Having established that these scalpers and hawkers are just part of the landscape at tourist attractions in China and that the majority of the public accept it, however begrudgingly, what has Shanghai Disney leadership done and what can they do in the future to help curtail or discourage hawkers and scalpers at the resort?
1. Digital FastPass
Starting in the Fall of 2017, Shanghai Disneyland moved away from physical FastPass distribution to a digital format. This should be familiar to many guests of Walt Disney World who have reserved FastPasses using the My Disney Experience App. Additionally, guests could also purchase Disney Premier Access, which enables guests to buy FastPasses for attractions they wish to experience above and beyond the complimentary legacy FastPass service.
While it appears the move to digital FastPass has had an impact on the sale of FastPasses by non-official sources, the affect has been minimal. “Using a digital system to reserve FastPasses has only stopped the less ingenious scalpers,” said a cast member. “But for many, they have found ways around the digital system. Now that the FastPass ticket is attached to a guest’s ticket, they [the scalper] just hold the order on a linked ticket and don’t pay until they have found a guest willing to purchase the order from them.” This action is very reminiscent of the early days of Walt Disney World’s online priority booking system where individuals would book tables at popular Walt Disney World Resort restaurants and hold them for resale to other guests.
Regardless, the introduction of a more convenient online system to reserve and purchase FastPasses means that Shanghai Disney can reach a larger number of people before they even arrive on site and thereby limit the interactions or interest in purchasing from scalpers.
2. Internal and Third-Party Security Round Ups
In previous articles I have discussed that Shanghai Disney and its third-party security agent do partner with local law enforcement agencies to periodically conduct crackdowns at the resort. While this is not a panacea for all scalping and hawking activity, as these round-ups do little more than inconvenience these individuals for a day or two, it still is a way of making it harder for these individuals to conduct business on property. “It is a game of cat and mouse,” said one undercover security leader. “We confiscate their wares, we chase them away and they come back. And repeat. It is part of the job.” He laughs, “Good job security for us I would say.”
Even I partook in the cat and mouse game. Every evening I closed the park, I knew that there would be several hawkers selling their items after the fireworks had finished right in front of the clock tower, on the two walkways that led to the exit turnstiles. Given that many guests wait until the fireworks have finished before leaving, selling their merchandise right at the only exit of the park meant that these hawkers had a huge potential for guests to make a purchase as well as being lost in a sea of guests as they surged out of the park; the hawkers could blend into the crowd and not be easily seen by security.
My evening of cat and mouse would start with me enjoying the last few minutes of the nighttime spectacular on Mickey Avenue. I would then monitor the guests as they left during the show’s finale music. This would give the hawkers enough time to make a few bucks and begin to feel comfortable. Once the music ended, I would then slowly walk out with the crowd. Our eyes would lock, he would give me a wave and start to walk out with the guests. I would walk with him and watch to make sure he exited the park. I would then go back to Mickey Avenue. Ten minutes later on my second sweep, he’d be back. We’d exchange the same pleasantries, he would walk out, I would watch him, and I’d wait for his return.
One main reason many guests purchase fake merchandise and souvenirs from hawkers is the perceived value and money saved. I once asked a guest who had just bought a keychain and hat from the above fireworks hawker why she purchased from him, “It’s cheaper. You Disney people are all capitalists. Greedy. Want so much money. I already paid so much to get into this park. My daughter wants a toy. I can afford this. I can’t afford your stuff.” This brings up a great point. While China does have a burgeoning middle class, for the majority of Chinese guests a trip to Shanghai Disneyland can be quite an expensive experience. Take in to account transportation, hotel accommodations, merchandise, and food, and you begin to reach prices where individuals could choose to leave China for another destination: like Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or other South-East Asian countries.
Shanghai Disney did respond to this for a time by offering merchandise and food discounts. While this decision was not made solely based on dissuading guests from purchasing souvenirs from hawkers, it did have a minor affect.
4. If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em
Finally, one way Shanghai Disney leadership could really discourage hawkers and scalpers is to beat them at their own game. For example, we had hawkers redirecting cars to sell ponchos and water in the parking lot. In response, we added outdoor merchandise cast members at carts in the parking lot selling those items and more. I suggested we go further and offer every car that came through the tollbooth bottles of water or ponchos for free. In Taiwan, you often get free bottles of water, tissues and more for filling up at gas stations to encourage business, the same could be used to compromise the parking lot hawkers. The majority of guests did not arrive at the resort by car so the cost would be minimal and it would undermine the efforts of the hawkers in the parking lot; potentially to the point that they give up and leave. Then you could phase out the water and ponchos at the tollbooth bringing them back as necessary to stave off future hawkers.
During my time there, I developed three guided tours for the park. One of which was based off of WDW’s and Tokyo Disneyland’s Welcome to the Magic Kingdom Tour. Given that every guest to Shanghai Disney was a first time visitor, the tour would help introduce guests to the park and the services offered. The anchor of the tour (that is the component to encourage guests to attend the tour) would be a backdoor, escort on two attractions and upon completing the tour, the guest would be offered a FastPass for an attraction or show of their choice. This tour would be priced to be less expensive per-person than purchasing a single FastPass from a hawker. It would not only be a better value, but also provide a better overall experience for the guest.
Another possibility would be to have outdoor food and merchandise cast members just as mobile and visible as these hawkers. I once observed another Chinese theme park use this method to hamper their hawker activities. As soon as a hawker would approach a guest, an employee would also come over and stand next to the hawker. The theme park employee would talk to the guest and try to outsell the hawker by informing the guest of the excellent value, quality, and guarantee of their official product compared to the hawker’s offerings. It appeared to work 80-90% in the instances I watched.
I believe it was Disney theme park operations legend, Dick Nunis who learned from Walt the idea of letting others share in the success of Disneyland and later Walt Disney World. Letting ancillary, local, outside businesses profit from the success of the park and the resort. The shared success of the park and the surrounding community was a win-win for everyone. Could this be a Chinese version of that? Are these hawkers and scalpers the Chinese equivalent to the restaurants on Harbor Boulevard or the discount theme park merchandise shop on US-192? After all, these individuals are just trying to make a living like everyone in this world. Most of them do not have any nefarious purposes other than to try to get some scraps that fall of Shanghai Disney’s banquet table. I certainly tried to keep this in mind when I interacted with them. They are human being. And with some changes in fate, our roles could be reversed.
To summarize, all Shanghai Disney management can really do, without a serious change to how laws are policed in China, is create nudges. Encourage certain decisions and behaviors on the part of its guests and others. I heard that Disneyland Paris did/does have a similar issue with hawkers and scalpers and they were able to resolve it. I do know that several Disneyland Paris taskforce members did bring up suggestions, but I am afraid they were met with the same disinterest that I was by local leadership. Perhaps this is all just the adage, if you build a better mouse trap, they will just build a better mouse.
But what do you think? Is hawking and scalping a big deal? Or is it just us theme park professionals and fans that get our feathers ruffled by reality interfering with our constructed fantasy worlds?
*On a personal note, I sadly discovered all of my tour proposals in the trash a week after I sent them to leadership for perusal. I never received a reply, even after asking for feedback. I was very disappointed and could tell my suggestions and weeks of working on my own free time was a waste and my talents would be better appreciated at a different organization. Just one of the reasons I made the painfully hard decision to leave Shanghai Disney, a dream job I had always wanted.