Saudi Arabia Theme Park
Saudi Arabia is making best use of its landscape to reset its tourism industry. Theme parks will be a big part of that change. Image Credit: Supplied

Riyadh: After a year of anxiety and ennui, are you ready for a good scream?

When it opens as the flagship attraction for Saudi Arabia's forthcoming Six Flags Qiddiya in 2023, the death-defying Falcon's Flight coaster will send riders down a 160-meter vertical cliff, through an illuminated tunnel, and around a series of corkscrews and inversions -all at a top speed of 250 kph.

The ride, currently under construction, will be the fastest, tallest, and longest freestanding coaster in the world, making Saudi Arabia a site for thrill-seekers too.

Reworking its tourism gameplan

This is just one way the Middle Eastern country is pushing for tourism visibility. After opening its doors to international visitors in 2019, Saudi Arabia has been busy developing a cruise industry, courting luxury hotel brands to build projects among its stunning natural landscapes, and revising rules such as strict dress codes that could make foreign visitors feel unwelcome. In all, it hopes that tourism will account for as much as 10 per cent of its gross domestic product by 2030.

The riders return... but with all the precautionary gear of these pandemic times. A scene from the Moonraker ride at Lagoon Amusement Park in Utah.

Time to build

But the Saudis are hardly the only ones betting that travelers will be hankering for some primal screams as soon as the pandemic subsides. Around the world, theme parks have been using indefinite closures as an opportunity to build new attention-grabbing attractions that might eventually boost their limping revenue.

That's already resulted in the 460-foot Bollywood Sky Flyer, crowned as the tallest swing ride in the world when it opened in early February at Bollywood Parks Dubai. Milton D'Souza, the general manager of the theme park, has said the ride is the first in a series of record-breaking rides to come this year; others will include the tallest Ferris wheel in the world (measuring 688 feet, it will exceed the height of Seattle's Space Needle) and the first wooden coaster in the Middle East, modeled after a Mumbai rickshaw.

In Beijing, a new theme park from Universal will tentatively open in May. A replica of Orlando's beloved Incredible Hulk coaster will anchor its Transformers Metrobase-themed land, complete with its hair-raising zero-g barrel rolls.

Packing in more

Then there's the Dragon Slayer, a new ride putting Adventureland Resort - in Altoon, Iowa - on the map. Its unique "free spin" seats add nauseating layers of disorientation to an otherwise straightforward track, rotating unpredictably along a series of twists and inversions.

And back in Florida, the world's theme park capital, an additional record will soon be set: Iron Gwazi, the new steel-and-wood thriller opening later this year at Busch Gardens in Tampa, will be the world's steepest and fastest hybrid coaster, with a 200-foot drop and 76 mph speeds.

No immediate rush

While most still-shuttered parks hope to resume operations in the coming months, social distancing requirements will remain in place for the foreseeable future, capping attendance at a fraction of 2019 levels. For intrepid visitors used to multi-hour waits for a single ride, that's significant.

Brian Roberts, who oversees Universal's theme parks as chairman, says he expects 70 per cent capacity by the end of the year, citing pent-up demand and what he expects to be a swift rate of vaccinations.

Perhaps that's why, for now, his rivals at California's Disneyland have limited their operations to a single, of-the-moment thrill: COVID-19 fighting inoculations are currently being dispensed to 7,000 California residents daily at the Toy Story parking lot.