China is expected to build an astonishing 59 theme parks by 2020, with international industry leaders such as Disney, Universal and Six Flags playing catch-up with a host of rising regional players.
Long known for money-losing parks, unfinished projects and knockoff roller coasters, China is poised to undertake a $23.8-billion expansion of its theme park industry and overtake the United States in annual attendance, according to a report by industry analyst AECOM.
"China is without a question the hottest spot on the planet," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.
The imminent unveiling of Shanghai Disneyland along with a change in government regulation that moves new project approval from the national to the regional level are driving the latest round of theme park development in China.
The $4.4-billion Shanghai Disney resort is expected to open in late 2015 or early 2016 with a Magic Kingdom-style theme park, two hotels and a Downtown Disney shopping center.
The park's Storybook Castle, the largest and tallest of all Disney's turreted icons, will be the departure point for a 10-minute boat ride around Fantasyland. The Shanghai park is also expected to include a Pirates of the Caribbean themed land, a Seven Dwarfs mine train ride and a Tron Lightcycle Power Run motorcycle-style coaster.
Universal Studios is countering Disney's debut with a $2-billion movie theme park in Beijing, set to open in 2018.
Similarly, Six Flags recently announced plans to build and operate multiple amusement parks in China over the next decade, with a Tianjin location expected in 2018.
The biggest new regional player in China's theme park industry is Wanda Group, a $62-billion behemoth specializing in department stores, shopping malls and hotels. The Chinese conglomerate acquired United States-based AMC Theaters in 2012.
Operating under the Wanda City banner, the company plans to introduce at least five theme parks across China in the next few years.
The Wanda City park in Xishuangbanna, near the Laos border, will include a butterfly-themed Bolliger & Mabillard flying coaster (similar to Manta at SeaWorld Orlando), an Intamin water coaster (similar to Divertical at Italy's Mirabilandia) and a Zamperla MotoCoaster (similar to Pony Express at Knott's Berry Farm).
In Nanchang, located between Shanghai and Hong Kong, Wanda is completely rebuilding an existing park called Treasure Gourd Farm. Among the attractions schedule to debut in 2015: The 5,100-foot-long Viper wooden terrain coaster from Pennsylvania-based Great Coasters International and a 243-foot-tall Intamin Mega coaster that reaches a breathtaking 85 mph.
Wanda's waterfront park in Hefei, about 300 miles west of Shanghai, will boast a Premier Rides launch coaster with the world's tallest loop (a record currently held by Full Throttle at Six Flags Magic Mountain) and dueling tilt coasters similar to Taiwan's Gravity Max.
The lakeside Wanda park in Wuxi (outside Shanghai) will be home to an Intamin launch coaster while the Harbin park (in northeast China) will feature a wild-looking clone of Mack Rides' Blue Fire coaster launched out of the business end of a sudsy beer bottle.
Not to be outdone, the rival Fantawild theme park chain has been experiencing tremendous growth, with annual attendance leaping 43% in 2013. The pace isn't expected to slow down, with at least five parks set to open in the next two years.
Three of the Fantawild parks – in Zhuzhou, Jinan and Wuhu – will each be getting a Vekoma Boomerang shuttle coaster and a Gravity Group wooden coaster, with at least one of the wooden coasters expected to feature a looping inversion. Wooden coasters are also planned for the new Fantawild parks in Zhengzhou and Ningbo.
Set to open later this year, the Romon World theme park in Ningbo (a seaport south of Shanghai) will be similar to South Korea's Lotte World, which combines indoor and outdoor areas to allow for year-round operation.
Romon World will feature the triple inversion Legendary Dragon launch coaster with an inside top hat element (built by German-based Maurer Sohne) and the dual inversion Travel Through Europe looping coaster with an inline twist (built by Swiss-based Intamin).
In the northwest Chinese city of Xi'an, Lewa Happy World is scheduled to debut in 2015 with up to nine coasters, including a 197-foot-tall Mack Rides megacoaster that reaches a top speed of 75 mph.
The former Fushun Dreamworld, an unfinished theme park project east of Beijing with a massive hotel in the style of a Disney castle, will be reborn as Hotgo Park featuring a 4,000-foot-long Gravity Group wooden coaster called High Heat. The park will also add a S&S Worldwide drop tower as well as trio of Vekoma coasters.
OCT Parks, which draws 26 million visitors annually to its chain of Happy Valley amusement parks, ranks behind only Disney, Universal and Merlin (Legoland's parent company) in total attendance.
Set to debut in 2017, the latest Happy Valley park in southwest China's Chongqing is expected to add an Intamin Mega Lite and a S&S Worldwide launch coaster.