China agency signals Shanghai Disneyland progress

15:20, November 02, 2009      

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long-awaited plan to build a Disney theme park in Shanghai appears to have moved forward, with officials confirming Monday that central government approvals are in place and an announcement is due soon.

However, Disney said there was no change to report.

Mayor Han Zheng told reporters Sunday that the city plans to make an announcement as early as this week to explain details of the plan - handy timing ahead of President Barack Obama's planned November 15 visit to Shanghai.

An official in the public information department of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's main planning agency, confirmed Monday that the plan had been approved.

The official, who declined to give his name, referred inquiries to the local NDRC branch. That office did not immediately respond to requests for information submitted by phone and fax.

Two other officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media, confirmed that the NDRC had OK'd the plan. But they also would not give any details.

A Disney executive confirmed discussions were still under way and that the company and the Shanghai government had submitted a request for central government approval, which would be required for any major project.

"No deal has been agreed to, no project has been approved," Leslie Goodman, an executive vice president for Disney Parks and Resorts Group, said in a statement.

The difference in public stances could reflect last-minute quibbling over details for the project, such as the share of costs or ownership to be taken by Disney.

Speaking after weekend meetings with international business advisers, Han, the mayor, said the city would hold a news conference this week.

Last spring, Mayor Han said on the sidelines of the national legislative session that the two sides were getting down to serious negotiations.

But he compared Disney and Shanghai to "lovers, still in love but having a hard time deciding when to get married," the Shanghai newspaper Oriental Morning Post quoted him as saying.

Disney's chief executive, Bob Iger, said earlier this year that the company was waiting for word from the central government about building the theme park.

Residents were long ago moved off farmland in Chuansha, a part of Pudong district near the city's main international airport, to make way for the theme park.

Shanghai's leaders are keen to develop this former bastion of Chinese industry into a global services and financial center, and building a Disney park would create jobs and be a key draw for tourism.

Walt Disney Co. earlier had emphasized that it was focusing on developing its theme park in Hong Kong, which has seen disappointing attendance since opening in 2005. Shanghai itself is in the midst of a massive construction boom ahead of next year's World Expo, which will run May 1-October 31 downtown along the city's Huangpu river.

It is unclear if a Shanghai Disney park would fare any better than Hong Kong's. China has seen scores of its more than 400 amusement parks fall into disuse, many due to a lack of investment, poor maintenance and weak marketing and branding strategies.

Happy Valley, a locally built and managed theme park, opened this summer in Shanghai's western suburbs and initially was plagued by problems with its equipment and complaints over the food concessions.

A Disney park would enjoy an advantage in terms of its brand image, and given its status as one of the city's key showcase projects, would likely be kept in mint condition.

Source: China Daily/Agencies
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