Disney CEO Iger says China has ‘incredible potential’


SHANGHAI (AP) — The debut of Shanghai Disneyland offers Walt Disney Co. “incredible potential” to boost its brand in the world’s most populous market, the company’s chief executive said Wednesday.

Disney’s first theme park in mainland China is designed to be “distinctly Chinese,” Bob Iger said ahead of Thursday’s grand opening for the $5.5 billion park.

Shanghai Disneyland will face competition from China’s own young but ambitious entertainment industry and likely hurdles from official controls and censorship.

Disney movies including “Frozen” are popular in China and Mickey Mouse is beloved as “Mi Laoshu.” But Iger said he hopes the park will create stronger bonds with Chinese consumers.

“China obviously represents incredible potential for the Walt Disney Co.,” he said.

“We’ve considered many ways to approach growth in China,” he said. “Nothing is as impactful, nothing creates a connection to our stories, to our brands, to our characters, as a theme park experience.”

Analysts expect Shanghai Disneyland to become the world’s most-visited theme park, attracting up to 50 million guests a year, compared with 19.3 million people for Disney’s flagship Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 2014.

The park boasts the biggest Storybook Castle in the world and the latest technology. Hundreds of residents and small businesses were forced to move away from the site on marshy farmland east of the city.

The venture follows lengthy negotiation between Disney and Chinese authorities who wanted to control prices, advertising, the opening date and other details, according to Chinese media.

The park’s majority owner is a state-owned investment fund, which means Disney will need to get its partner’s approval for changes in restaurant prices and other management details.

“They had to negotiate hard with the government,” said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research, a consumer market research firm in Shanghai. “They are hamstrung in a lot of areas.”

Despite a sharp slowdown in growth, China’s economy still is one of the world’s best-performing and tourism spending is rising.

Total visitor numbers to theme parks are forecast to more than double to 282 million in 2019 from 2014’s 133 million, according to Euromonitor International, a research company.

The company behind Mickey Mouse is part of a rush of global brands in industries from autos to mobile phones that are rolling out products designed for increasingly prosperous Chinese consumers at a time of weak sales growth in other markets.

To appeal to Chinese visitors, Disney added a teahouse and other China-themed elements to its latest park.

In a garden leading to its iconic castle, Disney created a “Garden of the Twelve Friends” using characters such as Remy from “Ratatouille” and Tigger from “Winnie the Pooh” to represent animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

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AP Business Writer Joe McDonald contributed to this report.