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Disney’s Cultural Lessons From: Tokyo, Paris & Hong Kong Disneyland

Cultural Arrogance & Ignorance is Killing American Business Abroad

Mattel, Home Depot and Best Buy all have failed in China. Why?  They didn’t understand fundamental cultural issues vital for success in that market. Why would a Chinese customer buy a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll for their child?  Why does cultural arrogance still exist in an economy that is growing more Global every day?

In spite of its global reach, even Disney has faced monumental challenges and made some strategic mistakes when expanding internationally.  In Japan, we had to stick to our “no alcohol in the park” mentality when deciding to build the lone Japanese restaurant in Tokyo Disneyland … minus sake. Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983.  Nearly a decade later, in 1992, Euro Disney (Disneyland Paris) opened in France.  In spite of the international experience gleaned from the Tokyo project, there were still cultural problems.  From selling wine in the park (it is allowed) to determining appropriate room rates for the hotels, the project had its share of challenges.  In fact, the hotels were famously under-booked in the year the park opened.  One argument was that they were over-priced and the French, who usually take vacations of a month in duration, simply couldn’t afford to stay in a Disney hotel.  In response, there are some who would argue that “culture” wasn’t an issue; it was the terribly weak economy in France at that time.  Fast-forward to 2005, when Hong Kong Disneyland opened.  In preparation, Disney hired Feng Shui experts to ensure the park layout was culturally appropriate. This ancient Chinese practice involves ensuring that there is a good flow of energy, or “chi” (chee).  For example, the direction a building entrance faces is dictated by geographic surroundings. Also, the elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water have to be carefully balanced.  Hong Kong Disneyland took this into account and made sure large expanses of water in the theme park were broken up with small islands.

From Tokyo Disneyland, to Disneyland Paris, then Hong Kong Disneyland−a span of 20 years− Disney finally learned the value of cultural adaptation.  Shanghai Disneyland is next, and it should be a shining example of cultural sensitivity.

So, here’s the question: Why is cultural adaptation such a challenge for so many companies?  What do current and former employees of Disney have to say about this?  There are plenty of you who have worked in one, if not all, of the international theme parks mentioned above.  What examples of cultural adaptation, or cultural learning points can you share?  Are there examples of success and frustration from other companies?  Here’s a cultural hint that I, and many others have learned the hard way: Linguistic fluency doesn’t equal cultural fluency. What do you think?  I look forward to your responses.