Consumer

Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.

In Disney's Jungle Book, Mowgli, the man-cub schooled by wolves, uses intelligence and bravery to outwit the tiger Shere Khan. It's unclear whether Wang Jianlin was thinking of the movie when he warned Disney that "one tiger is no match for a pack of wolves," but it's a plot line that should appeal to China's second-richest man.

Disney opens its first theme park in mainland China on Thursday, a $5.5 billion resort in Shanghai that's the U.S. media giant's biggest foreign investment. Wang has jeered at his competitor, saying it has misread the Chinese market and will be vanquished by his Wanda group, which is vying for the country's leisure spenders.

Wang's strategy is for a multitude of smaller and wily predators to overwhelm the larger, more powerful beast. Wanda plans to open 15 to 20 theme parks, and aims to surpass Disney as the world’s largest tourism company by 2020.

It's no idle threat. Wang's first theme park, the newly opened Wanda City in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, will charge 198 yuan ($30) on most days and 248 yuan on weekends and holidays. That's about half the 370 yuan regular ticket price for adults and 499 yuan peak rate at Shanghai Disneyland.

Wang, the owner of AMC Cinemas and Legendary Studios, is already making some headway in movies. Warcraft, adapted from the popular online game and co-produced by Legendary, just had the highest opening day at China's box office this year, taking in the equivalent of $157 million.

The film, directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones, may have disappointed in the U.S., trailing far behind Disney hits such as Star Wars and the new version of The Jungle Book in box-office takings, but its strong showing in China suggests Wanda knows well what will fly in its home market. That should stand as a warning to Disney.

At the same time, Wanda's not going to have everything its own way in China. A slew of local and foreign companies have their eye on the country's entertainment market. They include Six Flags Entertainment, which is scheduled to open its first park outside North America in 2019, and DreamWorks, which plans a $2.4 billion center in Shanghai that will include Kung Fu Panda-themed attractions. That will compete for visitors with Disneyland.  Industry consultant Aecom forecasts that 59 more theme parks will open in China by 2020.

Prime Attraction
Four Chinese theme parks are among the world's top 10 most attended
Source: Themed Entertainment Association/Aecom.

Nor will Disney be a pushover. The U.S. company's intellectual property includes a host of recognizable characters that resonate with children worldwide, from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Elsa and Anna from the 2013 hit Frozen. So ubiquitous are Disney characters that Snow White and Captain America were spotted at Wanda City, sparking a spat between the two companies. (Wanda called reports of the alleged infringement "seriously distorted.")

There's a lot riding on the success of the Shanghai park for Disney, which has battled losses at its attractions in Hong Kong and Paris. Of Disney's overseas parks, only Tokyo is profitable. The firm hasn't reported a profit on its international theme park investments since it began breaking out the business in 2004.

Leveling Off
Disney's theme park revenues from its international operations have been slowing
Source: Bloomberg

The Chinese prize is worth fighting for: The country's annual tourism revenue exceeds $600 billion and the government predicts it will double by 2020 as the middle class continues to expand.

In the latest film version of The Jungle Book, Shere Khan falls to his death in a pit of fire after being lured into a tree by Mowgli. Disney may be able to write a more benign ending this time around: perhaps one where the tiger and the wolves stay out of each other's way and live happily ever after. The jungle's a big place. There's plenty of room for everyone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

(Corrects first chart to show there are four Chinese parks among the top 10.)

To contact the author of this story:
Nisha Gopalan in Hong Kong at ngopalan3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net