You may already know about Dubai’s famous indoor ski resort, but did you know that while they were busy refrigerating the desert they staked out some space where you can HUG A PENGUIN??
Inside the famously massive Mall of the Emirates, the Ski Dubai complex not only offers skiing, snowboarding, sledding, sliding, and zorbing, but also a zoo-quality penguin enclosure complete with a pool. About 20 penguins live and play in steadily maintained sub-freezing temperatures, and for a price they’ll take a few minutes out of their day to pose for some pictures with you.
Ski Dubai rightfully assumes that most people don’t journey to Dubai with heavy coats and waterproof pants, so the experience began with us being fitted for rented snowsuits. From there our group was herded into a room to watch a brief educational video with rules for how to behave around the birds, and everyone was required to scrub their hands with sanitizing lotion.
We then entered the -2°C interaction area and watched through a glass partition as the penguins swam around in their enclosure. Soon enough one of the penguin trainers emerged from a back room with a Gentoo penguin waddling in front of her.
The trainer told us to ignore the penguin so it could calm down and grow comfortable with the space. But how are you supposed to ignore a super adorable penguin running around by your feet?? The penguin explored the area like an excited puppy, as curious about us as we were about it. We were soon seated in a small area with benches that have been made to look like rocks as we watched the penguin play with some toys. Once the penguin mellowed out a bit they encouraged it to sit on a fake rock of its own, and each of us posed for photos.
No personal cameras are allowed in the enclosure, so a staff photographer is in charge of shooting everything. The entrance price includes a photo package, so you can get digital and printed copies of your photos afterwards (we even ended up with a souvenir snow globe with our picture inside).
As much as we wanted to hug and squeeze the Gentoo penguin, no contact was allowed. And after his brief modeling session he was escorted back into his enclosure. Our group then moved to another area where we sat on a patch of manmade snow and awaited the mighty King penguins.
King penguins really have everything you could ever want in a penguin. Tall, stout, with a classic “tuxedo” look and a splash of orange feathers where their bowtie would be. All business. They don’t know what you’re laughing at. They probably have British accents.They’re fluffier than one might imagine. Once the King was settled, we were encouraged, one by one, to lightly stroke his back and chest. The gloss of their feathers makes them appear slick and slippery, but the feathers are actually fine, soft, and dry.
Our penguin was relaxed enough that when it was time for my photo I was able to give him a gentle hug. It was like wrapping my hands around a marshmallow that had been crossbred with a down pillow. It only lasted for a moment, but what a moment it was.
With all the rented snow gear and the hand sanitizer and the fake rocks and the manmade snow and the pro photographer there is no escaping the fact that this is a packaged experience that almost goes out of its way to be artificial. It is, after all, occurring adjacent to an indoor ski slope in the middle of the Arabian Desert. But when your fingers sink into those cottony feathers, there’s no denying it: you are genuinely hugging a penguin.
In a city designed around a hard pitch for excitement and extravagance, it was the all-too-brief penguin encounter that made the whole trip worthwhile. It’s like the old saying goes: if you’re heading to the Middle East, be sure to visit the penguins.