Andrew Mellor takes a closer look at one of the Middle East’s most celebrated amusement parks.

Located in the ‘Oasis City’ of Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates, Hili Fun City amusement park opened in 1985 after a three year construction period and was the first venue of its kind in the Gulf, targeting visitors from across the region, the emirates and neighbouring Oman.

Al Ain is a ‘lush green’ oasis city located approximately 160km east of the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi, and 140km south of Dubai. Situated at the foot of the Hajar mountain range, Al Ain’s reputation as the ‘Garden City’ is due to the 10,000 hectares of green land that make up its parks and gardens.

Translated to mean ‘The Spring,’ Al Ain is the second largest city in the emirate of Abu Dhabi and the birthplace of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father and first president of the United Arab Emirates.

The city is steeped in history and home to some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the country, many of which are on display at the Al Ain National Museum. It also features a wide range of shopping malls and entertainment venues, such as the Al Ain Zoo, and hosts some of the UAE’s most acclaimed annual events, including the Al Ain Aerobatic Show held at the Al Ain International Airport.

The park, owned by the Al Ain Municipality, covers an area of 85 hectares, which includes two sections for the park – a renovated area of 20 hectares and an area to be redeveloped of 45 hectares – plus an Olympic size ice rink, back of house area and staff accommodation. It currently employs 140 members of staff, six of whom have completed 25 years working in the park.

Following its opening, when some of the major rides included a looping coaster, Octopus, Big Wheel, bumper cars and Paratrooper, the park’s first large expansion project came in 1987 with the addition of the aforementioned ice rink and a peak of 34 rides and attractions was reached in the mid 1990s.

Some of those that were added during this time included an Intamin Flying Dutchman in 1986 (refurbished in 2011); a Dynamic Motion Theatre from Intamin/Showscan in 1991, now the 3D Action Cinema; a Vekoma Sky Flyer, also in 1991 (refurbished in 2009); an Ali Baba and Safari from Zamperla in 1993 (refurbished in 2009); and the Flying Clowns from Italian Amusement Products in the same year (also refurbished in 2009).

But as the years went by time began to take its toll on the park and its attractions, many of which were often closed for maintenance, with the result that attendance numbers dropped. A renovation plan was needed and the park’s saviour came in the shape of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), a master developer of major tourism and cultural destinations in Abu Dhabi, which was given the task or resurrecting the park’s fortunes.

TDIC was appointed to redevelop Hili Fun City in 2009 and work on phase 1A of the redevelopment programme lasted for just over three months, during which time the venue was closed. It was re-opened in November of that year, for Eid Al Fitr, with 21 fully renovated attractions and the addition of seven new rides.

Phase one of the redevelopment programme, which concentrated on the west side of the site, was completed in September 2010 with the full renovation of all facilities, the moving of eight attractions from the east to the west side of the park and further enhancement of the park’s landscaping, including the addition of 30,000 new plants and 250 new palm trees. Also at this time, TDIC became the operator of the park.

The park now has a total of 31 attractions, ranging from thrill rides for teenagers and young adults to family coasters and more sedate rides for younger visitors and their families, in addition to a 1,400 seat amphitheatre and a 3D Action Cinema. Three of the original attractions in the park have been completely renovated and re-opened, namely the Crazy Marina and Sinbad’s Farm with new electric vehicles, while the Amphitheatre has also been the subject of much renovation work and now hosts live shows on three evenings during the week.

Also renovated were two restaurants, 30 retail (which are leased) and games kiosks, all toilet blocks and the lake area. The Flying Dutchman ride was recently refurbished and painted in new vibrant colours of purple and yellow, while a new family game, the Al Ain Derby, was also installed near the Crazy Marina.

The new rides which made their debut when the park reopened in November 2009 included four children’s attractions, the Circus Swing, Circus Train and Crazy Clown from SBF/Visa and the Jumping Star from Zamperla, as well as three family attractions, namely the Hili Swinger, Lighthouse and Twister Mountain, all from Zamperla. Picnic and BBQ areas have also been the subject of renovation work and new picnic tables have been introduced, while low fencing has been added around the green areas to protect the park’s lush vegetation.

A new entrance area with four ticketing windows has also been added in the west side of the park to provide better access for visitors and the perimeter fence has been refurbished and repainted. The completion of phase one of the refurbishment also resolved a number of issues relating to safety, cleanliness, service, security and quality and all the work carried out has been done to international health and safety standards.

Phase 1B of the park’s transformation began in January 2010 and was completed in September of the same year. This included additional landscaping improvements, as well as work on the car parking area. April 2010 saw the completion of the renovation of Sinbad’s Farm and the 3D Action Cinema, while new skill games, remote controlled boats and decorative elements at the Circus Train, Sinbad’s Farm and Safari were also installed in the fall of 2010.

Hili Fun City holds a variety of events during the year, in addition to hosting different performers, in particular at weekends. The park also works hard in relation to the environment and sustainability and has done much to ensure the conservation of water and power. For example, more than 5,000sq.m of artificial grass has been installed to decrease the consumption of irrigation water, while the irrigation of green areas is now undertaken through the use of various methods that conserve water.

Recycling bins for glass, cans and plastics have been introduced to encourage visitors to recycle waste and since April 2010, more than 200 park benches made of 100 per cent recycled plastic from the UAE have been installed in the park.

The popular antique cars have been replaced with new environmentally friendly electric tractors from SBF/Visa and new electric bumper boats have also been introduced at Crazy Marina, these coming from Euro Games. Wherever possible, existing lighting has been replaced by LED lamps, which consume less electricity.

Admission to the park and access to all its attractions and facilities is based on a pay-one-price system, the cost being AED45 (US$12.25), with the exception of Mondays and Tuesdays when it is AED 40 (US$10.88). Admission is free for children of 0.89m and below.

Visitors can also now purchase a 2012 annual pass for the park, which provides unlimited access to Hili Fun City. The cost for an annual pass is AED200 (US$54.44) for one person, family passes are AED1,000 (US$272.24) for a family of six, with each additional person being AED100(US$27.22). A ladies annual pass costs AED100 (US$27.22) and is valid on Wednesdays only, when the park is open for ladies only.

An additional ticket offer has also been operating from January 15 to March 31, in the shape of a ‘combo’ ticket which gives families access to both Hili Fun City and Al Ain Zoo at a discounted price.

The next phase of the renovation work will include the addition of more new rides on the east side of the park and is due for completion in 2014. And the work is clearly having the desired effect on visitor numbers with attendance growing each year due to the new attractions, and currently standing at over 305,000. The highest annual attendance at the park was back in the late 1990s when it reached almost 400,000.

With the redevelopment and refurbishment that is taking place there seems no reason why such numbers cannot be reached again and maybe surpassed in the future.