Anchoring Mickey Mouse From: ‘Disney’s Imagineers’ (S1E3)

Anchoring Mickey Mouse

Imagining a world without Disney is almost impossible. Yet, the arrival of Disneyland in Paris met with much resistance of the French citizens. Why did Paris initially not embrace the world of magic?

Before the building of the park in France in 1992, the Disney theme parks had never been unsuccessful. The first park in Anaheim (California) was an instant success. The place where children and parents could have fun together attracted visitors from all over the world, which opened the door to expand the Disney theme parks across various continents. After the success of Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in Tokyo, the French did not welcome Mickey Mouse with open arms. Many citizens were afraid that arrival of the American theme park would pollute French norms and culture. The French minister of culture even called the park an unwelcome symbol of American clichés and a consumer society. So far for the introduction of Disney parks in Europe.

Remarkably, the symbolic gift that the Disney Company offered the governance and citizens of France was a painting of Snow White accepting the poisoned apple of the Queen. Ironically, the painting represented the French attitude towards Disney: Euro Disneyland would poison the high French culture with their American consumerism.

Although the new park remained totally American, the company tried to include French aspects in order to respect the culture. The cultural compromise resulted in the change of some characters’ names into French, such as La Blanche Neige for Snow White, and in basing the architecture of the eye-catching castle on French castles. Despite Disney’s efforts to include French influences into the park, the citizens still experienced the arrival of Disney as an assault on their culture. For example, the park refused to provide wine with meals, hotel prices were too high, developmental meetings were only English-spoken; cast members were not allowed to have moustaches, beards, earrings (for men), certain hairstyles; and women could hardly wear any make-up. For the French, these restrictions were seen as an attack on individual liberty.

Moreover, Disney didn’t understand the French preference for the agricultural tradition while they provided industrial jobs for a community that was in need of work. For the French this was all evidence that the American company hadn’t made any effort whatsoever to understand their new audience nor to respect their culture. The Disney company was soon named ‘Uncle Scrooge’, the park was denounced as ‘a cultural Chernobyl’, and many were protesting in front of the park, yelling ‘Mickey, go home!’. Euro Disneyland welcomed one-fifth of the guests they had expected on the opening day. Two years after the park’s opening the park had lost 2 billion dollars.

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Anchoring Innovation, OIKOS. (See https://www.ru.nl/oikos/anchoring-innovation/)

That the theme park (and the American norms and values that came along with it) was initially not accepted by the French public can be explained from the concept of ‘anchoring innovation’. Anchoring Innovation is a research agenda of the National Research School in Classical Studies, the Netherlands (OIKOS), and addresses the way in which people deal with the ‘new’ and how these innovations are ‘anchored’ in already existing ideas (the ‘old’). Making the new things acceptable and implementing them can only be successfully achieved when the new shows clear relations with the recognizable ‘old’. While the primary goal of Anchoring Innovation is to examine classical innovations that are anchored in the past, the concept is very much applicable to all types of innovation. The failure of Euro Disneyland can, I believe, partly be clarified by examining the lack of anchoring the new American theme park in the French culture.

Disney soon learned that they had to change certain features to reflect French cultural values in order to make the new theme park accepted by the audience. Disney first changed the name of the park from Euro Disneyland into Disneyland Paris. It turned out that the term ‘Euro’ was strongly associated with commerce and business. By changing the name to ‘Disneyland Paris’ guests would now identify the park with the romantic capital of France and the Disney parks known from the US. Besides, the company decided to allow alcohol in the park while this was prohibited in the American parks, because drinking wine was a significant part of the French culture. In 1993, the American chairman Fitzpatrick was replaced by the French Bourguignon, who was able to create a work environment for cast members that respected French values. Moreover, Bourguignon was more aware of the interests of their guests: advertisements for the park changed, prices were lowered, and misconceptions about French eating habits were corrected in the park’s meal offers.

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Disneyland Paris 25th anniversary (2017). VTL Photography on Flickr.

In 2017, Disneyland Paris celebrated its 25th anniversary. After Disneyland Paris was accepted by the public, and has by now become the ‘old’ in itself, the park was able to change multiple features. It has expanded to two parks (Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park), 7 Disney Hotels, Disney Village (a complex with shops, restaurants, and entertainment), Disney Nature Resorts, and even a golf course. It attracts tourists from all over Europe and provides aspects from multiple European cultures, including the celebration of several European holidays. By now, Disneyland Paris is one of best visited tourist destinations in Europe. Yet, in order to make their French park successful, Disney had to recognize the importance of anchoring the new into existing cultural norms and values.

Further reading

Newell, L.A. (2013) ‘Mickey goes to France: a case study of the EuroDisney negotiations’, Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution 15.1, 193 – 220.

Renaut, C. (2011) ‘Disneyland Paris. A Clash of Cultures’ in: K. Merlock Jackson & M.I. West (eds.), Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and their Influence (Jefferson, North Carolina, London).

Disneys Imagineers (Disney+ series) S1E3 (‘The Midas Touch’)

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