China’s largest park operator seeks international recognition
The OCT Group is the operator of mainland China’s most popular theme park, part of a growing chain that will soon take in the cities of Shenzhen, Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. But Happy Valley is only part of the story. Park World profiles the nation’s largest amusement operator.
Entertaining around 20 million guests last year at its 10 parks, resorts and attractions, OCT has only begin to tap the potential of China’s burgeoning leisure and entertainment market.
“China is a huge market,” highlights Ren Kelei, OCT’s president and CEO. “There are over 30 provinces and that presents great opportunities for the tourism industry. The growth of parks is linked to the growth of the cities. We hope to attract 30 million guests a year by 2018, and I believe we can achieve that.”
“We want to become the number one attraction brand in Asia,” he continues. Indonesia, Vietnam and Dubai are highlighted as possible markets for expansion, but right now there is plenty more business to capture at home.
Yet as we sit down to talk to Mr Ren in the OCT-owned Intercontinental Hotel opposite the group’s Shenzhen headquarters, it feels as though the world has already come to this little corner of China. Refurbished in 1995, the hotel is underpinned by a Spanish theme that extends throughout the plush 5-star surroundings. Down the road, guests can glimpse through the Window of the World, one of the original OCT theme parks, still entertaining 3 million guests a year with its mix of replica international landmarks, festivals and cultural entertainment.
The OCT name comes from Overseas Chinese Town, the 4.8 square kilometre site in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district that is home not just to Window of the World and Happy Valley but also Splendid China, a miniature representation of the country’s 5,000 years of history and vast landscape.
Opened in 1989, Splendid China was the first park developed by OCT and gave birth to countless copycat projects across the country. Their appeal was simple: “Around this time Chinese people did not travel,” notes Ren, “but they wanted to understand their own culture.” Inspired by miniature parks in Holland, OCT decided to take it to them. Two years later the Folk Culture Village opened as part of the same attraction in Shenzhen, designed to showcase 26 of China’s ethnic groups.
Now recognised as a 5 “A” national tourism resort, Overseas Chinese Town (pictured below) was China’s first theme park cluster. Located in the Guangdong Province, the site also incorporates several hotels and art galleries, plus the Tourism College of Jinan University and Tourism Research Institute, from where OCT has shared and nurtured much of its industry expertise.
Like a number of Chinese organisations, the OCT Group is state-owned but operates as a commercial enterprise. Mr Ren’s father, Ren Zhongyi, was instrumental in bringing about China’s cultural reforms and it’s clear that “Ren Junior” relishes the opportunities that this has presented to him.
A trained economist and senior advisor to the Guangdong government, he’s nevertheless an unassuming character who presides over a group with wide ranging interests. If you’ve ever watched TV in China, there’s a good chance you were watching it on a set manufactured by Konka, the country’s largest manufacturer of televisions, and an OCT subsidiary.
But this side of the business is perhaps less evident to the casual visitor than the real estate development that springs up around each new OCT park. This isn’t opportunism by local landowners, but a concerted effort by OCT to capitalise itself on the value created by its parks and attractions. That’s why the land it buys is always greater than the parks or attractions it is intending to build.
Rollercoasters & Real Esate
“The theme parks can improve the value of our real estate and the people living and working in the real estate can provide an audience for our parks,” notes Yao Jun, president of OCT Tourism.
It’s a tactic employed across China, but OCT has got it down to an art and, unlike some developers, it is serious about the amusement industry too. Tourism is one of the group’s main businesses, and the tool it uses to its exert greatest social and cultural influence.
Shenzhen will remain key to OCT Tourism’s growth plans. Last year the group opened OCT East, an experimental new concept on the outskirts of the city featuring an eco tourism theme, and plans are already underway for Happy Harbor, a new development built around a swamp close to downtown Shenzhen.
Not only is Guandong China’s richest province, but the surrounding Pearl River Delta is also the nation’s most competitive leisure market, home to major theme parks including Ocean Park, Hong Kong Disneyland and Chimelong.
This explains OCT’s intense activity in the area. “We are doing these projects to secure our leading place in the tourism industry,” confirms Ren. “If we don’t do it someone else will. Once we are the best in this area, we are the best in China.”
When Splendid China and Window of the World (WOTW) took off in the early ‘90s, OCT was convinced that this was the future. It built another WOTW in Changsha, Hunan Province, and even took Splendid China to the States, opening an outlet in Orlando – a true Overseas Chinese Town.
Yet the foray into America proved ultimately unsuccessful, and the park closed at the end of 2003. “At that time we were not so familiar with America’s tourism market,” concedes Gao Jun, OCT Tourism vice-president. “After many years we had become a pioneer for the industry in China and it was time to concentrate on building a national tourism brand at home.”
But even in China a new direction was needed. Happy Valley had opened five years earlier in Shenzhen and was already beginning to eclipse both Splendid China and WOTW in popularity. Yao offers this explanation: “There weren’t so many other parks when Splendid China opened. After the opening up and reforming of China, we had more chance to go and visit other parks around the world and we saw that more rides and interactive attractions were needed, that’s why we did Happy Valley.”
Happy Valley, or Happy Kingdom, began as a waterpark across the road from Splendid China/WOTW in 1998. What was its original front gate is now an OCT-owned Crown Plaza hotel, but nevertheless the park has expanded to fill a 32-hectare site with over 100 attractions spread across nine themed areas. Around 3.2 million guests visited last year and forecasts suggest over 3.5 million will by the end of 2008.
The park employs a rolling programme of events to sustain interest throughout the year and encourage additional visits after dark. The six special events include the Chinese New Year Festival, Youth Culture Festival, Maya Carnival, International Magic Festival, Halloween and a Pop Music Festival.
Happy Valley Beijing, which opened in 2006, is even more highly themed. Yet this 56-hectare park, which is located in the Chaoyang District, has yet to reach the same sort of visitor numbers as in Shenzhen, pulling in around 2 million guests a year. In its corporate brochure, OCT notes that it had to “overcome territorial, climatic and cultural differences between the southern and northern parts of China,” to establish the park but that it provides an important step towards fulfilling the vision of a national theme park brand.
Clearly, establishing a park in the Chinese capital was an important strategic move for OCT, and it should be noted that the venue opened before the Olympic Games. In Shanghai, where OCT is preparing its largest Happy Valley to date, the group is keen to debut the park ahead of the 2010 World Expo and is currently on course to open the gates to the public next summer.
In the meantime, Happy Valley Chengdu is expected to open soon in a city that was severely affected by the giant earthquake last May in the Sichuan Province. The park itself escaped relatively unscathed, but local moral was obviously badly damaged. “We are trying very hard to have it open as soon a possible in order to offer more fun to the local people who suffered from the earthquake,” says Yao.
At each park, a list of largely Western ride suppliers has been used, including names such as 3DBA, B&M, Huss, Intamin, Mondial, S&S, Sally, Vekoma and Zamperla. Yao is keen to point out that OCT installed the first S&S tower ride in China, before Ocean Park in Hong Kong. “Over the past 10 years we have built good relationships with these companies,” he says, “some of them, such as Vekoma and Zamperla, also have factories in China so that reduces the cost and delivery time.”
Theming & Culture
One Chinese manufacturer that has been used repeatedly by OCT is Golden Horse Amusement Equipment. Indeed, one of the new Western suppliers brought on board for the first time at Happy Valley Shanghai, Martin & Vleminckx, already works with Golden Horse in China. Unite Art from Shenzhen has also provided a lot of theming services to the Happy Valley parks.
“Theming is important but it does not matter as much as the cultural meaning,” says Ren. What distinguishes the OCT parks is their live entertainment offerings. Fusing song, dance, lights, pyrotechnics, split stages and the very latest in special effects, these spectacular performances draw on various aspects of Chinese culture and are immensely popular with large audiences. Ten inspirational performances are staged each day at OCT venues across the country, in giant purpose-built theatres.
The OCT Song and Dance Ensemble, comprising over 1,000 performers, has gone on to win multiple awards at both national and international level. The sheer size of the cast in each show means such productions would be unachievable in many other parts of the world and, though not quite on the same scale, it’s easy to see that that they employ the same production values that made the Olympic Games opening/closing ceremonies such memorable spectacles this summer in Beijing.
It will be features such as this, as well as the natural beauty of its resorts, that OCT will focus on as it creates new tourist offerings and aims to offer a point of difference. “Happy Valley is more easy to copy than some of our other projects,” highlights Yao, “and that is why we must develop new concepts.”
Built with an initial investment of 35 billion RMB ($5.1bn/€4.1bn), OCT East is set amidst 9 square kilometres of breathtaking mountain scenery on the outskirts of Shenzhen. Four interlinked parks, Tea Stream Valley, Wind Valley, Knight Valley and the Guanyin Lotus area, are linked by a cable car system and a spectacular elevated railway. With this new eco resort model, which debuted last summer, OCT is aiming to bring city dwellers back to nature (see feature on page 53).
Now under construction in the Jiangsu Province, the OCT Taizhou Resort will also feature an eco theme, exploiting its location in the Qinhu National Wetland Park. Whereas OCT East plays upon its mountainous surroundings by integrating bits of Swiss theming, at the Taizhou Resort elements of Venice will be incorporated. Still in planning are the OCT Yunnan Resort in Kunming City, and the aforementioned Happy Harbor in Shenzhen, which will combine a variety of “urban leisure” pursuits in a relaxing waterside setting.
“We now have a variety of tourism products including theme parks, resorts and cultural entertainment,” highlights Yao. “As new markets develop we hope to have our parks there, but what form they take will depend on the local resources available.”
Remember that all this product development, innovation and refinement has happened in just 20 years, showing not just how quickly the leisure market has grown in China, but how keen OCT is to remain at the very heart of it. Clearly the group has a headstart over any foreign enterprises that may fancy their chances but have not done their homework.
“There has been a huge increase in new park development in the past decade, but I think in the next 10 years we are going to see a lot more private and foreign enterprises settling in China,” believes Ren. “2010 to 2020 will be the golden age.”
It is significant that not only will Happy Valley Shanghai debut ahead of the World Expo but it will also steal on march on Disney’s long rumoured plans for a park in the city. Although one should not underestimate the group’s abilities, it is a fact that Disney’s licensed properties have yet to reach the same sort of penetration in China as they have in the West (although it is currently working on some Chinese licences of its own). As for OCT, Ren says he is proud the group has built up a park empire of its own, with it own concepts, although he does not rule out any joint ventures in future.
When the company takes up a booth at this year’s IAAPA Attractions Expo, it will mark a triumphant return to Florida. Splendid China may have failed to live up to expectations in Orlando all those years ago, but since then OCT been diligently perfecting the tourism model in its own country. One can’t help but feel that one day it will seek to expand internationally with a stronger and more focused offering that will truly cement its reputation as a global player.
OCT PARKS & RESORTS
Splendid China/Folk Culture Village
The largest park of its kind in the country, Splendid China in Shenzhen is a miniature representation of the China’s breathtaking 9.6 million km2 landscape. The Folk Culture Village, meanwhile, celebrates Chinese folk arts, customs and features 1:1 scale replica homes of various styles. A total of 24 villages are included, representing 26 different ethnic groups.
Window of the World
With outlets in Shenzhen and Changsha, Hunan Province, Window of the World features replicas of iconic statues and buildings from around the world.
Happy Valley Shenzhen
Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2008, the original Happy Valley park is the most popular amusement park in mainland China, attracting around 3.2 million guests a year.
Happy Valley Beijing
Happy Valley Beijing provides a highly-themed environment close to the centre of the Chinese capital. A second undercover attraction is due to be built alongside the main park in the future.
Happy Valley Chengdu
Due for soft opening at the end of the year, this 47-hectare park in the Sichuan Province will be the largest, most modern and ecological theme park in Southeast China.
Happy Valley Shanghai
Scheduled to open July 2009, this 90-hectare attraction will be the largest Happy Valley to date. The park will be located in the Sheshan resort area, Songjiang District.
A new waterside destination opening 2010 close to downtown Shenzhen comprising “eco wetlands and urban leisure.” Free of fencing, it will also offer free admission.
OCT East Resort
Set in breathtaking surroundings just outside Shenzhen, OCT East comprises four interlinked parks and themed areas including Knight Valley (eco tourism), Tea Stream Valley (vacation tourism), Wind Valley (sports tourism) and the Guanyin Lotus area (religious tourism).
OCT Taizhou Resort
Covering 200-hectares of Qinhu National Wetland, this new eco-park concept will open April 2009. An integrated hot spring hotel is expected to set a new standard for high-end hotels in central Jiangsu Province.
OCT Yunnan Resort
Still in planning, OCT intends to create a new sightseeing, entertainment and holiday resort in this major tourist region.
Three Gorges Dam Scenery Spot
Close to the Yangtze River’s famous hydro-electric power station, the Three Gorges Dam Scenery Spot attracts 1.2 million visitors a year.
HAPPY VALLEY – THE NEXT CHAPTER
In the next eight months, OCT is due to open two new Happy Valley theme parks. Happy Valley Chengdu in Southwest China was delayed this summer due to the giant earthquake in the Sichuan Province, but is now scheduled for a soft opening towards the end of the year.
The park will cover 47-hectares and be split into seven themed areas including Sunshine Beach, Happy Times, Caribbean Cyclone, Great Szechwan, Shangri-La Woods, Magic Castle and Mediterranean Dream.
An international team of suppliers has been assembled and attractions will include a Vekoma Suspended Looping Coaster, Mine Train and Flying Island, Intamin Mega Coaster, Hopkins/Golden Horse Shoot the Chute, S&S double Space Shot, Mondial Splashover, Zamperla Ferris Wheel, Energy Storm, Sombrero and Disk’O’, a North Pole Adventure dark ride by Sally and a 4D Cinema by SimexIwerks. 3DBA, ECA2, Huss and Martin & Vleminckx are also on board.
Live entertainment will include the shows Caribbean Pirate, Conscription and Compass, plus various floats and parades. As at other Happy Valley parks, there will be a number of seasonal festivals including events celebrating Chinese New Year, youth culture and magic.
Opening in July 2009 will be Happy Valley Shanghai, the largest park in the chain to date and a flagship OCT property. The 90-hectare facility will be located in the Sheshan resort area of Shanghai’s Songjiang District.
Themed areas will include Shanghai Bund, Shangri-La Woods, Ant Kingdom, Gold Mine Town, Maya Beach, Sunshine Harbor, Happy Times and Typhoon Bay. Around 70% of the park, however, will be “green” and water will also play a major part.
Among over 70 rides and attractions will be China’s first wooden rollercoaster, by Martin & Vleminckx, plus additional coasters by B&M and Intamin. Three large indoor arenas and a further three open air stadiums will host a number of live performances including an indoor circus show, a horseback battle and a multimedia show.