The Monkey Kingdom theme park, expected to open in 2014 outside Beijing, is based on an ancient folk tale as common to China's residents as Santa Claus is to Americans.
Based on the 16th century "Journey to the West" folk tale, the project presented a daunting task for Thinkwell, the Burbank-based company charged with designing the theme park, said Chief Executive Joe Zenas.
"There's nothing like it in Western literature," Zenas said.
Photos: Concept art of China's Monkey Kingdom theme park
Thinkwell creative director Dave Cobb immediately seized on the seemingly endless storytelling possibilities that could be told through the universal languages of spectacle, thrill and emotion.
"We didn't know the stories very well," Cobb said. "So the whole team started reading up on them."
"Journey to the West" tells the story of the Monkey King, a simian hero with supernatural powers known as Sun Wukong. Joined by a monk, a pig and a white horse, Monkey travels to India in search of Buddha's scrolls and spiritual enlightenment. A Hollywood movie based on the epic journey combining comedy, romance and action is in development.
China's Zhonghong development group turned to Thinkwell in part because of the company's past work on Disney, Universal and Paramount theme parks around the world. Among Thinkwell's recent projects: the Ice Age dark ride at Movie Park Germany, the Furius Baco launch coaster at Spain's PortAdventura and the "Universal 360" nighttime spectacular at Universal Studios Florida.
Thinkwell found a willing and well-versed partner in Wang Yonghong, chairman of the Zhonghong group, who proved himself a hard-core theme park aficionado who name-dropped attractions from around the world during the creative "Blue Sky" phase of the $1.5 billion project's development.
"It's very important for us to create a Chinese theme park for Chinese children and to bring this Chinese story to the world," Wang said in a Web video interview from Beijing.
Zhonghong's desire to be first compressed the new park's construction timeline in hopes that the park could debut before the $4.4 billion Shanghai Disneyland project opens in late 2015 or early 2016.
"The China market is very big," Wang said via a translator. "It is not necessary to compare or compete with any theme parks in Shanghai or any other places in China. Our goal is to create a world class theme park for Beijing, for China and for all the world."
In Disneyspeak, Monkey Kingdom's lands become villages, the park's cast members serve as villagers and guests act as adventurers.
The five villages – Entry, Sea, Sky, Flower Fruit Mountain and Land – will each feature a nature-based theme, a central emotion, a unifying architectural aesthetic, a distinct Monkey King plot line and at least one anchor attraction targeted at a specific age group.
Naturally, I've pored over the beautiful concept art with a jeweler's loupe, zooming in on each attraction on the park map in an attempt to decipher the make, model and manufacturer of every ride.
But as Cobb and Zenas explained in a phone interview, most of the park's rides remain subject to change, and the attractions illustrated in the highly detailed map serve only as inspirational placeholders. The park will be built in phases, based on budget constraints and attendance projections.
With those caveats, let's tour each village in Monkey Kingdom and take a look at what we see:
Inspired by a pastiche of ancient towns visited during Thinkwell research trips, the Entry Village evokes an architectural style of 16th century China filled with haphazardly stacked buildings and jam-packed courtyards.
Thematically, the bustling marketplace doubles as a port of departure, where storytellers converge and adventurers gather supplies before their journey.
Visitors will enter Monkey Kingdom under a train trestle traveled by a Himalayan-themed steam locomotive that encircles the park and stops in each village.
Entry Village entertainment is expected to include atmosphere talent, a puppet show and a parade with stiltwalkers and trampolinists.
At the top of the main street, a jutting mountain crowned by an illuminated tree serves as the park's central icon. Below Monkey's magical mountaintop home, Jade Lake bristles with watercraft. The lake will eventually function as an aquatic stage for a nighttime fireworks and fountains spectacular.
A shipping port with Mediterranean and Persian influences, the water-centric Sea Village features adventure-themed family attractions based around the Dragon King, one of the characters from the "Journey to the West" stories.
The first of the park's four coasters can be found in Sea Village, although the ride's layout remains in the conceptual stage.
The underwater theme extends to a walk-through attraction that takes visitors to the ocean floor without getting wet and a theatrical stage show featuring sea life puppetry.