Is Shanghai Disney a Game Changer?

By Andrew Chin and Tongfei Zhang, July 21, 2016

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In the July 2016 issue of That's Shanghai and That's PRD, we look at China's burgeoning amusement park scene. In the second of this five-part series, we look at what's in store for the Mainland's first Disney park.

Chip and Dale are trying to find their zen. The cuddly chipmunks are doing tai chi with a changshan-adorned master as spectators snap pictures of the routine – a living embodiment of “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese.”

It’s a line that Disney’s CEO Bob Iger pounds. “We didn’t just build Disneyland in China, we built China’s Disneyland,” he declares.

Shanghai Disney

“From the moment visitors enter, everything they see and experience – the attractions, the food, the entertainment – will be instantly recognizable as authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese down to the smallest detail.”

Dressed in Disney Imagineer garb (ocean blue collared shirt with Disney-approved nametag and dark dress pants), Iger cites unique aspects “specifically designed for China,” like the wider Mickey Avenue designed for extended families and the 10,000-square-meter garden in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle created because “people in China, especially Shanghai, love outdoor space.”

Amusement Parks Shanghai Disney

It’s true. The wider walking paths mean that even when Shanghai Disney is busy, it never feels claustrophobic. The garden is a lively scene – families taking a rest with grandparents smiling at their excited grandkids, couples taking selfies tackling one of Disney’s famed giant turkey legs, groups excitedly staring at their theme park maps, plotting their next move.

While rumors of a delayed opening were surfacing as recently as February, Shanghai Disney has indeed finally opened after five years of construction and at a cost of USD5.5 billion.

READ MORE: A Sneak Peak Inside Shanghai Disneyland (Video)

Iger notes that he first stepped onto the 963-acre site back when it was mainly agricultural land in 1999 and admits, “If somebody told me beforehand it would take 17 years before the park was finally built, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Still, he beams with justifiable pride at Shanghai Disney’s opening. It’s the third largest Disney theme park in the world – roughly twice the size as its counterparts in Anaheim and Hong Kong – and home to the world’s largest Enchanted Storybook castle, the effects-laden Pirates of the Carribean ride, and a TRON rollercoaster that lives up to its hype.

Shanghai Disney

Shanghai Disney

Shanghai Disney

Already, Disney’s sixth resort in the world is a hit in its new home. Lines began forming at 4.30am for the opening, full of visitors from around the world. The excruciating wait times during the park’s month-long trial operation period have been greatly reduced, and there’s a genuine awe that Shanghai Disney isn’t a “made in China” disappointment.

It’s even an attraction for visitors not willing to shell out the RMB499 theme park admission. The Wish Upon A Star park sits outside of Shanghai Disney’s subway station, while the adjoining Disney Town houses the Mainland’s first Cheesecake Factory, a new Wolfgang Puck, hip Japanese clothing company A Bathing Ape, and a theater where the first Mandarin adaptation of the Broadway hit The Lion King is making its world debut.

READ MORE: Photo Gallery - Inside Shanghai Disneyland

“Disneyland is going to have a bigger influence on China than when KFC first came,” predicts Lou Jiajun, professor in tourism at East China Normal University in Shanghai. “The disparity between them and domestic parks is obvious.”

“Parks like Disney have a better concept and atmosphere. They are nicely designed with exceptional services, not to mention impressive musicals and performances. The good thing is that this will definitely push domestic parks to bring their operation and experiences offered to a higher level.”

Shanghai Disney

Shanghai Disney

Already, challengers are lining up. China’s richest man Wang Jianlin has been the most vocal, boldly confident that his company Wanda’s plans to build 15 Wanda City projects across the country will top Shanghai Disney.

While Wang suggests that “Disney’s vast intellectual property rights have become a burden,” the opening of Shanghai Disney only strengthens its foothold into China’s burgeoning film world – one that industry analysts predict will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest market next year.

“The growth of China’s theatrical box office really got everyone’s attention,” says AECOM Asia’s Chris Yoshii.

“It’s a market that everyone has to go after because it’s so huge. Even Hollywood movies are trying to tap into that revenue source, which is why so many movies today try to involve a bit of China, even if it’s random.”

Recent Disney films like Alice Through the Looking Glass, Captain America: Civil War and The Jungle Book have already scored coveted same-day global release dates, with Zootopia raking in USD236.1 million to become the seventh highest grossing film of all time in China.

Captain America directors the Russo Brothers have signed on to produce a Mainland film centering around a Chinese superhero, while Disney’s co-production deal with Shanghai Media Group will release its first project on Earth Day 2017, the nature documentary Born in China.

Shanghai Disneyland quote

Wang may have been right that “China has never had a generation that blindly followed Mickey Mouse” – and there is a startling lack of Mickey at Shanghai Disney – but the park does feature the Star Wars Loading Bay – a perpetual primer for its mega-franchise that has five more films to be released. However, Iger’s attention is fixed on Shanghai Disney. “We’re always thinking about what to do next,” he says. 

“We have seven square kilometers of land to work with – plenty of room to grow and add all types of attractions that provide an authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese experience.”

See listing for Shanghai Disney Resort here.

Read more articles in our Chinese Amusement Park Series here.

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