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Curtain finally rises on Shanghai Disneyland

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People gather outside Shanghai Disney Resort before its grand opening on June 16.   © Kyodo

SHANGHAI -- After more than a decade of planning, five years of construction and massive anticipation, mainland China's first Disney theme park opened its gates in Shanghai on Thursday.

Walt Disney, the U.S. entertainment conglomerate, partnered with Shanghai Shendi Group, a 100% state-owned company, to build the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort.

The park boasts the tallest and largest of all Disney castles, as well as attractions based on such movies as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Tron." The 3.9-sq.-km property also features two hotels, numerous shops and restaurants, a theater and a 390,000-sq.-meter lake.

"We didn't just build Disneyland in China, we built China's Disneyland," said Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger at a press conference in Shanghai on Wednesday. "We want the people who visit to feel welcome and comfortable here, to have a sense that this is their park -- imagined, designed and created just for them."

Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger

To achieve that goal, Disney has adopted a philosophy of "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese" for the park. For example, 70% of the food served there is Chinese, and Disney's first Mandarin version of the Broadway musical "The Lion King" will be performed there.

The new complex is Disney's sixth resort worldwide, following those in Florida, California, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. But establishing a home in mainland China carries special significance for Disney, not least of all, said Iger, because "China obviously represents incredible potential for Walt Disney Co. in the near term and over the long term." Even with the nation's economy slowing, China's growing middle class and rising domestic tourism bode well for Disney's prospects there.

Bai Xueyi, a 31-year-old tea shop owner from the southern province of Guangxi, is among those who lend the Chinese market the "incredible potential" that Iger is so excited about. A big fan of Disney movies and Mickey Mouse since childhood, she spent eight hours on a train just to visit the new park. "I will come back with my son," she said.

Like Bai, millions more are expected to flock to Shanghai Disneyland in the months and years ahead. Nomura Group predicts the resort will draw 15 million visitors in the first year, placing it behind only Tokyo Disneyland in terms of annual attendance.

Walt Disney is rushing to meet anticipated future demand, with construction to expand the Shanghai resort already underway, according to Iger. There is ample room for it, as the park is using only slightly more than half of the 7 sq. km of land available to it there.

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