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After two decades of courtship, five years of construction and $5.5 billion spent, the Walt Disney Company is throwing open the doors on June 16 to its first theme park in mainland China, the Shanghai Disney Resort.
Covering 963 acres of Shanghai’s Pudong district, the mega-resort represents an enormous bet on China’s changing consumer appetites and official tolerance for Western entertainment. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said the Shanghai park is as important for Disney today as the establishment of Walt Disney World in Florida was for the company in the 1970s.
Iger hopes the resort will serve as a tentpole for the Disney brand in China, driving consumption of Disney merchandise, movies, video games and the myriad ancillary products the company produces. More than 330 million Chinese citizens (a number greater than the U.S. population) live within three hours of the resort.
“We expect a very strong response,” says Chris Yoshii, vice president of economics at U.S. consulting firm AECOM in its Hong Kong office. In April, local media reported that thousands of Chinese tourists were visiting the park site daily, simply to peer through the gates and pose for selfies around the periphery. “If there are any hiccups, they will probably be caused by Disney having the fortunate problem of too much demand rather than not enough,” Yoshii adds.
The Chinese amusement park market — still woefully underequipped to service the country’s swelling middle class — is expected to undergo the same explosive growth that China’s movie box office has experienced in recent years. Annual attendance at Chinese theme parks reached an estimated 125 million to 135 million in 2015, according to AECOM. The company expects attendance to climb by the tens of millions over the coming years, hitting 230 million in 2020.
Along with six themed “lands,” including one devoted to Pirates of the Caribbean, the Shanghai Disney Resort includes a Broadway-style theater, live entertainment venues, two hotels, a shopping district with over 50 retailers, a 123-acre recreational park and Disney’s “tallest, largest and most interactive castle.”
The origins of Disney’s new foothold, or fiefdom, in the Middle Kingdom date back to at least 1990, when Zhu Rongji, then mayor of Shanghai, paid an official visit to the original Disneyland in Los Angeles and returned home with dreams of bringing a Disneyland to his own city. Years of negotiations ensued, with the project finally receiving Chinese central government approval in 2009 — only after Disney promised that the new park would embody Chinese culture as much as American entertainment.
Disney executives have taken pains to stress Shanghai Disneyland’s cultural sensitivity — “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese” has become something of a marketing mantra during all public discussions of the project. On opening day, Disney will deploy some 10,000 Chinese castmembers to staff the resort. Among the many local touches and attractions is a “Garden of the Twelve Friends” land, where animals of the Chinese zodiac are reimagined as Disney and Pixar characters. Disney says the concessions stands throughout the park will service such dishes as pork-stuffed mooncakes and braised pork knuckle in soy sauce — all in the shapes of Disney characters.
Disney’s arrival in the Middle Kingdom hasn’t been celebrated in all quarters, however. Real estate and investment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group is building a network of 15 rival amusement parks across the country. Late last month, Wanda’s billionaire chairman, Wang Jianlin, took a direct shot at Disney in a television interview, saying the company had underestimated Wanda’s prowess in the sector and “shouldn’t have entered China.” He later compared Shanghai Disneyland to a lone tiger, which would be no match for Wanda’s “pack of wolves.”
In May, Wanda unveiled its first Wanda City resort in the southeastern city of Nanchang. The $3 billion, 200-hectare attraction features the world’s largest ocean park, China’s longest rollercoaster, 20 hotels and 50 retailers. Wanda also recently broke ground in Guilin on its 11th planned amusement park, which is scheduled to open in 2020.
Few analysts would agree with Wang’s assertion that competitors can pose a direct threat to Disney anytime soon though. “In many ways, [Shanghai Disneyland’s launch] will be a watershed event for China, raising the standard in terms of service quality, technology and consumer experience,” says Yoshii. “It’s going to be a big challenge for local operators to match that standard and differentiate their product,” he adds.
Disney rival Universal Studios is building an $8 billion theme park in Beijing, but the venue is not expected to come online until at least 2019.
“No matter how much money Wanda or anyone else has, building a theme park of this scale and complexity takes time, as we see from Disney’s experience, and can’t be done overnight,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California who studies China’s film industry. “And [Wanda] doesn’t have the same iconic international characters that Disney has, which will make it really hard to match them, at least in the short term.”
Crucially, back in 2009, Disney agreed to take a minority 43 percent stake in the theme park itself, with the rest held by a consortium of Chinese state-controlled companies called the Shanghai Shendi Group. (Disney did retain operational control, however, owning 70 percent of the management company created with Shendi to run the resort.) Thanks to this arrangement, Shanghai Disneyland appears to have the support of Chinese leadership, meaning additional local backlash — like the protest that marred Disneyland Paris’ 1992 debut — is unlikely. Despite a recent chill in official attitudes toward Western entertainment, China’s president Xi Jinping welcomed Iger to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the ceremonial seat of China’s legislature, for a rare private meeting in early May. Western press weren’t admitted to the tete-a-tete, but Xi is said to have offered the Disney chief his congratulations on Shanghai Disneyland’s debut.
“That’s kind of like the pope laying on of hands and giving his blessing,” says Rosen. “It’s something [Iger] can take to the bank, in a sense, to show they have China’s blessing — it’s a real coup.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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