Disney and China blend cultures in new resort

Just when Western tourists feel they have experienced all the historical sights worth seeing in China, Shanghai comes up with a spectacular attraction that rivals the Great Wall and The Forbidden City.

On 6/16/16 — the number six being a lucky one in Chinese culture — the Shanghai Disney Resort opened. The $5.5 billion theme park — twice the size of California’s original Disneyland — features the world’s largest Enchanted Storybook Castle representing all Disney royalty — and that’s a lot of princesses. This will give tourists and the more than 300 million Chinese who live within three hours by car of the city an unusual opportunity to spend their leisure time.  President Xi Jinping himself voted in favor of the park in Communist Party meetings.

The grand-opening celebration featured a Mandarin-language production of Broadway’s top-grossing show, “The Lion King.” To make the show more recognizable in China, the producers  introduced a flamboyant new character, the Monkey Master, based on China’s favorite legendary character, the mischievous White Monkey King, who has entertained Chinese readers and children for more than 1,000 years.

In “The Lion King,” Monkey Master wears a red and yellow Chinese-inspired jacket with two feathers representing antennae extending from his head. He doesn’t talk or sing but, to the delight of his Chinese fans, he bursts in heroically to rescue Simba the lion cub whenever he is in mortal danger.

The White Monkey King was originally a character in the Chinese folk epic “Journey to the West,” written 400 years ago  by Wu Cheng-en. The novel — part myth, part fantasy — was based on an actual journey by Xuanzang, a Buddhist  monk who, in the 7th century, set forth on a  hazardous 10,000-mile pilgrimage across the Gobi Desert and over three of the world’s highest mountain ranges to India in search of  some rare Buddhist scriptures. Sixteen years later — after encounters with bandits, spirits, gods, ogres, monsters, tigers and fairies — he returned from India with the sutras, riding  a white horse. On his heroic quest, Xuanzang was accompanied by three disciples — Monkey King, who acquires godlike powers, Pigsy and Sandy. The journey inspired a cycle of legends and myths, operas, plays and musicals.

The Chinese “Lion King” premiered in the new 1,200-seat Walt Disney Grand Theatre, the main anchor of the park. In the audience were local officials and media celebrities, including Yao Ming, the former NBA star, and anyone who is anybody in Shanghai. There was also a large contingent of Disney executives led by Robert A. Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. Iger told The New York Times that the new park was “by far the most creatively ambitious and technically advanced” the company had ever built. Localizing the musical was a focal point to create a resort that is both “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

Strategically placed around the resort are iconic Chinese structures and symbols, such as The Wandering Moon Tea House in the Garden of Twelve Friends, in which 12 mosaic murals reimagine Disney characters as signs of the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese-style pavilion, decorated with brilliant roof corner eaves sweeping to the heavens to ward off evil spirits, serves exotic teas to elderly Chinese visitors, who wish to bring their pet crickets and honor the “restless creative spirits” of famous Chinese poets like Li Po. The peony, China’s national flower, and other local symbols are found everywhere. Although the food is 90 percent Asian, The Cheesecake Factory’s distinctly multicultural American fare — served in its faux ancient Egyptian décor — is the most popular.

Iger deserves credit for his adroit dealings with China’s government. He persuaded officials to shut down 150 factories, clear 1,000 acres of prime land, build a new metro link and paint Disney mascots on commercial jets. The  park contains six themed lands, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean”-inspired Treasure Cove to Tomorrowland, with a massive, color-shifting canopy, and hundreds of never-before-seen attractions designed specifically for the people of China, including immersive experiences, shopping and heart-stopping rides featuring advanced technologies that Disney is launching there.

Not everyone, however, finds the Magic Kingdom so magical. The Dalian Wanda Group — owned by real estate and entertainment mogul Wang Jianlin — has just opened a $3-billion theme park in Nanchang, and dozens of others are in construction across the country. Wang has contended that Disney cannot succeed as a “lone tiger” against a pack of wolves that understands Chinese consumers far better.

But Iger countered: “The resort reflects Disney’s legendary storytelling along with China’s rich culture and showcases some of the most creative and innovative experiences we’ve ever created. We’re looking forward to showing it to the world and sharing it with the people of China for generations to come.”

For more, visit shanghaidisneyresort.com.

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