SHANGHAI — The Walt Disney Co. placed a huge bet on China’s shifting approach to Westernized entertainment on Friday as it broke ground here on a $4.4 billion theme park — even if it is one without classic American features like a Main Street.
Disney hopes the Shanghai Disney Resort will be as transformative for the company as the establishment of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., was in the 1970s. It wants to create an engine that will drive demand among China’s 1.3 billion residents for other products, like Pixar films and princess dolls.
Like many global companies, Disney is putting its faith in the rise of the Chinese consumer, and at the same time it is counting on Shanghai’s specific ambitions to become a world-class city.
There are obstacles. Disney’s first foray into China — its theme park in Hong Kong — got off to a slow start after opening in 2005. It may be a small world, but cultural miscues are not unknown to Disney. When it opened its Paris park, Disney refused to sell wine until a barrage of complaints from the French led them to reverse the policy. In Hong Kong, the company botched Chinese New Year and suffered terrible publicity.
Then, too, for many Chinese this will be their introduction to Disney. China is the only major country that does not have a Disney Channel, which is the company’s typical way of building its brand and stoking demand for Disney experiences and products.
Disney movies have long been distributed in the country, but only under restrictive rules for non-Chinese films; there are also kiosks that sell Disney merchandise, but no Disney stores. Even the concept of brand is a tough sell in China, where cheap knockoffs proliferate overnight.
The Shanghai resort’s first phase — one of the largest foreign investments in China ever — will include a 225-acre Magic Kingdom-style park with a castle surrounded by themed areas. The park component alone will cost $3.7 billion. There will also be two hotels, a lake and a shopping district, bringing the total size of the first phase to about 963 acres. Disney hopes to have the complex open by the end of 2015, an ambitious time line.
This resort has long been expected, but until now plans have been largely secret. They call for its eventually stretching across 1,730 acres in the Pudong district southeast of downtown. The Chinese media have estimated that the full resort, including upgrades to transportation infrastructure in the area, could cost about $15 billion.
A resort of this scale would have a capacity like that of Disney World, which attracts about 45 million visitors a year. In acres, the Chinese resort will be closer to the size of the Anaheim, Calif., park, but vastly larger than the Disney parks in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Notably, Disney did not identify which of its classic rides — Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean — it will bring to the Chinese mainland. One reason may be those knockoffs: When Disney unveiled detailed plans for Hong Kong Disneyland, rival parks in Asia quickly installed cheaper rides with striking similarities.