escape the heat. In addition, the hours will also to reflect the local culture, which becomes more nocturnal in the height of summer.
To stimulate tourism in Saudi Arabia, a series of special events linked to ‘seasons’ are being promoted around the Kingdom. The timing of these varies according to their location. The two-month-long Riyadh Season finished in mid-December. Machamer was excited by one event in particular.
“You know Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park? They basically did that same model here in Riyadh. It started in October but just got extended until March. I’ve gone a couple of times off-peak and, even on a weeknight, the lines are packed.
“It’s all outdoor attractions, mostly thrill rides. It’s fantastic and gives me a really good feeling about what we are developing at Six Flags Qiddiya. Our park will be on a whole different level. But the market should be really educated about those kinds of attractions by the time we open in 2023.”
These entertainment seasons, coupled with a new tourist visa programme (cheaper and easier to secure than the previous options), have already had a significant impact on foreign visitation to Saudi Arabia.
International tourist potential
Around 350,000 online tourist visas were issued in the last three months of 2019, according to a tourism official quoted by The Saudi Gazette.
“What we have seen over the past few months is very encouraging for a destination resort like Qiddiya,” says Potts. “There is pent up demand. We will also have plenty of event type venues. We are starting to question if some of those venues will be big enough.”
“Our primary audience will absolutely be Saudis, starting with Riyadh. Then we will have the secondary market of international visitors.
Because we have the hotels, I think we are going to have a robust Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday daytime business. [As with other Arab nations, the Saudi working week runs Sunday to Thursday]. But it looks like there’s also going to be a bigger out of country presence than we initially thought.”
The size of the local population provides Potts with some ammunition against the cynics. It’s one of the reasons, he says, why Qiddiya will be different to some ambitious resort developments elsewhere in the Middle East.
A market thirsty for entertainment
“Our primary market is the 33 million+ people of Saudi Arabia,” says Potts. “That includes 8 million on our doorstep in Riyadh, many of whom have been leaving the country to gain access to entertainment opportunities.
“His Royal Highness, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has a mandate to create entertainment and hospitality for his citizens. They want it, they enjoy it, so they will have it. As word spreads, we expect increasing numbers from across the region and overseas.”
There’s something else that makes Qiddiya’s plans feasible. “There’s this thing called funding and available capital,” says Potts. “We are fortunate to have very passionate ‘parents’ who are very encouraging and have this funding available.”
Whilst Six Flags has ended its agreement with DXB Entertainments at Dubai Parks and Resorts, and there is now a question mark over its plans in China with the Riverside Group, it’s a different story at Qiddiya.
“I think we have got a lot of resilience in our plan,” says Machamer. “Six Flags is the largest regional theme park operator in the world. This is our model, right? This is no different to a park out of Chicago or Los Angeles.”
Thrills for all the family at Six Flags Qiddiya
Local demographics make Six Flags a particularly suitable theme park partner, says Potts. “They’re a great fit since 67 per cent of Saudis are 35 or younger. So you’ve got a bunch of millennials and under, who are having kids that are going to be three years older by the time the park is open.
“Six Flags Qiddiya will be a family-orientated park with something for everyone. But it will definitely be geared towards the younger crowd. Our research shows that Saudis like thrills and they like to go fast.”
The park will feature 29 rides and attractions spread over six themed lands. These are City of Thrills, Discovery Springs, Steam Town, Twilight Gardens, Valley of Fortune and Grand Exposition.
All rides and manufacturers have been selected and announcements will be made in due course. “It’s all the usual suspects in the industry that do this around the world,” says Potts. “You are not going to be surprised by any of them.”
Surprise, perhaps not. But Six Flags Qiddiya is setting out to impress. The park’s signature attraction – Falcon’s Flight – will be the tallest, longest and fastest roller coaster in the world.
“You’ve probably seen the video,” says Machamer. “The visuals that you see, the coaster going up the cliff face; that’s all happening. There’s already been geotechnical testing and analysis of the cliffs.”
The Kingdom’s emerging entertainment community
Qiddiya is one of four giga-projects supported by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund. The other three are Amaala, NEOM and the Red Sea Project. They may vary in scope, location and content, but there is some cross-pollination, as Potts explains.
“Many of the board members are on more than one project. There’s a bunch of project guys and ex-pats like Brian and I that have come on board. Inevitably, we end up at a lot of the same events. Is there a formal brains trust that meets once a week? No, but we all fight the good fight together.”
In addition to these developments, there are also several smaller projects, still worth millions and billions, planned around the Kingdom. So is there really enough expertise and construction capacity to build it all?
“If we flipped the switch today, the answer would be no,” says Potts. “However, there is a strong supply of Saudi and regional construction expertise and we are tapping it.”
A construction hot spot
Such giga-projects are stimulating the Saudi construction sector, suggest figures from the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council. For the first nine months of 2019, the value of construction contracts rose 117 per cent year-on-year to 87.2 billion riyals (US$23.3bn).
“We have 42 assets under design right now at Qiddiya. We are also looking at international contractors to assist us,” says Potts. “Many of these companies already have offices here in Saudi or the UAE. And a lot are expanding on the basis of what’s going on. Is it going to be a dynamic opportunity to manage? Absolutely. But from a project and a business operations standpoint, I like to think we’ve got the best of the best-assembled here.”
As well as meeting targets regarding the number of Saudi citizens that will be employed at Qiddiya, its developer hopes to create a local entertainment industry ecosystem.
“Look at what Disney did back in the day with Walt Disney World Orlando,” says Potts. “They had to build their own infrastructure. From supply shops to painting, lighting, accommodation; none of that stuff existed previously. But now they are outsourcing because a community has built up around that destination. We fully expect the same thing to happen at Qiddiya.”
Parks and transportation
It is anticipated an upgraded transport infrastructure will make connectivity easier in Riyadh and beyond. At present, the car is king in the Saudi capital. In normal traffic, Qiddiya will be reachable in about half an hour from downtown, or 45 minutes from King Khalid International Airport.
However, the city will soon launch a new Metro system. This is set to be the largest urban rail project outside China, with 176 km of elevated and underground track. It will eventually include a line out to Qiddiya.
Alongside casual visitors and destination tourists, it is anticipated that residents of Qiddiya will be one of main client groups for the resort’s parks and attractions.
Five hotels, to suit a range of budgets, are planned by 2030. There will also be a residential portfolio of villas, multi-family apartments and istrahas (vacation homes), for both sale and rent. But which will have the best views of Six Flags Qiddiya?