Amid much fanfare after five years of construction, Disney opens its long-awaited mega-park here Thursday. At a cost of $5.5 billion, it is supersized in many ways, as befits a supersized bet: Wall Street is watching closely to see if Disney and China blend together nicely or produce a culture clash.
Shanghai Disney Resort covers 963 acres, more than 11 times the size of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Its enchanted castle is Disney’s largest and tallest. And in the coming year, its catering staff will wash and prepare more than 12 million heads of Bok Choy — Chinese cabbage.
“We wanted to make a strong statement … whatever we built here had to be significant enough to have real impact, ” said Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who is in Shanghai for the opening. “We didn’t just build Disneyland in China, we built China’s Disneyland,” he said Wednesday at during a preview tour.
The Shanghai park is made up of six-themed zones, plus two hotels and a shopping area. There is Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, as in Anaheim and at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., but zones such as Frontierland — Westernland, as it is known at Tokyo Disney — are not included because the park wants to avoid accusations of cultural imperialism.
“We should recognize that we are invited guests in China. It’s a privilege for us to be here, so we need to show great respect for the people and the culture,” Iger said.
The mantra of the park is “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese,” he has said.
That means avoiding anything too American such as calling the central avenue “Main Street USA,” as it is named in most Disney parks. In Shanghai, it is called “Mickey Avenue.”
It is also means creating new attractions so that Shanghai’s communist government, which has a stake in the park, feels it has something unique. One example is Tron, a futuristic roller coaster based on science fiction films of the same name.
Other uniquely Chinese touches: Mickey and Donald are often seen wearing traditional silk jackets, there are more benches for families that often include grandparents, and Captain Jack Sparrow on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride only speaks Putonghua, China’s official state language.
Perhaps the most Chinese feature of the park is the food. There are Mickey Mouse-shaped steamed buns, and the central restaurant is decked in red lanterns and fashioned after a traditional tea house. In all, 70% of the food is Chinese, 20% is other Asian cuisines and only 10% is Western fare.
Disney estimates 330 million “income qualified” people live within a three-hour commute to the park. That’s 330 million people who it deems can afford the entrance fee, which varies from $56 at off peak times to $76 at the weekends.
Disney doesn’t normally give figures for park attendance, but Iger said 1 million had visited the resort during a six-week trial period earlier this year.
Market analysts expect Shanghai Disney to attract 11 million people a year initially, increasing to 30 million when the park expands into a still-empty area — an expansion that Iger said “would happen sooner rather than later.”
The initial reception has been positive. Tickets for the first two weeks sold out months ago, and one weekend in May when a metro line to the park opened, 100,000 people came just for a peek.
“I am very excited,” said Lu Cunting, a local retiree who said he has been coming to take a look at the park’s progress most evenings. “The young need somewhere to have fun.”
Lu remembers five years ago, when the site was just a ramshackle village surrounded by farm land. “Maybe one day,” he said, “I will go myself.”