When searching for a way to cool off during the summer months, thoughts usually turn to water. Unfortunately, the sea is beginning to resemble a hot bath, and while the temperature-regulated pools in apartment blocks are all well and good, they lack that special something when it comes to keeping us entertained. Fortunately, there are plenty of waterparks in the UAE, where the water always feels cooler and there’s far more fun to be had. We’ve visited five of the best, including new-kid-on-the-block Wadi Adventure, which requires skills rather than rubber rings, and old favourites such as Dreamland for a day out that’s both fun and relaxing in equal measure.
Visited them all? Hold out for the new waterpark under development on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island: this new Dhs606 million project is slated to open towards the end of the year, and will include more than 40 rides and attractions. Until then, make the most of the UAE’s best H20-heavy playgrounds for kids and big kids alike. To help you choose, we’ve rated them by the length of their queues, number of rides and size of the lifeguard squads as well as the added extras. It’s a long summer ahead, so plenty of time to try them all.
Holly Sands tries white-water rafting at the new adventure park in sunny Al Ain.
As the Middle East’s first man-made white-water rafting, kayaking and surfing spot, Wadi Adventure offers something very different to the rest of the UAE’s water-oriented leisure destinations. There are no rides, slides or lazy rivers here, which explains why the management don’t like it being referred to as a waterpark (in fairness, it’s the only place we visited where we were made to watch a safety briefing before we hit the changing rooms). It’s about an hour and 45 minutes from Dubai by car (make that three hours if you find yourself hopelessly confused by Al Ain’s many roundabouts), and I’ve opted to pay a visit to try my hand at
white-water rafting. Strolling past the surfing pool (where waves reach heights of up to 3.3 metres) and the vertiginous ‘air park’ adventure course, which combines a climbing wall, high-rope course, zip line and falling swing (harnesses included, phew) I arrive at the rafting and kayaking runs. First up is the safety DVD: white-water rafting poses dangers and there is the potential to injure yourself, but I’m told this risk will be minimised if I follow the instructions.
After a quick change into swimwear and some old trainers (essential, as you’ll be using your feet to hold yourself in the raft), I’m strapped into a helmet and life jacket. There are two instructors in the raft, and before we set off on the easier blue run we practise paddling together. (Note: make sure you go with friends – the instructors can be a little surly.) There are three white-water runs of varying intensity, with a combined length of 1.13km. The blue run proves to be very gentle, and we paddle the full length without incident – I’m grateful for the relaxed practice run. Once we return to the holding pool, it’s time to get out of the raft and carry it across to the start of the black run – which, as the name infers, is the toughest of the three.
Unfortunately, we’re behind a couple of kayaks and I’m in a raft full of people whose sole aim seems to be to flip their vessel. As we shoot over and bounce down the rapids, there are a couple of occasions when I have to quickly pull my oar up to avoid hitting the dinghy in front. As we navigate the first big drop, I slip off the side and into the centre of the boat, then struggle to get back into a rhythm and maintain my balance when I haul myself back up.
If you’re planning a visit, try to go on weekdays if you have the time, as we’re told the centre gets extremely busy on weekends. The park is open late during the week (until 11pm), so a post-work trip should be possible for most. Yes, it’s a bit of a drive, but there’s nowhere else you can brave white-water rafting, a zip line and three-metre waves in one visit. Just make sure you have plenty of friends along for the ride.
General admission Dhs100 (adults), Dhs50 (children). Surf pool Dhs100 for 55 minutes; kayaking Dhs100 per day; white-water rafting Dhs100 for 90 minutes; climbing wall Dhs40 for 20 minutes; air park and zip line Dhs50 per day; giant swing Dhs25 per ride. Lessons available. Lockers Dhs25, towels Dhs20. Open Sun, Tue-Wed noon-11pm; Thu noon-midnight; Fri noon-midnight (surf sessions 9am-noon); Sat noon-11pm (family swim morning 9am-noon). Al Ain, www.wadiadventure.ae (03 781 8422).
Four more to try…
Showpiece rides: The attraction here is the Leap of Faith, a 27.5m vertical plummet that shoots riders through a shark tank (albeit enclosed inside a Perspex tube).
Total number of rides: Seven, plus a huge lazy river, although aside from the Leap of Faith they’re all tube-based rides and don’t really have much to differentiate them from each other – they all feature varying twists, turns, dips and dark sections. Many of the rides are linked to the lazy river by ingenious aquatic conveyor belts, so you don’t even need to get out of your rubber ring.
Queues: The queues are entirely dependent on the time of day you visit. Arrive when the park opens at 10am and you’ll never have to wait more than five minutes; turn up post-3pm and you could well be queuing for more than half an hour. That said, the queuing system is orderly – no queue jumpers here.
Other facilities: The park is spotlessly clean, boasting a huge beach, aquarium, plenty of cafés and restaurants (many of which are licensed), a kids’ area, dolphin experiences and even diving (the latter two for an extra charge). For an extra Dhs50 guests can also tour Atlantis’s Lost Chambers aquarium.
Well attended? There are lifeguards every 10 metres or so on each ride, so you always feel safe and well looked after.
Best for… The VIP experience. Grab a few mates and hire a private cabana (from Dhs650), giving you an exclusive roped-off area complete with loungers, beanbags, a hammock, shaded seating and waiter service.
Dhs210 (adults), Dhs165 (kids less than 1.2m tall), free for kids below 1.2m. UAE resident rate Dhs140; Dhs115 for kids (ID required). Open daily 10am-sundown. Atlantis The Palm (04 426 0000).
Dreamland Aqua Park
Showpiece rides: There are several: raft ride, wave pool (the largest in the region), Twisting Dragons (three intertwined water tubes that are pitch black inside), Kamikazi slides (very steep, very fast), the Twister
(a huge bowl that swishes you round and drops you out the bottom), the Dreamstream (a lazy river), the Slam Dunk pool (for water ball games) and three family play pools.
Total number of rides: Nine, excluding the children’s activity pool areas, which feature smaller slides, tubes, tipping buckets, squirty things and even a volcano.
Queues: The park gets busy on Fridays, but even so the rides are well managed and you don’t have to wait long for your turn.
Other facilities: There are two poolside cafés serving fast food, a licensed bar and café beside the lazy river, two restaurants – the Taj Mahal (Asian) and Atlantis (international) – and a shisha/coffee bar. There’s also a mini zoo, an amusement arcade (which we’ve never known to be open), a swimwear shop and a small grocery store. You can even camp overnight at Dreamland, either in an air-conditioned cabana (from Dhs390 per person) or in a tent (from Dhs325). The packages include an evening barbecue, breakfast and two-day entry to the waterpark, and Dreamland is offering 40 percent off until Sunday July 15.
Well attended? At any one time there are up to five lifeguards attending the family activity pools, as well two guards on every ride (one at the top and one at the bottom).
Best for: Although Dreamland seems to attract a mixed bunch, families make up the bulk of the crowds.
Dhs135 (adults) Dhs85 (children); free for kids under two. Open daily 10am-7pm. Umm Al Quwain: take the Sharjah Bypass Road through Ajman and follow the signs to Dreamland Aqua Park approximately an hour’s drive from Dubai. www.dreamlandaquapark.com (06 768 1888).
Showpiece rides: Mount Tempest, where you can race your mates to the bottom while being flung through the air on the way down. There’s also Mount Attack for the brave (or stupid): breathe in, shut your
eyes and go for it! All the while you’re surrounded by fake mountains and a plethora of plastic penguins.
Total number of rides: 20.
Queues: Considering we visited on a Friday, the queues weren’t too bad, but do expect a short wait on the more family-friendly rides.
Other facilities: Aqua soccer is worth a try. You play football in your bare feet while being gently cooled down by sprays of water: every World Cup should be played this way. The usual fast-food fare is available, plus Kids’ Cove has shallow waters for little ones to enjoy. The downside is that there are few places to relax and sunbathe – the park would benefit from some green areas.
Well attended? The lifeguards aren’t particularly visible and the ride attendants could do with having a little more banter (like the chatty folk at Wild Wadi), instead of just pushing you down the flume. Organisation also seems a little slack: we had to wait several times for more rubber rings to be sent up to the rides.
Best for: Kids and young adults. The rides go from the very slow and tame to ‘OMG’ fast and scary.
Dhs150 adults, Dhs100 children below 1.2m tall. Open Thu, Sat 10am-7pm; Sun-Wed, Fri 10am-6pm. Ras Al Khaimah, www.icelandwaterpark.com (07 206 7888).
Showpiece rides: The park’s main attraction, Jumeirah Sceirah, has closed to make way for a new showpiece slide, details of which we’re told will be announced after summer. Until then, we’re the ones queuing up for the Burj Surj and Tantrum Alley for the 15th time.
Total number of rides: 24.
Queues: Get to the park before 11am and you won’t queue for longer than 10 minutes. Arrive in the afternoon and you should expect to wait 30 minutes just to get in, and more than an hour for each ride.
Other facilities: Get your toes nibbled by toothless garra rufa fish at the Fisho Spa, where the helpful fish eat dead skin from the feet, leaving them exfoliated and smooth. Wild Wadi features a good range of fast-food stalls, drinks stands and ice cream vendors, or book a Wadi Cabana for VIP luxury. There’s also a ladies-only night from 8pm until 1am on Thursdays and Fridays until August (just Thursdays during Ramadan). Food can be on the expensive side, with fast-food meals for Dhs50 and a plate of watermelon for Dhs30. You’ll also have to fork out Dhs25 for a locker.
Well attended? You will never be in the water and out of view of at least one lifeguard (and often as many as four or five). There are more than 150 on duty throughout the park at any one time.
Best for… Kids and bigger kids: Wild Wadi is a fun-packed day for kids, parents and non-parents alike.
Dhs215 (adults), Dhs175 (children under 1.1m), Dhs180 (sundowner pass two hours before park closing), Dhs145 (sundowner pass for children under 1.1m). Open daily 10am-8pm, Jumeirah Beach Road,
www.wildwadi.com (04 348 4444).
Essential kit for a wet ’n’ wild day out
Capture the plashes with this waterproof Canon PowerShot D20, in stores later this month, which has underwater features, takes full-length movies and comes with an optional 40m waterproof case.
DhsTBC. Canon, The Dubai Mall (04 339 9171).
Keep track of how long it takes to plummet down the slides with this modern water-resistant timepiece.
Dhs525. Nooka, available at Wrist, The Dubai Mall (04 330 8171).
Remember to stay hydrated with this hot-pink, retro-inspired refillable water bottle.
Dhs129. Juicy Couture, various locations including Mall of the Emirates (04 341 1445).
The waterpark designer
We quiz Wild Wadi design director Simon Crisp about what it takes to put together a waterpark
As an architect, how do you get into waterpark design? Is there a special course you have to take?
Not particularly – it’s just about imagination, and then being able to backfill your ideas with the appropriate engineers and specialists to bring it to life. Having come up with a concept for Wild Wadi, we went off to have a look at state-of-the-art places like Blizzard Beach in the US. We wanted to try to create a waterpark that was the equivalent, or better, than anything in America, and to do that we had to create a concept that was Arabian.
How long did it take to design one ride?
They were all designed together. We had a dozen or so original rides planned in terms of routes, and the specialists would come up with fibreglass chute designs. We started designing it at the beginning of 1996, and finished construction on June 1 1999.
What was unique at the time?
Wild Wadi was the first time anyone had used an ‘uphill ride’ outside North America, and it helped to avoid queuing outside the water. So instead of having to climb steps, you get blasted up.
What’s the biggest challenge with designing a waterpark?
The biggest challenge is making it so interesting and different that guests want to come back.
Do you get to test your handiwork before anyone else?
Oh yes. There are some stories, but I can’t tell you those here...
What are your favourite slides here?
I was sorry to see the Jumeirah Sceirah go, because it was very frightening – maybe too frightening. [Laughs] They’re getting more footfall for the new rides, and I think it will continue to be successful.