Case Study: Disneyland’s Cultural Challenges

Cross-Cultural Management Case Study |
Disney’s expansion to Asia: Cultural Challenges

This is a case study about Disneyland’s cultural awareness and challenges. We will look at Walt Disney’s expansion to Asia. I will analyze why the same strategy adopted from the success of Tokyo Disney does yield the same results to Disneyland Paris. What went wrong?

There are 6 locations for Disney-inspired theme parks. The first one is in Anaheim, California, and soon expanded to Orlando, Florida. With the success of the first two theme parks, Walt Disney envisions building the brand across the globe. Soon after, Tokyo Disneyland was built and was a success. The problem started when Euro Disney was announced, and the French are not as welcoming as the Japanese to the American brand. Walt Disney soon realized the importance of cultural awareness, and adaptation to each theme park’s location. One of Disneyland’s cultural challenges is ignoring the French culture and European elements which cost WD, and soon the park is accumulating debt.

Disneyland’s expansion to Asia: Cultural Challenges

Hong Kong Disneyland is the first theme park not wholly-owned by Walt Disney and is by Oriental Land Company. Soon after, there is a clash in management in terms of decision-making. On one side, WD wished to incorporate as many Japanese influences in theme parks such as “Samurai Land.” OL, on the other hand, wanted to replicate the original theme park as much as possible. It appears, OL’s vision paid off, and is a phenomenal success.

Walt Disney focuses on its communication strategy to avoid communication barriers such as cultural challenges and misinterpretation. WD and OL collaborate to ensure the brand will communicate to consumers while maintaining consistency with the global brand message. It’s the idea for Tokyo Disneyland to present an image of having a vacation in America without leaving Japan. And the Japanese embraced the idea. And looking closely at Japanese culture, they have a low indulgence score in the Hofstede cultural dimension. This is why the Japanese culture fully embraces magic and happiness, and Tokyo Disneyland is a success.

Hong Kong Disneyland's Cultural Identity Success

The success of Tokyo Disneyland made the company opened another theme park in Paris, namely Euro Disney. The same formula and strategy were used in the Paris theme park. However, this turns out to be a disaster. Walt Disney learned that strategy in Japan might not be applicable in Paris. The French seem not to like to idea of American theme parks. The complete disregard of French culture is why Euro Disney is not as successful as Tokyo Disneyland (Thunderbird Case Studies, 1999).

With this lesson learned, Hong Kong Disneyland made sure to learn all aspects of the culture and maintain a brand (Xu, 2012).  According to Xu (2012), WD went to great lengths to study Chinese cultural aspects such as Feng Shui and Chinese cuisine. WD sent its employees on research trips to understand the Chinese everyday lifestyle. It did not follow the same formula the same as Japan’s. Instead, they have to incorporate Chinese influences in the theme park. The success of Disney theme parks in one city does not guarantee success to another. Thus, it is crucial to consider cultural differences when introducing new concepts such as Disney theme parks. WD has finally learned the value of cultural adaptation.

Walt Disney’s prime concern when opening a new theme park is accessibility (Xu, 2012). Hong Kong was selected because Hong Kong Chinese is familiar with Disney’s cartoon characters, and the brand is less welcoming in mainland China. It appears that the location and population base are the theme park (Thunderbird Case Studies, 1999).

Euro Disneyland: Cultural Chernobyl

The Japanese obsession with American culture is the key factor for the theme park’s success. But unlike the French, they view the American theme park as American cultural imperialism (Xu, 2012). Tokyo Disney and Euro Disney used the same formula. However, the French are not accepting compared to the Japanese. The issue of culture became widespread, and the French began to show hostility towards the theme park. Thus, it was dubbed as “cultural Chernobyl” (The Economist, 1994). 

First of all, the French criticized Disney’s rule of no alcohol within the park’s premises. As it was a custom for the French to eat with a glass of wine. Others include the strict dress code from which the French view this as an attack towards their individualism. Second, American food was not welcome as the French take pride in their cuisine. Finally, the name Euro Disneyland connotes trading and commerce towards the French population and does not invoke magic and happiness. With this catastrophe, Walt Disney changed the name from Euro Disney to Disneyland Paris (Xu, 2012).

The French view the American theme park as American cultural imperialism. With this catastrophe, Walt Disney changed the name from Euro Disney to Disneyland Paris.

Shanghai Disneyland: Cultural Identity Part 2

The opening of Shanghai Disneyland is a crucial one. But the success of Tokyo and the failure of Paris have proven that cultural adaptation plays a crucial part in the theme park’s success. Certainly, the formula used in Tokyo Disneyland may not work in Shanghai. And WD needs to study the demographics and consumer behavior in mainland China.

Disney finally learned the value of cultural adaptation. And Shanghai Disneyland is no exception. It is essential for the Chinese people to feel enough Chinese elements in the park and incorporate Disney’s brand (Xinhua, 2013). The initial challenge is the limited knowledge of Disney characters and stories (Xu, 2012). To solve this issue, Disney Shanghai launched a widespread campaign on TV, print, and social media.

Unlike the French, American culture is highly attractive to the Japanese, so cultural adaptation is not essential. Nevertheless, in the case of the French and Chinese people, their cultural heritage is essential. Moreover, Walt Disney learned that these must be incorporated into their respective theme parks. Examples of cultural awareness are focus on the importance of Chinese festivals such as the Chinese New Year and the Lunar Festival.

In addition, Walt Disney found out that the Chinese acknowledged the opinion of leaders and creates credibility. Therefore, they have sought out in collaboration with Yao Ming, the world-famous Shanghai-born NBA basketball star player. Most importantly, Shanghai Disneyland will not be successful if Chinese culture is not incorporated. The fact that Disney characters and stories are not popular in mainland China, Walt Disney must meticulously exercise caution to avoid culture clash. In the end, the hard work paid off as Shanghai Disneyland has proven to be the most successful of the theme parks.

Disneyland’s Cultural Challenges: Lesson Learned

Overall, the success of Walt Disney theme parks on the opposite extreme sides. Similarly, the Japanese embraced the American brand with open arms without much of an issue in terms of cultural adaptation. It was the same formula used in Disneyland Paris, but everyone was surprised. It appears the French are offended by the lack of cultural awareness. The vital lesson learned here is the importance of cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural communication when introducing a global brand. Moreover, this seems to have worked in Hong Kong Disneyland.

Lastly, the biggest challenge so far is the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, wherein the brand is not mainstream in mainland China. But Walt Disney will no longer make that mistake again. Above all, cultural awareness is the focus of striking a balance between Chinese heritage and the Disneyland brand. With this formula on hand, it appears there is no stopping to further expansion of Disneyland.  

Reference List:

Bloomberg News 2018, ‘China’s craving for entertainment drives Shanghai Disney growth’ , Bloomberg News, viewed 31 March 2020, <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-26/china-s-craving-for-entertainment-drives-shanghai-disney-growth>

Eurodisneyland 1999, Thunderbird, American Garvin School of International Management, Glendale.

Meltdown at the cultural Chernobyl 1994, , The Economist Intelligence Unit N.A., Incorporated, London.

Sylt, C. 2013, ‘Euro Disney expected to announce lower net losses’, The Guardian, viewed 05 April 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/06/euro-disney-announce-lower-losses>

Tai, S.H.C., Professor & Lau, L.B.Y., Professor 2009, Export of American Fantasy World to the Chinese, HEC Montréal, Montréal.

Xinhua, 2013, ‘Shanghai Disney to have Chinese flavor’, The China Daily, viewed 05 April 2020, <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2013-06/09/content_16597002.htm>

Xu, Y. 2012, Cultural practices & communications of Disney’s worldwide parks, University of Southern California.

Len Peralta

About the Author

Len Peralta is the creator of LCM Digital Training. Her expertise focuses on entrepreneurship and cross-cultural communication. Follow her on Twitter @AskLenPeralta

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