As the opening of the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland draws near, Walt Disney Co has a challenge.
The hold of rival Asian characters such as China’s homegrown Boonie Bears or Big Big Wolf means seven-year-olds like Li Yixuan have less time for Mickey Mouse and Friends.
As Li settles on the living room floor for 15 minutes of cartoons before homework and bed, Disney doesn’t get a look-in this time, as his favourite animated hero, Ultraman Ace from the hit Japanese series, does battle with space dinosaurs.
And as the number of competing theme parks in China soars, it will become even harder to win the hearts of Chinese children – and open the wallets of their parents – to fuel long-term traffic after the turnstiles start clicking on June 16.
“When we get kids now to write down their favourite cartoon character, very few put down Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck,” said Song Lei, Hong Kong-based director at Animation-Comic-Game Group, the organiser of Asia’s biggest annual fair for comics, anime and games.
“Instead it’s what is being broadcast on television, what they’re seeing in their day-to-day,” he said. That means the Boonie Bears duo and mischievous, super-powered pig GG Bond, he said.
That’s not helped by a ban on imported cartoons during the late afternoon “golden hour” peak viewing time for children.
China’s attitude to Disney is ambivalent, reflecting a clash between nationalistic sentiment and the desire for American-style consumption among the growing middle class.
China’s military-linked PLA Daily warned of what it said was “invisible propaganda” in Disney’s “Zootopia”. Yet Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger got a presidential welcome from Xi Jinping in May, and Disney has been granted “special” trademark protection.
And Disney is still enjoying a banner year at the box office in China. “Zootopia”, “Captain America: Civil War”, “The Jungle Book” and “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” are among the 10 most-watched movies of 2016, reaping more than $690 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
Characters from those films will feature at the Shanghai resort.
“There are people that love Disney and those that don’t, for a variety of reasons,” said Chris Yoshii, Asia-Pacific vice president for AECOM and a member of the Themed Entertainment Association. He predicts China’s theme park market will overtake the United States in the “not too distant future”.
But that’s by no means all Disney.
About 2,500 parks are planned in China, including Japanese brand Hello Kitty, and there is already a “Dwarf Empire” in Yunnan.
DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.’s $2.4 billion DreamCenter and Six Flags Entertainment Corp.’s park slated to open in 2019 are among Disney’s U.S. competitors.
Domestic rivals include Haichang Ocean Park Holdings , which plans to open the nation’s biggest marine park next year, and billionaire developer Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group, which aims to unveil 15 in China by 2020 and five overseas.
Wang says Disney will be no match for his “wolf pack” of parks.
Disney did not immediately respond to request for comment, but it is betting on its years of experience running the world’s most successful parks, supported by its suite of movies, TV shows and merchandise.
It will not want to repeat its experience in Hong Kong, where its smaller park lost HK$3.8 billion ($490 million) from 2008 to 2011, according to its Hong Kong government partner. The park turned a small profit from 2012 but fell back into the red last year.
For its first foray into the mainland Chinese market, the company has tailored the new park to local tastes.
Out goes “Main Street”, the idealised smalltown America at the heart of its other parks, and in comes a large garden featuring Disney’s take on the Chinese zodiac. It hired a retired PLA general to direct its Tarzan show at the park, and a mandarin-language version of the Lion King musical makes its debut at the opening ceremony.
“Size, though, was very important because we wanted to make a very loud statement,” CEO Iger told investors in May. At 963 acres, the site has two hotels, a 100-acre lake and the biggest and most interactive Disney castle yet.
Some characters also appear to have had a makeover, said New Boston-based Jim Hill, who writes a Disney fan blog. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are “softer and rounder”, he said, making them appear more similar to popular Chinese characters.
Some things haven’t changed, though.
Ultraman fan Li was among the more than a million people to visit the park during its “soft opening”, and he voiced a familiar complaint – waiting time for the rides.
“All the queues were really long and winding. It was like a million turns,” he said.