Disneyland faces tough sell in China
AS THE opening of the US$5.5 billion (S$7.5 billion) Shanghai Disneyland draws near, Walt Disney Co has a challenge.
The hold of rival Asian characters such as China's home-grown Boonie Bears or Big Big Wolf means kids have less time for Mickey Mouse and Friends.
And as the number of competing theme parks in China soars, it will become even harder to fuel long-term traffic after the turnstiles start clicking on Thursday.
"When we get kids now to write down their favourite cartoon character, very few put down Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck," said Song Lei, Hong Kong-based director at Animation-Comic-Game Group.
China's attitude to Disney is ambivalent. Its military-linked PLA Daily warned of what it said was "invisible propaganda" in Disney's Zootopia.
Yet, chief executive Bob Iger got a presidential welcome from Xi Jinping in May.
Disney is still enjoying a banner year at the box office in China. Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are among the 10 most-watched movies.
Chris Yoshii, Asia-Pacific vice-president for Aecom and a member of the Themed Entertainment Association, predicts China's theme park market will overtake the United States' in the "not too distant future".
But this is by no means all Disney. About 2,500 parks are planned in China, including Japanese brand Hello Kitty, and there is already a Dwarf Empire in Yunnan.
DreamWorks Animation's US$2.4 billion DreamCenter and Six Flags Entertainment Corp's park slated to open in 2019 are among Disney's US competitors.
Disney is betting on its years of experience running the world's most successful parks.
For its first foray into the mainland Chinese market, the company has tailored the new park to local tastes.
Out goes Main Street, the idealised small-town America at the heart of its other parks, and in comes a large garden featuring Disney's take on the Chinese zodiac. It hired a retired PLA general to direct its Tarzan show at the park.
Some characters appear to have had a makeover, said Jim Hill who writes a Disney fan blog. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are "softer and rounder", he noted, making them appear more similar to popular Chinese characters.