CHINA-BORN American Doris Woodward has returned to her family roots to work as senior director and executive producer of Walt Disney Imagineering Shanghai — her sixth Magic Kingdom project.
Her parents were both born in Shanghai but emigrated to Hong Kong before she was born. Woodward grew up in Hong Kong, and then went to the United States for college when she was 18.
After graduation and work at a theme park in San Francisco, she joined The Walt Disney Company as a designer in 1979. She reckons Shanghai Disney Resort will be the swan song of an illustrious career.
“My heritage is here,” said Woodward. “I’m a Shanghainese. With my background and family, I think I can say that one of our priorities is to pay attention to our guests and provide the best of Disney to the people of China.”
“It’s very clear that the market demands are different here,” she said. “We needed to determine how to approach them, how to connect them, how to experience them. I was lucky to be able to help my fellow team members from around the world to learn about this country.”
It was of foremost importance to truly understand what Chinese visitors to the park would enjoy.
The team has taken years to study the market. As a result, Woodward said, the attractions, entertainment, festival celebrations, merchandise, food and beverage as well as services in Shanghai Disney Resort will be all authentically Disney but also unique for the guests here.
“It’s all about getting back to basics, back to the core story of the Magic Kingdom,” she said. “There must be a reason why the parks are so beloved around the world.” However, Woodward promised a little “twist” that will give the new park freshness and blend well with the Chinese market.
“American people all grow up with Disney, but the brand first entered the Chinese market back in 1938 and many of our stories and characters have been so popular with the people here. We believe the new resort will help create even more amazing dynamics in the Chinese environment,” she said.
Although she had never actually lived in Shanghai prior to her current assignment, Woodward feels a deep kinship with the city. This is not surprising, as given her family heritage, she speaks quite fluent Shanghainese but hardly any Mandarin.
She is also a rather accomplished cook with authentic Shanghai cuisine, admitting that her American husband and two daughters really love her stewed meatballs with brown sauce.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Woodward dabbled in modeling and singing. Not particularly fond of serious study, she was a bit anxious, she said, when she graduated from high school.
“Chinese families always want to you go to business school, medical school or law school, and those were not for me,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t do that. I thought the only way to succeed in college was to go to art school. I believed I could draw my way through without intense studying, and my parents understood me.”
Woodward said one of the first projects she worked with at Disney featured strong Chinese elements. At that time, the company was building EPCOT Center in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where she worked as a graphic designer and stylist on international pavilions.
She spent nearly seven years on the project, working with people from six countries, including China.
“I designed a lot of exhibits in the China pavilion,” she recalled. “I worked with the Palace Museum in Beijing to display everything, including terra cotta soldiers from Xi’an and an imperial clock collection that had never been exhibited outside China.”
She said it was a challenging experience to balance the presentation of treasures from other countries with Disney’s attention to detail.
“I had to be really aware of different perspectives, which was very interesting,” she said.
In her 30-plus years with Disney, Woodward’s talent led her to different projects in the company.
“My roles and interests expanded,” she said. “I evolved from a designer to a producer. I have to focus on a lot of things, like content, budget and schedule. All my previous projects lead me to Shanghai.”
Woodward is now the creative director and executive producer for Shanghai Disney Resort’s Disneytown, an exciting shopping, dining and entertainment area adjacent to the resort’s theme park, Shanghai Disneyland. “I feel my whole career has helped prepare me to be part of the creative team tasked to bring Chinese cultural elements to the area, from colors to symbols,” she said. “Guests visiting Disneytown will encounter fun and familiar Chinese experiences around every corner.”
Woodward said her goal has always been to create a world that immediately captivates people who step into it. She said she hopes visitors to Shanghai Disney Resort will be able to leave their normal world behind them and experience something new and magical.
“It’s the feeling and emotion attached to the project that makes it so special,” she said.