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Asia travel

How Disney made sure Shanghai Disneyland doesn’t put off Chinese visitors

Drawing on the lessons of launching Disneylands in Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo, Walt Disney Co. has gone to great lengths to avoid cultural faux pas at its recently opened theme park in China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 6:01pm

Even before the Walt Disney Company opened Euro Disneyland outside Paris in 1992, French intellectuals called the park a “cultural Chernobyl”, workers protested against the Disney dress code and neighbours complained that the park’s train whistles provoked their dogs to bark and geese to honk.

But Paris came to embrace its new neighbour and now the park attracts 10.4 million people a year, more than the number of visitors to the Louvre museum or the Eiffel Tower.

On June 16, Disney opened its biggest and most expensive international resort – a more than 400 hectare, US$5.5 billion development in Shanghai – and company executives know the challenges of trying to take the Disney magic abroad. An opening-day misstep or cultural faux pas at the Shanghai Disney resort could dent Disney’s hugely popular brand.

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But if the risks are high, so are the rewards.

If it proves a hit, Shanghai Disney will add momentum to the USentertainment giant’s efforts to turn China’s 1.4 billion citizens into more voracious consumers of its merchandise and films.

Disney’s target is the country’s upper middle class, which is forecast to double to 100 million by 2020, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The Chinese tourism industry represents US$610 billion in spending in China and abroad, and the Chinese government predicts that it also will double by 2020.

“The sheer numbers in the Chinese economy are staggering,” says theme park expert Martin Lewison, a business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York. “It’s a massive country with hundreds of millions of new customers.”

Customers such as Han Li, a data analyst, and her husband, Yu Lei, a bank worker, both 32. The couple, who have been to all five of Disney’s resorts, had planned to attend the grand opening in Shanghai and stay five days.

“It’s not that we don’t have other travel plans,” Han says, “but other plans need to give way to Disney plans.”

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The joint venture behind Shanghai Disney – Disney holds a 43 per cent stake and state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group owns the rest – insists it was well prepared for the grand opening of the Shanghai resort, which is nearly twice the size of the Southern California Resort (which includes Disneyland and California Adventure, three hotels and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment complex).

For a month before the opening, Shanghai Disney held previews to work out the kinks, with some one million people visiting the park’s six themed lands encircling the Enchanted Storybook Castle, a shopping district and 40 hectares of gardens, lakes and parkland.

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Disney chief executive Bob Iger promised last year during a promotional campaign that the resort would be “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”. The company hired Chinese architects and designers and sent teams around China researching ways to incorporate Chinese cultural elements.

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“I think that will make a big difference,” says Marty Sklar, former vice-chairman and principal creative executive for Disney’s Imagineering team during Euro Disneyland construction. “They are trying to become part of the culture instead of trying to interpret the culture,” says Sklar, who retired from Disney in 2009.

For example, Main Street USA has been ditched in favour of a large garden featuring Disney versions of the Chinese zodiac animals and a Mickey Avenue that will help familiarise visitors new to Disney the company’s classic characters.

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Designers added more seating at restaurants after finding that Chinese guests linger longer over meals, and incorporated more live entertainment after realising that many Chinese patrons like those shows as well as – or better than – adrenaline-inducing rides.

Among the other innovations and adaptations slated for the Shanghai park are rigid barriers to encourage more orderly queuing, wider thoroughfares than in other Disney parks and extensive picnic areas to appeal to extended families with grandparents in tow. There’s also a mobile phone app that delivers updates on wait times and can warn prospective guests to stay away if the park is at capacity.

Disney faces steep competition in China, where as many as 60 theme parks are under construction or being planned, including projects by Universal Parks & Resorts, Six Flags Entertainment and Dalian Wanda Group, one of China’s biggest conglomerates.

Disney doesn’t disclose capacity or attendance figures for its parks, but Shanghai Shendi has projected that 10 million to 12 million people will visit the park in the first year.

There is room for as many as three Disney parks at the Shanghai site, and the complex could eventually attract up to 30 million attendees annually, according to Entertainment Culture Advisors, a consulting group.

By comparison, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea attracted a combined 30.2 million people in 2015, according to an annual report by the Aecom consulting firm and Themed Entertainment Association, an industry group. Last year, Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, brought in 20.5 million people, Disneyland drew 18.3 million people and California Adventure had 9.4 million visitors, the report says.

Hong Kong Disneyland, the smallest Disney theme park, attracted 6.8 million visitors last year.

Liu Zhaohui, co-founder of the Beijing-based travel company TripVivid, estimates that annual revenue from the Shanghai resort could reach US$3.7 billion.

Disney has spared no expense to make sure Shanghai Disney doesn’t suffer the same setbacks as previous projects, says Edward Marks, co-chief executive of the Producers Group, a theme park consultant that has worked on Shanghai Disney.

In 2014, Disney and Shanghai Shendi announced that they were increasing their investment in the park by US$800 million to US$5.5 billion. Last year, the companies pushed the opening date back a year to 2016.

Some observers speculated that the extra investment and revised timeline were the result of cost overruns and other problems, but the companies say they simply wanted to expand the number of attractions that would be ready on opening day.

“The phase one opening of this park will be the best of the industry,” Marks says.

Transplanting Disney’s popular US entertainment abroad hasn’t always been easy. With the opening of Euro Disneyland – later renamed Disneyland Paris – Disney faced strong resistance from French activists who were leery of an invasion of American culture served up by Mickey Mouse and Dumbo the flying elephant.

The park, owned by Euro Disney SCA, a public company in which Disney holds an 82 per cent stake, anticipated 11 million visitors a year but attracted only about 9.8 million in the first full year. It didn’t help that a recession hit Europe at about the same time the park opened.

Disney made adjustments to appeal to the French, such as lifting an alcohol ban and reverting Disney characters with French origins to their original names. The castle of Sleeping Beauty is known as Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant.

“We did bend to some of it,” says Mickey Steinberg, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Disney Imagineering, who retired in 1994. “We did serve wine.”

But Steinberg says his biggest problems had more to do with meeting construction deadlines and working with foreign crews under restrictive French guidelines. “Disney didn’t have the experience their people have today,” he says.

When plans were launched about a decade later to build the Hong Kong park, Disney executives took steps to avoid cultural blunders. The company, which, a 47 per cent stake in the joint venture with the Hong Kong government,employed feng shui experts to pick the opening date – September 12, 2005 – and to improve the theme park’s chi, or positive energy. There are no fourth-floor buttons in the lifts at hotels in the Hong Kong park, because four is an unlucky number.

Still, the park suffered a bumpy first year, drawing 5.2 million visitors, 400,000 short of its target of 5.6 million.

Marks says the park is much too small – only 27.5 hectares – and the attractions are not the high quality of those in the Anaheim or Florida parks.

Perhaps Disney’s smoothest theme park opening outside of the US was its very first in Tokyo in 1983. That project was built by Disney but operated by a Japan-based leisure and hospitality company, Oriental Land Co, with a licensing agreement with Disney.

The 46.5-hectare park was built with near-identical attractions to those in Disneyland, and last year hosted 16.6 million visitors, according to Aecom and the Themed Entertainment Association.

“The community wanted Disney there,” says David Koenig, the author of several books about Disney.

Steinberg predicts Disney’s biggest problem at the Shanghai park will be managing crowds. About 330 million people are estimated to live within a three-hour drive or train ride from Shanghai Disney.

“They are going to have larger rushes of crowds than they have ever witnessed,” Steinberg says.