Dubai and Disney: The Ultimate Resort Showdown

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Last week I was in the United Arab Emirates. There I spent most of my time providing a customer service program for Abu Dhabi University.

The entrance to Abu Dhabi University. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

They were a terrific group of people, keen on improving the student experience at their university. They were earnest and enthusiastic. Moreover, they were wonderful hosts, and I had a tremendous experience. They wanted to know more about how to provide customer service, especially the way Disney is known for providing it.

Most people are not that familiar with Abu Dhabi, but they are very familiar with neighboring Dubai. In recent years Dubai has been on a roller coaster of phenomenal growth, followed by serious economic setback. But make no mistake, while times are tighter now than they were a few years ago, this sleeping giant will re-awake, and this time there's going to be serious competition.

When Walt Disney World was built in 1971, many saw it as simply Disneyland on steroids. Well, nothing could be truer about Dubai. Everything it does is on a grand scale, It reminds me of when Timon discusses Hakuna Matata Lakeside Village in Epcot's Circle of Life film, "Pumba, we gotta think way bigger!" In Dubai, they have thought "way bigger". For instance, Dubailand, which is more mirage at this point more than reality, promotes being twice the size of Walt Disney World. At an original cost of $5 billion and climbing. That's considerably larger than the $3.5 billion Disney is said to be spending in Shanghai.

But if Dubailand never became a reality, there is still very much of a reason for people to choose to come to Dubai. And they have already spent billions in making it an amazing destination to visit. Here are some examples:

Tallest Buildings. The Burj Khalifa is is the tallest man-made structure ever built. It's 2,717 feet or 160 floors. In reaching the observation deck on the 124th floor, you might miss the swimming pool (highest in the world) on the 76th floor. That's probably because your elevator is going at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

The Burj Dubai. The Burj Dubai fountains are at the base of this tower. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Incredible Hotels. Speaking of tallest, the Burj Al Arab is one of the tallest hotels in the world. Located on a man-made island, this incredible architectural icon resembles the sails of a ship.

Burj Al Arab. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

More Incredible Hotels. While in Abu Dhabi, don't miss the Emirates Palace. When it was constructed only a few years ago, it was reputed to be one of the most expensive hotels ever built. Rooms begin at $400 a night and go up to nearly $12,000. Take that Grand Floridian!

The domed interior of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

A Palace for a Mosque. Speaking of Palaces in Abu Dhabi, consider the Shairkh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. This place is mammoth, which only begins to explain the $2 billion price tag. Yes, I said $2 billion.

The exterior of the Shairkh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

With the world's largest chandelier, up to 40,000 can worship on the world's largest carpet. The quality is indescribable, and makes Cinderella Castle seem like a fiberglass leftover when it comes to quality.

Gold used in abundance in the interior of the Shairkh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Shopping. Malls of enormous size are found everywhere. The range of shopping and dining options are only outmatched by the unusual attractions within. The king of such unusual attractions is the mall of the Emirates which hosts an indoor ski slope known as Ski Dubai.

Ski Dubai is located in the Mall of the Emirates. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

I think you get the idea of the scale at which Dubai is competing. And that doesn't include Dubailand, or any other number of unique attractions underway. Can Disney compete with this? In terms of dollar for dollar investment: No.

In the 1990s Judson Green, former president of Walt Disney Attractions, spoke about the increase of competition in the marketplace. Obviously part of that message was about it's newer neighbor, Universal Studios. But Universal, Sea World, and even the upcoming Lego Land, are not the real challenge for Disney. The competition out there is much, much bigger. At the time, the concern was around enterprising competitors like the cruise industry, or locations like Branson and Las Vegas, who at that time was vying for the family market. While the latter is still is a major competitor for convention traffic, it's still not as significant a threat as something like Dubai could become.

Make no mistake, Dubai is intent on drawing away the upper class market—people who spend more money than others—toward coming to Dubai. Millions of Europeans especially, are making decisions whether they want to go to Dubai or to Walt Disney World. The European market, and especially the UK market, is a critical market for Walt Disney World. To that end, Disney must compete. But Disney can't compete with what seems at least until recently an unending source of money. Another new theme park in Florida or more expensive hotels alone will not alone bring them in. But Disney can compete on an important, but less expensive point. And that point is creating a more immersive customer service experience.

My experience in customer service itself in the UAE is not poor. In fact, it was very good if you define customer service as etiquette or being polite, I would dare say that perhaps UAE trumps. As a U.S. culture, we have become somewhat sloppy in showing proper etiquette and courtesy. Many of those on the front line of customer service in the UAE are ex-patriates coming from locations like India and the Philippines. These front-line employees are friendly and are dispositioned toward giving of themselves.

But courtesy alone does not equal providing a great customer service experience. It is also important that you look at customer service experience as a strategy. That includes considering issues around waiting in line, individualizing service, or maintaining the upkeep and quality of the operation. Simply put, it's about building the entire service, not simply the key attraction you advertise.

Take for instance the new World of Color show coming to Disney's California Adventure this summer. Did you know that there's a Bellagio-style set of fountains in Dubai? The Burj Dubai fountains are fantastic. Click here to see just a sampling of what is offered. While traveling on the Metro in Dubai, I spent time with a manager over a fast food enterprise who was so proud to show me video of the Burj Dubai fountain show on his iPhone. It's a beautiful show. World of Color also looks incredibly promising as well. You can catch a glimpse here.

Which show will be better? That's an interesting question, but the better question is, who has the better experience? Either way, we'll have to wait a few more months to find the answer to that question. But the end of the day, and as critical as it is, it won't be so much as to who has the most fountains or the highest fountains, or even that Disney might have mist screens, pyro, and Disney characters/music. What will likely set one experience far apart from another is whether it pays attention to the whole experience. The questions will more likely be around the following:

  • How easy is it to get a good view of the show?
  • How long do I have to wait in the heat of the day to see the show?
  • How well does each experience pay attention to crowd control?
  • How easy is it to access a nearby restroom? How clean are those restrooms?
  • How varied are the selection of the food and beverage options?How long do I have to wait to get something to eat?
  • How are the needs of guests with disabilities catered to?
  • Plus, how friendly, informed, and patient are those employees hosting the experience?

All of these issues contribute to the quality of the entire customer service experience.

Multiply those issues against an entire resort stay and you ultimately attain the value of going to Dubai or Disney. And since customer loyalty is everything, that value will speak volumes as to whether or not people come back again and again.

This is what Green was predicting so many years ago. For Disney or Dubai, or anyone else to compete, you must consider the entire guest experience. Yes, it's important to have an outstanding core product or service. But it's also much more than that. It's about the quality of those employees interacting with your customers. It's about the setting in which you products and service are offered, and how they support the experience. And it's about the processes that support that customer service experience. And all of that tiers up to whether they come back to you again and again.