For nearly two decades, beginning with Frank Wells wining and dining Chinese officials in 1990, the Disney corporation has danced around the possibility of building a theme park in Shanghai. China’s largest city was long a target destination for former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, but despite frequent negotiations during the 1990s the park was never built. Some sources claim that Disney themselves delayed the plans, unsure that the city was ready to support such a project. On the other hand, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese government was keen to stem the tide of western cultural influences in their territories.
By the turn of the century, Disney’s attention was diverted to the planning and construction of Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai was put on the back burner. Work continued on the project; Disney signed a deal to build a park on the Chinese mainland in 2002, and, rejecting bids for the park by Beijing and Tianjin, contracted with Shanghai’s Lujiazui Group to develop a site there. But when the park in Hong Kong opened to poor reviews and seriously underperformed financially, Disney was forced to enter into years of intractable negotiations about the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to enhance that resort and progress stalled again on the Shanghai project. These delays were compounded further by a 2006 corruption scandal within the Shanghai government, which implicated local Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu. Still, Shanghai remained one of Disney’s key initiatives; the now-famous rendering from the 2006 Disney annual report shows a “new Disney theme park” that many believe to be a concept for the Shanghai park.
The rendering, shown above, depicts a new type of layout for a Disney park. Surrounding a central lake, it more resembles Universal’s Island of Adventure. Various lands that can been seen in the illustration; one resembles Tokyo DisneySea’s Mermaid Lagoon, there’s a futuristic area visually reminiscent of the original DisneySea’s Future Research Center, a fairytale castle sits atop a hill with a rollercoaster in the distance behind, there’s a South American temple straight out of Indiana Jones, and a European village surrounding the castle. Despite the prominent placement of this image in a widely-distributed publication, little else was seen or heard stateside about the Shanghai efforts.
In the Asian press, though, gossip about the park continued over the years. In March of 2006, Shanghai’s mayor had announced “preliminary preparations” for the park. Two years later, in March 2008, Mayor Han Zheng announced that the city had officially applied to the Chinese central government to build the park. Negotiations ground on.
This year, though, the wheels of progress began to slowly turn once more. A series of approvals, leaked in the state-run and local media, traced the slow but steady development of the resort plan. Since January when Mayor Han Zheng announced that the city had signed a nonbinding agreement and project report with Disney, and Disney themselves confessed to the plans, all parties have been waiting for word from Beijing. In June, it’s believed that the project was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese government’s economic planning agency. Earlier this week, the state-run Securities Times reported that the central government in Beijing had given its final approval to the plan earlier this month, and that it was now up to Shanghai officials and Disney to finalize the details of the deal.
According to Reuters, they may finally have a deal. Sources are speculating to the wire service that a deal may be announced during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to China from November 15th-18th. A front-page editorial this week in the state-run Shanghai Securities News called for such an announcement, giving a great deal of credence to the notion. News stories anticipating an “upcoming” announcement have popped up frequently over the years, but the recent string of significant advances suggest that the rumors might finally be true. Stocks in construction companies and other related local industries spiked on the announcement, at least the second time this year that has happened. Leaked quotes over recent weeks insist that all that remains to be negotiated are small details, and those are insignificant in the grand scheme of the deal.
Another piece of the puzzle has come this weekend, when the ever talkative Mayor Han Zhang announced he’d hold a press conference this week to discuss the project. According to the Mayor, since he apparently gets asked about the Disney project at every press conference, it’s now time to discuss the issue and there are so many aspects of the subject to discuss that it requires its own press event. Other reports echo that a deal is near, with many of the few remaining points of discussion surrounding various trade and media deals that accompany the park agreement. Disney is using the Shanghai park as its major entry into the Chinese entertainment market, and so the eventual deal will have a far greater scope than the park itself. It also hinges, in part, on the continuing progress of Sino-U.S. trade negotiations.
Rumors about the resort itself have flourished over the years; most recent reports peg it as a $3.6 billion development, of which Disney will own a 43% stake and a local government-owned holding company would own 57%. While the Shanghai government originally suggested that Disney build on the underdeveloped Chongming Island, Disney rejected that site and opted to build on the mainland. The park will now occupy an 8-10 acre site in the town of Chuansha, on the southern edge of Shanghai’s Pudong district. It is currently slated to open in 2013. While the delay in an actual deal might have proved frustrating to fans, it has also allowed the Chinese government to make the necessary infrastructure upgrades to the fairly rural area. Shanghai Disneyland, when built, will benefit immediately from high-speed rail links and direct connections to major highways.
What the park’s attraction lineup will resemble has been a source of great speculation recently. While a leaked site plan, allegedly by the ARUP development corporation, contains a water feature that greatly resembles the 2006 park rendering, it’s unknown if the eventual park will match any of these designs. After all, Hong Kong Disneyland itself differed greatly from even its early official press releases, and the pirate land concept for Hong Kong that was also featured prominently in the 2006 annual report was eventually abandoned.
Much of the discussion online has been about how Disney’s new franchise mania will affect the park’s aesthetic. Many expect pirates, princesses, pixies, and Pixar to rule the day, and if fans think the current park attractions are character-heavy then they haven’t seen anything yet. The latest gossip, featured on Screamscape and elsewhere, brings up the possibility that the Shanghai site will be Disney’s first park to include characters from Marvel Comics. Others expect the park to receive Hong Kong’s rejected pirate land, although that is sheer speculation.
Nevertheless, this will be the first Disney park to fully reflect CEO Bob Iger’s oft-stated push for “franchises” and “properties.” The sole purpose of this park, from management’s perspective, often seems to be to fully inject Disney’s intellectual property into the subconscious of billions of young Chinese. Regardless of Imagineers’ sincere efforts to build a quality theme park, some fans are concerned that the real purpose of Shanghai Disneyland is not to create a great park but to capitalize on all those viewers of the new Disney cable and satellite channels and of millions of hopefully non-pirated DVDs. The final product’s makeup can be deduced by the occasional comments by management over difficulties in Hong Kong; they often speak of how Chinese children are unfamiliar with western fairytales and are thus unaffected by the traditional Fantasyland attractions. Unless they’re planning on basing Shanghai Disneyland on traditional Chinese stories, which I doubt, or letting quality attractions stand on their own merits, which I also doubt, one fears that the order of the day will be Pixar, Pixar, Pixar.
But again, this is all speculation. It appears that Disney is trying to build a new kind of Disney kingdom, which is good considering that there are already two traditional Disneyland-type parks within the region. There’s certainly room for innovation, and hopefully in the shadow of Hong Kong Disneyland’s difficulties the Imagineers will be given wider leeway to really build something that impresses. We still have no idea when we’ll ever actually find out something substantive about the project, but all signs indicate that it will be sooner rather than later.
UPDATE: It looks like land expropriation for the resort has begun. Apparently, for several years the Shanghai government has been filing preparatory expropriation plans for something called “Buenaland Shanghai”. Very clever, guys. Apparently the Shanghai press, who didn’t pick up on this at all, needs to hire some Disney nerds.