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Disney's Shanghai Bet

Cinderella's Castle
Flikr/cdharrison
Cinderella's Castle

Disney's been working on launching a theme park in China for years, decades by some measures.

And now, finally, after securing approval from the Chinese central government, Bob Iger broke ground on a new theme park and resort in Shanghai.

China's an odd exception for Disney —unlike the rest of the world, it doesn't have the decades-long history dominating entertainment and pop culture. It's a rare country without its own Disney channel.

Yet Mickey Mouse is pirated throughout the company. This provides an unique challenge— there aren't the ingrained positive associations with Disney's brands as there are in the rest of the world.

But it's also a massive opportunity—China's an entirely fresh market to introduce to Disney's characters. And the market is huge—with this park Disney is targeting 330 million people living within a 3 hour drive or train ride from Shanghai.

And while a Mickey Mouse or Buzz Lightyear image can be pirated, the experience of strolling through a Disney park can't, nor can a theme park ride.

And if Disney can work its proverbial brand magic on these millions of new consumers, they should leave the park eager to pay for a 3-D movie ticket or buy an authentic Disney Princess doll.

The Shanghai resort will cost $4.4 billion, including the theme park, two hotels, plus a retail, dining and entertainment venue, along with a lake. Disney is sharing the risk—and the returns -- with the Chinese government.

The state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group will take 57 percent of the initial investment, Disney the rest. But Disney will have operational control of the park, with a 70 percent stake in the management company.

Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce says that the management company will start generating revenue and segment operating income as soon as the park has opened.

Joyce is bullish on the park's prospects, saying it has the benefit of 30 million of the Chinese population rising into the middle class each year. And he points out that Disney has been working on educating the Chinese about Disney characters with 18 English-language learning centers in China.

The potential is huge -- I'm sure investors and the company are disappointed they'll have to wait five years to see whether it can work magic on this enormous market.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.