Legends 2016: How Disney built Shanghai Disneyland

November 17, 2016, 7:19 PM · ORLANDO — What is a company's biggest need in trying to build an industry-leading new theme park, such as Shanghai Disneyland?

You might guess money, and you would need a lot of that — more than US$4 billion, by some reports. But companies the size of Disney have plenty of money. Getting more to spend is not their biggest challenge.

The biggest challenge would be teaching all the people working on the project what they need to know to spend that money the way the company wants it spent. Three executives who helped Disney Parks & Resorts meet that challenge talked about how they did it, during the annual "Legends" panel Wednesday afternoon at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando, moderated by Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts.

"I've been at Disney a very long time and I don't think I've seen such a crystal clear mission statement from the top," Craig Russell, WDI's Chief Design & Project Delivery Executive, said. "Bob Iger's 'authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese' was part of that but it went beyond that. It was not really that we were building a project in China. It was that we were defining the Disney brand for 1.4 billion people. That was an historic opportunity. We get one shot at it, and we will leave nothing to chance."

"The scale of the learning curve was something that was just quite extraordinary for us," Russell said. "We had to make sure than we made decisions in 10 minutes that stuck."

"No backtracking. We had a stupendously good creative team there, so there was no reason to backtrack," he said. "You had so many people depending upon those decisions that stuck."

"We understood that we had 1,000 people in our field office who had to understand what they were supposed to do and march out into the field and teach 10,000 people what they were doing," Russell said. "They knew how to build buildings in China, but they didn't have any idea how to build what we were building."

"We had more people on the ground in Shanghai than ever before on a project, and this included architects, artists, technical people, people who design dining experiences, retail experiences, worked with us on shows and lighting and those things," Bob Weis, President of Walt Disney Imagineering said. "We wrote scripts directly in Mandarin... we knew we need people to write everything from scripts to signage."

"When you're trying to innovate, there's always those dark moments when you say 'Did I innovate too far, father than I can take it?'," Weis said. "There are many times along the way when you could say, 'Let's do a simpler project. Let's duplicate the castle at Walt Disney World or let's do the original Pirates of the Caribbean. We didn't go that way."

Part of creating a unique project that would reflect and appeal to Chinese culture while also establishing the Disney brand in the country was accepting that Disney's way of approaching artistry and creative expression would need to be open to Chinese influence.

"If you go into a foreign country with an openness that there is more than one right way to do things, then ultimately the product ends up being distinctly part of that culture," Nancy Seruto, Executive Producer for Shanghai Disneyland's Treasure Cove, said. "As I would walk around the land and I would see artists working, I would just note that was maybe different than I would have done it, had I tried to have total control over it, but because we opened ourselves up to different ways of craft and different ways of seeing, the end result just ended up being distinctly Chinese."

Part that openness was accepting that Disney would need to be open in sharing with its Chinese partners and contractors the ways it did things in construction and development.

"It's just not viable to go into a project of this scale, with this many people working on it, and believe that you're going to be proprietary about how you do things or the way you think," Seruto said. "You have to train an army of people to engage in that process, so you have to share that information."

But some things were not open to compromise. First among them — safety.

"While we were building, Bob Iger made it crystal clear that the world will love what we do together, but for the meantime, the world is watching how we do it," Russell said. "Bob made it clear that our top priority had to be the safety and quality of what we were doing and that we would invest in that highly. It sounds easy, but when you have to stack safety and quality against the rigors of time and budget, especially in a brand new place to work, sometimes it can lead to a fair amount of compromise. We simply did not compromise."

"We spent many millions of dollars on a program and we educated our partner in government in what we needed to do. We trained well over 100,000 people in safety and basic site skills, because it is a very transient construction population. You have to keep training and retraining and people keep coming and going."

"This project tested Imagineering, in my mind, probably more than any other project since Epcot," Russell said.

But the results were spectacular.

Our coverage from Shanghai:

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Replies (5)

November 18, 2016 at 7:28 AM · #THANKSShanghai for taking resources away from all American Parks - meaning one E-ticket attraction under Bob Iger's tenure in over a decade.
November 18, 2016 at 7:41 AM · When was the last time that Disney spent $4 billion improving the American theme parks? Never?
November 18, 2016 at 10:01 AM · When was the last time Disney had the opportunity to extend its market by a billion people by spending $4 billion on the US parks? If Disney saw a return on investment opportunity of that scale in America, believe me, it would be spending that kind of cash here.

As it stands, Disney does see ROI in the US, which is why we're getting Avatar, Star Wars, another hotel in Anaheim, Toy Story in Orlando, and the rest of what the company has going here. No, it's not $4 billion, but it is significant.

November 18, 2016 at 2:49 PM · I love the whole "thanksshanghai" crap. Disney didn't just donate $4 billion to China. The built a theme park there. People complain about the imbalance of trade between the US and China, Disney just built a park there with the intent of making money from the Chinese people.

Who wins from this? Disney shareholders do, after all its a business. In the long run the US parks will also definitely see benefits. Many companies are opening up to the Chinese market, and with the potential for profit there, they would be stupid not to.

November 18, 2016 at 10:42 PM · Most people who read this are FANS. We couldn't give a flying crap about Disney's ROI or an opportunity for them to "expand their market." Screw the business buzzwords. We read this site because we want to know what Disney is doing for us -- you know, the millions of people who empty their wallets into the Disney parks, only to see that money get poured into a new park thousands of miles away.

Shanghai DL is a great park? Wonderful. Most of us will never be able to afford to visit it. As far as we're concerned, all it's good for is nice-looking YouTube videos.

At Disney's stateside parks, I've enjoyed most of the new offerings, in recent years. But why has there not been anything as impressive as Shanghai Pirates?? And if Disney botches Pandora and Star Wars land, we'll know why: #THANKSShanghai

But even if we accepted the premise that Disney's precious ROI is the only thing that matters... it's pretty hilarious when you guys make lazy assumptions that Disney must be making smart investments because they're Disney. Shanghai went hugely overbudget, and park attendance has been disappointing. And it's not as if they haven't tried to reach those 1.4 billion people before -- remember the resounding success of Hong Kong Disneyland? Well, we've heard of that park, although "resounding success" would be an exaggeration, at best. Yes, that's called sarcasm.

It's funny how all this "potential for profit" is not translating into actual profit. HKDL has somehow managed to avoid being a cash cow. Shanghai will have a long, long road to go to get to profitability -- $2 billion over budget, in a country with lots of poor people who can't afford to buy an admission ticket. Where are the rich people? Oh yeah, in Hong Kong...

Nice to know that Disney poured all these tremendous resources -- brains, manpower, money, coordination, etc., etc. -- into all this "potential." Who needs actual profits when you have "potential"? Who needs to reinvest into your stateside parks when you can continue your nearly unbroken run of bad overseas misadventures?

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