Wang Jianlin will not be doing interviews, we were told. It’s disappointing news, but then again the Wanda Dalian boss has armed the media with bulletin boards full of material, declaring his company’s mission to surpass Disney as the world’s largest tourism enterprise by 2020.
In one appearance on CCTV, he mocked the high costs of Shanghai Disney’s construction (“we internally analyzed why they spent so much money and we can’t explain it in a sentence or two”), its dependence on characters foreign to the market (“China has never had an era of blindly following Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck”) and its long-term prospects in China (“financially, it doesn’t look good to me”)
As expected, the explosive interview made international news. After all, who in their right mind throws the first stone at Disney – the operator of eight of the 10 most visited theme parks in the world and the industry’s Goliath?
But there is no scenario in which Wang Jianlin could ever be a David. After all, he’s Asia’s richest man (last valued at US30.4 billion by Forbes), China’s largest real estate developer, the world’s largest movie theater owner (thanks to his 2012 acquisition of America’s AMC Theaters) and minority owner of Atlético Madrid, with rumors that Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will be his next purchase.
And that hour-long CCTV interview was a savvy move – aired five days before the unveiling of the first Wanda City in Nanchang in Jiangxi Province: a 200-hectare monolith containing an outdoor amusement park, hotel resorts, dining and commercial districts, as well as its centerpiece, Wanda Mall.
“Wanda City has a broader business model than Disney. It combines culture, entertainment, tourism, commerce and other businesses,” says Wanda spokesman Liu Mingsheng.
“Wanda City is a global first – it solves the seasonality problem for tourism and is more accommodating to local culture. Every Wanda City is designed with local tradition and flair in mind.”
Shaped as porcelain cups – a nod to Jiangxi’s centuries-long history of producing pottery – Wanda Mall is home to an indoor ocean park, an aquarium, a film park and the Wanda Kids Place – the first of 200 planned family playzones that will take on Merlin Entertainment’s plans to open a Legoland in Shanghai.
“Opening a cluster of parks is not a bad strategy,” says industry analyst AECOM Asia Chris Yoshii. “People can spend multiple days in the location. It creates a destination overnight.”
During the park’s official opening, invited media members face a terrifying sight. The morning VIP preview session of Wanda Mall has ended and the doors are about to open to the waiting public horde ready to check out Nanchang’s newest attraction.
It’s a scene out of Dawn of the Dead except Mickey Mouse, Captain America and Pikachu are most definitely in the house. While Disney has been relatively silent about Wang’s remarks, they did warn they will protect its intellectual property rights at all costs once news surfaced. (Wanda’s response: "These characters were brought in by non-Wanda stores residing within Wanda Mall.")
Inside Wanda operated properties, there’s an eerie absence of well-known characters – although if it chose to take that route, Wanda could tap into its latest acquisition Legendary Entertainment’s filmography that includes The Dark Knight, Godzilla, Jurassic World, Pacific Rim and Inception.
What the Wanda City outdoor park offers is a lower ticket price (RMB198 on weekdays and RMB248 on weekends compared to Disney’s RMB370/499) and lots of rides – 43 attractions across 80 hectares compared to fewer than 30 offered at Shanghai Disney.
While Disney dresses Daisy Duck in a qipao, Wanda City seamlessly integrates Chinese culture. The film park features a flight simulator through Jiangxi complete with mists of water sprayed onto the crowd as they glide over the province’s rivers.
The park is broken into five themed areas. Pottery Village features a 4D Porcelain Cinema Theater, a “haunted kiln,” a spinning porcelain cup ride and the terrifying (in a good way) Soaring Dragon and Dancing Phoenix ride with six inverted loops.
Poyang Fisherman’s Village alludes to the provincial lake and features all the park’s water attractions. Bamboo Forest offers a python-themed wooden rollercoaster created by award-winning Great Coasters International. Temple of Clouds houses Coaster through the Clouds – China’s highest (242.8 feet) and fastest (84.5/mph) rollercoaster.
The kids-themed Fairy Lady Land is full of traditional motifs, and vendors can be found across the park offering workshops on traditional crafts. Even the Sky Diver drop ride is shaped like a pagoda.
Already construction is underway for Wanda Cities in Harbin, Guangzhou, Wuxi, Chengdu and Guilin. Hefei Wanda City is slated to open in September with local Hui culture elements incorporated along with the world’s highest looping rollercoaster.
“Wanda’s business model has been to very aggressively go into places and build as quickly as possible,” AECOM’s Yoshii says. “It works well for shopping centers and office buildings, but with theme parks, we will have to wait and see.”
However, Wang is brimming with confidence, even taking the fight with Disney abroad by investing USD3.3 billion in the EuropaCity mega-project near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, set to open in 2024.
He touts Wanda’s innovative multiple-business model and the company’s ambitious expansion plans to open 15 Wanda Cities across China plus two abroad within the next five years.
“We have a strategy,” Wang snarls. “One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves.”