Bob Weis, the president of Walt Disney Imagineering and creative executive of the Shanghai Disney Resort, has outlined a cooperative rather than competitive view of newcomers to China’s theme park industry.
“A rising tide raises all boats,” Weis told Variety on the sidelines of the Asia Society’s U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles. “The more there is a theme park industry here, the more we can all work together to make it safer for rides and for the public. We welcome the quality of everything coming up.”
His remarks Tuesday came a day before the U.K.’s Merlin Entertainments and China Media Capital announced plans to launch a Legoland Resort by 2023 near Shanghai, encroaching on the local catchment area of Disney’s first mainland park. About 55 million people live within two hours’ travel time of Shanghai Disney. The regions of metropolitan Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui have an estimated population of 220 million.
Universal has plans to open its biggest park in the world, in Beijing, in 2021, which will mark its third resort in Asia and will feature a world-first “Kung Fu Panda” land and a localized “Transformers” section.
Weis recapped some of Disney’s recent park expansion activities around the world. His team has just finished two “Star Wars” projects almost simultaneously in Florida and California. Tokyo’s DisneySeas has broken ground on its new “Fantasy Spring” expansion, the largest since that park was established in 2001, which is set to open in 2022. Meanwhile, the first-ever expansion based on “Zootopia” is under way at Shanghai Disneyland, Weis said.
“These projects never sit still. You get to where it feels like it’s working, and then you say, OK, what’s the next thing?” said Weis.
Weis reminisced about the process of creating Shanghai Disneyland in a speech at the summit.
“Bob Iger told us that China was so important to the future of the Disney company that we should be ambitious. We shouldn’t build something small or easy; we should build something that’s big,” he said.
This became literal when it came to the castle. Weis put up photos of differently shaped castles from around the world and asked Chinese consultants to mark the ones that felt most appropriate to them. “The one thing they all agreed on was, it has to be the biggest. So we went through a lot of effort to make sure it was the biggest,” he said.
One challenge of getting the park off the ground was finding the right local staff.
“In the early days, it was difficult because you kind of think, ‘Oh, everyone’s going to want to work for Disney.’ It turns out people have jobs; they’re not that interested,” Weis said with a laugh. “But once the dam starts to break and word gets around, you suddenly get a flood of amazing talent.”
Despite all the preparation that goes into a park opening, it’s always hard to predict what will actually strike a chord with visitors – like the cooked turkey legs in Shanghai, which have been a hit.
He expressed his gratitude for all that he’d learned in the process. “We don’t build these very often, so the opportunity to do one of these from the ground up with new ideas in it is amazing…It was a huge golden ticket to be able to have that.”