The new SeaWorld theme park which opens in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday will be home to the world’s largest LED screen according to Holovis, the British business behind the cylindrical-shaped 227 meter display.
The complex in Abu Dhabi is the first new SeaWorld park from the NYSE-listed leisure operator in 35 years and it is its first-ever international expansion. It is also the company’s first indoor theme park and is the only one which isn’t home to killer whales. Its counterparts in the United States became famous for their Orcas and also attracted anger from activists for this. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is charting a new course for the company by showcasing its conservation work and putting an emphasis on cutting edge attractions.
It has deep pockets as the 183,000 square meter park is owned by the Abu Dhabi government’s leisure operator Miral. At an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, the park is part of a strategy to reduce the reliance of the local economy on its oil reserves. “It is about improving the tourism sector of Abu Dhabi and, of course, above that, it is about the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy,” says Miral’s chief executive Mohamed Al Zaabi. “This will be the next generation of SeaWorld.” It is no exaggeration.
Anyone who has visited SeaWorld’s parks in the US knows that they have a more rustic appearance than their rivals from Disney or Universal Studios. There’s no gleaming globe at the entrance, just a street which looks like it would be at home in the Florida Keys. Stores are set inside quaint-looking houses with porticoes and pastel-colored clapboard sidings. Instead of being neatly cropped, trees hang over many of the twisting paths in the parks making it seem like they have been carved out of the countryside.
Navigating the parks can often be an adventure in itself with guests often coming across attractions by chance rather than planning out a schedule in advance which is what is required to make the most of a day at Disney World.
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi takes this essential ethos and gives it the same kind of gloss you would usually find at Disney or Universal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the central hub where guests can access the rest of the park. Called One Ocean, a term SeaWorld has used in its storytelling since 2014, the hub looks like an underwater cave with rocky arches marking the entrances to the park’s eight realms (it wouldn’t make sense to call them ‘lands’ in SeaWorld).
A five-metre LED sphere is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the hub and looks like a water droplet which has fallen from above. Completing this theme, a cylindrical LED wraps around the entire room and shows underwater scenes to give guests the impression that they are in the depths of the ocean.
“The main screen there is currently the biggest LED screen in the world,” says James Lodder, integrated engineering director at Holovis, one of the world’s leading experiential design firms. The company was responsible for the immersive AV installations in the ground-breaking Mission Ferrari attraction at the neighbouring Ferrari World park and has also worked with other industry giants including Universal and Merlin.
“There’s a hub and spoke design to SeaWorld Abu Dhabi and in the middle they’ve got One Ocean which is a giant plaza. It’s a circular plaza at 70 metres across and from there, you can get to any of the other realms. So, it’s like your central hub of the park and there’s a bunch of cafes and animal exhibits and some scientific stuff. But our LED screen is a giant cylinder that runs around the entire perimeter and it starts five meters above the ground, so just above the cafes, and it runs to 21 meters above the ground. It’s 227 meters in width and perimeter. So it’s absolutely enormous. It’s 5 millimeter pixel pitch and that’s a custom product that we put together.”
Guinness shows that the record for the world’s largest high-definition video screen dates back to 2009 and is an LED display in Beijing which measures 250 meters x 30 meters. However, Guinness stresses that it is actually composed of five (still extremely large) screens that are arranged in a line to produce one continuous image. In contrast, the screen in SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is a single unit formed from an LED mesh. It serves an important purpose.
“We went with a perforated screen. It’s acoustically transparent and there’s two reasons for this,” explains Lodder. “One is that we didn’t want this to feel like an indoor swimming pool. So with all the hard surfaces, if you’re standing in the middle of a circle, you can imagine it would echo back at you. As a visitor, that would be slightly unnerving. It’s not what you want in a relaxing family kind of environment. So we only have about 22% openness in the perforation but that lets enough sound energy through that the acoustic foam, the absorptive foam that’s stuck to the wall behind it, will take enough energy out to kill the reverb. So, it completely changes the feel of being in the room.”
In traditional movie theater environments, perforated screens are used in conjunction with speakers mounted behind the screen surface in order to localize the delivery of sound and Lodder says this too was a driving force. “The second reason, of course, is that we can hide our speakers behind the screen. We’ve got 10 big d&b audiotechnik hangs in the back.” They come into its own at the end of the day.
The night time spectacular, which was also created by Holovis, takes place in the hub rather than outdoors with fireworks as it is so hot in Abu Dhabi that temperatures can get close to 100 degrees, even at night. “At the big end of the day spectacular you’ll be in that One Ocean hub in the center of the park where the audio system kicks off and the story plays out on the screen with 140 drones that launch and join in. They’re synchronized to the media. We have a 5 meter diameter LED sphere hung in the middle of the roof. It’s a 5 millimeter pixel pitch LED. The same pixel pitch as the main screen and Holovis created the content for that as well. The globe is a sphere so there’s a technical side to the rendering of the content.”
He adds that “we have subcontracted the drone programming. We have supplied and installed all of the location antennas, all of the cabling configuration, all of the mapping and we always make sure there’s a representative there. There will be 140 drones in the air. There’s an extra few dozen in the fleet but there’s 140 in the air. I’d love to think that once people see it, and feedback starts coming in, maybe we could add another 140.”
Lodder says that the screen was originally due to be powered by projectors but this would have meant that the lights in the hub would have needed to be dimmed for guests to enjoy the show.
“We showed Miral that by switching to LED, we could maintain the same resolution and the same colour space, but we could increase the light levels by a factor of 50. This means you can raise the overall ambient lighting in the space. When I’m there with my kids in the pushchairs and I want to see their faces, or I’m there with friends and I want to have a shared experience together, I want the light to be bright. I want it to be a nice, airy, big space and the LED is so good that even in that very bright space, it’ll always punch through.
“For me, the thing we really delivered on was the guest experience. But how did we do it? Well, firstly, we have the biggest screen in the world. Then there’s the LED screen rather than projectors and the ambient light. Then there’s the globe, the drones and the audio system. And the whole thing comes together.
“Instead of being there in a sort of cinema environment, where everything is very focused on the video, it’s a sort of friends and family environment and we focused on the shared experience. The video is there, and it looks great, but it’s behind you, it’s not the centre of attention. Your family is the centre of attention.” That really is a happy ending.
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