Is Chinese culture a trump card to rival Disneyland?

This is a very interesting opinion piece from Yang Huan, the chief editor of China Radio International Online. I think she provides a great analysis of the ‘war’ on Disney started by Wanda.

The highly-anticipated Shanghai Disneyland officially opened its gates on June 16th. Although there are no official statistics yet about the number of visitors on the first day, one thing for sure is that the US$5.5 billion complex will become a gold mine of Walt Disney, which is eyeing expansion into China’s lucrative market.

It is probably the ambition of the Disney empire seeking to expand its market share globally that is provoking a number of Chinese “patriots” who maintain that China could crush the Western entertainment giant with its own theme parks featuring localized attractions. Wang Jianlin, the billionaire boss of Wanda Group, has already declared a “war on Disney” with the opening of his own theme park in Nanchang, capital city of southeast China’s Jiangxi Province. The project, as Wang describes, highlights “China’s influence in the cultural domain.” He also struck a nationalistic tone during its opening by claiming “craze for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is over,” saying “the period when we would blindly follow where Disney led has been gone for years.”

Honestly, I am somewhat astonished to hear his nationalistic remarks, which sounded as though they came from a revolutionary period in China. Granted, Wang most likely made this comment as part of his commercial strategy.  But insisting that the popularity of legendary cartoon figures from Disney have vanished is simply a testament to ignorance and arrogance.

I am not going to blame those who claim that China’s theme parks are no worse than a Disney resort. What I am saying is that Chinese culture is not a trump card to play when competing with a Western entertainment conglomerate. In terms of exploring and inventing cultural icons, China can learn a lot from Walt Disney in many ways.

There is no denying that China has a time-honored history and profound culture. Thus, it shouldn’t be that difficult to build a theme park in China with a distinctive character which embeds Chinese culture throughout the centuries. However, these characteristics in theme parks in China are – in many cases – devoid of glamour and charm. In 2010, a theme park dedicated to the Chinese literary classic “A Dream of Red Mansion” opened in Shanghai. Although the novel is known the world over, the number of visitors to the park is much lower than many had predicted.  A theme park built in Hebei province featuring mythological characters from “Journey to the West” is also struggling.

The failure of these parks can be attributed to various factors, among which includes attempts to transplant cultural icons in an outdated manner.

Disney has created a wealth of impressive cartoon figures, all of which are amusing in their own way, and also have enduring vitality. Even youngsters born after 2000 are familiar with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. So going to the Disney resort provides tourists with a unique experience, allowing them to interact with iconic figures. You can sing and dance with Snow White or fly with Peter Pan. The moment you step into Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is as though a spell has been cast upon you.

In comparison to the iconic figures at Disneyland, cultural icons at Chinese amusement parks are merely decoration. There is far less interaction between tourists and the characters. What visitors are treated to at Chinese amusement parks is a lot of cutting-edge technology. It’s easy to pour money into a theme park. But if it has no soul, it’s doomed to fail.

A review of China’s long history shows there is boundless inspiration for building an amusement resort. But those famous images from China’s unique past are being lost on the youth of today.  Young people today have little reverence for the past. So, it is – in essence – a question of innovation. China’s entertainment industry lacks innovation to create new and recognizable brand.

Disney is at the forefront of innovation, and this entrepreneurial value has allowed Disney create a world of loveable characters. There is a hidden value that Disney can unleash by creating new characters through its existing brand. “The Avengers” is a great example of that. By pulling together different characters from different movies, Disney has been able to create a completely new product.

Last but not the least, the success of Disneyland is also related to its superior customer service. “We don’t put people in Disney, we put Disney in people” is the line used by Disney HR in recruitment and training. Every employee and volunteer is instructed to be extremely friendly, doing all they can to assist visitors with the hope of creating a memorable customer experience.

Tokyo Disneyland staff encourage tourists to cheer as the Disney characters walk past in a colorful daytime parade. There are also volunteers who teach visitors how to take best photos. All the staff at Disneyland are aware of their responsibility and individual roles in the narrative they’re projecting. They are fully integrated into the Disney culture.

There is no need to consider Disneyland a ‘wolf’ that threatens China’s entertainment industry.  Companies in China, such as the Wanda Group, would also be wise to reject any narrow-minded plans to create a Chinese “wolf pack” to take down Disney. As the world’s largest tourism company, Disney has a longevity in its brand. Right now is a good opportunity for Chinese theme parks to observe and learn from their Western counterpart.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we should never take our ancestors’ legacy for granted.  Attempts to exploit our rich history without innovating or adapting it to fit today’s standards won’t work. Confidence in China’s culture is great. But we need not cross a line into cultural arrogance.