|By Beth Kassab, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 11, 2005 - To achieve just the right look, tastes and ambience, the Walt Disney Co. exported more to Hong Kong Disneyland than the architecture of the Sleeping Beauty Castle and recipe for mouse-ear ice-cream bars.
More than 200 Orlando-based employees have spent much of the past year in Hong Kong training new workers and preparing the park for its public unveiling Monday.
They are chefs, photographers, image consultants, retail managers, event planners, human-resources experts and more -- all trained in the ways of the culture of Disney, a company that strives to maintain customer satisfaction and an image rooted in creativity and clean appearances.
Their mission: to translate that vast corporate heritage for the 5,000 mostly native employees who represent Disney's attempt at a foothold in the largest -- and mostly untapped -- entertainment market in the world.
They've altered Disney's rigid dress code to be in line with Chinese fashion mores, experimented with jellyfish and fish maw in the kitchen and learned to pantomime through talks with Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking locals.
In many cases that has meant putting their lives in Central Florida, including daily contact with family and friends, on hold for the fast-paced, cosmopolitan lifestyle of a major Asian city still steeped in ancient character.
Orlando has supplied more than two-thirds of the 300-member "task force" Disney designated to help launch the park in Hong Kong, a center of international trade and home to about 7 million people. The Orlando Sentinel caught a glimpse of their lives and jobs through a series of e-mail and phone interviews.
"I have been fascinated by the 'culture clash,' " said photography manager David Roark in an e-mail. "You have these centuries-old Chinese traditions juxtaposed against huge metal and glass buildings . . . Or my favorite, a stone Buddha standing beside a Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure in the Cat Street flea market."
Roark arrived in Hong Kong on July 5 and will stay for two more weeks to finish the photo archive he started from scratch to document the theme park, its two hotels, Inspiration Lake and the Disney-built train station that connects to Hong Kong's mass-transit system.
Closely modeled on California's Disneyland, the new park is the company's 11th at its fifth worldwide location, joining Orlando; Anaheim, Calif.; Paris; and Tokyo.
But the company's growth hasn't come without challenges.
There was the infestation of beetles that ravaged some of the furniture ordered for the resort, packs of wild dogs that tormented construction workers and a flub over the company's plans to serve shark-fin soup, a popular Asian delicacy, at banquets. (After outcries from environmentalists, who said the harvesting of fins depleted the shark population, Disney scratched it off the menu.)
While those incidents grabbed global headlines, employees from Orlando have worked behind the scenes to orchestrate compromises that respect Asian traditions without losing Disney flavor.
Melissa Valiquette, who arrived in Hong Kong on March 30, was charged with writing the guidelines for Disney's dress code -- a list of dos and don'ts that regulates everything from how employees wear their hair to how long they can grow their fingernails. Before a ban on facial hair was lifted, the code sparked controversy at Disney's first Paris park.
"What is considered 'classic and timeless' in Hong Kong is not the same as in the U.S.," said Valiquette in a recent e-mail. "I have had to realize that my American perceptions about what might work for our cast will not always be in sync with the local perceptions."
For instance, Disney typically prohibits necklaces and bracelets worn by employees who are "in costume," or uniform, she wrote.
But in Hong Kong, Disney is allowing certain bracelets that many local people have been wearing since childhood and cannot physically remove.
While much of the dress code is similar to guidelines in the United States, Valiquette has also had to allow for Asian fashion that considers bright metallic shoes and sequins on clothing acceptable business attire.
The solution, she said, has been to design and purchase business suits for most of the "on-stage managers" who are seen by the public, while urging those who wear their own clothes to work to "err on the conservative side."
Meanwhile, nuances of another kind were tackled in the kitchens of Disney's vast catering operation.
Chef de Cuisine Darryl Mickler was used to overseeing large catering productions from one kitchen in Orlando, but in Hong Kong the chefs he oversees are divided among several kitchens according to their specialties -- making it more difficult to monitor many things at once.
"It is a challenge to one's need for control," wrote Mickler, in charge of catering and special events in Orlando's MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom and Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf.
He's also had to adjust to the metric system from U.S. measurements, one of the most stressful parts of his job because of its unfamiliarity, but one he has laughed about as well.
"There is a good chance I am still getting this wrong and someone might wind up with either the equivalent of a 5 pound or a 0.5 ounce entree," he said in his e-mail. "You too could be the lucky beneficiary (or victim) of my inability to remember third grade math."
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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