The Story of Shanghai Disney Resort—Straight from Those Who Helped Create It

by Jeremy Schoolfield

In June, Shanghai Disney Resort opened to worldwide fanfare. When the first guests entered Shanghai Disneyland, they found a pristine park filled with some of the most advanced attractions the world has ever seen.

But that was the end of the story. What it took to get there was the focus of Wednesday’s “Legends” panel moderated by BRC Imagination Arts’ Bob Rogers. Rogers assembled a group of Walt Disney Imagineers who told the story of how the resort came to be, and what lessons can be learned from the trying, thrilling, satisfying experience.

‘Authentically Disney, Distinctly Chinese’: This phrase was coined early on by Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger when describing his goal for the resort. WDI President Bob Weis said that was the mandate for all decisions made in developing the property. For instance, he said all scripts were written in Mandarin rather than English, so there would be nothing lost in translation.

Attraction Selection: Weis said WDI spent two years in the “blue-sky” phase, dreaming of every possible attraction the new park could offer. The goal was to “push the envelope and do something great,” rather than just rely on proven successes from other Disney parks. During research, he said it became apparent China was more familiar with more recent live-action Disney films as opposed to the classic animated movies, so attractions such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” moved in that direction.

Innovation and Ambition: Nancy Seruto was WDI’s executive producer on “Pirates,” and she said the organization’s ambitious attitude toward the project reminded her of the space program in the 1960s. They decided on grand goals early on and then had to figure out how to accomplish things that had never been done before, such as the entirely new ride system. She said the tight schedule and firm deadline of the park’s debut spurred creativity and problem solving. Whenever there was a choice between something easy and something ambitious, Weis said they always went toward the latter.

Safety: WDI’s Craig Russell led the on-site team in the final stages of construction. He said safety is part of the Disney brand, so it was infused in the culture of the project: “From the beginning, Bob Iger made it clear safety and quality would be our top priorities. We simply would not compromise.” All told, Disney trained more than 100,000 workers over the course of the project.

Commitment to Research: Weis said one of the first things Imagineers did on the project was research China as a whole, including several trips to the country to better understand its culture and traditions. Disney Legend Marty Sklar, now retired, didn’t work on Shanghai Disneyland directly, but his presence on the panel provided historical context and wisdom from his depth and breadth of knowledge on past park projects. He praised the Shanghai team’s commitment to in-person research, saying the Chinese flair in the new park is “something you can’t find in a book.”

Optimism Amid Diversity: The panelists readily agreed Shanghai Disney Resort was a huge undertaking that involved seemingly innumerable challenges. When Rogers asked the group how it maintained its sense of optimism in the face of such odds, Russell said Iger’s leadership played an important role. At times when the project felt the most difficult, a visit from the company chairman would rally the troops.

“And we got really good at laughing and just having fun with it,” he added.

Weis said Imagineers were encouraged to take breaks and go spend time visiting China and the surrounding region just like tourists; he said it was important for the team to enmesh themselves in the culture to gain perspective on the end goal.

And, Weis said, just like in their designs, it was the little things that mattered: “We never underestimated how important it was to walk through the office and hand out bagels.” 

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