Wanda wages war on Disney

Wanda's theme park, with two of China's biggest rides, has attracted thrill-seekers. However, experts are not certain it can do better than Disney, which has even threatened legal action after characters such as Snow White were spotted posing for pho
Wanda's theme park, with two of China's biggest rides, has attracted thrill-seekers. However, experts are not certain it can do better than Disney, which has even threatened legal action after characters such as Snow White were spotted posing for photos at Wanda's theme park.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG
Wanda's theme park, with two of China's biggest rides, has attracted thrill-seekers. However, experts are not certain it can do better than Disney, which has even threatened legal action after characters such as Snow White were spotted posing for pho
Wanda's theme park, with two of China's biggest rides, has attracted thrill-seekers. However, experts are not certain it can do better than Disney, which has even threatened legal action after characters such as Snow White were spotted posing for photos at Wanda's theme park.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG

The moment he heard Chinese conglomerate Wanda was opening its first theme park, Mr Ren Zhihao made plans to visit.

A self-confessed thrill-seeker, he travelled 16 hours by train from northern Xi'an to Nanchang city in south-eastern Jiangxi province, just for the chance to try the daredevil rides at Wanda Cultural Tourism City.

He and his two friends went on most of them, including what has been touted as China's highest drop tower and its longest roller coaster.

"We came because we knew Wanda could afford to build good rides - and it did," Mr Ren, 24, told The Sunday Times. "We enjoyed ourselves."

Such feedback would be music to the ears of Wanda boss and China's richest man Wang Jianlin, who has declared war on Disney just weeks before the world's most famous theme park officially opens on the mainland.

Late last month, the outspoken billionaire unveiled the first of his company's 15 planned theme parks around the country, in a bid to steal the march on the American entertainment giant.

Shanghai Disneyland opens on June 16 and - despite what sceptics say - Mr Wang is confident of taking it on, with his latest expansion into the entertainment and leisure sector. In fact, Disney should not have come to China, he said in a CCTV interview last month. "Over the next 10 to 20 years, Wanda will make Disney's China venture remain unprofitable."

In return, Disney threatened legal action after characters such as Snow White were spotted posing for photos at Wanda's theme park. Wanda retorted that the characters were lawfully hired by mall retailers operating outside.

The US$3.2 billion (S$4.3 billion) Wanda Cultural Tourism City also holds a movie park, a giant aquarium and hotels.

The Chinese press has dubbed this "The Battle of the Tiger and Wolves", after Mr Wang noted that "one tiger is no match for a pack of wolves", suggesting that Disney's lone theme park will be outgunned.

He further criticised Disney for lacking creativity, by relying on decades-old characters to make money. "The frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of following them has passed," he declared.

While Disney has said it was "perplexed" about the public battle Mr Wang is waging, it is clear what both sides are sparring over: China's tourism industry, valued at US$610 billion and set to double by 2020.

For Nanchang residents such as undergraduate Fan Jiasheng, 20, the new theme park is a godsend. He attended the official opening and was attracted by its ticket price, the most expensive of which, at 248 yuan (S$51), is still half of Shanghai Disneyland's equivalent.

"There are few fun activities in Nanchang, so this fills a demand," he told The Sunday Times.

Keen to grab a slice of the growing middle-class pie, Universal Studios, Dreamworks and Six Flags are all expected to join the fray with their own theme parks in the next few years.

But Mr Wang feels that Wanda has an edge because of its knowledge of local conditions. Its strategy is to hit the smaller but increasingly affluent Chinese cities outside of the major metropolises, such as Qingdao in eastern Shandong and Wuxi in coastal Jiangsu.

A long-time champion of Chinese culture and values, the property mogul also promises to inject a stronger local flavour, believing this will attract more customers.

In Nanchang, for instance, visitors can soar above Jiangxi in a flight simulator while buildings are shaped like porcelain ware, which the Jiangxi city of Jingdezhen is famous for. There is also a section named after the famous Peach Blossom Spring fable by renowned Jiangxi poet Tao Yuanming.

In the duel between the tiger and the wolves, however, few Chinese seem to share Mr Wang's bullishness.

In an online survey of more than 4,000 people by media firm Sina, only three in 10 agreed with the billionaire's assessment that Wanda could force Disneyland to remain unprofitable. More than 50 per cent disagreed.

More than half of the respondents also said they preferred Disneyland to Wanda's theme park. A quarter said the opposite, while the rest were undecided.

"Disney has long had popular original cartoon characters, while Wanda has nothing," one netizen wrote in the survey's comment section. "How is it planning to compete?"

Experts agree, pointing out that Disney's decades of experience running theme parks cannot be overlooked.

"Wanda's skill at operating theme parks has not been proven," noted China Securities International tourism analyst Jennifer So.

Still, Wanda believes it can attract 10 million visitors annually to Nanchang. Although Disney has made no projection for its Shanghai theme park, Chang Jiang Securities estimated 50 million people could visit each year.

Mr Ren says he will be at Hefei in central Anhui, where Wanda's next theme park is set to open in September. But he feels more Chinese will be attracted to Disneyland because of its reputation, creativity and service, which Wanda lacks.

"The Chinese like Western culture precisely because it is different," he said. "Our country already has plenty of stuff with 'Chinese characteristics'. Tourists are not really looking for more of that in a theme park."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Wanda wages war on Disney'. Print Edition | Subscribe