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Dubai Parks & Resorts: Steve Shaiken on a Step Change in Theme Park Development

Steve Shaiken has had a remarkable career working for the biggest names in the attractions and leisure industry.  He has recently been appointed as a non-executive director to the Board of Dubai Parks and Resorts – a project that will see the opening, in October 2016, of the Middle East’s largest multi-themed leisure and entertainment destination.

Blooloop spoke to him about his exciting move as well as his career to date.

The Rise of The Mega Theme Park

“When you strive for excellence then you have the opportunity to achieve the best.”

Shaiken’s early career was spent with Marriott in travel retail.  Although he worked primarily in the company’s duty free business, Shaiken reflects that his early experience at Marriott has proved invaluable over the years.

“I think that was a really wonderful place for me to begin to understand what the travelling consumer wanted, even back in the 70s, when we were probably not as focused on experiential traveling, retail or food service.

“Working for Marriott, I think, was one of the most immersive and best educations that anyone could have in any business segment. This is because Marriott, while they want you to be a specialist in your chosen field, also encourage their employees to learn about other areas of the business so that you become a strong generalist and can cross function within the organisation.  I think that is a valuable lesson to learn so that you can be a more collaborative executive.” The Steve Shaiken Interview

In 1990, Shaiken moved on to Universal where he worked on the pre-opening of Universal Studios Orlando.

“My journey with Universal was phenomenal.  I quickly learned that consumer needs are no different regardless of where they are travelling to or visiting.  I think that the major difference for me was working for a studio, an entertainment business.  The pace was energetic and there really was no time or room for error.  Execution had to be outstanding from the very first attempt and if it wasn’t we very quickly learnt how to fix it!

The Steve Shaken Interview“I remember in one of my annual reviews my direct boss said ‘failure is not an option’!  He borrowed that from a movie, but if one word could sum up what the expectation was for Universal then it was ‘excellence’.  So you always strove for excellence and I believe that I have taken that into everything that I have done.  When you strive for excellence then you have the opportunity to achieve the best.”

After a brief move to Las Vegas with Hilton, Shaiken returned to Universal in 1999 to a more global role, rising to the position of Senior Vice President Global Retail.

Shaiken was not only involved with the opening of Universal Studios Japan – who are currently building Universal Studios Beijing, but also with Universal Florida Islands of Adventure, Universal Hollywood and Puerto Aventura, as well as serving as Acting President of Universal owned company Spencer Gifts.

“It was a very active time, but a lot of fun and very gratifying knowing that the chairman, Tom Williams, trusted me implicitly and permitted me to do the job the way I saw fit.  Certainly he was always there for counsel, but he allowed me to do my job and I in turn believed that I would be successful.”

After leaving Universal for high profile roles at the Smithsonian Institution and then Royal Caribbean, Shaiken took the plunge and set up his own consultancy.  His client list reads like a Who’s Who of the leisure industry including Universal, Disney Cruise Lines, SeaWorld, Sandals and Herschend.

Shaiken says that his seven years as a consultant have been “the greatest years that I can ever recall, ” with his wide range of clients having “broadened my experience base to such an extent that it surprises me.”

His success as a consultant has been as a result of Shaiken’s determination to thoroughly get involved in his clients’ businesses.

The Steve Shaiken Interview“I make absolutely certain that before any company engages me they understand that I want to be immersed.  I think that’s what has made my consultancy so interesting and enjoyable – these companies have seen that I enjoy being immersed and being part of an organisation – I consulted for Sea World for almost a year – that’s a long time.”

And there are benefits to getting so involved:

“I’ve learned a lot along the way – one of the things that I’ve learned is to be a really good listener to people who are younger than I am.  All too often people who retire and become consultants think that everyone else is wrong and that they are the only ones that are right, and that’s so far from the truth!  It’s incumbent on us to listen and learn; that’s how we stay vital and relevant in the business we’re in.  These ‘young folk’ in their 30s and 40s are very articulate.  Most of the people I’ve encountered are willing to listen and learn and I also was willing to teach and I love that, it’s one of the greatest parts of doing it.  So it’s been a journey and a fun one and I feel fortunate and blessed.”

Dubai Parks and Resorts – “a unique and forward-looking concept.”

Motiongate Dubai Parks and Resorts

In December 2014, Dubai Parks and Resorts announced that Shaiken had been appointed as one of two non-Executive Directors [the other being Dennis Gilbert] on the company’s board.

Shaiken says, “We are the ‘two expats’ and we are being looked to for our background and expertise and for our advice, both consulting and mentoring.  They have been unbelievably embracing and absolutely incredible to us and we are very excited to be joining such a unique and forward-looking concept.”

Dubai Tourism Vision 2020 

Dubai Parks and Resorts Aerial View

Dubai Parks and Resorts PJSC, is a key element of the region’s master plan of positioning Dubai as a major global tourist destination. The goal of the Dubai Tourism Vision 2020 is to attract 20 million tourists to Dubai by 2020 and given that the region occupies a  geographically ‘prime location’ – an often quoted statistic is that 3 billion people live within a 4 hour flight of Dubai, the goal appears achievable for such an ambitious nation.

The 2014 UN Tourism Highlights Report anticipated that the Middle East will be the fastest growing region for inbound tourism in the world, with visitor numbers expected to reach 149 million in 2030 compared to 52 million in 2013.  In 2014 Dubai was the fifth most visited city in the world with 35 million passengers moving through its airports. With the World Expo heading to Dubai in 2020, there will be a push for further investment in tourism and the infrastructure to support it.  $10bn is earmarked for improvements in transportation infrastructure before 2020. Dubai Parks & Resorts is a key part of Dubai Parks and Resorts logobringing to life the leadership’s vision of positioning Dubai as a formidable global tourist destination.

Shaiken has been impressed by the energy and ambition of Dubai: “I had never been to Dubai prior to September when they interviewed me to be a board member.  I was astonished – it is an energetic country that is focused on their next generations.  What’s intriguing about this part of the world is how it’s changing.  They’re wise enough to realise that in order to capture repeat visitation into the country and consequently into the parks then it has to be new and fresh and they are committed to that.” 

Partnerships Shaiken comments that from the start he saw how the management team at Dubai Parks and Resorts were willing to bring in the best expertise in order to ensure success.  He says, “They have amassed a phenomenal team of theme park experts.  They are looking to us for a variety of things, whether it is our knowledge in compliance or purchase or operating.  They have hired as much expertise as possible, and the industry’s best talents, so that this opens flawlessly… They’ve gone out and found the best of the best.”

Dubai Parks and Resorts has licensed globally recognised brands to ensure it will appeal to a wide demographic.  It is also developing and will manage its theme parks and hotel with leading global contractors and operators to de-risk the project.

In addition, the company has signed a MoU with Emirates airline to look at the potential for marketing co-ordination and destination management.  A second MoU with Etisalat, the UAE’s leading telecommunications services provider will enable the destination to provide smart technologies and a seamless digital experience for visitors.

Dubai Parks and Resorts – Phase 1

Dubai Parks and Resorts MasterPlan Pahse 1

Set for completion in October 2016, Dubai Parks & Resorts will be the first company in the world to open simultaneously three theme parks at once. The first phase of the Dubai Parks and Resorts will comprises the three theme parks – motiongate™ Dubai, LEGOLAND® Dubai and Bollywood Parks™ Dubai. A grand entrance plaza – Riverland, will have its own retail, dining and entertainment options whilst an on-site Polynesian themed family hotel – Lapita, will cater for travellers and residents looking for a getaway in a fun-filled environment. World renowned operators will manage the parks and attractions including Merlin Entertainments, Parques Reunidos, and Marriott.

The resort will covers 25 million square feet and include 73 different attractions that will see the best of the East and the West brought together in one offering.  Visitor numbers by 2017 are projected to be 6.7 million with significant growth expected over the following four-year period.

motiongate™ Dubai (AED 2.5bn capex)

The motiongate™ theme park, which will be targeted at a wide demographic, is based on DreamWorks and Sony Pictures IP and will be run by operator Parques Reunidos. Shaiken comments on the Hollywood movie inspired destination, “motiongate™ is going to be great!  I just applaud everything they’ve done because they have this fabulous vison of what this is going to be and everyone shares the passion, enthusiasm and the drive to make it happen.  It reminds me of the early days of Universal – we all had a single vision that we were going to open an extraordinary movie park, and with motiongate I feel the same way.” 

Attractions at Motiongate Dubai re IPO

Source: Dubai Parks and Resorts PJSC Prospectus, 17 November 2014

LEGOLAND® Dubai (AED 1.0bn capex) 

LEGOLAND® Dubai will be the seventh LEGOLAND® in the world. It will be aimed at 2 to 12 year olds and their families and operated by Merlin Entertainments.  Shaiken says, “LEGOLAND® speaks for itself, it is truly a global brand that, regardless what language someone speaks, every child can understand.” 

Attractions at LEGOLAND Dubai,  Dubai Parks & Resorts


Bollywood Parks™ Dubai (AED 1.4bn capex) 

Bollywood Land Dubai Parks and ResortsBollywood Parks™ is a first-of-its-kind family-oriented theme park leveraging the popularity of the Bollywood Indian film industry brand.  The park is targeted across different generations to appeal in particular to the Central Asian demographic.  (It’s worth noting that Bollywood movies sell 3 billion tickets a year compared to 1.3 billion tickets sold in North America.)   The park will be operated by Parques Reunidos.

Shaiken thinks that Bollywood Parks™ will be the surprise hit of the resort: “I believe this is the sleeper of the group.  I think that it’s going to be astonishingly successful because of the genre.”

Attractions and Bollywood Park,  Dubai Parks and Resorts


Lapita (AED 0.7bn capex)

Lapital Hotel,  Dubai Parks and Resorts

The 503 room Lapita hotel will have a Polynesian theme and three separate villas.  Marriott will manage the hotel under its Autograph Collection brand.

Having previous inside knowledge of Marriott, Shaiken says that the hotel will be “beautiful … What I’m particularly taken with is the level of detail in the design and the excellence that they are so committed to achieving.” 


The projected capital expenditure for the project is AED 10.5bn, mainly in 2015 and 2016.  Construction, infrastructure and land costs are the largest elements of this spend at AED 5.8bn, AED 2.9bn and AED 0.9bn respectively. Financing for the development comes from three sources: bank loans of AED 4.2bn, Meeras share capital including land of AED 3.8bn and an IPO which raised AED 2.5bn.

Dubai Parks and Resorts went to market in December 2014.  The IPO on the Dubai Financial Market was oversubscribed by institutional investors by 65 times.  40% of the IPO was reserved for UAE investors.  Although the share price dropped by 9% the day after its debut, the weakness in the Dubai market due to the falling price of oil is not anticipated to hinder the project’s progress and the share price has since levelled out.


Hill International - Dubai Parks and Resorts Progress

As part of the strategy long lead items were ordered well in advance so components such as electricity sub-stations and district cooling plants are significantly advanced.  Almost all rides have been procured and ride parts may start to get Legoland Dubai,  Dubai Parks and Resortsdelivered in Q2, 2015. Companies engaged to date include Gensler, Forrec, Laing O’Rourke, ARCO General Contracting, Hill International, Samsung C&T and Cumming.

The company is also set to generate thousands of jobs and economic benefits; a workforce of over 2, 500 is currently on site, with these numbers set to increase to 6, 500 by the end of 2015.

“Dubai Parks and Resorts is what the world needs to look at for the next generation”

Aside from the everyday challenges in co-ordinating the construction of a mega theme park, Shaiken thinks that an interesting problem for the future could be how Dubai Parks and Resorts will handle rapid increase in attendance.  “I really believe that the challenge is going to be that their growth is going to happen quicker than for a traditional business.  As the pre-marketing and the hype gets out they’re going to be looking at expansion reasonably quickly.  This is the new kid on the block.  I don’t call it a bad problem I call it a good problem!”

Shaiken is positive that Dubai Parks and Resorts will be a success and mark a step change in theme park development for the region and beyond: “I firmly believe that Dubai Parks and Resorts is what the world needs to look at for the next generation.”

Images: Dubai Parks and Resorts, Hill International

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