Above: Overlooking Singapore’s new Resorts World complex on Sentosa Island.
A bit of Hollywood and a touch of Vegas go a long way at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore
By Natasha Dragun
Photographs by Lauryn Ishak
Having lived in big Asian cities for more than eight years, I usually cherish moments of silence. But standing in line to enter Singapore’s Universal Studios theme park, I find myself wishing that I could hear the group of tourists next to me. They’re just a few meters to my left—I can see their lips moving and arms gesturing, but the sound of their chatter dissolves into the air before it can reach me. I’m wearing heels, but I can’t hear myself walking; there are trees and birds, but not a single chirp. I feel as though I’ve been transported to an artificial world—Seahaven from The Truman Show, perhaps, where everything is fabricated and lies under a huge glass bubble. Only I’m at Resorts World Sentosa, queuing up alongside hundreds of other curiosity seekers to visit the marquee attraction at the city-state’s sprawling new entertainment complex.
Some four years and US$5 billion in the making, the Resorts World development is one of two “integrated resorts” opening in stages here this year—the other, Marina Bay Sands, began welcoming guests on the Singapore mainland in late April. Malaysia’s Genting International, Resorts World’s owner, hired American architect Michael Graves to design the 49-hectare Sentosa Island site, which, in addition to the Universal Studios park, currently includes four hotels, a 15,000-square-meter casino, and dozens of restaurants and boutiques; a convention center, two more hotels, and the world’s largest oceanarium will open later this year. While the goal was to design the site in keeping with Singapore’s tropical setting—I’m told that 70 percent of the complex is covered by plants and water features—Graves also recognized the need to keep nature out, incorporating soaring translucent canopies across much of the resort landscape. The acoustics, as a result, make it seem as though you’ve got cotton balls in your ears, the silence broken only by the clatter of turnstiles beyond the ticket booth.
This strange, soundless world is not entirely unexpected. Indeed, one could argue that it is an extension of Singapore’s squeaky-clean image—and this despite the government’s best efforts to shake off that reputation. Hosting the world’s first Formula One night race here in 2008 injected a touch of pizzazz, as did the announcement that the Resorts World and Marina Bay Sands projects would not only bring a clutch of new attractions, but also Singapore’s first casinos. With sexy design-driven hotel rooms and restaurants helmed by the likes of Daniel Boulud and Guy Savoy, the Marina Bay development—operated by Las Vegas Sands, one of the world’s largest gaming companies—is clearly hoping to attract high rollers of a similar caliber to those who patronize its glitzy sister operations in Macau and Nevada. The more family-oriented Resorts World Sentosa is a very different beast. It’s not quite Disneyland or Dreamworld, and it’s certainly not Vegas. But it is entertaining.
The approach to Resorts World is, in many ways, like the approach to Singapore itself. I’m hoping for a touch of chaos (this is Southeast Asia, after all), but deep down I know I’m about to enter a world where order and sensibility will prevail. And at first glance, Resorts World is very sensible. Given the hype surrounding its opening, I was expecting a grand entrance with flashing lights and showy signs. Instead, after crossing the bridge linking the Singapore mainland with Sentosa, my taxi enters a cavernous underground car park that seems to stretch on forever. We pass hundreds of concrete pylons, row upon row of tourist buses, and snaking lines of taxis before we finally arrive at a series of unmarked glass doors that lead to a demure lobby.
This is in fact my second visit, having been turned away from the casino the day before because I wasn’t carrying my passport. Forget that I could produce three other forms of photo identification, not to mention a foreign work permit; my passport, a somber security guard informed me, was required to prove that I wasn’t Singaporean or a permanent resident, and thus exempt from the casino’s S$100 (about US$73) entrance fee, which the government implemented to protect its citizenry from the dangers of gambling addiction. The locals I chat to in the entrance queue don’t see it that way.
“It’s not fair,” Karen Loh, a twentysomething marketing executive, tells me while we’re waiting for guards to inspect our IDs—a process that takes longer than the immigration formalities at Changi Airport. “It feels like Big Brother—the government telling us where we can go and how we should behave.” Loh’s husband, a regular visitor to the casinos of Macau, agrees. “If you have money and want to gamble, then surely a hundred-dollar entry fee won’t stop you,” he says. “I think it will just prevent ordinary Singaporeans from having a look and some fun.”
I finally make it inside, and feel an immediate urge to turn around and walk out. The casino is dark and—gasp!—smells of stale cigarette smoke. In a somewhat controversial move, the Singapore government—famous for its love of rules and regulations, including strict edicts banning smoking in public places—allowed the two casinos to have dedicated smoking areas. (“Such double standards,” grumbles the taxi driver who takes me back to my hotel later.) At Marina Bay Sands, smokers get the run of the lower gaming floor, though the main floor is cigarette-free. At Resorts World, however, smoking and non-smoking zones are side by side, separated only by glass doors that are constantly ajar.
The day I visit the casino happens to be a public holiday. There’s not an empty seat at the blackjack or roulette tables, and throngs of onlookers clog the aisles, jostling to get closer to the action. The smoking area is even busier, crammed with a predominantly mainland-Chinese clientele drinking green tea from paper cups and yelling out lucky words in Mandarin as they place their bets. This is exactly the crowd that the casino was hoping to attract—a seemingly inexhaustible supply of punters with yuan to burn. Strangely, however, I fail to see a single sign in Chinese. I also fail to get even close to a gaming table, and after wandering aimlessly between aisles for half an hour, I escape feeling (and smelling) like I need a shower.
Back outside, I get caught up in the whirlwind created by a tour group marching along Festive Walk, a strip of high-end boutiques from the likes of Jimmy Choo, Omega, and Victoria’s Secret. We eventually find ourselves at Hotel Michael. Named for the resort’s architect, the 473-room property is bright and playful at lobby level, with lots of marble and sofas in colors that would not seem out of place on a Christian Lacroix catwalk. The guest rooms are more refined, with wood-paneled walls and mosaic-tiled bathrooms. Suites in the adjoining hotel, Crockfords Tower, are available by invitation only, reserved for casino high rollers and VIP guests. But Resorts World’s bread-and-butter customers have not been forgotten; its two other hotels, Hard Rock and Festive, are clearly designed with families in mind—the latter even comes with bunk-style beds for kids.
At ground level, the shops of Festive Walk gradually give way to restaurants and bars—more than 60 eateries will dot the complex by the end of the year. Attempting to replicate the Las Vegas fine-dining-in-a-resort trend, a number of celebrity chefs have been invited to open signature restaurants across the site. Canada’s Susur Lee oversees the just-opened Chinois in Hotel Michael, while Joël Robuchon is set to unveil three outlets in August. I walk past chain eateries like Chili’s before spotting Osia, the brainchild of Australian chef Scott Webster. Lunch here is the highlight of my day. The restaurant’s lovely, light-filled dining room oozes Melbourne chic, designed in muted tones with cool marble flooring and a shimmering tiled bar. The mod-Oz cuisine is equally attractive, and I can’t get enough of the Mandagery Creek venison that I order, served with a slab of creamy polenta-crumbed foie gras. It’s a near-perfect meal, marred only by the spectacle that greets me when I exit.
Outside Osia’s glass doors, hundreds of tourists are vying to have their photo taken in front of a giant Universal Studios globe. I sidestep the throng and join the soundless queue to purchase my ticket into the theme park. Clatter, clatter, and I’m through the turnstile and in Hollywood, one of the park’s seven themed zones. I stroll past a vast stretch of pavement designated as a parking area for baby carriages and into the Far Far Away zone, where a flashing light warns of a 45-minute wait to get into the 4-D Shrek Adventure. I duck under Battlestar Galactica, a pair of “dueling” roller coasters weaving over an artificial lake (well, they would be weaving if they weren’t already shut down for repairs). I see smiles and tantrums, stilt walkers and spilled drinks, brightly painted caravans selling hot dogs and fried chicken —everything you’d expect at an amusement park. I reach the final zone, New York, only to realize that I’ve completed a loop of the place in less than 15 minutes.
“I went to Universal Studios in Hollywood last year. That was huge,” says Diane, a Filipino tourist whom I meet over coffee in the booth-lined Celebrity Café & Bakery. “This is not so big, but I still like it. I love rides, and a lot of them you can’t find in America.” Many of the attractions here were indeed created especially for a Singapore audience, although paying S$72 (about US$52) for a ticket and then spending most of your day in queues does suck some of the joy out of that novelty.
It’s dark by the time I finally exit the park, and groups of visitors are beginning to descend on Festive Walk for the nightly sound-and-light show. Swerving to avoid a group of kids running to secure a ringside spot, I knock over a potted plant trimmed to resemble an Oscar statuette. Thankfully, under that high glass canopy, nobody hears it fall.
Universal Studios (65/6577-8888; rwsentosa.com) is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s recommended that you purchase tickets online before you visit, as a limited number are put on sale each day. Weekend day passes cost S$72 for adults and S$52 for children; two-day and annual passes are also available.
Originally appeared in the June/July 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Brave New World”)