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World & Nation

Wanda shuts China theme park for ‘upgrades’— just 19 months after opening

Wanda Movie Park
A rendering of the Wanda Movie Park in Wuhan, China.
(Wanda Group)

When Disney opened its Shanghai resort in June, Wang Jianlin — the Chinese property, movie and theme park mogul — boldly dismissed the American company’s $5.5-billion project. 

“They shouldn’t have entered China,” the billionaire told China’s state-run CCTV ahead of the Disney park’s debut. “The frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of blindly following them have passed.”

Now, it looks like Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group may have some crow to eat. Wanda said this week that its indoor movie theme park in the central Chinese city of Wuhan — which it opened in late 2014 with great fanfare — has been closed for “upgrades and renovations.”

In a brief statement, the company said the facility was closing as of July 31. No reopening date was given.

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“To better serve customers, raise the quality and content of our all our services and give our customers a completely new experience, Wuhan Wanda Movie Park is undertaking a complete renovation and will suspend business as of July 31 for interior construction,” the company said.

Wanda did not say why a complete renovation was necessary after just 19 months of operation, though attendance is believed to have been far below the company’s expectations.

When the theme park opened, the company said it expected 3 million visitors in the first year. But the Chutian Metropolis Daily, a local newspaper, quoted a former Wanda employee as saying it was only attracting about 200 people per day. Four hundred people came on Sunday, the paper said.

Admission wasn’t cheap; it was initially set at about $52 on weekdays and about $65 on weekends. 

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Though it was called a “movie park,” the facility was completely indoors and the atmosphere was more like a shopping mall. The movie theme was generic, perhaps because Wanda does not own a significant amount of intellectual property like Disney. In a bid to remedy that, Wanda this year purchased Legendary Pictures in a $3.5-billion deal and has moved into movie production and distribution.

In Wuhan, the six attractions were designed with heavy input from award-winning Hollywood visual effects players, including Industrial Light & Magic and Rhythm & Hues, but visitors described the overall experience as dull.

Yu Qian 25, the owner of a dessert shop in Wuhan, said she visited the park shortly after the opening in late 2014 and saw no need to go back.

“The whole park only has six rides. I heard ‘Flying Over Wuhan’ was the best ride in the park, so we went to that first. It took us 2½ hours to wait in line and we only had 3 minutes on the ride,” she said. “I felt like I could go to any 4-D theater and have a better time than this.”

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The Movie Park is part of an $8-billion Wanda development in Wuhan that spans some 440 acres and includes hotels, office towers and residential buildings. The company also built an eye-catching, 2,000-seat circular theater, specially designed as the home for a Cirque du Soleil-style production called the Han Show. The theater alone reportedly cost $400 million.

A spokesman for Wanda said the Han Show was continuing to operate and is “running quite well.”

In late May, Wanda opened a $3.3-billion attraction called Wanda Cultural Tourism City in Nanchang, a city of 5 million in the southeastern province of Jiangxi. Wanda said at the time it had more than a dozen other theme park and entertainment projects in the works and slated to open by 2020. It was unclear whether the Wuhan park issues would affect those plans.

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The 500-acre Cultural Tourism City includes a theme park — with what is said to be China’s highest, longest and fastest roller coaster — plus an aquarium, a movie park with a 14-screen theater, five hotels and stores, according to Wanda.

The opening of the Nanchang complex was hit by controversy when reporters invited to the opening noticed a number of employees dressed up as Disney characters.

A reporter for Fortune magazine saw two workers in Mickey and Minnie Mouse get-ups encouraging shoppers to visit a clothes shop, as well as a “poorly costumed” Stormtrooper by the movie park and a Captain America in an outdoor area. 

Disney vowed to take legal action against Wanda if it found that its rights were being infringed upon.

Wanda responded by saying that the characters were not in the theme park and were not being used to promote the theme park but were in the adjacent Wanda Mall and were licensed by Disney to the individual stores.

Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report. 

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @JulieMakLAT.

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