Walt Disney Co.'s $5.5 billion Shanghai theme park, its first in mainland China, opened with fireworks, a dancing Mickey Mouse, dignitaries, and messages of support from two of the most powerful presidents in the world.
"I hope that Shanghai Disney can provide visitors with safe and premium experiences and become a world-class theme park. I hope it promotes exchanges across cultures of the world," said a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping, read by Vice Premier Wang Yang at the park's opening ceremony Thursday morning.
Tens of thousands are expected to stream into Shanghai Disneyland on its debut, after nearly two decades in the making. The resort is the largest foreign investment ever for the Burbank, California-based company, as it intensifies the race to dominate China's $610 billion tourism industry.
"The resort captures the promise of our bilateral relationship," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a letter, which Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger read at the ceremony attended by senior officials including Shanghai's Communist Party secretary and its mayor.
The entertainment giant has already begun construction to expand attractions within the park's 1,729 acres of land, Mr. Iger said at a briefing Wednesday. The existing resort covers about 963 acres.
"Nothing is as impactful, nothing creates a connection to our stories, to our brands, to our characters, than a theme park experience," said Mr. Iger. "The experience people have when they spend time in our theme parks is immersive. They not only hear and see our stories but they actually enter them, they live in them."
While most of the 300 theme parks in China are currently unprofitable ventures, Disney is leading an incoming wave of top-notch megaparks developed by both local and foreign operators competing for a tourism industry that is set to double by 2020.
About 60 more parks will open by then to serve Chinese consumers, including Dalian Wanda Group's chain of 15 "Wanda Cities." DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc's $2.4 billion DreamCenter is scheduled for 2017, while Haichang Ocean Park Holdings plans a marine park an hour from Disneyland and Six Flags Entertainment's Shanghai park will be its first outside North America.
"The Shanghai resort shows the confidence of the international business community in China's economic potential," said Mr. Wang, one of the four vice premiers in the country's State Council, in a speech as a drizzle fell during the ceremony. Rain marks "a good and auspicious start" according to Chinese culture, he said.
Amid the activities surrounding the Shanghai park debut, Mr. Iger offered his sympathies to the family of a child who died in an incident at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The company said Thursday beaches in the Florida resort area remain closed until further notice after the death of the 2-year-old boy who was dragged by an alligator into a man-made lake.
Iger, who is also the company's chairman, first stepped foot on land that would become the Disney site in Shanghai's Pudong district 17 years ago. The construction of the resort, a joint venture between Disney and the state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group, broke ground in 2011.
"It's a big bet on a big market and it represents not only our biggest entrance into this market but the potential to deliver great growth for the company long term," Mr. Iger said in a Bloomberg TV interview June 9.
There's big money at stake. About 25% of Chinese consumers surveyed in 2015 plan to spend more of their income on leisure and entertainment, according to a March report from McKinsey & Co. They're also showing an increasing willingness to pay a premium for better goods, with half of those surveyed seeking the "best and most expensive" products.
From the peony flower design on the turret of the park's centerpiece castle, to a comedic Beijing opera interlude in the Mandarin version of the Lion King musical, Disney has taken pains to incorporate Chinese elements into the resort.
"We didn't build Disneyland in China, we built China's Disneyland," Mr. Iger said.
Leia Mi, the concept designer for the Shanghai park's castle, said that Disney conducted thorough market research into Chinese preferences. For example, while other Disneylands showcase a castle that guests walk through, the Shanghai park castle was designed with eating and retail space within them to meet Chinese expectations.
While the castles in Hong Kong and Anaheim are a tribute to the Disney character Sleeping Beauty, the designers also chose to represent all the Disney princesses inside Shanghai's castle. For most Chinese, there isn't one Disney princess that stands out, the designer said.
"The Chinese can learn the princesses over time and this gives them an opportunity to have an introduction to all of the princess stories," said executive producer Ali Rubinstein.
Disney's designers and engineers said that the park was the grandest and most ambitious they have created, aided by new 3-D design technology that allowed them to identify and solve problems before construction began.
"We certainly invented a few things for this in terms of technology development," said the resort's executive producer, Jodi Mclaughlin. "We worked hard to be very daring with this project and raise the bar in terms of what a Disney experience is. You'll see things here that you won't see any place else."
Speaking before Thursday's opening, college student Shi Mi said he plans to make multiple visits to the Shanghai park, after having been to all five other Disney resorts around the world. He said he only managed to get a ticket from a friend who works as a travel agent because online tickets were snapped up within minutes of going on sale in March.
"There's a certain romance to it for me," said the 19-year-old Shanghai native.
-- Bloomberg News