The Nickelodeon Playtime Family Entertainment Centre at the Shenzhen OCT Happy Harbor Mall in Shenzhen, China, sees ViacomCBS partner with new group, China Leisure, to bring Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, PAW Patrol and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to life.
China Leisure and Nickelodeon Experience Design worked with Jack Rouse Associates and Forrec to create the 1,800sq m centre, which features more than a dozen attractions across five themed zones. The attractions are centred around active and immersive play and include drop slides, themed soft play areas, foam pits, interactive games, climbing walls and playground obstacle courses. Aimed at children aged between two and 11 years old, the entertainment centre costs US$40 for one child and one adult.
“We see rapid growth in family entertainment spending in China; children’s entertainment centres are really gaining a lot of traction here,” says China Leisure president Linda Dong. “Malls are actively looking for experience-based tenants right now. F&B and children’s experiences are are really driving footfall at the moment.”
The attractions at Nickelodeon Playtime are child-directed, with no customer journey – families are able to choose how to use the facilities and in which order, says Dong. “We’re seeing a growing trend for immersive play in China,” she adds. “It’s not just about telling a really good story and having lots of themed lands and shows, it’s about allowing the guests to create their own stories. It’s up to the families and kids to decide how they want to use the space.
“Children have such great imaginations – our goal was to create amazing, immersive lands and zones where the kids can do their own thing.”
The attraction features a lot of media and AV games, says Dong. “Our flagship media attraction, Jellyfish Fields, is a 12-player game using projection technology across three walls. Kids are given nets, there’s an introduction with Spongebob Squarepants inviting the kids to take part, and they’re tasked with catching jellyfish from the interactive wall.”
Other attractions include Rocky’s Recycling Challenge, which sees children sorting ‘trash’ from Adventure Bay to support the social recycling push in China, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-themed adventure playground. The centre also features a play café, with soft play elements, a foam pit, and a meet and greet stage.
Dong grew up in Canada and studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania, before starting her career with Goldman Sachs and then returning to China to work for the M&A team of Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund. She later joined her family business, urban operator China Creation Group, where she worked with Nickelodeon on the Nickelodeon Universe indoor theme park at the Mall of Chongqing.
“After that experience I wanted to work with IPs more,” she says. “China Creation has a really strong portfolio and a good following in China, but it’s not always easy for them to find partners who can understand and prioritise their needs for quality and brand image and who understand the whole approval process.
“We’ve been able to build a strong international team and we’ve been in China doing developments and working with theme parks for a while now.”
An affiliate of China Creation, the China Leisure Development Company was founded a year ago to focus on the leisure and attractions market in China. The company partners with top international IPs to bring their dedicated location-based entertainment products to China.“Working with IPs is a fairly niche activity in China, especially licensing them,” says Dong. “We thought we had strong capability in this area so we moved into the sector.”
The short-term focus for China Leisure is on FECs, due to their shorter development turnaround, adds Dong.
“Theme parks are massively capital intensive and much slower to build out in terms of government permits,” she says. “FECs are very fast to build out and pretty much all the malls want them.
“For Nickelodeon to trust us with its brands is a big honour and a achievement.”
While she started her career in the financial sector, Dong has found her passion in the attractions market. “It’s just such a fun, creative industry,” she says. “And there are a lot of great products globally that I want to bring into the Chinese market.”
As part of her research, Dong said she rode 70 coasters across four continents in the space of a year. So which parks really impressed her?
“It’s Disney and Universal – hands down. We’re obviously not operating on those kinds of scales, but it’s useful for us to try and work out what makes those attractions so special and try to do that on a smaller and more intimate scale. We’re all bout creating experiences that balance our capital needs as a private investor with that type of quality and experience.
“I was also inspired by the immersive nature of the Harry Potter and Star Wars attractions. For us, it’s not about saying: ‘Here’s Spongebob – now let’s take a picture’. It’s about trying to bring the children into Spongebob’s world and showing them what it’s like to be him for a day.”
DEVELOPING THE CONCEPT
Forrec did the initial concept design for the Nickelodeon Playtime Centre, while JRA provided masterplanning, writing and concept development, attraction and graphic design.
Despite the pandemic, Dong says they managed to continue without too many hold ups.
“We were delayed by about a month,” she says. “The good thing was that the height of the pandemic was our design phase, so we could focus on that. When we started construction, everything had pretty much cleared up in China.”
The timing also meant that there was no need to redesign the centre, as, at the time of writing, China has no extra restrictions on family entertainment centres.
“There are precautions in place, but these are in place anyway for the flu season,” says Dong. “Typically with FECs we carry out temperature checks, we always have alcohol wipes at the counters and we sterilise our facilities every few hours.”
China Leisure is also working on a second project, another family entertainment centre – this time with Hasbro – which is due to open in Beijing in 2021.
LEISURE IN CHINA
Looking forwards, Dong expects to see significant growth in the attractions market in China over the coming years. “I’m very excited for the future of this market, she says. “It’s definitely entering its growth phase.
“Early on some of the projects opening in China weren’t up to scratch, but the entrance of Disney and Universal into the market has really encouraged theme parks and attractions to start upping their quality.
“I think we’ll see a wave of fresh demand for local attractions,” says Dong. “Beijing and Shanghai attractions are priced at a level that’s unattainable for the vast majority of Chinese consumers. There’s a whole market for lower price attractions at local and regional levels.