Last month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to China to improve the military relations between the Chinese and the Americans. But even before Rumsfeld’s plane landed, the United States had, in a way, already sent an American representative to China: Mickey Mouse.
The opening of Hong Kong Disneyland marks the Disney company’s big break in the Asian market, where the Disney “D” signature that looks an awful lot like a “G” is barely known. Although Disneyland Tokyo has been very successful since its 1983 ribbon-cutting, the Japanese park is not owned by Disney, but rather “the Oriental Land Company, which pays Disney royalties on the use of Disney characters and attractions, and also pays Disney for work by Imagineers to create new attractions for the park. OLC also has a Disney-mandated list of guidelines they must follow in running the park,” Mark Goldhaber, World View editor for the independent Disney news and review site Mouseplanet (www.mouseplanet.com) wrote in an e-mail interview, “But, again, the Japanese people have helped to make Tokyo Disneyland one of the top three parks in the world in attendance pretty much since it opened. (Many years, it has been number one.)”
The other Disney theme park over seas, Disneyland Paris, has not been as successful as the park in Tokyo. Originally EuroDisney, the French labeled it a “Cultural Chernobyl”, seeing it “as an invasion of American cultural imperialism,” according to Goldhaber. Although the park has become a popular tourist attraction, Disney did not take “into consideration the manner in which Europeans take their vacations. Europeans on the whole do not look for resort-type accommodations in the same manner as Americans. Often, they will stay at cheap lodging, or even camp out, rather than stay in expensive hotels…They generally do not look for American-type lodgings. Because of this…the resort as a whole has repeatedly been in financial situations.”
Theme parks are a staple of the Disney company. “The parks are one of the fist things people think of when they hear “Disney”,” Goldhaber wrote. “In the years when the other parts of the business have been down, the parks always manage to pull in a great deal of income to keep the company on steady footing. In years when the parks are having difficulty, other business lines manage to pick up the slack. They are a key marketing tool by which the company can push other business lines.” Movies and television shows are both promoted in the Disney theme parks, from rides such as Stitch’s Great Escape!, to Who Wants to be a Millionaire – Play It!.
While the new park in Hong Kong will help Disney promote it’s name and products, it may also promote the United States. Although the park was designed with the Chinese art of feng shui, the park retains many American aspects, most notably that of Main Street, USA.
Perhaps most important in how Disney represents the United States in Hong Kong is how it treats its Chinese employees. “Disney long enjoyed a reputation as a great place to work,” Godlhaber wrote. “Recently, however, mass layoffs of creative staff and low pay scales, decreased benefits and increased reliance on lower-paid College- and International-Program workers in the theme parks have turned that around. Front-line theme park employees are now largely the ones who are willing to work for less under worse conditions in order to work for Disney. When theme park employees are making about the same as (or less than) people flipping burgers down the road, that doesn’t do much for Disney’s reputation”.
Advertising senior Jennifer Yager worked in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom during the spring semester of 2003 as an intern with the Disney College Program. She considers the experience a “semester-long vacation.” Those she worked with in the park were “really professional.” Although they could be strict, everyone was nice and friendly, Yager said, “like when you’re a tourist.” Some in the program didn’t enjoy it, however. Sometimes working as many as 45 hours a week, Yager said, some students left the program early.
A Disney park in Hong Kong seems like a good idea to Yager. She saw “tons of Asian tourists” at Walt Disney World. Citing the park in France, Yager said it’s “just a matter of time before there’s a Disney in every country.” There is entertainment value in the parks, but also, Yager said, a huge impact on employment when someone can list ‘Disney’ on their resume.

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