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China to climb past US as top theme park market by 2020

Universal plans to open a theme park in Beijing.

NEW YORK -- China's growing middle class is looking to be entertained, and businesses at home and abroad are only too happy to oblige. The country is well on its way to becoming the world's biggest market for theme parks, with 60 or so large-scale facilities in the planning stages or further along.

     U.S. theme parks welcomed 220 million visitors in 2010, according to American consultancy Aecom. The Chinese figure came to 60 million that year but will likely climb to 127 million by 2015 as the number of facilities and income levels continue to rise. China is expected to draw 221 million people into its theme parks by 2020, surpassing the stagnant U.S. market to take the top spot.

Made in America

Ironically enough, U.S. businesses will play a leading role in this development.

     Walt Disney is gearing up to launch Shanghai Disneyland in 2015. DreamWorks Animation SKG, which produced "Kung Fu Panda" and other hit movies, is working toward opening a Shanghai theme park in 2016.

     U.S. media giant Comcast plans to build a Universal movie theme park in Beijing for more than 20 billion yuan ($3.27 billion). This will be the third in Asia, after sites in Osaka and Singapore. It is slated to open as early as 2019, operated by Universal Parks & Resorts and four Chinese state-run companies. The park itself will take up about 120 hectares. But the entire development, including resort facilities, will likely span roughly 400 hectares.

The Japanese connection

Japan is still the leader in the Asian theme park market for now, thanks largely to the Disney and Universal sites. But Aecom forecasts that the country will slip to second place once Shanghai Disneyland opens next year.

     Japanese company Sanrio will also play a role in the expansion of the Chinese theme park market, with plans to open a Hello Kitty-themed facility in Zhejiang Province next spring.

At the movies

Theme parks are not the only diversion that Chinese consumers cannot get enough of.

     The country is already the world's second-largest movie market, having surpassed Japan in 2012. Some estimates suggest that it will overtake North America as the biggest by 2020.

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