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Disney Characters Spark Controversy at China’s New Anti-Disneyland

May 31, 2016

First it was Captain America milling around outside. Then, Mickey and Minnie Mouse encouraging shoppers to visit a clothes shop. By the time a Stormtrooper was spotted at China’s newest theme park, developed by Dalian Wanda Group to be what founder Wang Jianlin has called a Disneyland killer, it became clear the Chinese really have a taste for Disney characters.

On Saturday Wanda opened its first city-theme-park located an 8-hour drive from Shanghai in a city called Nanchang. The week before, Wang, China’s richest man, said his company’s parks would ensure that Disney’s new Shanghai Disneyland is unprofitable for the next decade.

Wanda invested $3.5 billion into the Nanchang project, which features an outdoor amusement park with three roller coasters, an indoor movie theme park and aquarium, several resort hotels (including one claiming to be six-star quality), as well as a traditional Wanda shopping mall with foreign clothes shops and a Dairy Queen. What it did not feature was popular Chinese cartoon or superhero characters on par with Disney’s.

It was around the Wanda Mall where Captain America and Snow White floated around for pictures. The poorly costumed Stormtrooper stood next to the Wanda Movie Park. Disney owns Marvel (Captain America) and Lucasfilm (Stormtroopers).

A Stormtrooper outside Wanda's theme park in Nanchang. A Stormtrooper outside Wanda's theme park in Nanchang. Photograph by Scott Cendrowski

Disney (dis) wasn’t pleased with news of the slapdash costumes. It said it would “take action to address infringement” in a statement yesterday. Wanda responded, saying it hadn’t hired the characters and it couldn’t control the promotional activities of the retailers in its mall.

Disney may have forgiven Wanda had Wang not been so strident in his challenge to Disney, whose characters he criticized in comments on China’s state-run national television last week. “The frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of blindly following them have passed,” Wang said in a CCTV interview. The comments were a publicity stunt, but it surely caught the attention of Disney when Wang said his parks would ensure that Disneyland in China would be unprofitable over the next 10 to 20 years.

At the Nanchang opening on Saturday, Wang struck a similarly nationalistic tone. "Chinese culture led the world's for 2,000 years, but for the last 300 years, because of our lagging development and the invasion of foreign cultures, we have lacked confidence in our own culture," Wang said in a speech at the Nanchang grand opening. Wanda has said it wants to promote Chinese culture in its entertainment and tourism ventures. The facade of the Wanda shopping mall in Nanchang, for instance, is shaped like Chinese porcelain.

Nanchang is a city of 5 million known for its Ford factory. It has a GDP per capita of around $6,500 and is designated a “third tier” city in China, in the shadow of Tier 1 cities Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

It is also home to the ascendant Chinese middle class that Wanda is betting will visit theme parks closer to home in lieu of Shanghai’s Disneyland. The business model has similarities to Six Flags in the U.S., which offers consumers regional theme parks because not every American can afford a trip to Disney World.

Unlike Six Flags, however, Wanda has the huge financial support of local governments. In Nanchang, Wanda’s new “Cultural Tourism City” features rows of new apartments and roads and was built in cooperation with the provincial government. Wanda’s theme parks are the centerpiece of local governments’ development plans, which remain heavy on investment and infrastructure buildout amid China’s total debts, which are now reaching 280% of GDP.

Minnie Mouse inside the Wanda mall in Nanchang. Photograph by Scott Cendrowski

Wanda plans to open 15 to 20 theme parks in its latest business pivot changing the company from a real estate developer to an entertainment company. It’s as if U.S. mall developer Simon Group decided one day to emulate Universal Studios. Wanda says overall revenue rose 19% in 2015 to $45 billion, and most was driven by real estate. By 2018 it expects to earn two thirds of revenues from services, including entertainment and tourism.

Despite recent squabbles, the fight over theme park visitors will be bigger than just Wanda and Disney. In the next five years, Universal Theme Parks, Six Flags, and handfuls of Chinese companies are set to open new parks in China.

Mickey Mouse may be appearing at more parks than just Wanda's.

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