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“Theatrical interpretation” – sign language integrated with body movement elements – is featured in “Let’s Get Wicked”, a show that runs until October 31 at Hong Kong Disneyland. Photo: Hong Kong Disneyland

How Hong Kong Disneyland makes sign language part of the show, a world first for Disney parks, as part of diversity and inclusion push

  • Alex Clifton, executive director of entertainment and costuming at Hong Kong Disneyland, talks about his mission to make the park accessible to all
  • From sign language integrated in performances, starting with its Halloween show, to empowering disabled artists, he explains how it will live up to its promise

Hong Kong Disneyland is embarking on new initiatives to make the theme park more accessible to people with disabilities.

It is the first Disney park in the world to provide sign language integrated into the body movements of performers at its shows, a practise it calls “theatrical interpretation” – starting with Halloween.

The initiative is part of the park’s drive to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

“There’s a responsibility to live up to the promise that Walt Disney himself made when he invited all guests to come to our park and be welcomed,” says Alex Clifton, executive director of entertainment and costuming at Hong Kong Disneyland. “We need to create uniquely welcoming environments and spaces for our guests.”

Alex Clifton, executive director of entertainment and costuming at Hong Kong Disneyland. Photo: Hong Kong Disneyland

Clifton was inspired to create inclusive venues after working with a friend who used a wheelchair and had cognitive disabilities. The pair worked together on the design of Storyhouse, a cultural centre that Clifton co-founded in Chester, in the United Kingdom, to ensure that it was accessible to people with disabilities.

When Clifton moved to Hong Kong a year ago to take on his role at Disneyland, he brought his desire to make entertainment accessible to all.

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“Part of the reason I’m here personally, on a very human level, is because this organisation took the extraordinary step to embed inclusion,” he says.

“That’s an extraordinary message, for an organisation of this scale – the largest entertainment company in the world – to make: the statement that every dollar that we invest is going to be an investment in inclusion.”

The performers in Let’s Get Wicked, a live musical Halloween show that runs until October 31, were trained by the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong (ADAHK) in how to integrate sign language in their acting.

The actors spent around six weeks practising hand and body movements and expressions, and learning about different communication methods used by the hearing-impaired.

A scene from Mickey and the Wondrous Book. Two performances each month of the show will have theatrical interpretation for hearing-impaired audience members. Photo: Hong Kong Disneyland

“Partnership working is critical to how we make this come to life,” Clifton says. “We can’t do this on our own.

“We have to do it with friends, and particularly with local colleagues, local partners, local organisations, who can empower us and make us more truthfully inclusive, who can advise and lead us through lived experiences of their own.”

Theatrical interpretation will also be offered twice a month in another show, called Mickey and the Wondrous Book, as part of a one-year pilot programme that begins on November 5. In those performances, two professional sign language interpreters will be signing the storyline as part of the show.

Hong Kong Disneyland will also provide free sign language interpretation on request at other attractions, such as the Jungle River Cruise and the show Festival of Lion King.

Another upcoming diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, also a collaboration with ADAHK, will see budding young artists with disabilities supported through a programme of mentorship and skills-building activities.

Since 2017, Hong Kong Disneyland has hosted “Community Got Talent”, under which over 1,800 people from diverse backgrounds, including young cancer patients, students with visual disabilities, speech impairments or special education needs, have been invited to perform.

Let’s Get Wicked, which runs until October 31 at Hong Kong Disneyland, is the first Disney show anywhere in the world to feature performers incorporating sign language in their movements. Photo: Hong Kong Disneyland

Behind the scenes, Clifton also hopes to foster an environment that empowers Hong Kong Disneyland’s diverse staff, who are of 34 nationalities and speak 24 languages.

“It starts with representation on stage, making sure that we authentically and with integrity, share and tell people’s stories,” he says.

“We then take the next bold step, which is not just to represent diversity, but to give leadership authority and empower that diversity [by] leveraging the differences that we have within our cast.”

The journey to making Hong Kong Disneyland more inclusive isn’t without its difficulties.

Mickey and the Wondrous Book will feature “theatrical interpretation” twice a month as part of a one-year pilot programme that begins on November 5. Photo: Hong Kong Disneyland

“The biggest challenge is simply knowing that it’s a journey without end,” Clifton says. “Inclusion isn’t something you achieve. It’s something you continue to work for with humility on a daily basis.”

The ultimate goal of inclusion is clear – to bring joy and delight to all visitors and Disney fans.

“We can make a real meaningful difference,” Clifton says, “reaching into millions of lives, and particularly millions of young lives, to help shape their story, to help empower them as storytellers, to help show them that they can be represented in any story and in any lived experience.”