Photo: Disney Careers
In a move that’s entirely believable and deserved, the infamous Disney English has shut down operation in China.
In an open letter to customers across China, Disney English stated that after 12 years of operation, they’ve decided against re-opening their doors after having closed down for coronavirus concerns.
The company issued refunds to customers between June 26th and July 21st of this year.
The Chinese government forced every learning centre and school in the country to close down during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, many of the learning centres that didn’t have reserve capital or weren’t being run well were forced to close down.
In a statement, Disney English blamed customers turning online for their language education as the reason they’ve been losing business for several years.
They went on to say that the coronavirus only served to exacerbate this trend, and that this change in consumer interests forced their closure.
As someone that works at a learning centre in China, I think this is a lame excuse. Disney English has been underperforming for the last few years, and there are very good reasons why.
I worked for Disney for several years, and I was lucky enough to meet many of Disney’s dedicated “cast-members” all over the world.
So when some of them made the unlucky decision to transfer to one of the Disney English training centres across China, I was made very aware of how terribly they were run.
Some of the things that happened to them right after applying should have been red flags for how awful their lives were about to become.
Teachers were forced to apply for work visas as “trainers” rather than teachers. They were forced to do this so that Disney could pay them less and give them worse working conditions.
Teachers often reported being underpaid and working under horrible conditions.
According to Vice, Disney English went as far as to use illegitimate work visas and pay teachers with cash to avoid owing taxes to the government and benefits to the teachers.
One teacher reported being given fake cash in his pay and was laughed off after reporting it to a manager.
Not “Real” Disney
Beyond the horrible working conditions and illegal activity was the discrepancy between the Chinese managed Disney English and the rest of Disney.
For some reason, working for Disney English doesn’t officially count as time spent at Disney for the purpose of building company seniority.
At Disney, workers are given pins to add to their name-tags that shows others on their team and guests how many years they’ve worked for Disney.
Seniority affects pay, conditions, and work benefits depending on what kind of work you do for the company.
So when fellow Disney cast-members were saying that a year spent at Disney English cut off their seniority I was shocked. It always seemed that this mismanaged arm of the company run exclusively in China didn’t count as “real Disney.”
Anyone that ever spent time there returned with horror stories, swearing off Disney English and even China all-together.
Parents were also sometimes shocked to see that Disney English didn’t even use Disney products when teaching their classes.
When I teach classes for age groups 6 and under, I’ll often use Disney songs to communicate a message or warm-up the class if we’re going to learn performance skills.
Instead, Disney English classes played inferior songs that were custom-made for Disney English.
It was the sort of music you’d commission from a cheap composer so that you could teach a class while getting around copyright concerns.
None of Disney’s world famous music from their movies was ever taught and utilised during classes.
So Why Do It?
The original intention of creating Disney English was to establish the Disney brand in China before building Shanghai Disneyland, and they somewhat achieved that goal.
For a short time, Disney English was the golden example of how to print money while selling the English language to Chinese consumers.
Disney built a money-printing machine while ignoring the human element of the business during a time that English training was especially novel in China.
But what worked a decade ago doesn’t work today, and if you can’t innovate, you’ll get pushed out.
Pushing the Brand
I can see why pushing the brand was important, because not many people in China grew up with Disney.
Many consumers in the US and other western countries accept the Disney branding, princesses, and all the rest of it because it formed a mental and emotional foundation during our formative years.
Today’s Chinese adults didn’t grow up with Disney movies, so Disney English was a sad attempt at trying to fill that void.
We grew up with Disney’s movies, and Disney English was built as a Chinese substitute.
Instead, what consumers got was a group of learning centres that cost 3x more than the competition, was riddled with workplace abuse, and didn’t even utilise the classic Disney product when carrying out classes.
Teachers were forced to teach a program with media content that was probably cheaply and locally produced.
The company didn’t expand online because no-one working on the ground had any control or ability to innovate. The workers were just cogs in the crappy machine that had to wait for instructions from the top that would never come.
Instead, those at the top of the ladder just made excuses while other companies innovated around them until they were eventually pushed out.
The World Moves On
So now that it’s all over, all I can say is “thanks for Shanghai Disneyland, now get the hell out Disney English.”
China is an extremely competitive market, and English education is cut-throat.
The money is huge because Chinese parents will pay anything for their kids education, and margins are low when you rip-off and exploit your workforce.
Part of me doesn’t blame Disney, because I think all this shady nonsense was taking place on a local level. The fat-cats in America weren’t part of the day to day operations of the company.
However, the other part of me does blame Disney for being complicit.
A lot of bad crap took place under their noses while this experiment ran for 12 years, and they were happy to let it keep going while it stayed profitable.
Now that it’s over, the cast-members who were working there are stuck without a job and no connection back to “real Disney.” Meanwhile, the executives on top won’t give them another thought.
They’ll just collect their bonuses next month and cross their fingers in hope that Chinese consumers will go to the movies and watch Mulan when it eventually comes out.
The world will go on, and Disney will build another money-printing machine elsewhere.