UPDATE 3-Disney opens new park as smog casts pall over HK
By John Ruwitch
HONG KONG, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co. officially opened its new Hong Kong theme park on Monday, exporting a piece of the Magic Kingdom to China's doorstep in a bold bid to gain a bigger foothold in the vast Chinese market.
As a blanket of smog covered the territory, Chinese lion dancers in gold and red emerged from Sleeping Beauty's Castle to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck to the new business.
"China is an important area for us to move forward in and building a Hong Kong Disneyland will certainly introduce everyone to who we are," Robert Braunstein, senior show programme manager for the park, told Reuters.
Both the company and the government have high hopes for the park, Disney's first in China and its second in Asia after Japan.
The American icon's presence in communist China has lagged rivals despite being a household name in many other parts of the world. China's tight control of foreign media and widespread copyright piracy have limited its expansion and eaten into sales.
But Disney is hoping millions of Chinese who visit the park will develop a taste for its products, from stuffed toys to DVDs.
"A lot of our marketing has been focused on educating the consumers in China," said Roy Tan Hardy, vice president of marketing and sales for the park.
The park is also expected to give a major boost to Hong Kong's economy, creating tens of thousands of much-needed jobs and generating $19 billion in revenue at the venue over 40 years.
Disney has faced criticism in the run-up to the opening, including claims of dangerous sweatshop conditions at Chinese factories making Disney toys and concern that smoke from its nightly fireworks show will worsen Hong Kong's pollution problem.
SMOG BLANKETS OPENING
A blanket of smog, mainly from factories in southern China, choked much of the territory on Monday as Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong helped to officially open the park.
The pollution, close to the worst levels in the city so far this year, obscured its famous skyline and Victoria Harbour, though conditions at the park on nearby Lantau island improved as the day wore on.
A man who was one of the first visitors allowed into the park dropped to his knees inside the entrance and bowed towards the castle as others raced past him, heading for the rides.
Disney sold about 15,000 tickets for the opening day, about half of the park's capacity, but many invited guests and journalists were also on hand and several visitors complained it felt crowded.
Some visitors at rehearsals with far more people had complained of waiting hours for rides and food, and said that the park was too small. At 126 hectares (311 acres), it is less than half the size of the original Disneyland in California.
"You have to line up for everything. It's a pain, it's too crowded," said Chai Zaiying from the northern Chinese province of Hebei, whose package tour to Hong Kong with her husband included Disney tickets.
Nevertheless, Chai, 28, said she would consider visiting the park again with her child.
But other opening day visitors had no complaints.
"It was great! It was really exciting," said Zhou Xijiang, 68, wearing a big smile after getting off the Space Mountain ride with his wife, 62.
Asked if he thought many Chinese would come to the park, the retiree from Beijing said: "They will, they'll like it."
The park cost $1.8 billion to build, with another $2 billion spent to reclaim land for the project and build public services.
The Hong Kong government, which owns 57 percent of the park, has been accused of giving away too much in its negotiations with Disney, while other critics fear the U.S. entertainment giant will eventually open another park in Shanghai, damaging profits.
"I don't think it would be a threat. We have two locations in America," Braunstein said.
Mickey mania swept this city of nearly 7 million people on China's southern coast as opening day neared. Disney shirts and souvenirs are on sale around town and local television stations broadcast the opening ceremonies live.
Thousands of journalists and tourists have descended on Hong Kong for the launch, one of the biggest media events in the city since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
The park is expected to draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year, a third of which are expected from China, and Disney has gone out of its way to lure visitors from the mainland.
Designers consulted "feng shui" masters to ensure that "qi", or natural energy, flows properly through the area, and characters like Alice in Wonderland sing and speak in Cantonese.
Buses have been commissioned to whisk Chinese visitors in from the border and a special rail line was built linking the park to the subway network. The train cars have windows shaped like Mickey Mouse's head and statues of Disney characters inside. (US$=HK$7.8)