Nine years ago the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme park announced that it was working on a new attraction. Called Mission Ferrari, it was billed as being a new generation of thrill ride and the world’s most immersive mega-coaster. It took its time to rev up.
After the ride was announced in 2014, its opening was delayed so many times that it gained an almost mythical reputation within the theme park industry. Some observers believed it would never open, let alone live up to its billing. In January the doubters were finally proved wrong.
Mission Ferrari had its work cut out for it as Ferrari World is home to a number of record-breaking roller coasters. The theme park is located in the Middle Eastern Emirate of Abu Dhabi where the temperature often races past 100 degrees in the summer. Guests of Ferrari World get respite from the searing heat as the sprawling steel and glass structure is set almost entirely indoors.
It has the appearance of being a world’s fair celebrating the iconic Italian motor marque as an eclectic group of attractions is located inside pavilions under the park’s main dome.
There’s a display dedicated to Ferrari’s on-track heritage featuring full-size race cars and banners lining the walls listing their accolades. Another attraction is a flying theater giving guests a bird’s eye view of some of Italy’s most famous landscapes accompanied by the smell of the scenery and the sensation of wind rushing over them. Around one corner of the park there’s even a meticulously-themed Italian street complete with artificially-cracked pavement and a piazza filled with stone columns covered in plaster which appears to be peeling off exposing the brickwork beneath it.
Ornate iron street lamps stand outside what appears to be a colorful quaint row of houses with shutters on the windows, flower boxes in front of them and traditional terracotta tiles lining the roofs. Stone urns stand at the side of the street, fairy lights criss-cross the paths and vines even creep around the wooden window frames. The attention to detail is astounding, especially as the houses are actually home to shops.
The park’s roller coasters are even more breathtaking than its theming. They include Flying Aces which takes the record of having the world’s highest coaster loop at a vertiginous 63 meters. At the top of Ferrari World’s podium is Formula Rossa, which accelerates from zero to 240 kilometers per hour in just 4.9 seconds making it the world’s fastest roller coaster. Topping that may sound like no mean feat but for the team behind Ferrari World it was a walk in the park.
Part of an entertainment complex which spans an entire island, Ferrari World is owned and operated by the Abu Dhabi government’s Miral Asset Management. In just the past 12 years it has become a hospitality powerhouse and one of the world’s leading theme park operators. Miral is undoubtedly the top operator of indoor parks, not only because it runs Ferrari World but also the world’s biggest indoor theme park, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. The 86,000 square meter park gives many of its most acclaimed outdoor rivals a run for their money and in May it will have a new neighbour when Miral opens the doors to the world’s first SeaWorld park outside the United States.
Miral has blazed a trail so fast by building a team of the foremost specialists in their fields. As we have reported, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is designed to give guests the impression they are in lands which are actually inhabited by cartoon characters. To pull it off Miral turned to immersive entertainment experts Thinkwell Group which put together a team led by the supremely talented theme park designer Dave Cobb.
Creating the more visceral experience of Mission Ferrari required a different skillset. Miral didn’t just want it to have the grunt of a roller coaster with loops and high-speed launches, it also wanted it to have the versatility of a simulator and the immersion of an indoor ride through elaborate sets. It doesn’t stop there as Miral also wanted the ride car to do the kind of stunts you see in James Bond movies. It may sound like fantasyland but Miral has made it reality.
The technology to do all this didn’t exist when the ride was on the drawing board but Miral knew that Canadian company Dynamic Attractions could make it happen.
Dynamic isn’t a household name but if you’ve ever been to a theme park, chances are that you’ve experienced its handiwork. Founded in Vancouver in 1926, it began life specializing in fabricating large-scale steel structures. When the infrastructure boom hit western Canada, the company gained new skills by building several complex scenic bridges.
In the 1970s, Dynamic won a string of contracts in astronomy and became a world leader in this highly specialized field. Over the past 40 years Dynamic and its forerunners built more than half of the world’s large telescope enclosures including one for Hawaii’s huge Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Surprisingly this was its route into ride manufacturing as some of the engineers building the telescope ended up working in the theme park industry. Both fields rely on ground-breaking precision engineering and Dynamic soon made a name for itself with its work on Disney’s beloved runaway mine train ride Big Thunder Mountain.
It went on to manufacture the systems behind many of the Mouse’s most well-known attractions including Radiator Springs Racers, a full-size slot car-style ride themed to Pixar’s Cars movie, and its counterpart, Test Track, at the futuristic Epcot park in Walt Disney World. Its attractions for Universal have been equally groundbreaking as it worked on the award-winning Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Revenge of the Mummy, which blends a slow-moving ride through a haunted house with a roller coaster. Dynamic even made the system behind Universal’s acclaimed Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride which features seats attached to a robot arm on a roller coaster track to make guests feel like they are riding on a broomstick alongside the boy wizard. Mission Ferrari mixes elements from all of these rides and leaves them in its dust.
Dynamic designed a new ride system called the SFX Coaster, which could do everything that Miral wanted and much more. “The SFX coaster product was developed in response to a movement in the industry requesting a combination of high thrill experiences with immersive show sets and media, taking guests on an adventure that had not yet been accomplished with any other media-based attraction,” says Guy Nelson, Dynamic’s chief executive.
Nelson is a skilled and seasoned executive with a background in the steel industry mirroring Dynamic’s own origins. Between 1997 and 2006 he was the largest shareholder and chair of Nelson Advisors, a steel fabrication company operating in three provinces in Western Canada. During that time he led the development of a successful $50 million airport development in Uruguay and, like Dynamic, entered the astronomy sector by becoming the industry co-chairman of the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy, a role that he holds to this day.
He explains that the SFX Coaster has its origins “in the early 2000s with the opening of Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios. This ride and other similar attractions feature high speed mechanical track switches to send ride vehicles on different paths or to change direction. Our SFX Coaster idea was to build upon this foundation and use high speed mechanical track switches to do more.”
Development of the SFX Coaster began in 2012 and it took the equivalent of 500 person years to bring it to life. They were racing into the unknown. “The SFX Coaster really pushed the technological boundaries on several fronts,” says Nelson. “Even though each SFX element was individually and comprehensively tested at our factory, it was not possible to test the entire system together. Consequently, there were still many unknowns when trying to integrate the different new technologies together for the first time in the field. We unfortunately encountered numerous technical issues that had to be overcome and this was all done on site.”
In fact, the SFX Coaster was so groundbreaking that developing it drove Dynamic to the brink and the corporation is currently undergoing a financial restructuring as we have reported. So although Dynamic has developed a number of other rides using the same SFX Coaster technology, they are currently in limbo as a result of its restructuring. It makes Ferrari World Abu Dhabi the home of the world’s most cutting-edge roller coaster and it sets the scene before guests even get on the ride.
The entrance to Mission Ferrari looks like a vault with brushed steel walls peppered with big round rivets around the door frame. The doors appear to have futuristic-looking locks set into them and when they glide open it takes you into a room that looks like an elevator. As the doors close behind you, the floor starts to rumble and pin-sharp screens set into the windows show a wall moving upwards which tricks you into thinking you’re going underground. Adding to the effect, the light fades above on another screen in the ceiling whilst a counter showing the depth below ground level ticks up on a wall-mounted display.
When the floor comes to a jolt and the doors slide open, guests are met with a network of dark corridors which have steel grills on the floor lit by a smouldering red light underneath. Set into the bare stone walls are projectors which shoot green laser beams across the corridors. When you walk through these thick green beams, alarm sounds ring reminding you that you’re meant to be in a secret base.
From there, the queue winds through a central hub lined with computer terminals whilst animatronic spies wearing dark glasses and dark coats look down from walkways above. Screens in the walls show shadowy people walking by and a model of a sleek scarlet prototype Ferrari stands in the center of the room. Projections wrap around it showing the car being showered with bullets without being scratched and emerging unscathed from a flamethrower assault
Videos playing on screens above tell guests that they are going on a mission to deliver the prototype to the headquarters of a secret spy organization hidden deep underneath Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, Italy. Ominously, the last thing they are told is that rival spies may try to steal the car and the riders’ job is to stop them.
Then you round the corner and see a life-size version of the prototype which is actually the ride car, complete with Ferrari’s famous badge on the front. It accommodates nine people in the kind of leather seats you expect to find in a Ferrari. Speakers are hidden in the head rests and the audio is timed to the action. It soon comes into its own.
As the three and a half minute ride begins, the car appears to exit the underground base by passing through a lab. On one side, a scientist stands in front of a model of the prototype Ferrari. He is actually a life-like hologram who shows riders a display of the car withstanding bullets, bombs, fire and ice.
You can tell right from the start that this isn’t a typical roller coaster as the ride car goes past the scientist at first until you hear his voice from the speakers set into the seats saying “back up”. The ride car then reverses down the track that it was just heading forward on which is an impressive feat for a roller coaster. After the lab demonstration, the track then emerges into an indoor mock up of a traditional Italian village complete with a fountain in the middle of a cobbled plaza.
The lab is meant to be underneath the plaza and it soon becomes clear that enemy agents have figured this out. A model helicopter passes above, shining search lights on the ride car as models of spies clad in black biker suits pop up from behind the scenery pointing laser sights at you. The ride car then roars forwards, timed to a revving sound from the speakers, and heads into a short looping section under the park’s main dome.
That leads into an indoor segment where the ride car parks in the middle of a sweeping curved screen. Indoor roller coasters usually run the track around the edge of the room to maximise its length but, cleverly, Mission Ferrari’s layout is positioned closer to the centre which allows the track to be wrapped in elaborate audio visual installations. The curved screen is perhaps the best example of this as it has a 230 degree angle which makes it look like the car is immersed in the action.
The helicopters from the first scene appear on the screen firing missiles which appear to pass from one side to the other thanks to well-timed lights hidden in the ceiling. The ride car evades them by diving down a trapdoor hidden in front of the central section of the screen. Then there’s a more standard indoor roller coaster section which races past mountain scenery making it seem like you’re heading into the hills. It is followed by the highlight of the attraction which comes when the ride car pulls onto a simulator table in front of a domed IMAX screen.
This creates the impression that the car has reached the edge of a waterfall and the effect is magnified by the fact that there’s no track in front of you. The screen fills your vision as the car tilts and turns in time to the action on the screen. Clearly inspired by the end of the Italian Job, the ride car dips downwards and appears to teeter precariously on the edge of the waterfall.
To your sides, water appears to be rushing towards the ground on the distant horizon ahead. It’s eerily convincing, particularly as the ride car is pointing down over the edge of an actual drop with just the domed screen in front of it.
At the same time, there’s a mid-air battle between the helicopters which were giving chase earlier. One of them explodes causing the ride car to rocket backwards in time with the blast on-screen.
It’s an exhilarating experience which is arguably better executed than the simulator segment at the end of Rise of the Resistance, the much-vaunted flagship ride of Disney’s $1 billion Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands. It certainly aces the vertical drop in Universal Orlando’s Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and is on a par with its Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts attraction which also has a (forward-facing) tilting track segment and is widely-considered to be one of the world’s most immersive theme park rides.
“Other manufacturers had built tilting track switches, however these were slow moving tracks that could not be programmed to substantially impart accelerations on the guests or provide synchronization with media or show sets,” says Nelson. “Our Tilt and Drop Switch was designed and engineered to allow programmability, including large dynamic movements, with a thrilling backwards exit from the switch track. A true world first track switch that only exists at Mission Ferrari.” It doesn’t stop there.
As the car hurtles in reverse it weaves through an indoor movie set chased by model missiles on rails, complete with illuminated smoke trails. There’s a stomach-churning loop in reverse which culminates in the ride car slowly pulling in to another elaborately designed street set resembling the entrance to Ferrari’s factory in the sleepy town of Maranello. Just when you think the ride is over, it saves the best for last.
Everything finally seems to be calm until the people projected in the window of a cafe point in the direction of a screen seamlessly set into the scenery to the side of the ride car. The enemy helicopter which survived the dogfight emerges on it and appears to fire another missile at the car causing it to slide unexpectedly downwards in the world’s first sideways roller coaster drop which is meant to finish deep in the bowels of Ferrari’s factory.
“Our second novel track switch, the Sideways Drop Switch, was designed to completely surprise our guests,” says Nelson. “Guests expect forward vehicle motion to move through the story and eventually return back to the station. Taking advantage of this notion, the Sideways Drop Switch accelerates sideways dropping the vehicle full of guests down a hill. On Mission Ferrari, the sideways drop motion is synchronized to the show sets and projected media in the scene. With guests focused on the show sets in the opposite direction, the sideways drop effect is powerful, unexpected and thrilling.”
The speakers in the seats add to the effect as the missile sounds like it is actually coming from the side. It is one of the many moments when you don’t know quite which direction the ride car will be heading. In itself, this is groundbreaking, especially when combined with silky-smooth track movement and a speed which hits 72 kilometers an hour with forces of up to 3.9g.
Mission Ferrari has all the hallmarks of a classic theme park attraction. There are high-speed segments, immersive scenes, unexpected twists and moments when you wonder how the designers managed to pull it off. Like many of its peers, it also has a sometimes incomprehensible plot but that adds to its charm. Mission Ferrari stands toe-to-toe with the best from Disney and Universal and with only a few very minor tweaks it could perhaps beat them all.
The texture of some of the screens can be seen, presumably because the contrast of the projector isn’t set high enough. Also, depending on which seat you’re sitting in, you might be able to see the edges of the screens and the transitions between the scenes are sometimes a little jarring. However, this is nit-picking as these kind of minor glitches afflict all major roller coasters. Mission Ferrari minimizes them and the level of thought that has gone into it is astounding.
Even the seat layout of the cars appears to have been well thought-through with five seats on the back row and four at the front. Firstly, this means that instead of the riders at the back looking directly at the seat in front, as is usually the case, they can see between them. Secondly, it also means that the most common theme park groups of two, three, four and five people can all sit together.
“This innovative world class ride system creates a guest experience like no other. The value that it creates for the park owner is significant. To create such an added value system, there is a significant amount of R&D effort required. Therefore systems like this are more on the premium side of the coaster price range,” says Nelson. He adds that “SFX Coasters with high design capacity fall into the $20 million to $40 million price bracket, depending on features, tricks and functionality.”
The ride development process begins with the park operator’s creative director briefing Dynamic’s team of engineers about what it is looking for. The engineering team then develop different concepts to achieve the end result. “Complex computer simulations and physical mock-ups are used to evaluate guest experiences for the different concepts,” says Nelson. “A comprehensive process is then carried out to select the concepts and once it has been finalized, it progresses through preliminary and final design.
“Prototypes of the key subsystems must be built to validate the actual technical performance prior to production. Once the client and the ride vendor are satisfied with the technical performance of the prototype, financial feasibility must enter into the assessment to ensure the ride, show and facility all come in at costs that make sense to the owner and the various suppliers.” The economic impact stretches far and wide.
“SFX elements were built in our factory in Canada and tracks and columns were built in a joint venture factory in China,” says Nelson adding that it keeps a lot of people in jobs. “From the Dynamic Attractions side, the commissioning phase involved a combined team size of around 30 people between the site team and the support team in the office. If you include the client’s team and the various contractor groups, there were well over a hundred people on the overall technical team that brought this ride over the finish line.”
The elephant in the room of course is why Mission Ferrari took so long to open. Nelson puts a lot of it down to Covid saying that the ride was initially due to open in early 2020. He explains that the pandemic fueled a “global shortage in the availability of experts that are able to solve the highly complex challenges that were found during commissioning. This was aggravated by the fact that this ride system had never been built by any ride vendor before. The required expertise was simply not available so we had to develop the solutions through an iterative process.”
However, the onset of the pandemic was six years after Ferrari World Abu Dhabi first announced that the groundbreaking roller coaster would be coming to the park. So what had held it up by then? Nelson makes no secret about the driving force behind this.
“Another big factor delaying the opening was the time it took to solve the incredibly complex technical issues that are inherently part of such a sophisticated system and were uncovered through the commissioning process.” To give an example of its complexity, a conventional roller coaster has a closed loop track system for cycling ride vehicles through it whereas it isn’t possible to do that when cars are stationary at certain points on the track in front of screens. “This makes cycling of ride vehicles for integration and development testing purposes extremely complex and challenging,” says Nelson.
Although Dynamic is currently on a roller coaster ride of its own, as it undergoes a financial restructuring, Nelson still has its eye on the future. “It is still early operational days with Mission Ferrari. We will work closely with the client to understand their pain points and understand their ideas for enhancements based on operational feedback. This will form a key part of the next generation of the system.” It has set itself a high standard to beat.