The Wanda group has declared war on Shanghai Disneyland ahead of its opening in mid-June. The battle is on for the control of amusement. Disney is familiar but Wanda has a home advantage, says DW's Frank Sieren.
China's entertainment industry is no longer fun and games. One of country's richest men has entered the business and intends to dominate the market. Wang Jianlin, the founder of Dalian Wanda Group, opened the first Wanda City amusement park last Saturday, just two weeks before China's first Disneyland opens in Shanghai.
Located in Nanchang in the province of Jiangxi, Wanda City boasts a theme park, a movie park, an aquarium, hotels and a shopping mall and cost 3.2 billion dollars to build. The first of between 15 and 20 planned Wanda Cities, it is expected to attract up to 10 million visitors per year. Wang's plans couldn't be grander.
He's not lost any time declaring his rival. Last week, on state television he made it clear that Disneyland was losing its time in China and that the era when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck could enthrall the masses was long gone. He said that his parks would ensure Disney would be unprofitable over the next 10 to 20 years. This will surely have pleased many conservative politicians in the government who do not like the soft power being used by the US to win over Chinese hearts with Mickey and Donald.
Big demand for entertainment parks
But Wang is first and foremost a businessman. His TV appearance was a PR stunt ahead of the Wanda City opening, but one that made clear who Wang considers his toughest rival. Disneyland Shanghai is also expecting to attract up to 10 million visitors per year and at 5.5 billion dollars it cost considerably more than its Chinese competitor. Tickets also cost twice the price and Disneyland is hoping to attract visitors from all over China.
The advantage of Wanda Cities is that they will be located near several big cities so visitors will have similar experiences without travel costs and lower entrance fees. At least this is what Wang hopes.
However, it is unlikely that Wanda City will be able to poach all Disney's customers so fast. The demand for theme parks in China is too big. There were 110 million visitors in 2015 and the figure is expected to double by 2020. The whole tourism sector is worth some 680 billion dollars right now in China and the government also expects this figure to double over the next four years.
There is no question of a saturated market with the rapidly growing middle class - with increasing wealth comes an increasing desire for entertainment. And the fact that there is no longer a one child policy will surely see an increase in the birth rate. More children means more visitors to theme parks.
Wanda is not only about theme parks. Wang wants to turn his real estate company into one of the biggest entertainment companies in China. The Dalian Wanda group is the largest cinema operator in the world and is building a Chinese version of Hollywood in the coastal city of Qingdao.
An interesting dynamic is developing between rivals Wanda and Disney that it will be interesting to follow in future. The US original is prestigious and boasts familiar, popular characters that are an audience magnet. Many children and adults want to go to "real Disneyland". Almost a million people have already visited the theme park's location to get a glimpse into the US fairy tale world.
Disney wants to defend these ideals at all costs. It has announced it will sue anybody trying to copy its brand. But this is a Sisyphean task. After pictures of people dressed in Star Wars costumes in front of stores in the Wanda City mall appeared, Disney said it would "take action to address infringement."
The Disney brand and characters are ubiquitous in China and last October the State Administration for Industry & Commerce issued a circular saying that it would clamp down on violations of Disney copyright over the next year. Wanda has simply said that it cannot control the promotional activities of retailers in its mall. In any case, the penalties for copyright infringement remain very low in China.
A tiger against a pack of wolves
If Disney is a tiger, then Wanda is a pack of wolves - that's how Wanda CEO put it succinctly. He is right in various ways. Disney is not completely new in China and has already gained some experience with its theme park in Hong Kong, but its lone mainland theme park in Shanghai will be alone against 15 Wanda Cities. Moreover, the Chinese real estate giant not only has plenty of money but good links to politicians in China.
With no simpler way of boosting tourism, local governments in the cities where these Chinese theme parks are emerging are delighted about the investment. Wang Jianlin will not accept failure - Disney can be sure of this. So will the tiger survive? Perhaps China is big enough to accommodate the tiger and the wolves.
DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.