Comparing Themed Entertainment in the U.S. vs. China: A Designer’s POV

ITEC Entertainment is a multidisciplinary organization with a strong diversity of talented staffers. Occasionally our employees will share their expertise in their area of discipline. This post was written by ITEC’s Show Designer, Sisi He.

As an experienced show designer with a deep understanding of Chinese culture, I am responsible for communicating deliverables and objectives between our creative team and the Chinese themed entertainment market, which has significantly matured over the last twenty years. My interest in the theme park industry started at a young age and my background has since provided me with the experience and skill sets to lead projects and provide entertainment solutions in China and across the globe.

After visiting Hong Kong Disneyland when it first opened, I knew at age 16 that I needed to be in the theme park industry. Born and raised in China, I searched for opportunities to get involved. This led me to study industrial design at Chongqing University and enroll in Disney’s international college program. After college, I knew where I needed to go to get experience: the U.S., home of the world’s first roller coaster and Disney’s headquarters. While attending the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, I was introduced to ITEC Entertainment through a professor, and proceeded to intern for the entertainment solutions company before joining full-time. Serving as both an intern and a show designer at ITEC, I have noticed several key differences between themed entertainment in the U.S. and in China. 

Starting a Project and the Use of Intellectual Property (IP)

Compared to themed entertainment projects in the U.S., Chinese projects allow for incredible flexibility and endless creativity. Chinese clients often come to ITEC with “blank slate” projects that allow our creative team to run wild with our imaginations. Catering to a massive population with a keen interest in entertainment in the form of theme and amusement parks, as well as other attractions, Chinese developers want to build projects that are unique. They strive for the most over-the-top designs with the biggest, latest, and newest in entertainment technology, which is a feat ITEC can deliver. 

While the United States’s history of theme park development is longer, with more deeply ingrained practices, its culture somewhat inhibits industry innovation when compared to China. This is because a lot of American theme parks rely on the use of IPs. By tapping into the emotional connections franchises foster, U.S. developers have a head start on cultivating major interest for new rides and attractions and tapping into the franchise’s fan base such as Harry Potter. However, this takes a lot of raw creativity away from designers and puts additional pressure on them to deliver an IP ride that meets the expectation of its target audience. In short, while IPs may boost the appeal of a ride, they may also remove some creativity from the design process and limit the potential outcome of the attraction. As time goes on, it will be interesting to monitor the IP trend in both the U.S. and China.

Tailoring Attractions to Reflect Local Culture

Every country has its own captivating culture, storytelling traditions, and folklore, that theme park developers must follow to be successful. Naturally, themed entertainment in the U.S. and in China diverge and cater toward each nation’s respective culture. When designing Disneyland in Hong Kong, Disney strategically adopted cultural aspects into its theme park design. This not only promoted sustainable growth in the region and attracted more local guests, but also ensured that no attractions missed their marks with the new audience.

As a theoretical example, when I designed my graduate thesis project, I showcased how Hong Kong Disneyland could best design “The Tower of Terror,” an accelerated drop tower dark ride featuring ghosts in America. I explained in my thesis how it would need to be changed to “The Evermore Tower” at the Asia-based theme park. In general, it is not appropriate in Chinese culture to portray ghosts in the same manner that the U.S. does, and the theme park ride would not have been popular. Thus, Disney’s story concept for the ride was altered with new culture-conscious characters. Despite the cultural differences at Disneylands around the world, they all still manage to evoke the same key themes of discovery, adventure, and exploration. No matter the location and no matter the culture, it is a theme park designer’s duty to create immersive experiences that are enjoyable for everyone. 

The Rise of Mixed-use

In the U.S., theme parks are fun destinations that usually stand alone. Visitors do not expect much else in the area. In contrast, theme parks in China are becoming more intertwined with mixed-use developments and commercial real estate centers. While this real estate trend is also emerging in the U.S., as exemplified by the American Dream Meadowlands in New Jersey, it is much more established across Asia. For instance, elements of theme parks are incorporated into all types of projects in China including Ocean Flower Island, Fairytale World theme parks, Wanda Movie Park, and OCT theme parks and resorts.

In contrast, Chinese developments usually share one main objective: to sell condos and apartments and generally boost property value in the surrounding areas. This is because housing is always a priority in China due to the massive population and lucrative real estate market that investors are eager to fund. In order to increase their own profits, developers are pressured to make their projects stand out from competing developments so that people readily buy units in them. One strategy to appeal to more Chinese buyers includes the use of theme park elements and attractions. People want to live in or own real estate at popular destinations or in close proximity to them. Entertainment solutions greatly contribute to making developments and otherwise unnoteworthy locations into fun destinations. As the combination of mixed-use and theme entertainment expands in both China and U.S. markets, it will be important to monitor how these trends develop and grow. 

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