Late last month, Disney released a rather unassuming photo of two cranes on a muddy field hoisting two large beams. Next to the image is a second one – imaginary for now – of what those two foundational concrete piles will one day become: Shanghai Disneyland’s Enchanted Storybrook Castle. The construction of the first Cinderella Castle in mainland China points to a fundamental shift in the global theme park scene.
Number crunchers found in the 2012 Theme Index that a record 108.7 million people flooded into Asia’s burgeoning theme parks last year, for an annual increase of more than six percent. In particular, Hong Kong Disney and Universal Studios Japan had impressive performances, with both seeing a 14 percent spike year on year. By comparison, global attendance rates rose five percent over the same period.
Accounting for the rapid ascent of theme parks in Asia, Stefan Zwanzger, “the Theme Park Guy”, told The Diplomat, “I think the novelty factor plays a big role. Most world-class theme parks in Asia have been built in the 21st century.”
This is likely a sign of things to come, as these numbers are pre-Shanghai Disneyland. The gates to Shanghai’s take on the Magic Kingdom are set to swing open to the Mickey-crazed masses in 2015. While details are slim at present, Disney higher-ups have hinted that elements of the park will possess Chinese characteristics.
“Authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese,” Disney’s chief executive Robert Iger said. “There will certainly be familiar Disney elements, but it will also be quite different from the moment that you walk through the gates.”
Zwanzger added, “Many theme parks in Asia fail to take on local flavors. They've got Wild West towns – awkward. Shanghai Disneyland promises to have a lot of local flavor, so that will be interesting to see.”
The $4.4 billion theme park and resort will sit on 1,000 acres, which will boast two hotels, transport hubs, mammoth parking lots, 495,000 square feet of retail space, a dining and entertainment venue – with particular emphasis on dining – a lake and various other entertainment facilities. And the park’s jewel in the crown, Enchanted Storybrook Castle, will be the brand’s fairest – or at least largest – in all the land. As of late May, construction of the enchanted stronghold is underway.
In its first year alone, the park is expected to draw 10 million visitors. “Shanghai Disneyland might very well become the most successful theme park in Asia, if not the world,” Zwanzger said. Having visited 72 theme parks in Asia alone – sans Middle Eastern offerings – he speaks from experience.
It should come as no surprise, then, that attendance to Asian theme parks is on track to overtake all other regions on the planet. Nor is Disney the only player in the region. Universal Studios also has a major presence, particularly in Japan, where its park in Osaka is booming.
But according to Zwanzger, the range of quality in the region is dramatic, from the world’s best developed concepts to its worst. “When people speak about the 'huge phenomenon' of theme parks in Asia, don't be mistaken,” said Zwanzger. “In Asia there are empty and abandoned theme parks, too, and plenty of them.”
He continued, “Fake Mickey Mouse actors posing with the guests in some newly built parks that lack creativity more than anything else are quite disturbing,” he said. “These parks won't survive in the long term. What were the investors thinking?”
Perhaps the strangest amusement park of all is located in North Korea, which looks more like dilapidated ghost towns than the place of fun they were intended to be. While the parks built to date in Pyongyang’s environs lack a cohesive theme, this is set to change. Last year Kim Jong-Un declared the nation was through with “belt-tightening” and announced plans to create a park with at least some semblance of a theme: the world outside the hermit kingdom’s borders, including replicas of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.
According to Zwanzger, other heavy hitters to keep an eye on in the coming years include a proposed Universal Studios Korea Resort, the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom theme park currently under construction in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai.
“If a Paramount Park eventually breaks ground in China, Korea or Japan, that will be interesting, as well,” he added. “The Beijing-based Wanda Group aims to become a top player in the theme park world, too. We’ll see.” An extensive global list of theme parks currently planned or under construction can be seen here.
“Most of the innovative rides seen in Asian theme parks today are actually being shipped from America and Europe,” Zwanzger said. “So you experience the most innovative and new stuff here in Asia, but the brains behind it/them still sit in Los Angeles and the like.”
Yet, it may only be a matter of time until Asian theme parks overtake the West in terms of innovation as well.