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Disney Parks Has Been Doing Something Behind Guests’ Backs for Years

disney theme park woody with cowboy hat and words that read top secret in red

The Walt Disney Company‘s Parks division has been hiding a dark secret for decades, and the revelation is likely to throw fans for a loop.

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disney world cinderella castle magic kingdom rainbow

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Saturdays were some of the most memorable and meaningful days in the lives of innovator, visionary, and father, Walt Disney, and his two young daughters, Diane and Sharon. Walt would later explain that Saturdays were always “Daddy’s day.”

“Saturday was always Daddy’s day, and I would take [my daughters] to the merry-go-round and sit on a bench eating peanuts while they rode,” Walt explained. “And sitting there alone, I felt there should be something built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together.” And at that moment, while sitting on a park bench that is on exhibition today inside the Opera House at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, Walt Disney envisioned plans for a happy and magical place that would evolve into Disneyland Resort.

Disneyland Opening Day: Photos Gallery – The Hollywood Reporter

Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

It’s not clear whether Walt initially envisioned Disneyland as a one-and-done endeavor in the theme park arena or if he had dreams of building parks bearing his name around the world. In 1966, after he purchased thousands of acres of swampland in Florida on which to build his second park, Walt died of complications associated with lung cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital, located across the street from his Burbank studios.

Death of Walt Disney in 1966... - RareNewspapers.com

Credit: RareNewspapers.com

If he were to visit today, though, Walt Disney might be completely surprised to see just how vast his empire has become over the last 100 years. It would probably shock him to learn that the Disney World Resort in Florida has grown to encompass four theme parks and two water parks. And he’d likely be stunned by the number of entities acquired by The Walt Disney Company over the years. But the thing that would probably shock Mr. Disney the most is something most Disney fans don’t know either, and the revelation might just floor them.

After all, businesses can generate revenue in a million ways, and apparently, ownership isn’t everything.

Following the opening of Disneyland in California and the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida–each fully owned and operated by The Walt Disney Company–Disney set its sights on a new frontier: international theme parks. But if constructing and opening its two U. S. theme park resorts was challenging, building and opening theme Park Resorts overseas would prove rigorous, demanding, and downright enigmatic at times. In addition, operating the resorts would often have the appearance of the somewhat unsolvable problem, even for Disney. But when faced with the insurmountable mountain, the powers that be at Disney got creative. And that creativity has been rewarded with incredible amounts of revenue over the years.

Tokyo Disney Resort hotel room alice in wonderland

“Alice in Wonderland”-themed Guest room at Tokyo Disneyland Hotel/Credit: Tokyo Disney Resort

But it’s worth noting that a large part of that revenue has been generated by practices in which many fans have no idea Disney is engaged.

Disney Branches Out, Beginning in Japan

With the success of Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World, Disney made the decision to bring the fun and magic of its theme parks outside the U. S. borders. First stop: Tokyo, Japan, where, in 1983, the company opened the gates of the Resort to welcome Guests at what is known today as Tokyo Disney Resort.

Tokyo Disney Resort Online Reservations & Tickets

Credit: Tokyo Disney

The beautiful, nearly-500 acre Disney theme Park Resort saw an average of 14 to 15 million Guests annually in the years leading up to the pandemic closures. The Resort is so popular that some fans have even uprooted their entire lives to move to Japan, immerse themselves in the Japanese culture, and learn the language–just to be closer to the magic of the Resort. But Tokyo Disney has long hidden a dark secret.

Where to Stay near Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea - Japan Web Magazine

Credit: Disney/PIXAR

The Walt Disney Company has 0% ownership in Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland. No part of the Disney-themed Japanese theme Park Resort is owned by the company with which it shares its name. The entire Resort is owned by Disney’s partners in Japan. Disney generates revenue by collecting licensing fees from the sale of tickets and from in-park purchases of Disney-licensed merchandise.

Tokyo Disney Resort: Tokyo, Japan : TravelChannel.com | Tokyo Vacation  Destinations, Ideas and Guides : TravelChannel.com | Travel Channel

Credit: Travel Channel

Disneyland Paris

In 1992, Euro Disneyland opened about 15 minutes from Paris, France. In 1994, the Resort’s name was officially changed to Disneyland Paris, but the name change didn’t accomplish much for the Parisian park, which had been a financial nightmare since its opening.

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2-night Disneyland Paris break from £89.50pp a night - with park entry, hotel & FREE Disney+ | The Sun

Credit: The Sun

Before the Park first began welcoming Guests, Disney and its partners created a publicly traded company in which Disney owned approximately 40% of the shares. It was that company that oversaw operations at the Resort. But after more than 20 years of slow growth and low revenue, Disney had to get creative or risk losing its proverbial shirt. So the company upped its investment in the Park, and on June 19, 2017, the operating company for the Disney Paris Resort was acquired by The Walt Disney Company, finally giving Disney full ownership and control of the Resort.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005 and has seven themed lands, including Adventureland, Fantasyland, Grizzly Gulch, Main Street U.S.A., Mystic Point, Tomorrowland, and Toy Story Land. There are also three unique Disney-themed Resort hotels–Disney Explorers Lodge, Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, and Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, which looks a lot like Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Disney World near Orlando, Florida.

Hong-Kong Disneyland Hotel

Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel/Credit: Hong Kong Disneyland

Not unlike the way in which Disneyland Paris was originally owned and operated, the Hong Kong Disney Resort debuted as a joint venture–this time between Disney and Hong Kong’s local government, which started an umbrella company in which The Walt Disney Company owns 48% of the shares. But the Hong Kong Resort has had some issues of its own. Though not as troublesome for Disney as Disneyland Paris has been over the years, Hong Kong Disneyland reportedly still has not resonated with the growing middle class in mainland China like Disney had originally hoped.

Perhaps ownership–or lack thereof–is to blame.

Disneyland In Hong Kong: A Handy Guide For Your 2022 Trip

Credit: Travel Triangle

The Resort is owned by a joint venture company, Hong Kong International Theme Parks Limited, the Hong Kong Government, shareholders, and Disney.

Shanghai Disney Resort

After choosing Shanghai as the newest Disney Parks location, Disney lobbied in China for almost a decade for the opportunity to do exactly that. Finally, after years of development, Shanghai Disney Resort opened to Guests in Chuansha New Town, Pudong, Shanghai, China, in June 2016. Disney reportedly invested $5.5 billion in the endeavor, but China’s second Disney Park is exactly that–China’s Disney Park. Before Disney was granted permission to open the parks in Shanghai, the Company had to agree to be one of several stakeholders in the project–and more specifically, a minority stakeholder.

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Enchanted Storybook Castle | Attractions | Shanghai Disney Resort

Credit: Shanghai Disney Resort

Because Shanghai Disney Resort is operated in China, the Resort’s everyday operations must be in keeping with terms laid out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Walt Disney Company is engaged in a joint venture with the Chinese Communist Party that allows for the operation of the Disney Resort in Shanghai, and it’s not an equal split. The CCP has 57% ownership, while Disney holds only 43% ownership.

Shanghai Disneyland remains closed, parts of the resort will reopen - CGTN

Shanghai Disneyland/Credit: CGTN

So, one of Disney’s darkest secrets lies within the very practices the company has been engaged in since it opened its first theme Park Resort outside the United States. Simply put, Disney doesn’t own them, and therefore, Disney has limited to no say when it comes to decisions being made within the parks–decisions that affect Guests visiting the parks. At the parks in which Disney does have ownership, it’s not a majority ownership, except in the case of Disneyland Paris.

While this may be common knowledge for a few, we’re willing to bet that most Disney fans are in the dark when it comes to knowing who actually owns the company’s theme parks and, in turn, who is actually making decisions within those parks.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!