After a decade of planning, Shanghai Disneyland is ready to open. Only this Magic Kingdom is about four times larger than its California counterpart.
Lengthy negotiations with the Chinese government finally paid off for Disney. CEO Robert A. Iger took a conciliatory approach, atypical for the corporate giant, by handing a portion of control over to the Chinese government and regional investors. But, after a $5.5 billion investment, Disney may have very well set a new standard for establishing American brands in China.
While many of the attractions are similar to those in the U.S. parks, a few — such as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" underwater ride and the "Tron" lightcycle roller coaster — are unique to the Shanghai park. Restaurants and concession stands will serve mostly Chinese food and the decor features references to Chinese mythology. High theme park prices will, however, remain the same. A steamed bun from the Shanghai resort reportedly costs almost five times as much as the street price.
Phoning in from the "Toy Story"-themed hotel at Shanghai Disneyland, L.A. Times Beijing Bureau Chief, Julie Makinen, spoke with The Frame's John Horn about Disney's success in China and the future for this whole new world.
How long has Shanghai Disney been in the works?
The park has been in the minds of Disney for more than a decade and has been under construction for five years. [June 16] is the opening day. They've been doing trial operations since late April. Today was the final media preview, but the park was closed to the general public. There were some select VIP guests and media that were going through some of the key attractions. Tomorrow, around noon, they will formally throw open the gates to the Chinese public.
People who go to Disney, or any theme park in the U.S., know that admission and food is not cheap. Is it going to be the same issue in China, that this will cost a lot of money for average working families?
Well, China has 1.4 billion people and there are certainly many people in China for whom this is still out of reach. But there are tens of millions of people for whom this is definitely in reach. I don't think they're going to have any trouble filling this park.
Whenever a U.S. company does work in China, it’s often the case that the Communist government will make demands. What was the nature of the conversation with Shanghai Disney? What did the government want, and did it get it?
It's been a very long negotiation. Disney CEO Bob Iger has been very involved with this for many years. Disney did make some unusual arrangements. Unlike some of their other foreign parks, this is definitely a hand-in-glove partnership with the Chinese government. There are some state-owned investment companies that are the majority owners of this park. Certainly nothing of this magnitude goes forward in China without the government's total approval. They've worked very closely with the Shanghai municipal government and state-run investment companies to pull this thing off. But to see it actually in person is quite impressive. It feels very much like an authentic Disney park. It's got some great rides and it has some interesting Chinese touches as well.
Does this mean there are rides like "Pirates of the Cultural Revolution" or "It's a Small Small Tiananmen Square"?
[Laughs] I would love to see the Disney version of those rides, but no, the Chinese [rides] are much more nuanced than that. You have to look a little closely for the [nuances], but they are there.
The most pedestrian level guest visiting from America might notice that there are familiar Western-style toilets, but also squat toilets that are much more common in China. The menu is heavily Chinese. Seventy percent of food here is Chinese; twenty percent is described as Asian and only ten percent is described as Western. So you definitely feel it in the restaurants and in a few other small ways as well. They have a park right in front of the castle [with] Disney characters that they have associated with the 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac. So you get a little bit of Chinese touch here and there, but I would say for most people who've been to Disney parks, it feels like a Disney park. If you're not looking super hard, you could actually miss a lot of those little things.
Disney has had some mixed results in Asia. Attendance at Hong Kong Disneyland dropped sharply in the 12 months ending September 2015, falling to 6.8 million visitors from a record high of 7.5 million in 2014. How important is the region to Disney overall?
Disney is definitely playing the long game in China. This is, as one observer I talked to today said, really the beachhead for Disney. It's coming at a time where there's an expanding middle class. They're increasingly looking for entertainment — Western style entertainment is definitely appealing. There's nothing really like this in China right now. There are theme parks, but nothing of this quality. The rides are definitely superior to anything available in the mainland, so it's really important. For a lot of mainlanders, traveling to Hong Kong — even though that is a special administrative region of China — is not easy or convenient. There are 330 million people who live within a three-hour train ride or car ride from Shanghai, so that is a lot of potential customers for Disney.
I have read that some lines — like the one for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride — have been as long as three hours. Is Disney worried about that?
I think it's definitely an issue and Disney knows it. Part of it is, they are in trial operation so they're learning how to run these rides, they're learning how people go through them, they're trying to understand how the crowd flow works, and they're training their employees using real life situations. I think the rides have not been upgrading at full capacity or as fast as they might under ideal circumstances. On our media preview today, our waits were anywhere from one minute to — for the "Tron" ride — anywhere from 20-30 minutes. But the lines have definitely been long and that has been spread widely in Chinese social media so people are very aware of that.
What is left on the official press tour?
Tomorrow morning there's a formal ceremony christening the park [as] officially open. Then around noon, the gates will be thrown open to the first day's visitors. I do think they've taken steps to control or limit the amount of tickets that are available for the first three days. It's not possible, for example, to show up tomorrow on site. You have to come with a ticket that's dated and that you've already previously purchased. Same thing for Friday and Saturday. So for at least the first couple days, things are still going to be in a pretty controlled environment. But there are going to be tens of thousands of people in the park starting tomorrow. We're all going to see how Disney handles that.
Finally, you recently spent some time in North Korea. What feels more like a fantasy land, Disney Shanghai or North Korea?
[Laughs] Well, I would say, if there's any parallel between the two — and I hesitate to draw any comparisons — both places are very good at controlling the media and trying to deliver their narrative. But really, I do have to say that when you look around this Disney park and realize how many companies have had difficulties in China, to pull something off of this magnitude, you do have to step back and say that it is pretty amazing that Disney has been able to bring this park to opening day.