China’s theme parks need better IP support

Beijing Universal Studios and Beijing Happy Valley lead the way, as domestic theme parks line up for the IP rollercoaster.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By LIANG Chenxin, ZHENG Cuiying


The first flurries of winter blanket Hogwarts Castle in picture-perfect snow, sending its magic out in waves across China’s social media. Beijing Universal Studios’ 50-billion-yuan (US$7.8 billion) resort has enchanted tens of thousands of visitors every day since it opened in September, but it’s been something of a battle against dark forces led by the giant specter of the pandemic.

Just 20 kilometers away, 15-year-old Beijing Happy Valley is resetting for Christmas, after weeks of Halloween carnival.

Universal happiness

The fun and festivities inside the two theme parks conceal an intense rivalry, one made more bitter and punishing by the latest health regime. Both lie on Metro Line 7 putting huge pressure on the two stations during a recent holiday with Universal Station seeing 2,500 more passengers per day than Happy Valley.

When the Universal resort opened, the average room rate was around 800 yuan. At the same time, internet searches for Happy Valley fell off, and the 200 nearby hotels sold their rooms for an average of 330 yuan.

“The fact that Beijing Universal Studios is doing well makes little difference to our theme park, a brave-faced LI Wei, deputy general manager of Happy Valley, told Jiemian News. During Mid-Autumn Festival, Happy Valley’s visitors increased by nearly 80 percent compared with last year, no great surprise considering how things stood then. Regardless of any historical context, the theme park made more money during the holiday than it ever had before.

Happy Valley is an alternative to Universal Studios during peak periods, but it doesn’t work both ways. Happy Valley appeals to different kinds of customers and wants to retain them.

It is almost impossible for Happy Valley to compete with Universal Studios’ Harry Potter, Minions, and Transformers, the loyalty to original movies and the high-tech. But Li Wei doesn’t feel threatened.

Happy Valley targets different groups of people and can adjust its marketing not only to compete with the U.S. brand but to benefit from overspill effects. Happy Valley targets young women and families with kids. The park has built new attractions for children and added bathrooms for families and baby care rooms.

ZHOU Mingqi of Jingjian Think Tank said Happy Valley relied heavily on local visitors, while Universal Studios attracted tourists from all over China. Happy Valley has been working hard to keep fresh. Facilities and attractions are updated every three years, and small changes can be seen every year. With only one “zone” when it opened 15 years ago, the park plans to open its seventh zone in 2024.

Happy ever after

China’s first theme park, Splendid China, was built in Shenzhen in 1989. Nearly 3,000 theme parks opened in the past 20 years. With a potential 700 million tourists, international investment has poured into China's theme parks. Hong Kong Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing Universal Studios are the crests of a considerable wave.

There are plans for Legolands in Chengdu, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. The one in Chengdu will be the first international theme park in Western China, but around half of the domestic theme parks are operating at a loss. The generic theme park is rapidly losing its appeal and can no longer rely on tourists. They must offer value to local people.  

LIN Huanjie, head of Institute for Themed Parks Studies in China, said themed parks in China will go through a major shuffling in the next five to ten years, and only a handful domestic IPs will survive.

Successful theme parks across the world generally have two elements to their success: a strong “theme” – they got their name for a reason – and a strong brand giving strong IP support.  

"Beijing Happy Valley has integrated Chinese cartoon character Mr. Cookie into some rides," Lin said. "But domestic theme parks still have a long way to go in IP terms, which is going to need a lot of money. It took Disney 60 years to get here, and we only started 30 years ago."