GUANGZHOU, China — Ever since Mickey Mouse visited Lin Huanbin's school here last summer, telling fairy tales and passing out Mouseketeer certificates, the 11-year-old boy has been unable to get Mi Laoshu out of his mind.
The boy loves the big mouse's funny misadventures. He keeps a photo of Mickey and himself in a chest for safekeeping. And every chance he gets, he asks his parents to take him to Hong Kong Disneyland when it opens this fall.
His parents aren't so enthused. They're wary of the theme park's planned high admission cost. The boy's father, a businessman, also has a more deep-seated worry.
"If Huanbin receives too much Western culture, in the future he may not cherish family relations, forget his ancestors and not go back to our hometown," Lin Zhengguang says.
Inside the Lin home and many others in China, there is a distinct generational, cultural and economic divide -- and it figures to be a major challenge for Walt Disney Co. and other Western companies trying to sell entertainment in the world's fastest-growing emerging consumer market.
Although many Chinese children have grown up eating at McDonald's and watching Shaquille O'Neal take on Yao Ming, their parents' generation isn't so familiar or comfortable with many aspects of American life, especially if they cost a lot.
Chinese movies, theme parks and entertainment merchandise -- although often lacking in technical or artistic sophistication -- are much cheaper, although not always legal. Inexpensive pirated DVDs and other knockoffs of Western films continue to run rampant, despite government efforts to crack down.
What's more, even as Beijing has recently eased restrictions on foreign media as part of an effort to encourage foreign investment and expertise in China's entertainment industry, officials remain suspicious of Western cultural influences.
That's particularly true when sex, politics and social mores are involved. Popular American television programs such as "Friends" have been censored. Beijing has long had a quota of how many foreign films it will approve for theaters, and movies like "Ocean's Eleven," which makes heroes of criminals, have been rejected even for the DVD market. Hollywood movies, shown on prime-time TV a decade ago, are now scheduled only late at night, past children's bedtime.
"The government is cautious about opening the youth media industry to foreign companies," says Yin Hong, vice dean of the journalism and communication school at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Recently, a few global entertainment corporations, including Sony Pictures Television and Warner Home Video, have been allowed to form joint ventures in China and enter markets long closed to outsiders. But government red tape and rules have slowed their progress.
As much as any Western entertainment company, Disney has a long history in China. The Magic Kingdom has been in the Middle Kingdom since 1937, when it first showed "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to a packed movie house in Shanghai.
It's easy to see why the Burbank-based company is stepping up efforts here. China has about 260 million children younger than 15, not that much less than the entire U.S. population.
Older teens are an attractive market too. Disney recently launched its ESPN magazine in China and a mobile-phone subscription service, adding to other businesses that include a 30-minute daily television show called "Dragon Club," cartoon magazines in Chinese and hundreds of Disney merchandise stores.
Despite Disney's overall favorable and wholesome image, however, some of its more recent releases, such as "Mulan," haven't fared as well. That's in part due to criticisms of cultural insensitivity. Analysts say Disney's advances also have been slowed by a rigid, all-or-nothing strategy that has made it harder to cut deals with the government and Chinese partners.
Late last year, Disney hired Stanley Cheung, a former Johnson & Johnson executive, to head up its efforts in China. Disney declined requests to interview Cheung and other managers in China.
But Robert Iger, Disney's CEO-designate, has told investors that China is a priority. He's counting on Hong Kong Disneyland, scheduled to open Sept. 12, to drive the company's retail and media businesses in that region, and he's spoken about more investment ahead, including the possibility of a second Chinese theme park in Shanghai.
The $1.8-billion Hong Kong park is projected to draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year. At 311 acres, the park is relatively modest in size, just 10% the size of Euro Disney and less than a third the size of the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. Disney says it will incorporate rides and shows from its other parks, with Hong Kong Disneyland sectioned into familiar areas such as Fantasyland, Toontown and Main Street, USA.
A good 40% of the visitors are expected to come from the mainland, many from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where Disney is now campaigning hard.