In China, Disney Discovers the Magic

March 19, 2019, 3:04 PM UTC

If you dream, dream big. That mantra has helped drive Nancy Seruto and the 4,000 creative personnel in 20 countries that comprise Walt Disney Imagineering. It’s also delivered a big win for Disney in a market where many firms have failed: China.

“The response has been fantastic,” Seruto said of the Shanghai Disney Resort, the 963-acre theme park that has drawn huge crowds since opening two years ago. (Don’t miss Michal Lev-Ram’s 2016 Fortune story about the making of its Tomorrowland.) Ten years in the making, the Shanghai park has also been an important learning experience for Disney, she said, and it will inform the Imagineering team as the company contemplates building more attractions in China.

“Nothing we have ever done before has been as adventurous in scale and in invention,’’ said Seruto, who serves as executive producer of Walt Disney Imagineering. She spoke at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore earlier this month.

Walt Disney Imagineering is a multidisciplinary corps of artists, architects, animators, designers, writers, storytellers, directors, programmers, choreographers, and others working to create immersive experiences for visitors to Disney theme parks. “We have a very complex team, but what we produce is clear,’’ Seruto said.

Seruto said one of the challenges was how to design a park that is authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese. That translated into a need for collaboration with people outside Disney’s walls. To understand the reference points and expectations of Chinese end users, Disney recruited Chinese designers, artists, technical experts, and others to work with the Imagineering team.

The results were unique. “It’s not purely an American product, and it’s not purely a Chinese product,” she said. “As I walk through the park, I can see it is both. And that is the magic of it.”

The Imagineers did face some cultural challenges. Disney asked Chinese artisans to recreate from photos a 19th century Caribbean island town for its Treasure Cove attraction. But the locals were reluctant at first to construct buildings that looked old, crooked, and downright strange to their sensibilities.

Shanghai Disney Resort is also the first theme park that Disney localized. Seruto said that they decided to work in Mandarin from the start, and learning how to tell Disney’s stories in ways that are distinctly Chinese was a “magnificent journey.”

“There is something to the strength of the storytelling that gives Disney international appeal,” Seruto said. “The stories resonate with families, and contain universal elements that have been built over decades. From that strength you can modify them and still have your core brand.”

Some companies dream of succeeding in China; Disney has done it. Imagine that.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.