I first read about Sim last year in a UK-based leisure magazine while on holiday at home in England. A Malaysian giving his view on the future of global theme park industry. Really? No disrespect, but it seemed a bit like asking a Siberian about tropical island life! Malaysia typically isn’t seen as the hub of the theme park industry. Intrigued by this emerging phenomenon, I did my research and found that Sim is an unusual Malaysian. Like his fellow Penangite, Jimmy Choo, Sim’s work is better known internationally than in his own country: almost all his projects are outside Malaysia, and Sim Leisure’s head office is actually in Dubai. His public statements are unconventional; he’s has a reputation for being a non-conformist. But, on the other hand, he’s worked with big names in the theme park industry. He’s completed more than fifty projects in the last twenty years, with companies like the Jumeirah Group, Lost Paradise, Ski Dubai, Yas Island, Majid Al Futtaim, Universal Studios, and Legoland - all built on the foundation of the Sim Leisure multifaceted motto “….because fun is serious business”. Of late, Sim devotes half of his time re-creating his childhood – ESCAPE in his native Penang, Malaysia.
ESCAPE is definitely not like any other theme park you may have visited. There are no adult visitors, only ‘Kids’ - Future Kids (0-3), Junior Kids (4-12), Big Kids (13-60) and Super Kids (over 60). Sim jokingly said anyone behaving like an adult will be shown the exit to the park. The hyperactivity of children visiting ESCAPE come from outdoor free-play and self-directed fun, rather than from the consumption of cotton candy and sugar-coated fantasies. Trees have the right of way here and everything has been designed around them, roofs are grassed, toilets are flushed with rainwater and there’s a thought-provoking directional sign at the entrance showing the ‘cure for computer addicts’. The games at ESCAPE all mirror how childhood used to be - but with modern safety equipment. There is a philosophy for the rides being human-powered with little reliance on mechanical assistance. As Sim explained “It’s low tech, high fun.”
“Without play, the planet is a miserable and destructive place,” he added. I thought this was an overstatement by a politician seeking re-election. “We need to reconnect the masses to nature, because unless they fall in love with nature, they won’t protect it. And the only way to bring them closer to nature is by creating intense fun in nature. On the social front, have you ever noticed how much fighting there is on this planet and compared this to how little children play together? Sim credits his creativity as a theme park consultant to his rich childhood experiences and the creation of ESCAPE Adventureplay was in part a way of reproducing this for other people. Future phases of ESCAPE will develop this theme with Waterplay and a Treetop Hotel, where you can experience the magic of sleeping out under the stars.
“Creating ESCAPE was a kind of destiny thing,” he says. “Many of the theme park owners in the region are not even part of the industry, many of them use theme parks as a ‘marketing gimmick’ to help them sell something else. This often explains the reason many of these places look shabby and tired from lack of maintenance and re-investment after the theme parks have served its purpose. This downward spiral effect in turn has created a bad reputation for the industry.” His expression shows what he thinks of such ventures. “How can you run an industry when you’re not passionate about it?” he asked rhetorically.
As we walked back to the entrance to the ESCAPE park, Sim explained to me that we’ve lost the art of play as a human species – and very much to our detriment. “Pay attention to your pets, you’ll see they spend a lot of time playing. A person will not become a complete person if there is one part that is missing – a childhood full of play. You can’t jump from your four year- old self, full of wonder, creativity, and curiosity, into the straitjacket of academic goal-chasing. We all need play - and that’s why it’s really time to play!”