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Steve
09-13-2005, 10:14 PM
Disney's Not-So-Magic New Kingdom

SEPTEMBER 13, 2005


By Bruce Einhorn
BusinessWeek Online



Sure, it lacks some of the big rides, but the Hong Kong theme park is still fun -- especially if you dig crowds and pollution, and bring a translator
Hong Kong Disneyland, the first Magic Kingdom in China, officially opened on Monday, Sept. 12, but even before then, critics were having a field day. In the weeks before its official debut, the park was open to visitors for what Disney (DIS ) called "rehearsal days," and the Hong Kong newspapers were filled with complaints about the food, the lines, and the attractions.

A friend of mine went with her family on one particularly crowded, chaotic weekend rehearsal day. Some 29,000 people jammed the park, enduring excruciatingly long lines in very hot weather. "Let me know when you get back," she said when I told her I planned to take my children. "I'll try to talk you down off the roof."

BUMPY RIDE. There will always be people who don't like theme parks, who hate Disney and the American corporate pop culture that it epitomizes. In Hong Kong, Disney's image problem is made worse by the fact that the park is a joint venture with the local government, led by the unelected Donald Tsang. As chief executive, he's ultimately accountable only to Beijing.

Plus, critics say that as No. 2 to former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Tsang had a hand in making a deal that had Hong Kong paying $2.9 billion to build the park, more than 80% of the total cost, but it ended up owning only 57% of the park itself.

Who else is angry with Disney? Environmentalists are upset about the destruction of coral and coastline. (Disneyland sits on land that the government reclaimed from the sea, especially for the park.) Nearby residents aren't happy about the noise and the smoke from the daily fireworks. Economists question the government's assertion that Disneyland will spur the local economy.

FAN FAVORITES? All of these complaints may be valid, but I have to confess: I had a good time at the park last week. And my two kids had a blast.

We got there shortly after 10 a.m. and didn't leave until the fireworks ended around 9:15 that night. Of course, I went on a weekday, when the crowds were relatively manageable. (Now that Disneyland is officially open, there's no chance I'll take the kids on a Sunday anytime soon.) Moreover, I've always been a fan of Disneyland, and have been to the park in Anaheim many times.

Still, I think that Disney is going to face some major challenges as it tries to make its latest park a success. For instance, there's the matter of size. Disney executives and officials from Hong Kong don't want to admit this, but the fact is, Hong Kong Disneyland is small. It's just 306 acres and has just three "lands" -- Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. The park is only in Phase One, we've been told, and there's plenty of reclaimed land at the site to accommodate more. But that's not going to stop visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland from feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Not only is Hong Kong Disneyland smaller than the Magic Kingdoms in the U.S., France, and Japan, it's also missing some of Disney's most famous rides. At the opening ceremony, a choir sang the Disney theme song, "It's a Small World," but Hong Kong Disneyland doesn't have the Small World ride. (I realize that many people who have sat on those little boats at other Disney parks and listened to the endless loop of the song might consider this a plus.) Hong Kong also doesn't have the Matterhorn roller coaster ride, the Peter Pan ride, and many other Fantasyland favorites.

LANGUAGE CONFUSION. Adventureland has little more than a Jungle Cruise and a Tarzan Tree House. In Tomorrowland, there's the Space Mountain roller coaster, but there's no Autopia, where you get to drive your own car on the twisting freeway. (Disney says this one is under construction and will open next year.)

Hong Kong Disneyland is officially trilingual: English and two types of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese. But "officially" and "actually" are two different things. At one of the live shows, the Golden Mickeys, the songs are in English but the narration is in Cantonese only. At the Lion King show, the performers stick mostly to English, with a few words of Cantonese thrown in.

Neither show features any Mandarin, although Disney hopes to attract millions of tourists from mainland China, where Mandarin is the most popular version of Chinese. Disneyland execs need to figure out how to make the park fully trilingual.

CLOUDY FUTURE? There's not much that Disney can do about another problem: the weather. Hong Kong in the summer is hot and muggy. It probably would have made for better headlines if Disney had waited till the weather cools off in November and December before opening the park. Even worse, over the past few days, visibility has been terrible as the air-pollution index has been heading into dangerous territory.

The Hong Kong government has been trying to clean things up by, among other things, forcing all taxis to switch from diesel to cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas. That has helped, but Hong Kong won't make significant progress until polluters across the border in Guangdong province clean up their act. Guangdong officials have promised to take action, but it will probably be years before there's any noticeable improvement.

No doubt millions of tourists from China won't mind, since they're used to cities that are much worse. But dirty skies over Sleeping Beauty's Castle is not the image that Disney wants to present to visitors venturing to its latest Magic Kingdom.

Steve
09-13-2005, 10:30 PM
Disneyland Opens in Hong Kong

Thousands from around the world visit the theme park, which has been heralded by some locals and criticized by others.

By Don Lee
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 13, 2005

HONG KONG — In one of the smoggiest, muggiest days of the year here, thousands of tourists from around the world turned out Monday for the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, the $3.2-billion theme park Walt Disney Co. hopes will establish a beachhead for its iconic brand in China's vast market.

The 320-acre park opened at 1 p.m., a time determined by an ancient Chinese system of harmonizing with nature. Ticket sales were limited to about half of the park's capacity of 30,000 to give breathing room to the hundreds of media members and VIPs, including Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong.

In dress rehearsals leading up to the opening, the park — modeled on the original Disneyland but about a third its size — was beset with complaints that near-full-capacity crowds resulted in excessive waits for rides and delays in ordering food.

Apart from the heat and lines that sometimes stretched for an hour or so, workers and visitors said the day went smoothly, unlike Disneyland's opening 50 years ago when the water fountains weren't working and about 30,000 visitors showed up, twice the number expected, because of counterfeit tickets.

Hong Kong native Raymond Luk was among the first customers to walk into the new park. "Today's my birthday," said the 31-year-old interior designer. "I want to take a photo with my girlfriend and Donald Duck."

Feng Shumu, an 8-year-old from Beijing, was pressed against the gate waiting to get in, holding the rails with his two hands like a prisoner behind bars. Asked about school, the boy turned to his mother, Cao Min, who said sheepishly, "I asked his teacher for a holiday."

During an opening ceremony, Zeng called Disney's new park an "eternal carnival for the Hong Kong people." He said Beijing was fully behind the park and Hong Kong's effort to draw investment and build its economy.

Departing Walt Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner uttered "Ni hao" — a Mandarin greeting — as he began the christening ceremony, then added a welcome in English and Cantonese, the local dialect.

Disney executives have talked in recent years of a second China Disneyland, most likely in Shanghai, but the plan faces considerable challenges.

Monday's visitors included lots of Disney neophytes, mostly from mainland China, as well as plenty of Disney loyalists who came from all over to compare Disneyland parks, buy pins and reminisce about days long gone.

Seeing Main Street replicated in Asia was something special for Bonnie Pixley of Diamond Bar, who with her husband, Don, had planned the trip for a year. "I walked down Main Street a couple of times with Walt," she said, referring to the company's founder, who died in 1966.

With Monday a school day, few children and young teens came to the park. And, in a sign of the changing demographics, the number of elderly people holding sun umbrellas far outnumbered young parents pushing strollers.

Hong Kong is betting that Disneyland will help it expand into a family-oriented travel destination. The park also could prove a draw to leisure travelers from throughout Asia.

With more regional discount Asian airliners cropping up and incomes rising in the area, the market for tourist dollars is expected to grow significantly. So is competition. Thailand, for example, is said to be considering legalizing gambling to compete with the arrival of Disneyland.

Hong Kong Disneyland is projected to have 5.6 million visitors in the first year, with a third coming from mainland China, a third from Hong Kong and the rest from other places in Asia. The park employs about 5,000 workers and has a modest 21 rides and attractions.

David Dodwell, a public policy consultant in Hong Kong, said a primary driver of Hong Kong wanting to develop tourism, a low-wage industry, was the need to replace low-skilled factory jobs lost to mainland China in recent years. Also, in 1999, when Disney and Hong Kong cut the deal, the region's economy was still struggling from the Asian financial crisis and unemployment was high. Hence, the Hong Kong government agreed to put up $2.9 billion for the park and related infrastructure development, while Disney invested $314 million in the project.

Concern about Western cultural influence will be a continuing issue for Disney as it looks to expand in China and tap the potential market of its 1.3 billion people. Disney has long sought to operate a Disney channel in China, so it could air more programs to a wider number of Chinese households, which would drive sales of its videos, merchandise and Disneyland visits. But Beijing recently made it clear that it wanted to limit foreign ownership of media and preserve Chinese culture.

Surveys show that most Hong Kong residents have supported Hong Kong Disneyland, but there have been strong voices of dissent as well from people who view the deal as a white elephant for the city. And in the ensuing years, a number of gaffes by Hong Kong Disneyland managers appeared to have fanned the anti-park sentiments. These included plans to serve shark fin soup, which were scrapped, and the company's alleged involvement in the killing of wild dogs that roamed the Disneyland site during construction.

In the last week, Disneyland has contended with more bad publicity after park employees demanded that Hong Kong hygiene officers remove their caps and epaulets before entering to investigate reports of food poisoning. Hong Kong media said that Disney might have broken the law in refusing them entry.

Bill Ernest, the park's managing director of operations, said that Disney has apologized for the error and that this won't happen again. "We know we're not above the law," he said, adding that some of the community's problems with Disney stem from people "not being used to the way we run our processes."

But many Hong Kong residents seemed pleasantly surprised. After all the negative news that they had read, they said they expected the worst. Many locals were forgiving of the park's modest size.

"It is small, but what can you do? Hong Kong is small," said Meizhi Tan, 33, a homemaker who came with her 3-year-old.

As the park approached the 9 p.m. closing, Frankie Wong, 40, sat on the curb at Main Street, his 2-year-old godson on his lap. Wong said he was tuckered out. He complained that some people from the mainland needed lessons on queuing up properly. But apart from that and dealing with the heat, Wong said everything went smoothly.

"I like it," he declared. Will he come back again soon? "Probably one or two years later," Wong said.

zachsan
09-13-2005, 10:54 PM
The Ultimate Secret to Enjoying Amusement Parks, as Discovered by Zach This Past Summer:

buy a foot brace and a pair of crutches. have someone in your group wear said brace and use said crutches, and just like that, you're at the front of every line. OK, so it's unfair to both the people waiting in the line and to people who are actually injured. but so is spending 50 bucks to wait in lines all day.