Tons of Fun in the Garden City’s Favourite Theme Park
An edited version of this article appeared in Abu Dhabi Week magazine in April 2011. It no longer appears online.
“Mummy, look at me! I’m going to do a trick!” The shiny red motorcycle revs loudly as my youngest son screws up his face in determination, hunches forward and pops a wheelie.
Have I gone insane and let my five year old onto the back of a Harley trick bike? No – but this merry-go-round style kiddie attraction is fast becoming the best time he’s ever had. With all the glitz and glam of Ferrari World, it’s easy to overlook the UAE’s old amusement park but you can still have a great day out – for way less money – at Hili Fun City.
The sun is sinking lazily as we drive into Al Ain – I have no idea where I’m going but, as I’ve hoped, the brown tourist signs lead me directly to Hili Fun City without a hitch. The park only opens at 4pm, so we’ve missed the heat of the day.
Wednesday is Ladies Night at Hili Fun City and the park is already buzzing with activity. Though the park has been reduced in size from a gigantic 65 hectares to a much more user-friendly 20 hectares, there are still plenty of wide open spaces.
Unlike your typical amusement park, these lawns were made for lounging – several groups of ladies have brought blankets and picnics, setting up shop for the evening. Gorgeously landscaped, the park is set up so that there are plenty of reasonably secluded spots where families can spread out and get comfortable.
You might think the rides would be empty on Ladies Night, but I’m reminded again the foolishness of making assumption as I see hoards of graceful, swishing Arab girls in high heels and perfect make up queuing for the thrill rides – the Hili Swinger, the High Flyer and the aptly named Twister Mountain are all rocking this evening.
Thankfully, there’s plenty on offer for the little ones. The minimum height for kiddie rides is generally 30in (76cm) up to 48in (122cm) for the slightly bigger attractions. Even better, of the 28 attractions on offer, admission to 25 of them are included in the very reasonable price of the entrance ticket.
Others like the pony, camel and boat rides cost a bit extra, but AED 10 seems a pretty small price to pay, I think, watching my oldest son navigate a remote controlled miniature dhow across the pond, threading the little boat through an arching stone.
Climbing into the Circus Swing – a smaller version of the Hili Swinger – the children squeal as the swings start to spin. My little boys wave as they come by at what feels to them like rocket speed.
“Hi mummy, bye mummy!” they call out in unison with every pass, the joke remaining equally as funny with the last rotation as it was the first.
It’s no wonder Hili Fun City is in such great shape these days – the park’s senior manager Viviane Paturel-Mazot tells us the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) officially took over operations in September 2010.
“TDIC’s ten year plan is being finalised now and further improvements will be unveiled soon,” says Viviane. “TDIC hopes to continue with the success that the first stage of renovation brought in 2009 which saw improvements in service and safety, brought more attractions and revamped the whole park.”
Having moved on, our new favourite ride is Sinbad’s Farm – the kids climb into the driver’s seats of vintage looking cars, steering us carefully through a farm of fibreglass animals. That the cars are fixed to rails is no deterrent to the children’s glee.
“Ta la! Bunnies!” points out my little chauffeur. “But Mummy they’re only glass but you have to be careful – don’t take off your seatbelt because there’s lions and tigers and bears. I’m a good driver.”
It’s not just the rides that are better these days – there’s a brand new live stage show featuring magicians, clowns, singers and dancers, plus lots of ways to stay active like the paddle boats, bicycles and a playground.
Everything in the toilets is new, clean and well maintained, and they’ve put down eco friendly Astroturf in some high traffic areas that looks real but uses way less water to maintain. They’ve also put in recycling bins alongside every trash can, and “all the benches are made 100 percent out of recycled plastic manufactured in Jebel Ali,” says Viviane.
While there are ten new attractions and several more in the works, some of what makes Hili Fun City great today is what made it great before the upgrades.
“This park has always been family friendly and it still is,” says Viviane. “The whole family can have a good time from the children to the grandparents. We’ve improved the barbeque grills as well, and we encourage people to bring their own food and have a leisurely day in the park.”
I haven’t packed a picnic, so we head over to one of the park’s two eateries, Station Plaza Restaurant. As we sit outside tucking into sandwiches, chicken nuggets and chips, we catch an accidental glimpse of a mother praying beside her small son in a secluded corner of lawn.
It’s a beautiful little moment – one Ferrari World isn’t likely to match.