Disney to Open First Theme Park in Mainland China in June 2016


disnneA $5.5 billion bet that China is ready to embrace one of the most American of corporate symbols will finally come to fruition in June.

Walt Disney Co. on Tuesday said Shanghai Disney Resort, its first theme park in mainland China, will open June 16 after more than a decade of planning. Originally scheduled to debut in 2015, Disney last year delayed the launch to the first half this year.

The opening date, on the tail end of that time frame, reflects not only the significant construction challenges of a 963-acre theme park, hotel and entertainment complex, but the political and cultural barriers of undertaking such a massive project in partnership with a state-owned consortium in a communist country.

The opening will now come amid a slowdown in China’s economic growth, potentially threatening the confidence that leads middle class consumers to take pricey vacations.

It also comes as the entertainment giant’s recent big-screen success has better established its brands in the country. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened last weekend to a healthy $53 million there. In 2015, Disney released a number of box office hits in China including “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which made $225 million there; “Ant-Man,” which made $103 million; and “Cinderella,” with $68 million.

Shanghai Disney remains the largest such deal to date. The park is 57%-owned by a state-backed consortium, Shanghai Shendi, and 43% by Walt Disney Co. Local partners are responsible for construction and the accompanying infrastructure, including a subway extension.

However, the media giant is 70% owner of the joint venture that will operate the park, and its executives are largely overseeing that process. Any problems at Shanghai Disneyland won’t just affect the theme park, but could hurt public perception of all of Walt Disney’s businesses in the country, from film to television to consumer products.disneyDisney CEO Bob Iger speaks in front of a scale model of the future Shanghai Disney Resort during a news conference in Shanghai in July. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/REUTERS
Significant competition is on the horizon. Comcast Corp.’s Universal Parks & Resorts is building a $3.3 billion theme park outside of Beijing that could include rides based on Harry Potter, which have proved very popular at the company’s Orlando, Fla., location.

Theme parks are Disney’s second-largest business behind television. Last fiscal year, revenue for the segment grew 7% to $16.1 billion and operating income rose 14% to $3 billion. However most of that growth has been driven by Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the U.S. International operations in Hong Kong and Paris have recently been a drag on growth.

Disney hasn’t disclosed the capacity of its Shanghai Disneyland theme park, but it is expected to be one of the largest of the company’s six at launch, a person close to the park’s planning said.

Although some construction will still be ongoing at launch, all previously announced attractions and features are expected to be open. Among the most prominent are the Enchanted Storybook Castle, the company’s largest princess-themed park centerpiece, a reimagining of the Chinese zodiac with Disney characters and a “Toy Story” hotel.

That should help avoid some of the problems the company faced a decade ago at Hong Kong Disneyland, where attendance was lower than projected due in part to a lack of appealing attractions. The park has since added new attractions, helping to improve the situation, though attendance was down in the fiscal quarter ended Oct. 3 last year.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger previously said he hoped to announce an opening date for Shanghai Disney by the end of 2015—a goal that appears to have slipped due to the challenges of coordinating an announcement with Chinese officials.

Major construction on the park is now close to complete, according to the person familiar with the matter. The next several months are expected to be spent largely on hiring and training employees, testing systems and working on entertainment, including a Mandarin-language version of “The Lion King” musical.

Disney so far has hired 2,000 of the 10,000 employees it will need to operate its new resort.

About 8,000 people have been involved in construction.

Tickets aren’t yet on sale and Disney hasn’t announced prices for the Shanghai Disneyland theme park.

Disney has been looking to build a park in Shanghai since the 1990s. In 2002, it signed a letter of intent with the local government with the goal of a 2008 opening. Construction began in April 2011.

—Yang Jie contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

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