Steamboat Willie on the Yangtze

by by Natalie Jablonski

Last week, the Walt Disney Company announced that China’s central government had finally approved the Company’s plans for a theme park in Shanghai Province. The Disney theme park, the first in mainland China and the fourth outside the United States, is slated to open in 2014.

In a press release, Walt Disney’s president and CEO Robert Iger said, “China is one of the most dynamic, exciting and important countries in the world, and this approval marks a very significant milestone for The Walt Disney Company in mainland China.” The first phase will “include a Magic Kingdom-style theme park with characteristics tailored to the Shanghai region,” while still featuring “amenities consistent with Disney’s destination resorts worldwide.”

The initial phase of the theme park will take up 1000 acres in the Pudong District of Shanghai, and cost around $3.5 billion, making it “one of the largest foreign investments in China ever,” according to The New York Times. Later phases of development will include more hotels and shopping districts, ultimately occupying as many as 1,700 acres and boasting a capacity on par with Walt Disney World, which draws 45 million visitors per year.

The nearly 10 years of negotiations preceding the announcement led Shanghai Mayor Han to describe Disney and Shanghai as, “lovers, still in love but having a hard time deciding when to get married,” as reported by the Oriental Morning Press last year.
While some analysts interpret Disney’s entry into China as a striking symbol of Western cultural influence penetrating closed-off China, this may be an inappropriate generalization. Lingzhen Wang, Brown University Professor of East Asian Studies, argues that, “[a] Disney Park in China should be understood more as a symbol of global capitalism and universal consumerism rather than Westernization, because Shanghai, the city, has long been a cosmopolitan hybrid in terms of its economic structure, its cityscape, and its lifestyle.” In other words, “a Disney Park won’t make Shanghai more Western, but it surely will help Shanghai develop into a global center for capitalist market and entertaining business.”

Land values in Pudong District are already jumping with the park’s anticipated arrival, and so far China’s central government has notified 700 families that they will need to relocate to make room for the new theme park, according to Bloomberg News. As many as 5000 families could be required to relocate, and compensated with as little as 35 square meters of living space—a dramatic cutback from already modest housing that’s especially significant for small farmers on the outskirts of Shanghai Province. China’s central government also has a controversial history of mass relocation, as witnessed in preparations for the Three Gorges Dam and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Despite controversy, many on both ends of the deal see it as an exciting development. Disney stands to benefit greatly from the 300 million potential customers in the immediate vicinity of Shanghai, mainland China’s richest city, and the endeavor could further the company’s goal of 50 percent of profits generated overseas. The New York Times reports that the park will also create tens of thousands of jobs for Shanghai during challenging economic times and can be seen as an encouraging partnership between Chinese and U.S. industries. Shanghai resident Amanda Zhang told Reuters, “This means we have a new place to party and a new theme park to play. I think whether it is for the government or for consumers like us, this is a very good improvement.”

NATALIE JABLONSKI B’10 was already skeptical of EuroDisney.