So You Want to Build a Theme Park with a Communist Government

The happiest place in China. (Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
The happiest place in China. (Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Shanghai Disney Resort opened its gates to the public today, and in every single aspect it’s the crown jewel in a Disney Princess theme park tiara. But it wasn’t enough to build a $5.5 billion megapark that’s four times the size of Disneyland. Disney also used the opportunity to gain a greater foothold in China—which was not always so easy. A New York Times report gives insight into the intense negotiations between Disney CEO Bob Iger and the Chinese government to introduce Mickey to Communism.


In a way, it’s easier to build a park in a Communist state. The Chinese government has a significant stake in the resort, which means it also controls the development and management of the resort itself. So getting hundreds of people’s homes torn down to build the Magic Kingdom? No problem!

State-run construction companies cleared a 1,700-acre tract to build the resort, which will ultimately include two additional Disney theme parks and thousands of Disney hotel rooms, analysts say. Authorities have relocated residents, moved graves and closed more than 150 polluting factories. The government built new infrastructure, including a subway line that goes directly to the park’s front gate.

But some of the other stuff was not as simple. Usually, when Disney builds a new theme park in a new country, part of the pitch is that Disney will also bring a broadcast network and licensing deals along with it. But as talks began, China was still peeved about a little film named Kundun. After Disney released the 1997 Martin Scorsese movie about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan freedom, China started blocking Disney content.

Michael Eisner, Disney CEO at the time, had to do serious damage control:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

After that debacle was cleared up, Disney had to work on its plans for the Chinese version of Disneyland, which meant a serious creative departure from previous parks. Not only was “Main Street, USA” nixed by the Chinese (you’ll want to call it Mickey Avenue), some of the rides were deemed too American:

Worried that importing classic rides would reek of cultural imperialism, Disney left out stalwarts such as Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise and It’s a Small World. Instead, 80 percent of the Shanghai rides, like the “Tron” lightcycle roller coaster, are unique, a move that pleased executives at the company’s Chinese partner, the state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group, who made multiple trips to Disney headquarters in California to hash out blueprint details.


To be honest, the Tron thing looks pretty sweet and if the intention was to make us jealous, China, WE ARE.

Also, no Jungle Cruise—but somehow a totally imperialistically themed Pirates of the Caribbean ride is fine?


[New York Times]


Alissa is the former urbanism editor at Gizmodo.


Mickey goes where the money is.

“Aw, gee pal, all hail China!”