In June 2016 I made my fortieth trip to China in eighteen years, my eleventh in the past six months. I was there to oversee the final preparations before the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. I'd been CEO of the Walt Disney Company for eleven years at that point, and my plan was to open Shanghai and then retire. It had been a thrilling run, and the creation of this park was the biggest accomplishment of my career. It felt like the right time to move on, but life doesn't always go the way you expect it will. Things happen that you can't possibly anticipate. The fact that I'm still running the company as I write this is a testament to that. Much more profoundly, so are the events of that week in Shanghai.
We were opening the park on Thursday, June 16. That Monday, the first wave of VIPs was scheduled to arrive: Disney board members and key executives and their families, creative partners, investors and Wall Street analysts. There was a huge international media contingent already there and more coming in. I'd been in Shanghai for two weeks and was running on adrenaline. Since my first location-scouting trip to China in 1998, I was the only person who had been involved in the project from day one, and I couldn't wait to show it to the world.
In the sixty-one years since Walt Disney built Disneyland in Anaheim, California, we'd opened parks in Orlando and Paris and Tokyo and Hong Kong. Disney World in Orlando remains our largest, but Shanghai was of a different order than all the others. It was one of the biggest investments in the history of the company. Numbers don't really do the park justice, but here are a few to give some sense of its scope. Shanghai Disneyland cost about $6 billion to build. It is 963 acres, about eleven times the size of Disneyland. At various stages of its construction, as many as fourteen thousand workers lived on the property. We held casting calls in six cities in China to discover the thousand singers, dancers, and actors who perform in our stage and street shows. Over the eighteen years it took to complete the park, I met with three presidents of China, five mayors of Shanghai, and more party secretaries than I can remember (one of whom was arrested for corruption and banished to northern China in the middle of our negotiations, setting the project back nearly two years).
We had endless negotiations over land deals and partnership splits and management roles, and considered things as significant as the safety and comfort of Chinese workers and as tiny as whether we could cut a ribbon on opening day. The creation of the park was an education in geopolitics, and a constant balancing act between the possibilities of global expansion and the perils of cultural imperialism. The overwhelming challenge, which I repeated to our team so often it became a mantra for everyone working on the project, was to create an experience that was "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese."
In the early evening on Sunday, June 12, I and the rest of my team in Shanghai received news of a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, fifteen miles from Disney World. We have more than seventy thousand employees in Orlando, and we waited in horror for confirmation that some of them were at the club that night. Our head of security, Ron Iden, was with us in Shanghai, and he immediately began calling his network of security contacts in the States. It was twelve hours earlier—just before dawn—in Orlando when we first heard the news. Ron told me he'd have more information when I got up in the morning.
My first event the next day was a presentation to investors over breakfast. Then I had to shoot a long interview with Robin Roberts of Good Morning America, which included touring the park and riding attractions with Robin and her crew. Then there was a meeting with Chinese officials about protocol for the opening ceremonies, a dinner with members of our board and senior executives, and finally a rehearsal for the opening-night concert that I was hosting. Ron periodically gave me updates as I moved through the day.
We knew that more than fifty people had been killed and nearly as many injured, and that the shooter was a man named Omar Mateen. Ron's security team ran Mateen's name through our database and found that he'd visited the Magic Kingdom a couple of months before the shooting, then again the weekend before. There was closed-circuit television footage of him on that last visit, pacing outside a park entrance near the House of Blues, in Downtown Disney.