Amid fierce controversy about the leverage China has over U.S. entertainment firms with significant mainland operations, Universal Beijing Resort and Alibaba announced a strategic partnership Thursday to digitize the forthcoming theme park in China’s capital.
Facial recognition and the use of big data will be the norm at the new resort, which will use an Alibaba operating system for park management and operations, the companies said. For visitors, this means they will be able to use Alibaba’s facial-recognition technology to enter the park, access lockers and express lanes, and pay for merchandise and meals. They can also skip lines and order food via an Alibaba app. Tmall, Alibaba’s e-commerce platform, will work with the park to co-market products.
Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts made the trip to Beijing for Thursday’s announcement, marking the project’s importance for the company.
Roberts said that operating a park was about “making it fun and easy for our guests to enjoy their time with family and friends” as much as it was about the rides. “Our partnership with Alibaba will help us do exactly that,” he said.
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Foreign companies in China must have a local partner in order to do business in the country and access its enormous market. Universal Beijing Resort is owned by Beijing International Resort Company, a joint venture between Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment Company and Universal Parks and Resorts, a unit of Comcast NBCUniversal.
The collaboration will allow for the enactment of a “multi-dimensional data-enabled operations management solution for the industry” and the establishment of a “truly digitized theme park,” said Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Group’s executive chairman and CEO. “The future of commerce is driven by technology and big data, and digitization will be the source of brand-new growth opportunities for all businesses.”
Located in the suburban outskirts of Beijing, the theme park was first announced in 2014; construction began in 2016. Its opening date has been pushed back twice from 2019 to 2020 and now 2021. Once fully built, it will be the largest Universal park in the world. It is the fifth Universal resort worldwide and the third in Asia.
On Saturday, the resort announced new details for the park’s layout. It will be divided between seven themed lands: “Kung Fu Panda Land of Awesomeness,” “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” ”Transformers: Metrobase,” “Minion Land,” “Jurassic World Isla Nublar,” ”Hollywood” and “WaterWorld.”
“Our theme park will showcase the best Universal rides, as well as all-new, unique experiences specially created to reflect China’s rich cultural heritage,” said Universal Beijing Resort president and general manager Tom Mehrmann.
The “Kung Fu Panda” land will be a world first, and the “Transformers” section will feature an expanded story about the character Metrobase, who chooses Beijing as the site of a new headquarters.
The last two “Transformers” films have been bigger hits in China than in the U.S., with last year’s “Transformers: The Last Knight” earning $229 million in China – $99 million more than in U.S. – and 2014’s “Transformers: The Age of Extinction” grossing $320 million, outpacing its $245 million performance in the US.
The finished resort will feature a Universal CityWalk entertainment and retail complex and at least two official on-site hotels: the Universal Studios Grand Hotel and the NUO Resort Hotel, set to open in 2021. A new subway station for the park is also currently under construction.
Disney, which opened its Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, was recently the subject of harsh criticism in a controversial “South Park” episode that took the studio to task for giving in to Chinese censorship demands in exchange for market access.