Disney CEO Iger says China has ‘incredible potential’

A visitor wearing a Mickey Mouse hat eats a Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream during a tour on the eve of the opening of the Disney Resort in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Disney will open its first resort in mainland China on Thursday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

SHANGHAI (AP) — The debut of Shanghai Disneyland offers Walt Disney Co. “incredible potential” for boosting its brand in the world’s most populous market, Disney’s chief executive said Wednesday.

Disney’s first theme park in mainland China is designed to be authentically Disney but also “distinctly Chinese,” Bob Iger said ahead of Thursday’s grand opening for the $5.5 billion park.

Shanghai Disneyland will face competition from China’s own young but ambitious entertainment industry and likely hurdles from official controls and censorship.

Disney movies including “The Lion King” and “Frozen” are popular in China, and Mickey Mouse is beloved as “Mi Laoshu.”

But Iger said he hopes the park will create stronger bonds with Chinese consumers, helping to revive its struggling international theme parks business.

“China obviously represents incredible potential for the Walt Disney Co.,” he said.

“We’ve considered many ways to approach growth in China,” he said. “Nothing is as impactful, nothing creates a connection to our stories, to our brands, to our characters, as a theme park experience.”

Analysts expect Shanghai Disneyland to become the world’s most-visited theme park, attracting up to 50 million guests a year, compared with 19.3 million people for Disney’s flagship Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 2014.

The park boasts the biggest, most interactive Storybook Castle in the world and the latest in theme park technology. Hundreds of residents and small businesses were forced to move away from the park’s site on marshy farmland east of the city.

Despite a sharp slowdown in growth, China’s economy still is one of the world’s best-performing and tourism spending is rising.

Total visitor numbers to theme parks are forecast to more than double to 282 million in 2019 from 2014’s 133 million, according to Euromonitor International, a research company.

The company behind Mickey Mouse is part of a rush of global brands in industries from autos to mobile phones that are rolling out products designed for increasingly prosperous Chinese consumers at a time of weak sales growth in other markets.

To appeal to Chinese visitors, Disney added a teahouse and other China-themed elements to its latest park.

In a garden leading to its iconic castle, Disney created a “Garden of the Twelve Friends” using characters such as Remy from “Ratatouille” and Tigger from “Winnie the Pooh” to represent animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

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