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Shanghai’s Disneyland: Mickey Mouse With Chinese Characteristics

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Asia Life

Shanghai’s Disneyland: Mickey Mouse With Chinese Characteristics

New details about Shanghai Disneyland reveal how the park fuses a global brand with Chinese culture.

Mickey Mouse is about to officially set up shop in China: Shanghai’s Disneyland Park is slated to open in the spring of 2016, after five years of construction. It will be the first Disneyland on mainland China, although Hong Kong Disneyland will celebrate its 10th anniversary this September.

On Wednesday, Disney CEO Bob Iger unveiled new details about the park in a presentation at the Shanghai Expo Center. According to Iger, the end goal is a park “that is both authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese” — Disney with Chinese characteristics.

Shanghai Disneyland will boast attractions related to two of Disney’s most recent – and popular – acquisitions: Marvel Entertainment (responsible for the popular superhero films featuring Iron Man, Captain America, and the Avengers) and the Star Wars films.

The Marvel films are particularly popular in China; this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ranks as the third highest-grossing film of all time in China, reaching nearly 1.5 billion yuan (roughly $240 million). Other recent Marvel films have done well for themselves too, particularly Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($115 million) and Iron Man 3 ($121 million). Shanghai Disneyland will seek to take advantage of that fanbase with its “Marvel Universe” attraction, where fans can meet costumed superheros and view a multimedia attraction introducing the Marvel world.

Another popular live-action Disney franchise, the Pirates of the Caribbean series featuring Johnny Depp, has also done well at China’s box offices – and will have a corresponding place of honor at Shanghai Disneyland. In fact, one of the new park’s six themed areas – Treasure Cove — will be devoted entirely to pirates, with a Pirates of the Caribbean ride as the main attraction.

By contrast, Disney’s animated films (the product most associated with the Disney name) have underperformed in China. The movie Frozen, which broke records elsewhere in the world en route to becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time, scored only a paltry $48 million at the box office in China. It’s not Disney but DreamWorks – producer of Kung Fu Panda – that holds the Chinese record for highest-grossing animated film (the $96 million earned by Kung Fu Panda 2 in 2011). DreamWorks, which is co-producing Kung Fu Panda 3 with a Chinese partner, is preparing to open its own indoor entertainment center in Shanghai.

Still, the relative lack of box office success for Disney’s animated films doesn’t mean the new park will forgo the “Disney princess” aesthetic that serves as its trademark worldwide. In fact, the “Enchanted Storybook Castle” at Shanghai Disneyland is set to be the tallest and largest of any Disney park worldwide.

The park will also contain nods to Chinese culture. “We are building something truly special here in Shanghai that not only showcases the best of Disney’s storytelling but also celebrates and incorporates China’s incredibly rich heritage,” Iger explained. According to Xinhua, the main shopping and dining district will reflect Shanghai architecture, and the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac (reimagined as Disney and Pixar characters) will feature in one of the seven “Gardens of Imagination.” The Walt Disney Grand Theater in the park will host the first-ever Mandarin version of the musical “The Lion King.”

Shanghai Disneyland is only the latest example of a process that has been accelerating for years, as Hollywood production companies adapt to Chinese audiences. By doing so, they seek to maximize their profits in the rapidly-growing Chinese market. As Stanley Rosen wrote for The Diplomat earlier this year, the adjustments made during this process open Hollywood up to accusations of selling out — but China views itself as losing the “war” with Hollywood, as Chinese films often fall woefully short of their imported counterparts.