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Disney culture shock

Maureen Fan

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Before Hong Kong Disneyland opened last year, planners were careful to design the park according to the principles of feng shui, placing objects in harmony with their environment. They made sure to offer Chinese food. And they built a garden of costumed characters to satisfy the Chinese obsession with taking photos.

Then the best-laid plans went awry.

A charity event before the official opening was chaotic and overcrowded. Local celebrities were offended by rude treatment during opening celebrations. Health officials were barred from entering the park in uniform. Environmentalists protested the shark-fin soup on the menus.

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It was only the beginning of a very rocky start for Disney, during which it was accused of arrogance and insensitivity by its visitors. The company has since received favorable reviews, but the early experience raised questions about its ability to operate effectively in this culture, as well as concerns about what will happen when the company opens its first park on the mainland, in Shanghai, in a few years.

"If they got into trouble in Hong Kong, it is certain they will get into trouble in the mainland. If they're arrogant there, it will be magnified 100 times," said Chan Kin Man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Disneyland is an icon of the West. When relations between the United States and China turn sour, it might turn into a target," Chan said.

Nearly half of the park's five million visitors in the past year were from the mainland. And it was during a peak season for those visitors that Disney made its biggest gaffe.

Despite several sold-out days over Christmas, Disney was unprepared for the early reaction to a discount promotion during the start of the Lunar New Year in February. Hundreds of already ticketed customers were locked out because the park was full, generating TV coverage of crying children, angry parents and tourists climbing fences to get in.

The changes Hong Kong Disneyland has since made - more flexible ticketing and more profit- sharing with travel agencies - are now being watched closely as the company stands by plans to open an even larger park in Shanghai. "It will be even more interesting in China," said Chan, who visited the park in September 2005.

"We have a group of people who are fond of anything Western, but we also have a strong group of nationalists. Things will be more intense."

Disney, which has previously called the problems "growing pains," declined to comment.

The company has confronted challenges elsewhere overseas. Euro Disney, which later changed the name of its park to Disneyland Paris, was criticized for exporting American imperialism when it opened in 1992. The park had to offer wine to placate French visitors and was financially bailed out by a Saudi prince. Today it is a top tourist destination. Disney also has a park in Tokyo, where it has had a relatively smoother go of it.

In China, Disney is trying to market its merchandise in a country enamored with Western brands and yet also notorious for piracy. It is pushing movies and TV programs, building retail stores and bringing traveling "roadshows" to attract more mainland tourists to Hong Kong Disneyland.

There are indications of some success.

Huang Xianyi, 50, a bank employee from central China, was among the first to arrive at Hong Kong Disneyland on a recent Sunday. By midmorning, he was front and center in a crowd, tapping his feet at a show celebrating the songs of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, The Little Mermaid and Woody, the talking cowboy doll from Toy Story.

"I liked the rhythm of the show, from adventure to romance, from exciting to comfortable. It suits both children and adults," Huang said. "All those stories remind me of my childhood."

He said the US$46 (HK$350) entrance ticket didn't bother him, nor did the all-English narration on the Winnie the Pooh ride.

"I don't expect to see many Chinese things in Disneyland," Huang said. "I came to see different things, fresh things."

His friend, Zheng Feiyue, 43, agreed: "The staff service and attitude is very good. They're more professional than those theme parks on the mainland."

Li Qiyun, 35, a mother from Guangzhou, brought her six-year-old daughter, her mother and an uncle to Disneyland.

Li paid about US$223 for four train tickets and park admission. They saved money by staying with relatives, but Li's mother complained just the same. "It's too expensive, too expensive. Not worth it," muttered Kang Runhao, 60, taking a seat on the spotless Disney train that connects Hong Kong's subway system to the park.

But by the end of the day, a 10-hour marathon capped by fireworks over Cinderella's castle, the park's spotless service had won over the mainland family.

"What impressed me most is the toilet. It's really good," Li said.

A pleasant experience at the park is considered especially important by some in Hong Kong because, as taxpayers, they helped foot the bill. After the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, at a time when restoring confidence in Hong Kong was crucial, the government paid US$2.9 billion to build the park. Disney paid US$314 million for a stake in the project. As a result, the company's failure to disclose specific attendance or revenue figures rubbed Hong Kong citizens the wrong way.

"They do need to improve communications with the public and ensure that they connect with the community," said John Ap, a theme park expert from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

In September, Hong Kong Disneyland announced that just over five million people visited the park in its first year of operation, a figure that included promotional giveaways and fell just short of its target of 5.6 million visitors.

Disney has said that its Shanghai park is unlikely to be built before 2010.

"Understanding the Chinese market takes time," Ap said. "Hong Kong Disneyland is basically the pilot case study for them. Certainly they'll be a lot more wary when they go into China."

WASHINGTON POST


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