China Consumer

Ride to the rescue

Theme park bosses look for foreign help

Characters at Hong Kong Disneyland greet visitors after a parade celebrating the upcoming Year of Ox

Coming to Shanghai next year

The Hello Kitty theme park made its technicolour debut in Zhejiang province at the start of this year. Costing more than Rmb2 billion ($320 million) to build, it features rides with carriages shaped like apples, a Ferris wheel plastered in hard-to-miss Hello Kitty logos, and a luxury resort decked out with plush, pink furniture.

Huzhou Daily said Sanrio, the Japanese owner of the Hello Kitty franchise, wasn’t heavily involved in the design of the theme park, beyond approving items that carry the Hello Kitty image.

But perhaps a little more input from Japan might have helped, as the early response to the park has been lukewarm at best. Yinrun, the developer behind the attraction, is a property-to-mining conglomerate with little experience in theme parks, reports CBN Weekly.

(In fact, Yinrun was advised by Hettema Group, a California-based theme park designer.)

In addition to the forthcoming Shanghai Disney, CBN says there are more than a dozen theme parks under construction in Eastern China alone.

But as WiC reported in issue 228, most amusement parks in China struggle to make money because of poor planning and management.

Of about 3,000 parks on the mainland, only 10% are profitable, according to Yang Yanfeng, a researcher at the China Tourism Academy.

Yang told the South China Morning Post in February that developers often dangle the idea of a theme park in front of local governments so that they can grab land at low prices. Once the park is open, the hope is that upgrading of public facilities nearby will boost property values, making money for the developers.

“As for the future of the theme park, they don’t care that much,” Yang warns.

The relative absence of foreign companies is another reason why China lacks world-class attractions, say analysts. So far, the investors in theme parks have tended to be domestic property developers, tourism companies and even wealthy coalmining bosses. It is not until next year that Disney will open its Shanghai Disneyland, while Universal’s new project has taken a decade to negotiate, and still isn’t scheduled to open until 2019. Media conglomerate 21st Century Fox is also said to be looking for a site for a park featuring hits like Ice Age, Alien and The Simpsons.

“Many Chinese developers think that as long as they invest a lot of money they can get anything they want, but this is wrong,” says Kelly Ryner, who heads theme park design company Thinkwell in the United States. “The developers are very inexperienced. They think that by increasing the size of the roads and by adding a larger number of seats it will be enough to cope with the busiest five days of the year. This is a huge mistake. If you design a park considering only those few days when many people visit, it will look very deserted at other times.”

Ryner also tells CBN that she takes her Chinese clients to America every year to study what makes the parks there so popular. Indeed the very lack of local expertise means that opportunities for foreign designers in China have increased too. Dalian Wanda, which is scheduled to open a theme park in Yunnan, had three international firms submit their design proposals during the planning stages, paying all three of them in full for their time. (CBN Weekly says concept drawings for Chinese theme parks can fetch as much as $7 million apiece. Ultimately, Wanda awarded the contract to Canadian firm Forrec.)

Thinkwell has increased its headcount in the Beijing office from only three to 10 people in the past year, while Gary Goddard, founder of Gary Goddard Entertainment, another park and upscale resort designer based in Hollywood, estimates that about half his work is coming from Asia and the Middle East.

“A lot of them have never done this before,” Goddard told the Los Angeles Times. “China doesn’t have a 50-year history of theme park operations.”

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