On June 16 when Disney opens the gates to Shanghai Disney, a $5.5 billion theme park in China’s largest city, it will have a Minnesota connection.
Steve Schussler, the themed-restaurant developer who created Rainforest Cafe in Mall of America in 1994, will open the Boathouse in the Shanghai resort complete with a dozen vintage boats, all purchased in Minnesota.
“We brought an American Boathouse concept from Lake Minnetonka to Orlando last year, and now we’re bringing it to Shanghai,” said Schussler, founder and owner of Schussler Creative in Golden Valley.
Schussler brought a flotilla of multimillion dollar boats to Orlando, including an 1880s steamboat replica once owned by the Cargill family and a 40-foot Italian water taxi and an amphicar piloted on Lake Minnetonka.
‘Starting from scratch’
Orlando visitors have taken to the amphicars and water taxi rides, but there will be no water cruises at the Shanghai location for the foreseeable future.
“We’re communicating with the local authorities, but there is more red tape and legalities over water properties,” Schussler said. “We’re starting from scratch. I can’t pick up the phone and talk to a Mayor Coleman or Rudy Boschwitz to get things moving.”
The 700-seat, two-level restaurant will have a similar nautical theme to the Orlando restaurant in Disney Springs. The first draft of the menu, which has twice as many choices as Orlando, is printed in Chinese and English. “It’s American food in China, but there are lots of traditional Chinese offerings,” he said.
Schussler partnered with Landry’s of Houston for Disney’s Rainforest Cafe, Yak & Yeti and T-Rex, and used Gibson’s Restaurant Group in Chicago to operate The Boathouse in Orlando. The Shanghai venture is a partnership with Xiao Nan Guo, one of the largest full-service restaurant groups in China.
“We’re excited for our entry into the Western restaurant segment,” said Xiao Nan Guo’s CEO Wang Huimin in a statement.
In a delicate balancing act, Disney’s chief executive has described the new park as “authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese.”
Although he’s been to Shanghai nearly a dozen times in the past two years and expects to make several more trips before the opening, Schussler, who does not speak any Chinese languages, said that always needing an interpreter has been a challenge.
But it’s not biggest one.
“The most difficult part has been the three conference calls a week at 2 a.m. Central time. “Sleep, who needs it?” he said laughing.
Admission not required
Like the Orlando Boathouse, the second location will be located in an area near the park that does not require admission. The Orlando restaurant is in the former Downtown Disney, now called Disney Springs. It’s an eat-shop-play outdoor mall with Cirque du Soleil and the largest souvenir shop in the kingdom several miles from Epcot.
Shanghai’s version of Disney Springs, called Disneytown, is part of a 1,000-acre resort. Visitors won’t need transportation to get from Disneytown to the Shanghai Disney park, which are next to each other. The Boathouse is located only 100 yards from the entrance to the theme park, situated near a luxury hotel and a Broadway-style theater showing a Mandarin language version of “The Lion King.”
The number of potential visitors to the park is staggering. About 300 million people live within a 300-mile radius. Trains can bring in 25,000 people an hour. As if those numbers aren’t enough, Disney also will likely be a beneficiary of a recent change in China law. The country’s one-child policy in effect since 1980 was increased to two last year.
Still, Disney wants to avoid the missteps encountered when Hong Kong Disney opened in 2005. Smaller in size, the park struggled with attendance except on Chinese holidays, when visitors complained about long lines. Some visitors said there wasn’t enough to do. Even the absence of shark fin soup caused a stir. (Disney stood firm against it after environmental concerns were raised.)
Not wanting a similar stumble, Disney delayed the opening by several months and spent an additional $800 million to increase the number of rides on opening day.
The new Boathouse is not owned by Schussler, but he acts as licensee and partner. He has control from a branding standpoint to make sure that it lives up to the same quality, taste profile and management as Orlando.
Disney owns 43 percent of Shanghai Disney with 57 percent owned by Shanghai Shendi Group, a government-controlled entity. Disney has operational control, holding a 70 percent stake in a management company created with Shendi to run the resort.
As for the dozen boats purchased in Minnesota that will be featured in The Boathouse in Shanghai, they are still in dry dock in Minnesota.
“They leave for China next week, I hope” Schussler said.