A little-known enclave of the Disney empire is its Disney English learning centers scattered throughout China. The teachers at these centers use Disney characters and "culture" to instruct rambunctious Chinese kids in the basics of the English language. Dream job, right? Well...
When Daniel Morris flew into Shanghai for the start of his new career with Disney English, he nearly boarded another plane straight back home. Morris picks up this most unlikely cast member memoir with his decision to stay and his arrival at a Disney-sanctiond hotel, the first of many culture shocks to come.
At the Disney English center in Shanghai, where Morris worked as a “foreign trainer,” he soon had his hands full with misbehaving kids, eccentric parents, office politics, and a roller-coaster ride up the corporate ladder.
There are no attractions, no shows, and the pixie dust is infrequent, but Disney English has its own quirky sort of magic, and with Morris as your guide, you'll get the first-ever insider's look at this far-flung Disney enterprise.
“You use Mickey Mouse to teach English?” is a question that I have been asked a lot. In retrospect, it’s not hard to answer. I prefer that one to, “That’s actually a thing?” and “What is it that you actually do?” The latter two are not really questions I enjoyed hearing or answering, especially when the questioner was a distant relative asking at a family gathering. In those cases, I would muffle a response and quickly walk away.
When answering the question “You use Mickey Mouse to teach English?” I would normally just respond with, “Yeah, kind of.” My response should really have been, “Disney English is an immersive English experience where storytelling is integrated with Disney content and an English language syllabus to teach English to children where English is a second language.” However, “Yeah, kind of” took less time and resulted in fewer follow-up questions.
But yes, teaching English using Disney content is something that exists. It’s something that hundreds of native (or native-like) English speakers from countries such as USA, UK, and South Africa flock to do. It’s also something that this native English speaker did for two-and-a-half years—years that were unequivocally amongst the most interesting period of my life so far.
Disney English is a company that operates as part of Walt Disney International in mainland China. It began operations in 2008 and still has Disney English centers throughout China today. There are many rumors as to why Disney English exists, some positive, some not so positive. The most prominent rumor within the Disney English rumor mill states that it happened to promote the Disney brand to the Chinese people before the opening of Shanghai Disneyland so that they were already familiar with the Disney brand and characters before coming to the resort. I think this idea is a little far-fetched, but if it were the case, it worked. Nowadays, you cannot go anywhere in China without seeing something Disney.
Whatever the reason, Disney English exists and as previously mentioned, there are Disney English centers throughout mainland China. While most of them are in Shanghai, some are located in Beijing and smaller Chinese cities as well (Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Guangzhou). These English centers aren’t actual schools. You do not go Monday to Friday to learn about everything Disney (I would be so jealous if you did). Students attend either after school on a weekday or during the day on the weekend. Parents would sign their children up for a year-long contract (a very pricey contract, but hey, it’s Disney).
There are hundreds of different companies throughout China and other Asian countries that provide a similar product. However, Disney English is one of the largest and the only one to use Disney intellectual properties to teach English.
Using Disney properties to teach English sounds like a dream job, right? That is exactly what I thought when I first discovered it. I was getting itchy feet in England and decided to casually explore my options for teaching in a different country. That was when the advertisement for Disney English popped up. It seemed too good to be true. When I did some research and found out that this company did actually exist, it felt like my dream job. It felt such like my dream job that I stayed up till two o’clock in the morning, in my best suit, to participate in a Skype interview. It felt such like my dream job that I rang my mom at two-thirty to tell her I’d been offered a position after said interview. It seemed like such a dream job that I moved out of my apartment, quit my job, and moved across the world to Shanghai, China.
Was it a dream job? That is hard to say. Perhaps it is like all things that seem perfect it in the beginning, but can then struggle to live up to your lofty expectations. There were good parts of the job (it’s teaching through Disney) but there were also negative aspects to the experience. Good and bad, it was definitely an experience—an experience that I warranted important enough to write a book about, an experience that you are now reading about, and lastly an experience that you will hopefully enjoy reading about.
So this is my experience of teaching with Disney. And yes, it is a thing.
Daniel Morris graduated with a B.A degree in Film and Theatre studies and a M.A in Film Screenwriting from the University of Salford. He got accepted into his M.A program by waxing lyrically about how he loved the movie Toy Story. It was this emphatic love for Disney that propelled him to accept a job working for Disney English in Shanghai.
Although he didn’t get to teach in Andy’s Toy Box, he did work for Disney English for two-and-a-half years, becoming a senior foreign trainer in the process. Despite not working for Disney any longer, he does still teach in Asia, at a secondary school in Hong Kong as close to Hong Kong Disneyland as he could get.