Legends 2018: How can theme parks bridge cultural differences?

November 15, 2018, 10:01 AM · With rising nationalism dividing countries around the world, how can theme park designers and operators make everyone feel welcomed and understood, so that they keep coming to their parks?

Industry leader Bob Rogers posed that as the top question in this year's Legends panel at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. Joining him on the panel were IAAPA Hall of Fame member Roland Mack, from Germany's Europa Park, and Universal Studios Beijing President Tom Mehrmann, who previously ran Ocean Park in Hong Kong.

"Yours in not a job. It's a purpose," panel moderator Bob Rogers told the IAAPA attendees. "Your work can reach across a divide and touch the heart of guests who come from another culture or another way of thinking from our own."

Human nature is on the industry's side, Mack said. "We speak one language, which is fun and laughing."

But even if we start life as natural fun-seekers, cultural differences can separate us over time. So successful artists and managers must find ways to work with those differences.

"We were saying for a long time that we were uniquely Hong Kong and distinctively Ocean Park," Mehrmann said, noting Disney later tweaked that phrase to promote Shanghai Disneyland as "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese."

Bob Rogers, Roland Mack, Tom Mehrmann

"Let's focus on what makes us culturally relevant to our markets," Mehrmann said. "I said the same thing in Spain at [Warner Bros.] Movie World when I was there, and I said the same thing at Knott's Berry Farm," where Mehrmann also once worked, helping to develop in-park programming to appeal to the Filipino and Korean communities in California's Orange County.

At Ocean Park, Mehrmann and his team worked to make the park more accommodating to mainland Chinese visitors, changing the park's menus and adopting more welcoming marketing messages. Ocean Park also had to manage political challenges within Hong Kong, where the park is operated as a non-profit public trust.

"One of the legislative councilors began to rail on us," Mehrmann said, "'If you call yourself the people's park of Hong Kong,' he said, 'how come you don't let people in for free?'"

"He got us thinking," Mehrmann said. "It led to us say, we could do that, actually." So Ocean Park started a promotion to allow all Hong Kong residents to enter the park for free on their birthdays — a program later copied by Disney and now Legoland California.

"The point is, who goes to a theme park alone on their birthday? I hope nobody," Mehrmann said. "We were banking on that. We knew more people would come with that individual, and it drove the gate."

Such challenges give a park the opportunity to make changes that will allow it to grow, if the park's leadership has the humility to listen to and understand the challenge.

"In my life, I am never going to be the competitor who disregards my competition," Mehrmann said. "We are learning from everything and everyone. That's key. Never be too proud to learn. Never be too arrogant to take note of who is around you and what they are doing. Even if you think it is not that good, take a look at what your market is responding to because sometime we get so inflated in our view of how good we are, we forget that the guests are enjoying what we call not-so-good."

Ultimately, the goal is to create something fresh that appeals to a new or changing market, not to simply duplicate stuff they can find more authentically elsewhere.

"We always try not to copy the culture of the countries, but try to get the atmosphere," Mack said. "Find a solution that is not a copy but that is your own way, that is the best."

Getting that right requires working with artists and others from the communities you wish to represent, rather than relying on outsider's impressions. Rogers told the story about Canadian tourists at Walt Disney World's Epcot being offended by the lumberjack-style costumes worn in park's Canada pavilion, while thinking that the lederhosen worn in the Germany pavilion was authentic and appropriate.

For the park's refreshed France pavilion, Europa Park worked with French film director Luc Besson to create a virtual reality experience for the land's rethemed roller coaster, to create something that was both new and evocative of a French mindset, Mack said.

"If you have problems and you try to [address] them, you have a chance to create something new," Mack said. "We are in the most beautiful business worldwide. The industry is the best industry you can work in. You can create new things, and if you do it with good quality, it will work."

Replies (11)

November 15, 2018 at 11:06 AM

For one thing, banning someone isn’t going to help bring people together. What happens the other day at the Magic Kingdom is an embarrassment. Disney’s policy about signs only says they can’t be used for commercial purposes. If Disney doesn’t want any signs, the wording of their policy needs to be changed, but as it stands the former marine who held up a Trump banner on Splash Mountain did not break any rules.

November 15, 2018 at 11:22 AM

Just throwing this out there - Tolerance doesn’t mean one has to accept the intolerant.

November 15, 2018 at 11:25 AM

No one wants to walk around any theme or amusement park where the green light has been given to anyone and everyone posting their own signage (political or otherwise). So how about some common sense? And the fact that guy banned from the MK is a former marine is completely irrelevant.

November 15, 2018 at 11:28 AM

Yup, I´m with Robs on this one.

November 15, 2018 at 12:16 PM

I said nothing about intolerance. This whole thing started when a Frozen on Broadway cast member grabbed a Trump sign(and the person holding the sign was being disrespectful for holding it up in the theatre in the first place) and ripped it on stage and then tweeted about how the stage was a place for inclusion, and how Trump, that man and his sign were divisive. Disney did not say a word about the cast member taking things into his own hands instead of letting security handle it. Trump has a lot of problems, but this whole thing is getting ridiculous. Tolerance is by definition accepting people with views and opinions different than your own. Saying the other person is intolerant is not an excuse for your own intolerance. Hate Trump and his policies all you want, but people do have the right to support him, just like you have the right to oppose him.

November 15, 2018 at 12:24 PM

Yes, they have the right to support him. But you don't have the right to yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater. It's like saying Disney would be "intolerant" of someone walking around in a Nazi uniform and spitting on black people. There are levels and as a private property, Disney does have the legal right to ban such behavior. Sure, there are folks there who probably have horrible viewpoints but at least they can keep it quiet rather than shove them in the faces of everyone else.

November 15, 2018 at 1:04 PM

the question to perhaps ponder is: would Disney have responded the same way had the name been for someone else in two years?

November 15, 2018 at 5:28 PM

AS long as Disney is selling Dutch Stroopwafels in the German pavilion they still have a lot to learn about cultural sensitivity.
I don't think parks should cater to anyone else than their main demographic. A good theme park is in some way or another a reflection of their culture (if they want to be relevant). An outsider should never been taken in consideration. The most exiting thing as an outside is learning the other culture. That remembers me about the first time I visited Magic Kingdom and I noticed the American Flag was puked all over main street USA and the night ended with an obscenely big American flag at the end of the electric light parade.

November 15, 2018 at 5:31 PM

I'm extremely conservative, and I applaud Disney for tossing the fellow flashing the Trump sign on Splash Mountain, and yes, I believe that Disney would do the same for a supporter of any other political figure now or in two year's time.

Polarizing views or positions have no place in a theme park. The vast majority of us go there to get away from life's worries, and don't want to be offended or embarrassed by the zealous few. Unfortunately, some people can't seem to see beyond their own self-inflated sense of ego and self-righteousness.

November 15, 2018 at 9:45 PM

Guests should feel immersed in a theme park's narrative. Real world politics have no place in the environment within the park's gates, hence no political signage of any kind should ever be allowed. The idea is to escape the world beyond those gates.

November 15, 2018 at 11:26 PM

Tim and Dave bring up some good points. I understand and agree Disney and other theme parks need policies that make sure people of all political persuasions are welcome. What this same person did a few months ago certainly was not in that spirit, and I do give Disney some credit that he was at least given a second chance. Disney needs to change their policy to make it clear what is isn’t allowed, because I don’t think he violated the rules as they stand, and don’t think the punishment is fair even if rules were violated both times.

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