RACHEL OAKES WRITES: Shanghai Disney Resort has been on a roll since its 2016 opening, and the upward trend continues. Now, in a remarkable show of bilateral partnering and just two years after Disney opened its doors, the most successful theme park in China has officially begun its first major expansion: Disney Pixar Toy Story.
However, Disney can claim just a 43% share of this success; 57% belongs to a state-owned Chinese company called the Shanghai Shendi Group. This does not disturb Disney. “So far, we see that collaboration as being viewed by our partners in government as a real positive aspect of Shanghai Disneyland,” says Bob Weis, president of Walt Disney Imagineering.
So: big success for Disney, bigger success for China. Even in its first years, by 2017 Shanghai Disney Resort helped raise Disney Parks and Resorts’ total revenue by 12%. But such success is nothing new. Disney, with cartoons, first entered into China in 1938 and has profited ever since. Despite placement on the government’s list of heavily regulated industries (as a media company), Disney has managed to capture the hearts of the Chinese people.
In an interview, Disney CEO Bob Iger said: “How do you deal with the – hey, here you’ve got Xi Jinping, it’s clearly tightening up. We saw it with the anti-corruption campaign… How is it you deal with the question of resistance to potential content?”
This question resonates with many companies that fear the unknown in China’s economic and political reforms. Iger’s response was insightful and illuminating: “It’s interesting, I mean, very specifically about China, [Xi Jinping] led a charge among senior government officials before he was in his current role…to enable us with local partners to invest a tremendous amount of money, billions of dollars, to bring Disneyland, that quintessential American icon and experience, to the biggest, most populous city in the world. I’ve spoken with him about it. He tells a story of an argument that took place between Hu Jintao, the then-party secretary of Shanghai, and Xi Jinping when he was vice premier. And the debate was, do we fund a local company to build a gigantic theme park in Shanghai on this incredible piece of land that is right between downtown Shanghai and the airport? Or do we let Disney come in?
“And he [Xi] said, ‘we should let Disney come in’. And when I asked him, why did you feel so strongly about that, he said, because ‘you’re loved in this country. People love Disney. And they’ve heard of Disneyland. A lot of people have seen pictures of it, have read about it, have heard of people going. And if we can do that here, that’s a triumph on our part’…. Pretty interesting.”
Disney would not be daunted by restrictions, Instead, it partnered with the ones doing the restricting—creative business strategy, but one that’s necessary for Disney (or almost any U.S. company) to achieve continued success in China. The advent of the Toy Story Land project reflects China’s longstanding love for Disney movies— the original Toy Story film was the highest grossing Pixar film in China at its time. Since then, Disney has been working to fortify a strong presence in the East, and looks towards China as an integral part of its future.
“I want to thank the people of China for wholeheartedly embracing this resort, for truly making it your own design,” Iger said at the Toy Story Land launch. “We look forward to a future of continued partnership.”