“Who needs reality when you can wander around this knee-high paradise,” exclaimed Britain’s Pathe News Service in June 1968. The same month marked the launch of the world’s first Legoland Park (and its signature mini-brick buildings) on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula.
Over on the other side of the world, the Chinese were experiencing darker times during the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong was going full throttle on his campaign to purge traitors, malcontents and capitalist-roaders from Chinese society. The 30 million people subjected to struggle sessions at the height of the era would have found it almost impossible to imagine a China in which children would be eagerly awaiting the opening of a Legoland on their shores. But that is today’s reality, with three parks set to open near Chengdu, Shanghai and Shenzhen over the next three years.
UK-based Merlin Entertainments Group, which owns the Legoland brand, has just announced details of the Shenzhen park, which will become the world’s largest when it first welcomes visitors in 2024.
The deal that opened up China to a new generation of model villages was one of the high points of President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in 2015. Other trade agreements signed at the time, such as the one endorsing Chinese involvement in Britain’s Hinkley Point nuclear power station, have yet to see the light of day following a dramatic cooling of relations between Beijing and London.
However, as China Daily puts it, the large number of international theme parks being set up in China “shows the brighter side of foreign investment”. Universal Studios Beijing was the latest of the breed to open this week (see WiC556).
Legoland’s Chinese parks will showcase the country’s history and geography. Construction of the park in Shenzhen kicked off last month with the symbolic delivery of 20,000 Lego bricks. In a departure from past practice, the park will be putting indoors its star attraction, the ‘MiniLands’ (these recreate famous landmarks in Lego bricks). The company says this will allow it to deploy sound and lighting effects to create a more immersive experience for Chinese visitors.
Lego was first sold in China in the 1980s, with its inaugural store opening in 1993 (for years the brand’s legitimate bricks were massively outsold by cheaper counterfeits). The Danish icon wasn’t dismayed, however, choosing to develop new ranges of Chinese-themed products.
In 2015, there were the debut versions of Chinese zodiac animals. Then in 2020, the group launched its first Chinese-based theme, Monkie Kid, inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West.
In one of the contemporary twists, Pigsy even got to drive his own Lego food van.
The marketing efforts have paid off, although the best-seller in the ‘building block category’ during China’s recent mid-year 618 shopping festival was a far less ancient icon – a Lego version of a Ferrari F8.
Both the toy business and the theme parks are now owned by Denmark’s founding Kristiansen family after Merlin was taken private in the summer of 2019 for £5.69 billion ($7.86 billion), helped by a consortium that also included Blackstone and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
In 2017, Lego had 50 stores in China. But by the end of last year that number had jumped to over 200, or nearly a third of the 678 worldwide. This year 80 out of 120 new stores launched around the world will be in China.
When it comes to its Chinese theme parks, Lego says it has adopted a different business model to other markets (traditionally it has owned everything inside the park gates, including restaurants). The rationale? Because in China, complex land-use rights make it easier to joint venture with a local Chinese partner, leaving Lego to focus on the design and operational management of the park, the company says.
The three new parks expand a burgeoning portfolio in China for Merlin Entertainments that now includes five Madame Tussauds wax museums; two Sea Life Centres; three Lego Discovery Centres; a Peppa Pig World of Play; the Shanghai Dungeon; and Little Big City in Beijing.
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