Heading Overseas: Display for Shanghai theme park at D23 Expo in Anaheim.

Heading Overseas: Display for Shanghai theme park at D23 Expo in Anaheim. Photo by Courtesy Photo

An animatronic dragon lurking underneath an enchanted castle might seem like a fun and appropriate addition to Walt Disney Co.’s theme park being built in Shanghai. At least, it might seem that way to the average American.

But it turns out the dragon is held in high esteem as a symbol of dignity in China, so the idea for a lurking robotic one was scrapped.

It was just one of the changes to the park’s initial plans made as a result of weekly Chinese culture lessons held for the staff of Walt Disney Imagineering, the entertainment empire’s design and development arm, aimed at helping them think like their newest customers.

“We know Disney but we didn’t know China, so it was about being open to learning,” explained Bob Weis, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, where the Shanghai project has been planned.

Disney, of course, has opened international parks before – in Paris, Tokyo and, in 2005, Hong Kong – and all of those parks have added more local elements over time. With the new park in Shanghai, its first in mainland China, Disney is adding more of those elements upfront.

One clear example of the strategic shift: The Shanghai theme park will be the first by Disney to not feature an area modeled on the Main Street USA found at the original Disneyland park.

Disney analyst John Janedis, who follows the firm for New York brokerage and investment bank Jefferies, said educating park planners about Chinese culture and having more Chinese cultural elements from the get-go are good moves, as a Chinese park that caters to Chinese tastes should perform better than a more American version.

“Companies make mistakes when they try to force their own culture on the culture of the market they are entering and these educational sessions Disney has initiated tell you how important it is to them to make a success of this,” Janedis said.

The culture classes – which ranged from film screenings to history lessons – resulted in a handful of big changes to the plans for the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which is set to open in the spring.

For instance, plans to include American fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers among food options at the park were scrapped when imagineers learned locals aren’t that interested in foreign food. So in addition to basic rice bowls and fiery woks there will be poultry and fish dishes cooked in Chinese style and regional cuisine from across the country.

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