HK Disneyland learns the ways of Chinese tourists
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER and MERISSA MARR (Wall Street Journal)
Updated: 2006-02-09 15:02
Li Zeng, a fourteen-year-old Chinese tourist, wandered Hong Kong Disneyland
yesterday -- and left after two hours.
Mr. Li isn't that familiar with Mickey Mouse and his companions, and he and
his father didn't take any rides, buy souvenirs, or eat food. "We don't
understand this park," said the teenager, waiting for his tour bus. "We gave up
looking at the map."
Five months after Walt Disney Co. opened its Hong Kong theme park in a bid to
tap the booming Chinese market, the cultural divide that separates Mickey and
Mr. Li is still a major challenge. It is one that the company is trying hard to
bridge, though with mixed results.
The need to adapt was on display here last week. After Disney underestimated
the number of people who would visit during mainland China's weeklong Lunar New
Year holiday, vacationing crowds poured in, filling the park to its maximum
capacity. Disney officials ordered the gates shut, and hundreds of angry guests
from China who held valid tickets found themselves unable to enter. Some engaged
in shouting matches with park staff, and at least one excluded family tried to
pass a child over the park's wrought-iron fence.
Before last week, Disney's problem wasn't too many visitors, but the flak it
was getting for having too few. It drew public rebuke over low attendance from
local politicians, who questioned the wisdom of the Hong Kong government's 57%
stake in the park. Local retailers said they didn't get the sales boost they
were expecting from the new tourists Disneyland had promised to draw.
The company is "still learning" about Chinese culture, said the park's
managing director, Bill Ernest, on Saturday during an emotional public apology
for last week's ticket fiasco.
Jay Rasulo, the head of Disney's
theme-park division, notes it is early days yet and stresses the need to put
such criticism in "context." He says overall guest experiences at the park are
"some of the best in the world," with over 90% of the visitors Disney
interviewed last week saying they had a positive time. "Part of the way we make
people happy is that we listen, learn and adjust as necessary," said Mr. Rasulo.
These lessons are crucial for Disney as Chief Executive Robert Iger holds
what he calls "ongoing negotiations" to open another Asian park in Shanghai and
seeks to build the company's consumer products, movie and television business in
Disney has trumpeted its attempts to accommodate Chinese culture, some of
which later drew fire. Conservationists blasted the company for planning to
serve environmentally unfriendly shark's fin soup, and Disney later decided to
forgo the practice. Efforts to woo local celebrities backfired when some
complained of mistreatment by visiting American Disney executives. Disney
designed the park for Chinese tourists, who the company said preferred photo
opportunities over roller coasters. Many visitors now criticize the park for
being too small.
Chinese travel agencies also have noted some visitor befuddlement. "Many
customers complain they do not know how to enjoy Disneyland," says Chen Mei, the
international tours manager of the Ju Cheng agency, which brings groups to the
park from the city of Zhongshan in southern China. Some mainland tourists show
up at the park only to walk aimlessly around Main Street U.S.A. and snap a few
photos with Marie the Cat -- a minor character from the 1970's film "The
Aristocats." Marie is familiar to some from the movie's repeat showings in
southern China. She also happens to look like another Asian favorite, Hello
Even before last week's incident, Disney was changing the way it does
business at the park. Disney invited in more Chinese celebrities and made sure
they got VIP treatment. It cut the cost of tickets for local residents during a
low period for tourists, and added a local promotion, artificial snow, to Hong
Kong's subtropical climate. Disney also now produces marketing that includes the
testimonials of real people who have visited the park, instead of just slick
To help confused visitors, since November Disney has started producing
special "one-day trip guides" in Chinese, beyond the basic maps, to explain in
clear terms exactly how to enjoy Disneyland -- and why it is enjoyable. "You can
get together with family to relax and improve communication and relationships
with the people you love," reads the guide. Disney hands out the fliers inside
the park, and at other Hong Kong tourist attractions.
Perhaps most significantly for park attendance, Hong Kong Disneyland is
changing the way it works with Chinese travel agents.
Most mainland Chinese still take vacations through package tours, and they
make up about 50% of the Chinese visitors to the park. The guides who direct
these tours frequently select hotels, restaurants, shopping stops and even tour
destinations based on where they share in the profits. Because of lucrative
deals with tour operators, one Hong Kong transvestite cabaret brags that its
five-times-a-day $20 show draws more Chinese tourists on a regular basis than
Mr. Ernest says Disney, which doesn't have much experience with such
financial arrangements, now realizes that changing something as simple as how it
offers dinners can make a big difference to the local travel industry. Many tour
packages for visitors from China include pre-arranged dinners. Tour operators
typically get a cut of the meal costs. Without group dinner deals and
significant commissions, Disney wasn't offering guides much financial incentive
to funnel tourists into the park. Now Mr. Ernest says he is considering starting
a "dining with Disney" program. Special group breakfasts with Disney characters
are another option, he says.
Disney is reaching out in other ways. When the Ju Cheng agency publicly
threatened to sue over last week's ticket problem, Disney offered a conciliatory
tone -- and refunds for people who couldn't come back on another day. "We are
probably as critical on ourselves as anybody is with us," says Mr. Ernest.
To build relationships, Disney is giving Chinese travel agents a 50% personal
discount if they come visit its park and hotels. The company also beefed up
incentives for tour operators to build a Disneyland visit into packages by
increasing the margin it offered them to about $2.50 per adult ticket. And it
changed its sales packages to include open-ended instead of just fixed-date
tickets so operators wouldn't have to eat the cost of returned tickets.
It was the old ticketing system combined with unexpected crowds, says
Disney's Mr. Ernest, which created the overcrowding problems last week.
Disney declines to release specific attendance figures. When legislators in
the Hong Kong government demanded some public accountability in late November,
two months after the park's mid-September opening, Disney said that it had
hosted more than one million guests. While that figure suggests that the park is
behind its 5.6 million forecast for the opening year, Mr. Rasulo says the park
still expects to reach that level.
In the wake of the changes, Disney officials say overall attendance is
"ramping up," particularly among mainland Chinese tourists, whose attendance
during the Lunar New Year period more than doubled compared with another
weeklong Chinese holiday in October.
Understanding the peaks and troughs of attendance is another thing Disney
concedes it has yet to master. Mr. Rasulo noted that Disney once suffered
through some overcrowding at the EuroDisney park based in Paris: after the first
summer in 1992, the park was inundated in September with locals who had been
putting off their trips to avoid the early wave of