SHANGHAI—Walt Disney Co. on Thursday opened the gates to its first resort in mainland China under rainy skies, after years of planning and costs of more than $ 5.5 billion.
As Chinese dancers and Disney characters in costume filled a stage in front of the massive Enchanted Storybook Castle, announcers pronounced the park officially open at 11:01 a.m. and fireworks went off above the castle.
Hundreds of employees lined the sides of the main avenue of the park, as the first visitors ran into the park at 11:30. Employees warned visitors to walk slowly as the ground was wet from rain.
Disney allowed access to the first ticket holders only cautiously after the morning ceremonies. More than an hour after the gates officially opened, thousands stood under umbrellas hoping to enter.
The carefully orchestrated opening of the huge Shanghai Disney Resort capped months of hype and anticipation. But tragic events on the other side of the world, starting with Sunday’s mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, threatened to overshadow what was supposed to be a week of unalloyed triumph for the world’s largest entertainment company.
On Tuesday, a 2-year-old boy was killed when an alligator dragged him into a Walt Disney World lagoon in Orlando. The boy’s body was recovered on Wednesday.
Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger called the family from Shanghai and George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort, left Shanghai for Orlando immediately after news of the alligator attack.
At the opening ceremony in Shanghai, Mr. Iger read aloud a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that said the resort captured the spirit of the two countries’ relationship and underlined “the importance of China continuing to make itself attractive to investment from around the world.”
Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, who read a letter from President Xi Jinping, made light of the rain falling over the festivities: “I told Chairman Iger rain is a sign of good fortune,” he said. “I like to call this a rain of U.S. dollars and RMB”—another name for China’s currency, the yuan.
There was no mention of the Orlando tragedies at the opening events in Shanghai.
The park opens at a time when China’s economic growth is the slowest in decades. In a reference to global economic headwinds, Mr. Wang noted that foreign investment into China rose in the first part of this year, “pointing to the attractiveness of China to the global investment community” and called Shanghai Disney Resort “the epitome of the opening up of China’s service sector.”
Disney opened a theme park in Hong Kong in 2005, but attendance has been lower than expected in part because of a lack of appealing attractions, though the company has steadily added more since.
Security was heavy inside the park. The area of the opening ceremony in front of the castle was surrounded by metal detectors and hundreds of security guards. All guests for the opening ceremony were given blue-and-gold mouse-ears hats to wear.
Government officials were escorted on golf carts by Disney executives including the theme park’s general director, Philippe Gas. Before the opening ceremony, the officials stopped by the park’s flagship attraction, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure,” a ride based on the movie franchise starring Johnny Depp.
Disney tweaked its attractions during a month of testing ahead of the opening, operating the park at up to two-thirds of its capacity. After the opening, attendance could exceed 60,000 visitors daily, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. More than 10 million people are expected at the park in the first year.
Disney owns 43% of Shanghai Disney Resort, with the majority controlled by the local government’s Shanghai Shendi Group Co.
—Yang Jie contributed to this article.
Write to Ben Fritz at [email protected]