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In Game of Theme Parks, Orlando rules but Asia eyes the throne

There's a disturbance in the theme park force.

It seems Disney's and Orlando's long-standing domination of the global theme park business is no longer a given.

As Walt Disney Co. prepares to open its first mainland China theme park in Shanghai on June 16, China's richest billionaire has some objections.

Wang Jianlin, whose Dalian Wanda Group last summer bought Tampa's Ironman endurance race business, is launching tourism projects across China. In a recent appearance on China Central Television, he warned Disney made a mistake coming to his neighborhood.

"One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves," he said. "Shanghai has one Disney, while Wanda, across the nation, will open 15 to 20."

Disney, which owns nine of the world's 25 largest theme parks by attendance, isn't publicly batting an eye. But China is rising fast in the theme park world. Of the world's 25 largest parks, the three fastest growing in attendance between 2014 and 2105 are based in China.

Estimated visitor figures for the world's top theme parks appear in the "Global Attractions Attendance Report" released Wednesday by Aecom and the Themed Entertainment Association.

Sorry, Orlando. You may rule the theme park roost for now, but the momentum of new parks and start­ling attendance gains are shifting to Asia. If attendance is the driving measure of theme park success, China may hold a strong upper hand in a country with 1.4 billion people and a growing middle class with disposable income.

Not that Orlando's mega-successful theme park industry is throwing in the towel any time soon.

In 2015, Aecom senior economist John Robinette says, "Global theme park attendance was driven largely by strong performance of the major Asian and U.S. operators, including Chimelong, Songcheng, Disney and Universal."

Five of the world's 10 largest theme parks worldwide are based in Orlando, a testament to the metro area's success in marketing itself as a single location for mass theme park entertainment. Of the other five parks in the top 10, three operate in Japan, one is in France and the other (Disneyland) is in California.

But a shift to the Far East is under way. In 2006, North America boasted 52 percent of the world's top theme park attendance. By 2015, that number dropped to 47 percent. Meanwhile, Asia-Pacific theme park attendance, representing 35 percent of visitors in 2006, rose to 42 percent by 2015.

Theme park watchers say the strength behind the major U.S. park operators is their intellectual capital — the ideas and themes that have broad appeal and drive new attractions. Certainly dominating Orlando's growth in recent years is Universal Orlando's creation and then expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction. Potter helped drive attendance up by 16 percent at Universal Studios — the only major Orlando theme park with double-digit attendance growth in 2015.

In late April, Universal's parent company, cable giant Comcast Corp., bought film studio DreamWorks for $3.8 billion. That deal gave Universal access to such popular DreamWorks films and characters as Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek and even old classics like Frosty the Snowman.

Disney, of course, is in a class of its own when it comes to potential attractions based on popular films and characters that it now owns. The company's already adding attractions in Orlando based on Star Wars and Avatar. And Disney's immensely popular animated film Frozen debuts at Epcot in June at the Frozen Ever After attraction. Disney also bought the Pixar animation studio behind the Toy Story trilogy in 2006, and three years later acquired Marvel Comics and its stable of iconic superheroes.

Let's just say Disney does not look like it will fall short of highly popular attraction concepts any time soon.

But Disney chose to open its newest park in Shanghai for good reason. Worldwide, all of Disney's theme parks grew just 2.7 percent in 2015. It also boasted twice the number of visitors (137.9 million) to its parks than its closets rival, Merlin Entertainment.

But Disney sees the global demographic trend. In 2006, Disney theme parks handled 57 percent of global attendance. As competition grew, that figure slipped to 55 percent last year. If much of the United States has sampled Disney parks multiple times, the Chinese population has not. Hence the push to open Disney Shanghai. Universal Beijing, now under construction, will not be far behind.

At least for now, Orlando rules the theme park world. During a multiyear streak of record-setting numbers of visitors to Florida, Orlando's tourism numbers remain strong. (Only SeaWorld Orlando among major Florida parks saw a dip in attendance in the first quarter of 2016.)

"Visitation to Orlando has reportedly more than doubled over the past 20 years, growing from 32.4 million in 1995 to 66.1 million in 2015," says the Aecom global attractions report, "solidifying Orlando's position as the most visited destination in the nation."

But Aecom predicts China will replace the United States as the largest theme park market by 2020, less than four years from now.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.