Shanghai Disneyland Opens With Fireworks, Presidential Nods

  • Disney resort to attract tens of thousands at Thursday’s debut
  • China vice premier read Xi’s letter at resort opening ceremony

Shanghai Disneyland Spreads Magic to Mainland China

Walt Disney Co.’s $5.5 billion Shanghai theme park, its first in mainland China, opened with fireworks, a dancing Mickey Mouse, dignitaries and messages of support from two of the most powerful presidents in the world.

“I hope that Shanghai Disney can provide visitors with safe and premium experiences and become a world class theme park. I hope it promotes exchanges across cultures of the world,” according to a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping, read by Vice Premier Wang Yang at the park’s opening ceremony Thursday morning.

Robert Iger

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Tens of thousands streamed into Shanghai Disneyland on its debut, an event that was nearly two decades in the making. The resort is the largest foreign investment ever for the Burbank, California-based company, as it intensifies the race to dominate China’s $610 billion tourism industry.

“The resort captures the promise of our bilateral relationship,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a letter, which Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger read at the ceremony attended by senior officials including Shanghai’s Communist Party secretary and its mayor.

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The entertainment giant has already begun construction to expand attractions within the park’s 7 square kilometers (700 hectares) of land, Iger said at a briefing Wednesday. The existing resort covers about 3.9 square kilometers.

“Nothing is as impactful, nothing creates a connection to our stories, to our brands, to our characters, than a theme park experience.” said Iger. “The experience people have when they spend time in our theme parks is immersive. They not only hear and see our stories but they actually enter them, they live in them.”

A guest poses for photographs.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

While most of the 300 theme parks in China are currently unprofitable ventures, Disney is leading an incoming wave of top-notch megaparks developed by both local and foreign operators competing for a tourism industry that is set to double by 2020.

About 60 more parks will open by then to serve Chinese consumers, including Dalian Wanda Group Co.’s chain of 15 “Wanda Cities.” DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc’s $2.4 billion DreamCenter is scheduled for 2017, while Haichang Ocean Park Holdings plans a marine park an hour from Disneyland and Six Flags Entertainment Corp.’s Shanghai park will be its first outside North America. 

Read about the competition among theme parks in China here.

“The Shanghai resort shows the confidence of the international business community in China’s economic potential,” said Wang, one of the four vice premiers in the country’s State Council, in a speech as a drizzle fell during the ceremony. Rain marks “a good and auspicious start” according to Chinese culture, Wang said.

Amid the activities surrounding the Shanghai park debut, Iger offered his sympathies to the family of a child who died in an incident at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The company said Thursday beaches in the Florida resort area remain closed until further notice after the death of the 2-year-old boy who was dragged by an alligator into a man-made lake.

China Bet

Iger, who is also the company’s chairman, first stepped foot on land that would become the Disney site in Shanghai’s Pudong district 17 years ago. The construction of the resort, a joint venture between Disney and the state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group, broke ground in 2011.

“It’s a big bet on a big market and it represents not only our biggest entrance into this market but the potential to deliver great growth for the company long term,” Iger said in a Bloomberg TV interview June 9.

Disney fell 0.1 percent to $98.27 by the close of trading in New York on Wednesday. The shares have fallen 6.5 percent this year, compared with the 1.3 percent gain in Standard and Poor’s 500 Index.

There’s big money at stake. About 25 percent of Chinese consumers surveyed in 2015 plan to spend more of their income on leisure and entertainment, according to a March report from McKinsey & Co. They’re also showing an increasing willingness to pay a premium for better goods, with half of those surveyed seeking the “best and most expensive” products.

Chinese Preferences

From the peony flower design on the turret of the park’s centerpiece castle, to a comedic Beijing opera interlude in the Mandarin version of the Lion King musical, Disney has taken pains to incorporate Chinese elements at the 963-acre resort. 

A visitor poses by the Enchanted Storybook Castle.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“We didn’t build Disneyland in China, we built China’s Disneyland,” said Iger.

Leia Mi, the concept designer for the Shanghai park’s castle, said that Disney conducted thorough market research into Chinese preferences. For example, while other Disneylands showcase a castle that guests walk through, the Shanghai park castle was designed with eating and retail space within them to meet Chinese expectations.

While the castles in Hong Kong and Anaheim are a tribute to the Disney character, Sleeping Beauty, the designers also chose to represent all the Disney princesses inside Shanghai’s castle. For most Chinese, there isn’t one Disney princess that stands out, Mi said.

“The Chinese can learn the princesses over time and this gives them an opportunity to have an introduction to all of the princess stories,” said executive producer Ali Rubinstein.

Most Ambitious

Disney’s designers and engineers said that the park was the grandest and most ambitious they have created, aided by new 3-D design technology that allowed them to identify and solve problems before construction began. 

Tron Lightcyle Power Run roller-coaster at the Shanghai Disneyland theme park.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“We certainly invented a few things for this in terms of technology development,” said the resort’s executive producer, Jodi Mclaughlin. “We worked hard to be very daring with this project and raise the bar in terms of what a Disney experience is. You’ll see things here that you won’t see any place else.”

At the park on Thursday, Su Xuanjun, a native of western Sichuan province, complained about the pricey tickets but gushed about an attraction based on the “Pirates of the Carribean” movie.

“It’s very impressive how they use technology in this ride,” said Su, who was accompanied by his wife, daughter and 4-year-old grandson. Still, he thinks Disney could have gone a bit further to make the park more “China-like”.

“Doesn’t look like China to me at all. They could have incorporated more Chinese elements,” said the 60-year-old retiree. “In the Pirates ride, they could have had the setting be the Yangtze River.”

— With assistance by Rachel Chang

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