Leisure: Scalpers, Stars Flock to Shanghai Disney Ticket Launch

Bottom line: Disney will face huge challenges in running a smooth opening for its new Shanghai park in June, as it faces potential negative publicity from aggressive ticket scalpers and other glitches associated with such a big event.

Tickets sell out for Shanghai Disney opening day

The official countdown has begun to the June opening of Shanghai Disneyland, in a story that contains both scripted and unscripted moments reflecting what a commotion this event is likely to become. In the scripted category, luminaries including basketball legend Yao Ming and piano superstar Lang Lang attended an event this week kicking off the 80 day countdown to the big opening. In the unscripted column, opening day tickets to the park sold out quickly after going on sale, and were showing up later in the day from scalpers who were asking for twice the price or more.

I was living in Hong Kong just before Disney opened its last theme park there back in 2005. I don’t recall nearly this level of hype before that opening, and certainly not the big issue with scalpers that are an endemic part of the Chinese landscape. But I do recall the numerous glitches that occurred in the months after the Hong Kong park opened, and how media feasted on the negative developments that are almost inevitable when launching a project of such magnitude.

I raise that point because the Hong Kong case, combined with the huge hype that the bigger Shanghai Disneyland is creating, show just how big a challenge Disney will face in managing this mega-event. I expect the coverage will be more positive this time than in Hong Kong, thanks to assistance from Shanghai’s more authoritarian city government and a more positive attitude by China’s sympathetic state-run media.

But at the same time, little glitches are likely to still get magnified, especially by the foreign media. What’s more, scalpers and other unseemly profiteers are likely to dog the park for at least its first 2 or 3 years and probably well beyond that.

All that said, let’s turn to the mini media maelstrom that occurred here in Shanghai earlier this week after Disney held its star-fest to kick off the countdown to its June 16 opening. The event was a distinctly Shanghai affair, with 2 of the 3 celebrities in attendance, Yao Ming and leading actress Sun Li, natives of Disney’s new China hometown. The third guest, superstar pianist Lang Lang, comes from northeast China, but was named a worldwide ambassador to the Shanghai World Expo of 2010. All 3 will become honorary ambassadors for the new park.

Rush for Tickets

The official countdown party was accompanied by a concurrent launch of ticket sales over a number of channels, all of which saw huge traffic as people tussled online for a chance to attend opening-day festivities. Some 5 million web surfers visited the park area’s online site within the first hour of tickets going on sale. (English article; Chinese article) Leading online travel site Ctrip (Nasdaq: CTRP) reported that more than 10,000 people tried to buy Disneyland tickets using its app on Monday between midnight and noon.

Tickets quickly sold out on the park’s official website the same day they went on sale. But anyone who couldn’t get them through official channels quickly discovered they were being offered for big mark-ups from scalpers, even as Disney warned that such tickets could be fakes. One TV report I saw said opening day tickets were going for as much as 1,000 yuan ($150) apiece from scalpers, or double their official 499 yuan price.

Disney has known from the start that scalping will be one of the biggest headaches it faces in opening a $5.5 billion park that’s likely to be hugely popular with Chinese tourists. To combat that problem Disney was reportedly taking aggressive preemptive steps to fight off the scalpers, known as “yellow cows” in Chinese. One of those included strictly limiting the number of tickets it was selling through its various partners, since insiders at those companies are often some of the worst accomplices in the scalping game. (previous post)

As a longtime journalist, I’m a bit jaded about all this pre-opening hype over every little detail, even though I know it’s a necessary part of the publicity machine that gets people aware of and excited about such a major new attraction. At the same time, I’m also quite sympathetic to the hundreds of Disney people powering the publicity machine. That crew will undoubtedly face numerous challenges like operating snafus and negative publicity due to scalpers in the run-up to the park’s opening and through its first 1-2 years of operation.

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