Wanda Opens New China Theme Park Amid Battle for Dominance With Disney

Hefei Wanda theme park - Getty H 2016
Courtesy of Getty Images

The Chinese conglomerate launched the second of a planned 15 multibillion-dollar Chinese theme parks on Saturday.

Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin's wolf pack is beginning to take shape.

The chairman of Dalian Wanda Group opened the doors Saturday on his company's $3.6 billion theme park in the city of Hefei, the capital of China's eastern Anhui Provence. The development is the second of a planned 15 mega-resorts the tycoon has vowed to build by 2020, as his conglomerate vies with Disney for dominance of China's rapidly emerging theme parks business.

The new Hefei Wanda City spans some 365 acres and includes an outdoor theme park, indoor water park, shopping mall, cinema attraction, dozens of restaurants and bars and a cluster of luxury hotels. At the opening ceremony Saturday, Wang announced that Wanda would invest another $1.5 billion to build more indoor entertainment facilities at the park within two to three years.

“Wanda is determined to make Hefei Wanda City a world-class tourism attraction, making Hefei a world-class tourism destination," he said in prepared remarks for an international crowd gathered within one of the hotel's grand halls.

A motorcade of 12-seater golf carts could later be spotted whizzing across the resort as the Wanda chairman led a group of Chinese officials and international dignitaries, including the French ambassador to China, on a tour. The park opened to the public shortly after noon. Despite the blazing late autumn sun, the facility was soon packed to capacity with excited Chinese families and young people.

Wanda launched its first Wanda City park in the southeastern Chinese city of Nanchang in May, just weeks before Walt Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger flew over to unveil the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort. Ahead of Iger's arrival, Wang snatched some of the spotlight by telling Chinese state television that he believed Disney had made a mistake in coming to China, saying the California-based media giant's "one tiger" would prove no match for Wanda's "pack of wolves."

Last year, the Chinese tourism industry represented $610 billion in spending at home and abroad, and the Chinese government predicts that number will double by 2020. Mass tourism attractions and location-based entertainment are central to Wanda's ongoing pivot away from the cooling commercial real estate sector that made the company a giant.

In a speech delivered during an investment forum in August, Wang noted that China's per capita income is one-sixth that of the U.S., while the average Chinese person spends just one-fifteenth of what the average American splashes out on tourism. "Spending on tourism is still too low," he said. "Thus, the potential for investment and growth in this area is still enormous."

So far, there appears to be plenty of room in the market for both a Beijing and Burbank-based entertainment giant. Wanda City Nanchang attracted over 2 million visitors in its first month, according to the company. Disney has yet to release visitor numbers, but Iger recently told local press that Shanghai Disney had delivered higher attendance figures than the company's other parks did during their first 100 days. Altogether, Shanghai Disneyland's rollout has proceeded surprisingly smoothly given the delicate political and cultural line the company has had to toe — thus far, there have been none of the controversies or miscalculations that tainted the launch of the Disney resorts in Paris and Hong Kong.

In response to Wang's fighting words, many analysts noted that Wanda's lack of established characters and intellectual property set it at a distinct disadvantage against the 92-year-old Mouse House. While Wanda waits for its nascent film production division — which includes U.S. studio Legendary Entertainment — to do the slow work of generating film franchises, the company is mining local Chinese history to populate its parks with stories — a strategy that also offers political upside as the company negotiates with regional Communist Party authorities to secure land. In addition to the world's tallest rollercoaster loop, highlights at Hefei Wanda City include themed lands based on Anhui's ancient architecture, Chinese acrobats, a streetside display of traditional crafts and a pyrotechnic stage show recreating the historic Battle of Feishui, a legendary episode well known to Chinese school kids.

On Friday, Wanda and Sony Pictures announced an open-ended film marketing and co-financing partnership. Among the details of the deal was a mention that Sony releases would be promoted within Wanda theme parks — a suggestion that instantly sparked speculation within the Chinese industry that the two parties might extend the deal to include the rights to Sony film characters for Chinese theme park attractions. Wanda declined to comment when asked about the possibility. 

In addition to scale, Wanda has tried to compensate on price, positioning itself as the mainstream alternative to Disney's luxury theme park experience. A day pass to Shanghai Disneyland costs $75 (499 Chinese RMB) during peak seasons and $55.50 (370 RMB) during the down season — less than in the U.S., but still an extravagant day of fun for many in the country, where the average per capita disposable monthly income remains less than $300 (2000 RMB). While still out of reach for many, Wanda's full-park day passes cost $58 and $37, respectively. The price difference widens at the concession stand: a hot dog runs $1.50 (10 RMB) at Wanda City compared to $6 (40 RMB) at Shanghai Disneyland.

A less publicized aspect of Wanda's expansion into tourism is the way in which the company has leveraged its core strength — real estate development— to provide cash flow while the theme parks gain their footing. In Hefei, Wanda spent another $1 billion or more building upscale residential towers directly next to the theme park. The company declined to share sales figures, but local press reports have suggested the units are moving briskly.

As it often does, Wanda has moved in concert with local government goals in Heifei. The Wanda City park is just one part of a broader urban development scheme in the city's Chao Lake New District, which also includes a new high-speed train station and subway station. Several other Chinese developers have commercial and residential real estate projects underway in the area, and not long after Wanda broke ground on Wanda City Heifei, the local city government relocated its offices to the neighborhood.

As the sun went down on Wanda City on Saturday, a celebratory fireworks show exploded over the park, lighting up the roller coasters — and dozens of high-rise housing blocks in varying states of completion.