Wanda Seeks to Overrun Disney in Theme Park Battle in China

  • Company opens new Wanda City in historic eastern China town
  • Famous Jin Dynasty victory re-enacted at opening celebration

The newly opened theme park 'Hefei Wanda Culture Tourism City' in Hefei, east China's Anhui province.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

In the year of 383 in the Jin Dynasty, 80,000 soldiers in the town of Feishui successfully warded off attackers who outnumbered them ten-fold. It has been lauded as one of the most famed underdog victories in Chinese history.

Hefei Wanda City

Source: AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Wang Jianlin is betting on strength in numbers prevailing as he battles modern-day invader Walt Disney Co. to become China’s biggest theme-park operator.

The chairman of Wanda Group was in the audience Saturday as dozens of actors in Feishui, now part of the eastern Chinese city of Hefei, attempted to recreate the famous battle 1,633 years later to mark the opening of Hefei Wanda Cultural Tourism City.

Wang has laid out a plan to build 15 multi-billion-dollar theme parks across China by 2020, which he said would be a “pack of wolves” that defeats the one “tiger” of Shanghai Disneyland.

The 160-hectare (395 acre) Hefei Wanda City, located in the eastern province of Anhui, opened a week ahead of China’s week-long golden week holiday that starts Oct. 1. It has been four months since the company introduced its first theme park, in Nanchang, southeastern Jiangxi province. Both cities are within a four-hour train ride of Shanghai.

Overshadow Disney

The Hefei park, comprising an outdoor entertainment facility, a shopping mall, a movie complex and an indoor water park, is Wanda’s latest attempt to diversify from its real-estate roots and build a culture-and-entertainment empire that it hopes will overshadow Walt Disney.

Actors perform at Hefei Wanda City

Photographer: Hu Dingkai/Dailian Wanda

On Saturday, Wang announced that Wanda will splash out another 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) on indoor entertainment facilities in the Hefei park, to be completed in two to three years.

“Wanda is determined to make Hefei Wanda City a world-class tourism attraction, making Hefei a world-class tourism destination,” Wang told a roomful of local officials and reporters at the opening ceremony. The conglomerate is building eight other “Wanda Cities” in the country.

A Disney spokesperson referred to comments by its chief executive officer Bob Iger that Shanghai Disneyland, which opened in June, “has been well received by the Chinese consumer.”

Guarded by tight security, local officials and foreign ambassadors were shown around the 24 billion-yuan Wanda development on Saturday morning, before the park opened to the public at 12.18 p.m., an auspicious time for wealth and fortune, according to Chinese numerology. When including the residential project nearby, the cost of the project rises to 35 billion yuan, according to Wanda.

Highlights of the park include a street display of traditional Chinese craftsmanship, a parade conjuring up the Rio Carnival, the world’s tallest looping roller-coaster and China’s first immersive interactive cinema. Admission to the complex costs 388 yuan for a combined daily pass in the peak season, while the outdoor theme park alone costs 248 yuan.

Local Residents

Although cheaper than Shanghai Disneyland, this isn’t a small expenditure for local residents. Last year, the GDP per capita in Anhui province was 36,176 yuan, compared with the national average of 52,000 yuan.

Rollercoaster ride at Hefei Wanda City.

Souce: AFP via Getty Images

“Of course I’d love to take my entire family to go visit sometime, but it’s quite expensive compared to our usual leisure destinations -- the existing aquarium costs just 80 yuan,” said 44-year-old Wei Minggen, a local taxi driver.

The development can host 20 million visitors a year, according to Wanda. Anhui province’s population was 61 million last year.

While it remains to be seen if tourism traffic can be sustained in the entertainment complex, the concept of an upcoming cultural and tourism hub has produced a property boom in the neighborhood. Wanda, China’s largest property developer, has poured billions of yuan in building residential apartments.

The Binhu New District, home to a new high-speed train station, the Wanda City and a soon-to-be-completed subway line, is a burgeoning area at the heart of the local government’s urbanization plan.

The average price for second-hand apartments in the area has doubled over the past year to more than 18,000 yuan per square meter, according to Fang.com, an online real-estate agency.

Li Xuan, a local homeowner, bought two apartments at the end of last year at 8,000 yuan per square meter. “I feel pretty happy that I made the investment back then.” he said. “Because now new apartments are so in demand and it’s very difficult to buy one, regardless how much money you have.”

— With assistance by Jeanne Yang

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