Could Mainland Chinese Tourists Ruin Shanghai Disneyland?

Warning: Some of the images and even concepts in today’s article may be NSFW! Proceed with caution….

On Monday, Disney announced they and the Shanghai Shendi Group would invest an additional $800 million into Shanghai Disneyland before it opens in 2016, in addition to the $4.7 billion already allocated. This additional capital is being sunk in the project to add additional park capacity, as early data indicates that this will be one immensely popular theme park. I am actually making plans to make a trip out to Shanghai to see this myself when it opens, but not just because of the enormous budget and no doubt, impressive finished product. I am actually just as fascinated to see how much of a culture shock this will be to mainland Chinese people.

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

If you have ever taken a step back and noticed the differences between how people visit Walt Disney World vs Disneyland vs Tokyo Disneyland and even Hong Kong Disneyland, you will notice that each location has its own unique clientele and vibe. Walt Disney World is very international and most guests come every few years while Disneyland consists of predominantly locals from California who visit every few weeks. Regardless of what you read on other websites (namely, each of these parks has their own sets of operational challenges based on their core clientele, thus must be upgraded, maintained and operated differently. Shanghai Disneyland, just like every other Disney resort, will come with some of the most unique guests the company has had to cater to yet.


In October of 2013, the Chinese National Tourism Administration published a 64-page handbook called “Guidelines on Civilized Travel Abroad.” Among some of the “new rules” were how tours could be conducted, published and even advertised. However, most interesting is section 13, which goes into detail about how Chinese tourists should behave themselves when traveling to other countries. Several high profile cases include a teenager who traveled to Egypt’s Luxor carved “Ding Jinhao was here” into the ruins. Other Chinese tourists in the Paracel Islands took selfies while eating endangered sea clams have made international headlines.


According to Sean Graham, a theme park expert with a Masters in Anthropology from National Tsing-Hua University and has taught college courses on Chinese culture and society, the problem starts with a rising middle class that’s having a hard time adjusting.


“Many Chinese people have gone from poverty to affluence in the span of less than a decade,” said Graham. “With this newfound discretionary income, many Chinese just don’t know what to do with it all, not to mention all the changes to culture and society an influx of wealth can bring.”

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

In some places, the handbook goes into detail outlining what Chinese mainlanders should not do while out and about, such as: Pick their noses, not to force locals to pose for photos, leave footprints on toilet seats, cut lines and even taking too much food at buffets. Sean Graham continues, “For many Chinese, these are customs that are understood in China. It is only when such behavior is removed from its cultural framework that outsiders to the culture may find rude or disgusting.”

When ya gotta go…

To those of us who were born in the West, it may sound absurd to have to inform mainland Chinese folks to “use shower curtains, keep quiet when waiting to board a plane, or don’t eat a whole piece of bread in one mouthful or slurp noodles noisily.” However, keep in mind, having these luxuries is a new experience to the majority of these people.


Particularly, as many people who have visited Hong Kong Disneyland have seen, many mainland Chinese don’t understand the basic concept of waiting in line. “For decades Chinese people had to deal with food shortages due to failed government policies,” said Graham. “This meant if you didn’t get to the front of the line, you may not get to eat. You can’t expect the majority of people to suddenly change habits that they have grown up with overnight, even with money.”

Climbing over the gates at Hong Kong Disneyland

Climbing over the gates at Hong Kong Disneyland

Another example comes from Hong Kong Disneyland’s first Chinese New Year. Thousands of mainland Chinese visitors flooded into Hong Kong with tickets to the park. However, they quickly reached capacity and visitors were turned away. Mainland Chinese visitors who already held tickets became angry when they were refused entry and began storming the parks gates. Visitors shook fences, threw their children over and even climbed up on top of the gates and jumped into the park.


The handbook goes on to make sure their residents know that urinating or even defecation in the street if they can’t find a restroom is not proper etiquette. “Public defecation is definitely becoming more frowned upon in mainland China as people become better educated about public sanitation. For many years in China diapers are very expensive. Hence, children who have not been toilet trained usually wear crotchless pants (picture). When a child got the urge, parents would just spread the child’s legs wherever they were and let them relieve themselves. Also, China has historically been and continues to be primarily an agrarian society where toilets were a luxury. Against this backdrop, many Chinese have grown accustom to urging the call of nature wherever they may be. Therefore, sewers, trashcans, subway platforms or even elevators have become makeshift areas for people to go.”

Instead of diapers...

Instead of diapers…

These problems have already been happening at Hong Kong Disneyland, due to its proximity to mainland China. When Shanghai Disneyland opens next year, the majority of guests will indeed be from the mainland and without question, due to the high volume of tourists, the issues outlined in the handbook will surface again in a modern theme park known for its squeaky clean image.


This does not mean that all mainland Chinese act this way, nor does it mean that these issues can’t change over time. It does beg the question, however, why even build a theme park in mainland China knowing that the operations side of the equation could be a massive headache? Simple: The people who made the decision to build and finance such parks are not the same people who will be operating it. An entirely separate team will be tasked with making the operation run smoothly regardless of the challenges ahead.

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

Copyright Shanghai Disneyland

Those of you who know your theme park history will remember the bumps in the road Walt faced on the first day of Disneyland with broken down rides, wet cement and counterfeit tickets. You will also remember how difficult it was to turn Disneyland Paris around into a place that Europeans would embrace. Both of those Cinderella stories had a happy ending, and no doubt Shanghai Disneyland will have its own challenges to achieving its own success. However, the role of folks who work in theme park operations all over the globe, it is a never-ending battle to adjust to new trends, new attractions and even new initiatives like FastPass Plus and find a way to make it work. This will be no different. Your thoughts?

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One Comment

  1. fan51
    Posted May 1, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Culturally, some habits are hard to break. It takes much training to convince people to only take as much as they can eat (they won’t starve), use the toilet properly (its more sanitary to not use shortcuts), to not leave a mess for others (looking out for yourself only). Disney can somewhat alleviate the situation by charging a lot more for admission. A guest who is forced to pay a premium will think nickel and dimeing is unnecessary. Use appointment ticketing to reduce overcrowding, spread the crowds, and reduce gate crashing. Strict use of Fastpass to reduce line cutting. There is a herd mentality among the Chinese. People are compelled to action when rumors fly fast. Disney should reduce such occurrences by not ignoring a problem. I recommend the use the public audio system to not merely provide background music, but make more frequent announcements and direct the crowds.

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