If Walt Disney Co. executives thought they were going to open a theme park in mainland China without major opposition, they were wrong.
Only weeks before the launch of the $5.5-billion Shanghai Disney Resort, a Chinese rival has vowed to outperform Disney with local theme parks that offer lower prices and more innovative rides and characters.
"I'm holding that we can win out," said Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate that specializes in hotels, malls and department stores. This weekend, the company plans to open a $3.2-billion tourism center in Nanchang, a midsize city in southeastern China.
The Wanda Group, which acquired United States-based AMC Theaters in 2012, has promised to build 15 to 20 other smaller theme parks across the country over the next several years. In January, Wanda reached a $3.5-billion deal to acquire Burbank-based Legendary Entertainment, one of the film production companies behind "The Dark Knight," "Jurassic World" and "Godzilla" movies.
Wang even predicted that the Shanghai resort, Disney's first theme park in mainland China, will eventually fail in the face of stiff competition from the Wanda Group's parks.
"The pace of opening is faster and every park of ours has its own business model, with constant innovation and combining indoor and outdoor parks," the Chinese billionaire said during an hour-long appearance Sunday night on state-run China Central Television. "So, I think that Disney's prospects in China, at least its financial status, don't look good to me."
A Disney representative said Wang's comment were "not worthy of a response."
The rivalry shouldn't be surprising. China has become the battleground in a theme park war, with nearly 60 parks proposed for construction by 2020. The new parks include massive projects by Chinese developers as well as U.S.-based Universal Studios and Six Flags Entertainment. The target of these efforts: a surging middle class with money to spend on travel and entertainment.
Most of the attention lately has been on the Shanghai Disney Resort.
The park opens June 16, featuring six themed areas, two hotels, a shopping district and 99 acres of gardens, lakes and parkland. The daily ticket prices will vary from 499 yuan ($76) during high-demand days, such as summer and in the two weeks immediately following the opening of the park, to 370 yuan ($56) on slower weekdays starting in September. The park will also offer discounts for children, seniors and visitors with disabilities.
Wang said that the high ticket prices at Shanghai Disney will scare off visitors.
"High prices will lose customers," he said. "So, this is a high-price problem in and of itself."
Wang also forecasted that Disney's outdoor theme park will struggle to attract visitors during the rainy summer season and the cold winters. Wanda's parks feature large expanses of indoor entertainment. Shanghai Disneyland also includes several indoor rides and attractions.
And Disney, Wang suggested, has relied too heavily on aging intellectual properties and characters — although he apparently didn't mention Disney's acquisition of the "Star Wars" and Marvel Comics franchises, which are being incorporated into attractions.
"Another thing," he said, "the frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of blindly following them has passed."