As I was handed protective goggles and strapped into the Formula Rossa rollercoaster at Abu Dhabi’s newly opened Ferrari World theme park, my knuckles were already white. As befits a ride designed to simulate the experience of driving a Formula One car, it eschews discombobulating loops and corkscrews in favour of speed. Raw, eye-watering speed.
The vain hope that my fears were overdone was swiftly dashed as the rollercoaster accelerated from standstill to a gut-wrenching 60mph in two seconds. In only 4.9 seconds, the ride had reached its top speed of 150mph, and the primal screams of its passengers rang out in the warm Arabian evening.
The rollercoaster, the fastest in the world, is the signature ride of the 86,000 sq m Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park and a joint venture between the Italian carmaker and Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. One of the richest states in the world, Abu Dhabi is ploughing billions of petrodollars into a series of developments aimed at transforming itself into a hub for high-end tourism, competing with neighbouring Dubai.
Abu Dhabi plans to spend about $40bn on luxury hotels, marinas, racetracks and other attractions on Yas Island, the site of Ferrari World. The nearby Saadiyat Island has been earmarked for art and culture, with $27bn worth of building projects, including spin-offs of the Louvre museum and the Guggenheim.
Abu Dhabi is aiming for a 15 per cent annual increase in tourists with a target of 2.3m by the end of 2012, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Apart from the nearby Yas Marina F1 circuit, which will next weekend host the final leg of the F1 world championships in mid-November, the cavernous Ferrari World is the first major attraction to open here.
From a distance, the theme park resembles a gargantuan beached red whale, due to the 200,000 sq m crimson rooftop canopy that ensures indoor temperatures can be kept comfortable even during the searing Gulf summer.
The 20 attractions range from the mundane – the Enzo Ferrari piazza features a bizarre, grindingly slow ride through fake Italian countryside in miniature – to the terrifying, such as the G-Force “tower of speed” and some rattlingly realistic racing simulators.
Given the number of Ferrari cars and prancing horse logos dotted around the park, it seems more like the world’s largest car showroom than a major theme park but Stefano Lai, a director of communications at Ferrari, says: “You can enjoy this even if you’re not a car enthusiast.”
Hungry visitors will be pleased to know that Ferrari World boasts four Michelin-starred Italian chefs, while children will enjoy several “junior” rides – such as a training camp for budding F1 drivers.
There is still clearly work to be done on the park, and mistakes to iron out. Most of the rides were not operational by the “soft” launch date on October 28, and the smell of fresh paint was still prevalent in some areas. More amusingly, Kimi Räikkönen’s name was misspelt on a wall featuring former F1 world champions. Perhaps more worryingly, at least for the already-nervous hacks who tested the rides, technical problems delayed the first trips of the Formula Rossa rollercoaster.
Will Ferrari World prove the success that Abu Dhabi craves? It is unlikely to generate revenue commensurate with the undisclosed but significant cost of constructing the impressive theme park but, judging by the queue of local journalists waiting in line for season tickets at the end of the opening night, it will be a handy addition to the emirate’s tourism strategy.
Robin Wigglesworth is the FT’s Gulf correspondent