Dubai is a modern marvel in the middle of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), with a list of superlatives that define it, including the tallest building in the world, the Burj Kahlifa, the biggest manmade island, even the largest mall. And for families, this translates into an oasis of delights, from massive theme parks to mega pools, indoor snow to outdoor sand dunes, old forts and modern high rises, and every adventure in between.
Simply getting there on the national carrier, Emirates, rockets you into the kid-o-sphere. The nonstop flight from New York to Dubai (about 12 hours, starting at $699 round-trip) is filled with kid-friendly fun including snuggly stuffed animals, Lonely Planet travel bags with games and activities, tasty kid’s menus and snack boxes, and an entertainment system with hundreds of family-friendly options.
Keep in mind: Dubai is the most liberal of the UAE states, so no need to worry about dress, but keep the bathing suits on the beach and dress respectfully in mosques. The work week here is Sunday to Thursday; Friday is the day for mega brunches (try one if you have time) and family outings, so expect the biggest crowds for attractions that day.
Soak Up the Surf and Sand
The azure Arabian Sea is a natural highlight of Dubai, and the gentle surf and golden sands is perfect for kids. Hit the beach at La Mer (free), a shopping and dining destination that caters to families with children’s play areas (including one that has pint-size back hoes and diggers), a waterpark, and a treasure trove of dessert spots, including The Inventing Room for exploding frozen Cheetos and smoking nitrogen ice cream.
Dune Bashing on a Desert Safari
Just a 45-minute ride delivers you to the vast desert dunes of the Arabian Desert. Arabian Adventures will bring you on an once-in-a-lifetime adventure into the desert, bashing over towering sand dunes, speeding around sandy turns, and no doubt making your family shriek with delight for the entire ride. Your final destination: A dinner in a tented camp where you’ll be entertained by belly dancers and fed from a buffet filled with regional delights such as grilled lamb, spiced kebobs, and rice pilaf. Camel rides and henna tattoos are included, too. (Priced from $75 for a private car for 6, or $80 per person)
Explore Old Dubai
Although it may be hard to spot the cultural side of Dubai when you first arrive, head towards the Dubai Creek for a taste of what this sparkling destination was like just 50 years ago, back when camels, not the now ubiquitous Lamborghinis, were the speediest things on the street. Located in a 200-year-old stone fort, the Dubai Museum is perfect for kids to explore, with plenty of interactive exhibits, recreations of nomad life, and even sand on the floor. It’s also a wonderfully cool spot on a hot day. Next, wander the nearby shopping souks for souvenirs, and then hop on an Abra ferry, a traditional wooden boat, to cross the canal for a breeze in your hair ride on the water. (Abra, 1 dirham, about 25 cents; Museum, 3 dirham)
Stand on Top of the World
At 2,772 feet, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, and has held the honor for a decade already. Head up to the viewing decks on the 124th and 125th floors, or go really high to the 145th floor (extra cost). Everything about the ride to the top is extreme, including the longest running elevator (140 floors), which soars at 10m per second. Back on the ground is the world’s largest choreographed fountain; be sure to plan your visit to coincide with one of its shows. (Admission from $25.)
Located in the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world), which is connected to the Burj Kahlifa, the 10 million liter Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo is the largest suspended aquarium in the world. Kids love walking through the underwater tunnel and spotting thousands of aquatic animals, including 300 toothy sharks. Newly introduced this year: one of the world’s largest crocodiles, keeping with the “go big, or go home” theme of Dubai. (Admission from $35.)
Ice, Ice Baby
Snow, ice, penguins….desert. Which one of these doesn’t belong? Actually, in Dubai they all coexist thanks to the indoor mountain of snow at Ski Dubai inside the massive Mall of the Emirates. Three different packages allow you to experience the fluffy white stuff and the freezing temps by skiing, playing in the snow, or cuddling penguins. And don’t worry, tickets include all the gear you need to keep you warm. (Admission from $46.)
What’s better than one theme park? How about three, all filled with kid-centric fun and attractions. Dubai Parks is the destination for fun, with LEGOLAND and its neighboring waterpark, movie-themed Motiongate, and fantastical Bollywood, all offering rides and hands on activities. LEGOLAND, like its US affiliates, focuses on kids in the 2 to 12 age range, with not-too-scary coasters and lots of opportunity for hands-on building fun. The most unique highlight is the indoor world of miniatures, including not-to-be-missed replicas of the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa. Motiongate calls itself the Middle East’s larges Hollywood-inspired theme park, and it’s filled with DreamWorks, Lionsgate, and Columbia Pictures tie-ins. For smaller kids, stick to the whimsical Smurfs, Shrek, and Kung Fu Panda areas; for faster rides, seek out the The Green Hornet and Hunger Games areas. Finally, if LEGOLAND and Motiongate feel somewhat like home, Bollywood will remind you how far you are from the United States, and how much closer you are to India. The entertainment here, including a mesmerizing dancer who stands on knifeblades, cuts across cultural boundaries; and although the stars of rides such as “Krrish: Hero’s Flight” may require a deeper knowledge of Bollywood than most casual visitors will have, it’s still a lot of fun. (Park admission from $47.)