Can Disneyland enchant Shanghai?

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More than 1,000 communist party officials have joined celebrations in Shanghai as Disney opens its first theme park in mainland China.

Disney’s Chief Executive, Bob Iger, has described the project as the “biggest step” the company has ever taken. But there has been criticism in the Chinese media about the price visitors will have to pay.

It looks like a Disney park, with a huge “enchanted castle” anchored at the centre. It sounds like Disney, with a wave and a smiling hello – in English – from every staff member. And it feels like Disney – an escape from the real world. But park number six is different. This time Mickey Mouse – Me Low Shoe as he’s known here – is Communist Party approved.

Mr Iger first came to the site 17 years ago, when it was wasteland on the outskirts of Shanghai. Last month he had the latest of several meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping. Afterwards, Mr Iger revealed that the Communist Party general secretary has already been to three Disney parks.

It’s taken years of painstaking negotiation and $5.5bn, but now Mr Iger has his China park – his legacy to the company he was supposed to have departed by now.

“From the moment they enter, everything they see and experience, the attractions, the food, the entertainment, down to the smallest level of detail, is instantly recognisable not only as authentically Disney but as distinctly Chinese,” he told journalists at an opening day event.

Those last few words are the mantra – the phrase he conceived to explain why and how this Disney is different.

But it comes at a price, which he wouldn’t discuss with the BBC. Disney repeatedly refused our request for a sit-down interview. When I asked Mr Iger, as he left the opening event, if this Disney was only for China’s wealthy he refused to answer the question.

When I asked if he was confident that the park was built without any corrupt practices he said nothing, and a security guard stopped me from going any further.

For some of the 10,000 staff behind the scenes on the 960 acre park, a day at Disney – without their uniform on – is beyond their reach. The cost for a couple with a child would likely be more than the average monthly disposable income in mainland China.

One ticket seller called Lee told me he was happy with his pay. But he couldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t “convenient” to discuss it, he said. It was similar for other staff. When I asked a young woman by her locker what she was paid, she replied: “I can’t tell you.”

Disney is unapologetic about it’s “high end” food prices. It’s all part of the battle for China’s growing, richer middle class. It is a battle that the home-grown mega firm Wanda is up for. It opened a new resort town and familiar-looking theme park in the region just two weeks ago.

People like 40-year-old Yu Qi are a target for both. She said most of her friends had been to Disney parks abroad, “but for some reason we all believe that Disneyland in Shanghai will be the best”.

Disney is banking on that sentiment. It hopes it will tempt people with its authentic offering. And there is lots to tempt 330 million people within a few hours’ drive. So is it the real thing, or has Disney gone too far to ensure it gets its break in China?

On the surface, much is the same. There are rides that are common to Shanghai and other parks, and some that are unique to China. The food and the language are heavily influenced by Chinese tradition. But the overall feel is of the American offering. The big change is behind the scenes.

This is a joint venture, which is unusual for Disney. Like all firms looking to enter this market, Disney has gone into business with firms ultimately owned or controlled by the Shanghai government, which gets some of the profits and a lot of influence over how things look and how they’re run.

It is, to borrow the phrase, a distinctly Chinese arrangement in an authentically Disney setting.

Security is one thing Disney insists will not change, though. Senior executives say there will be no police presence – uniformed or in plain clothes – inside the theme park, in keeping with the tradition at their other venues. Police representatives at a media briefing last month refused to confirm if that would be the case.

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