Walt Disney Co. Already Expanding Shanghai Disney Resort, Says Bob Iger

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Shanghai Disneyland

With lines during trial runs stretching four hours long, the biggest challenge facing Disney's $5.5 billion park is expected to be excess demand.

The Walt Disney Co.'s Shanghai Disney Resort hasn't even opened yet, but the Burbank, California-based media giant is already working on expansion plans.

The sprawling new Chinese mega-resort will make its grand debut before the local public Thursday, after $5.5 billion spent and some 26 years of negotiations, planning and development. 

"We're already building to expand as we speak," said Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger during a press preview of the Shanghai park Wednesday. "We will continue to expand upon what is on the opening-day menu," he added. 

Covering 963 acres of Shanghai's Pudong district, the new resort boasts six themed "lands," 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." 

"This is by far the most creatively ambitious and technically advanced destination that we have ever built," Iger said in Shanghai, noting the long and difficult road to completion. 

"China obviously represents incredible potential for The Walt Disney Company, in the near term and in the long term, because of the size of this market," Iger said. "We've considered many ways to approach growth in China. We're clearly benefiting from the growth of the Chinese movie market, with some stunning success of some of our most recent films. But nothing has the impact — nothing creates as strong a connection to our stories, brands and characters — like a theme-park experience."

Disney's biggest challenge in Shanghai is expected to be pent-up demand. More than 330 million Chinese citizens (a number greater than the U.S. population) live within three hours of the resort. Said Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker in a report this week: ”The biggest risk we see is over-crowding." 

Disney welcomed 600,000 people to experience the park during trial operations over the past month. According to local reports, the lines for some rides often ran as long as four hours.

"One thing that is very obvious to us is how much people are enjoying themselves," Iger said. "We've also learned that they've learned a lot from social media, so they come with a lot of education already. They've heard what's most popular, in terms of attractions, and they flock to those right away. We've had some interesting issues in terms of the popularity of some of our biggest attractions."

He added: "These are all things we work out in this opening phase."

The Shanghai Disney Resort's current offerings reflect the long development process the park went through. Themed lands include areas devoted to Disney hits such as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as well as less successful movie projects like Tomorrowland and Tron (the park's TRON Lightcycle Power Run ride is said to be the most popular). Iger said a Frozen sing-along attraction was added after the huge global success of the movie in 2015. The park also added Zootopia characters to its signature "Mickey's Storybook Express" Parade. Zootopia is Disney's highest-grossing film in China ever.

Iger said the company has been holding internal discussions about what to add next over the coming year. Of the seven square kilometers of land allocated for the facility by the Shanghai government, four have been put to use so far. 

Said Iger: "The good news is we have the space and we believe we have willing partners in both Shendi and the local Shanghai government to enable us to expand — and we think we'll do that sooner rather than later."