Mickey Mao conquers creche of communism
Walt Disney, one of the most famous icons of capitalism, has a curious new bed-fellow: the Communist Youth League of China.
The American multinational is tapping into the league's national network of more than 1,000 youth associations, or 'youth palaces', to teach children about the ways of Mickey and Donald.
The project started about three months ago in Guangzhou. Groups of 30 to 40 children participate in an activity-based session, with story telling and performances.
So far, about 700 to 800 children have been 'reached', but with 60 million children in the youth league, the plan is to magnify what Walt Disney Parks and Resorts president Jay Rasulo calls a process of 'grass roots brand-building'.
The hope is that mainland visitors who bring their children to Hong Kong Disneyland in Penny's Bay when it opens some time late next year or early 2006 will be familiar with the Magic Kingdom.
They won't just recognise the characters, they will know the stories.
At least 30 per cent of the projected 5.6 million visitors to the theme park each year are expected to be from the mainland. However, given limits on showing western films on the mainland, Disney movies are not as widely distributed as they are near its other theme parks, such as Tokyo or Paris.
The brand basics may be there, but Disney is looking for a more doctrine-based recognition.
'One approach we thought of was to introduce into the activity centres, the children's palaces ... an easy way for children to become more familiar with Disney,' explains Mr Rasulo.
'We thought this was a good way to get more stability, comfort ... understanding of Disney stories. It's one part of an overall brand-building process.'
Most mainland Chinese are familiar with Disney's entourage.
Mr Rasulo cites legendary stories of Disney staff, complete with Mickey ears, travelling to the most remote areas of China to gauge awareness of the company's brand.
Although the characters are well known, Mr Rasulo said: 'It's like saying here's a new Nokia phone, but I don't know the services.'
Such access by a US entertainment giant to a local government initiative in China may seem extraordinary were it not for the political dimension to the project.
The Penny's Bay park is the first Disneyland to receive government investment. Hong Kong taxpayers are footing a large bill for its development and the government is taking a 57 per cent stake in it.
When the deal was struck in 1999, the Hong Kong administration came under fire for failing to negotiate more equitable terms. It provided a $5.6 billion low-interest loan and $13.6 billion for reclamation and infrastructure works.
Clearing land for the site also involved razing a large corner of Lantau Island, and critics chided the generous land concessions.
Fast returns on the project thus require a regular influx of mainland tourists ready to pile their yuan into rides and merchandise.
Swift financial benefits at the Hong Kong theme park also took on additional urgency when it emerged that Disney had been in talks with the central government to open a Shanghai Disneyland in the near future.
However, the brakes have been put on a second China park for the near term.
While Mr Rasulo has 'no doubt' there is a future market for Disney in China, it is unlikely to happen before 2010. There could be a Disney park in India some day, he said.
'It's more about demographics, economic stability. Can people get there, is there the necessary infrastructure, is there the disposable income in that part of the world ... to allow them to actually spend money on entertainment?'
He declined to reveal any specific plans for Asia expansion but said 'there will be other Disney destinations in future'.
'I never thought 20 years ago we would be talking about how to get mainland children to come to Disneyland.'