The hotly-anticipated Wanda Nanchang Theme Park in China’s JiangXi province opened its doors to the public in May. This was just weeks before Shanghai Disneyland.

The timing is surely no coincidence. Billionaire Wang Jianlin, Chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, has made no secret of his ambition to knock Disney from its global theme park pedestal.

He is intent on creating a world-beating park within its two square kilometre Wanda Cultural Tourism City. The Wandae Group chose world-class entertainment design company, FORREC, to provide master planning and design development of the 78-hectare site.

FORREC has worked with the company before on a variety of projects including Hubei in the Air, the ground-breaking fly theatre experience at Wanda Movie Park and Wanda Xishuangbanna Theme Park and Water Park in Yunnan Province, China.

Blooloop spoke to Linda Hung (left), Senior Director, Theme Parks, FORREC Ltd, about weaving landscape and local culture into the Wanda Nanchang Theme Park story.

Competing With The Best

“It’s common in the Wanda processes that projects start off as competitions, ” explains Hung. “The client has a prescribed process of a minimum of three design firms competing, with the same scope of work, deliverables, timeline, usually a 12-week period.

“If successful, you then have an opportunity to continue onto the next stages of work for schematic design and design development.”

“Every Wanda project has followed this process so it’s not new to us, but it is fast-paced, ” she says. “Twelve weeks is a short period of time to generate that amount of work. The expectations are high, the scale of the projects are large, and you are competing against the best in the industry.

“Wanda wants to make sure that each team explores and produces the best ideas. This way they explore the the full potential for each project.”

The Unique Wanda Nanchang Theme Park

The Nanchang park is unique among Wanda projects for being built on the site of an existing theme park.

“I toured the site at the very beginning with our team, and we were surprised to find that it was an existing amusement park called the Treasure Gourd Farm.”

The park was being retired for a number of reasons and Wanda had just completed their acquisition of the site.

Hung and her team used their visit as an opportunity to assess which of the park’s numerous assets, mostly locally supplied rides, could potentially be incorporated into the new venture.

“We reviewed  the existing site to see what could be adopted into the new park, and prepared a proposal as part of our first meeting with Wanda.”

As it turned out, Wanda made the decision not to adopt any of the existing content. But that didn’t stop FORREC.

Landscape as Inspiration

Nanchang is famous for its fresh water lakes and dramatic landscape. The FORREC team took these elements as inspiration.

“We did capitalise on the beautiful landscape elements. These included a central lagoon, romantic bridge, terraced walkways,   and rolling topography, ” says Hung.

“We tried to maintain as much of that as possible instead of starting from an entirely clean slate; expressing sensitivity to the existing conditions, and Wanda Group’s team onsite was very positive and supportive of that notion.”

The assessment FORREC had made of the Wanda Nanchang site, the identification of features that could be incorporated and drawn in as highlights of a master plan, clearly impressed the Wanda team.

“During the concept stage, the client defined the park size, scale and budget , ” says Hung. “I think they appreciated that instead of simply following their parameters, we drew from experience based on industry standards and including our experience in Chinese parks.”

Wanda appreciated FORREC’s frankness underpinned by the team’s genuine depth of experience and expertise.

“We believe it’s always important to spend time establishing the planning criteria. Winning the competition is our goal, but it is absolutely critical that the master plan works, ” says Hung.

Challenges and Possibilities

The dramatic nature of the site brought its own challenges but Hung could also see the possibilities:

“Unlike many other sites which are flat, this one had significant variations in topography. These would influence the new theme park design and create an instant impact. This careful integration, which showed the master plan was grounded, factored into the competition result.”

After the initial 12-week competition period, FORREC continued into the schematic and detailed design phase, which was a year-long process.

“Wanda made it clear to us at the beginning of schematic design: ‘You’ve won the project, now we want you to help us make this park unique, by expressing the local stories and culture.’”

Championing Regional Culture

Wanda has a strong belief in championing regional culture within its developments.

“Maintaining a local flavour has been part of Wanda’s vision, and they apply this to each of their parks.”

Few could argue with a strategy that celebrates regional culture but, says Hung, you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. So the park’s theme has to be a balance between fun and cultural elements.

There is a wealth of local mythology to draw on in the Nanchang region, and FORREC has used it to create immersive experiences steeped in regional storytelling.

“Nanchang is a region well known for its pottery. The local communities have been doing this for many centuries and are proud of it. That was an easy story to weave into the park. The Artisans, their  kilns, studios, and beautiful craft, inspired the Pottery Village in Nanchang theme park.

“There’s a current revival in this ancient technique that we wanted to tell the story about this tradition. This really worked well with the theming.”

Pottery Village includes a roller coaster that goes right through a simulated pottery kiln.

The Python Roller Coaster

A more playful zone is the Bamboo Forest. Bamboo is a plant closely connected with the daily lives of people in ancient China. It is ideally suited to the Nanchang climate.  Here visitors encounter the Python: the tallest, fastest and longest wooden roller coaster in China.

FORREC has taken this signature ride and woven it into the environment at Wanda Nanchang.

“It embraces the natural topography, it’s a free expression of form, using the terrain to amplify the thrill of speeding through the forest, ” explains Hung.

“Even at the grand opening, the Bamboo Forest had real impact.

“Our team was very pleased with the result, and you can imagine in 10 years’ time, when the bamboo grows in, just how much more immersive the environment will be.”

Further zones at Wanda Nanchang include:

  • A rustic fishing village zone which recalls the time when Poyang Lake was a source of livelihood for locals;
  • Temple of Clouds, which is a homage to Wang Bo, one of the great poets of the Tang Dynasty (AD 670-676),   featuring the architecture that inspired him;
  • Fairy Lady Land, based on a romantic legend about star-crossed lovers, a fairy and a cow-herd, who are brought together once a year when the birds build a bridge that allows them to meet.

Making an Entrance

The FORREC team is particularly proud of the entrance zone at Wanda Nanchang.

“Usually people don’t think of the entrance as its own thematic zone but, for us, it needed to make a statement, and was one of the biggest challenges.”

The original Treasure Gourd Farm’s entrance was at the back of the site. Guests entered the park at level ground. But, integrating the park with the rest of the Cultural Tourism City Mall and the plaza meant the entrance had to be relocated to the opposite end of the site, which was 18 metres below the height of the theme park.

“Normally, you want a smooth transition, bringing the guests directly into the park, ” says Hung.  “But, we had an entirely different space and approach to deal with.”

Known as Shangri-La, the entrance is a reflection of the various cultures and architectures of China. By incorporating various means of vertical transport, including escalators, stairs and ramps, to move guests from one level to another, FORREC has transformed the height difference into a genuine asset and grand arrival.

The Perfect Photo Opportunity

The plaza presents the perfect photo opportunity  – a place that is instantly recognisable. It is also Hung’s favourite zone:

“When our team attended the opening,   we were worried that the approach would feel cumbersome. Instead it actually feels inviting. We created a dramatic arrival, where guests pass through a series of engaging landscapes and waterfalls.  And, of course, the beautiful dragon that weaves alongside the escalators is memorable” says Hung.

“There is no greater reward for our team than seeing this tremendous design effort come to life. The client generously invited us to attend the grand opening. A group from FORREC was able to experience the thrill of a new park, and a great sense of pride with our joint achievement with Wanda Group.”

All images kind courtesy FORREC Ltd.