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Shanghai is wishing upon Disney's star

Many Chinese believe a deal is imminent for a theme park in the nation's largest city.

December 03, 2008|Don Lee | Lee is a Times staff writer.

SHANGHAI — For two decades Chinese officials and Walt Disney Co. have batted around ideas for a theme park in the eastern fringes of Shanghai, only to see them go nowhere.

"People have always been saying they'll build here," said Sun Jinbao, 61, a farmer near Zhaohang village, where several years ago Disney executives stood on the roof of a three-story building, peering out at the rice fields and wooded lands.

But now the excitement is building again. And this time, many people here and outside think it's just a matter of weeks, perhaps days, before a deal is announced.

Some Chinese are so confident that they've loaded up on shares of companies with interests in this part of the Pudong district where a theme park would be most likely to go up. Jielong Group, a printing firm that holds the rights to about 50 acres of land in the vicinity, has seen its stock price nearly double in the last month.

Others are building or expanding existing homes in the area, despite a ban on new housing development, and transferring registrations of family members from other locales -- all in hopes of enhancing potential relocation packages, which are typically based on home and household size.

"You want to buy land?" villagers ask when a visitor comes around.

The recent buzz has been fanned by Chinese media reports saying that Disney and Shanghai officials had come to terms, with the Burbank-based entertainment giant easing up on some of its earlier demands because of the current financial climate. A Disney spokeswoman in Hong Kong, Alannah Hall-Smith, responded that there was "no deal, no announcement."

But informed Shanghai officials, among others, believe that the project is pretty much settled. All that's needed, they say, is a stamp of approval from leaders in Beijing at a key economic planning session expected to be held this month.

"The meaning of introducing Disneyland to China right now is completely different from years ago," said Yang Jianwen, deputy chief engineer of Shanghai's Municipal Economic Commission, who was involved in the early planning of the project.

The reason: China's once-supercharged economy has slowed sharply in recent months, threatening social stability. With the world gripped in an economic downturn, analysts say Disney and Shanghai both stand to get a boost from a major development project in these hard times.

The central government recently unveiled a nearly $600-billion economic stimulus package that includes supporting housing, healthcare, transportation and other infrastructure projects. A Disney theme park in Shanghai would build on that, Yang said.

"It's one of the most effective ways to stimulate social investment as well as consumption," he said.

Shanghai, China's largest city, has been keenly interested in attracting a Disney park since at least 1990, when its then-mayor, Zhu Rongji, visited Disneyland in Anaheim and had dinner with Frank Wells, the late president of Disney. Zhu later went on to become China's premier and maintained ties with Disney officials.

"As the mayor, he wanted to put Shanghai more on the map," recalled Fred Hong, who as a young Los Angeles lawyer at the time was acting as an intermediary between Shanghai and Disney.

Hong said Zhu knew that the Pudong district would develop -- today it is home to mainland China's financial hub and its tallest building -- but Disney didn't think the city was ready then for a theme park.

"They assessed it was too early for Shanghai," said Hong, whose law office is based in Guangzhou.

For Disney, expanding into mainland China in a big way has been an elusive goal, in large part because of Beijing's restrictive policies toward foreign media and entertainment operations.

The company has long sought to launch a Disney Channel in China, so it could air more programs to a wider number of Chinese households, which would drive sales of its videos and merchandise.

Because China limits the showing of foreign films in theaters, Disney relies on television to introduce new audiences to such classic characters as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, as well as to screen Pixar Animation and Disney films. Such exposure to the Disney pantheon of characters is considered crucial for the success of a theme park.

Media analysts in China, however, doubt that Beijing will give unconditional approval for a Disney Channel in return for the theme park.

"But if ever there was a time, it'd be now," said David Wolf, a Beijing-based industry consultant, referring to the central government's drive to keep the economy growing rapidly to create enough jobs.

Village leaders in Pudong say they have heard from unofficial sources that relocation of residents would begin next June. It wouldn't be until 2012 -- two years after the Shanghai World Expo -- that the park would open, according to state-run media reports.

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