Lion dancers prancing as Mouse roars into China



By William Foreman Associated Press



HONG KONG -- Hong Kong Disneyland threw open its gates to the public Monday, marking Mickey Mouse's biggest push into China -- a market the U.S. company hopes will flood the theme park with splurging tourists from the world's most populous nation.



With the pink Sleeping Beauty Castle behind them, Disney executives and a senior Chinese leader celebrated the opening with musicians clanging cymbals, Chinese lion dancers prancing precariously on tall poles and fireworks bursting in the sky.

The ceremony ended with a parade of Disney characters old and new: Mickey, Donald Duck, Mushu the dragon, Lilo and Winnie the Pooh.

Robert Iger, president of The Walt Disney Co., said being part of China's future is exciting. "As millions discover the wonders of Hong Kong and China -- one of the most rapidly growing travel destinations in the world -- the future is indeed bright," he said.

Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong called the park "Hong Kongers' eternal carnival."

Hundreds of visitors lined up outside the gates, waiting to get in despite muggy, sweltering heat.

Michael Kuzma of Celebration, Fla., came a day early to be first in line at the front gate. "For over 50 years, the American people have experienced the happiness of Disney theme parks. I hope the people of China can enjoy the happiness," the 36-year-old consultant said.

The attraction and its two resort hotels are surrounded by mountains on lush Lantau Island, just 30 minutes away by subway from bustling central Hong Kong. It looks much like the first Disneyland in California, with a Space Mountain thrill ride, a classic Cinderella Carousel and a Sleeping Beauty Castle expected to become one of the most photographed buildings in Asia.

The Hong Kong government is the biggest investor in the $3.5 billion park and expects it to help turn a global financial capital into Asia's best family holiday spot.

Disney officials hope the park -- the 11th in their global empire -- will be a magnet for increasingly wealthy Chinese tourists, who have a reputation for being big spenders.

Iger has said the Hong Kong park is a "first big step" in expanding the company's reach into China, where generations have grown up with little or no familiarity with Mickey Mouse and other characters that are part of popular American culture.

Iger said the park would create a media buzz and word-of-mouth excitement that would ignite interest in Disney films, TV shows and other products. Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television broadcast the Disneyland opening live to viewers across China.

Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer, said China and Disneyland will be a perfect match because they both value families.

"You go to the park and you see mothers, daughters and kids and grandparents. The family unit in China is unbelievably strong. It's not just Hong Kong; it's mainland China," Eisner said.

An hour before Monday's opening ceremony, a small crowd of labor, human-rights and anti-Disney protesters gathered outside the front gate, chanting "No Conscience" and "Evil Mickey." They said there are labor abuses at factories making Disney products in China. Disney officials have said they are investigating the claims.

Hong Kong and Disney struck a deal to build the park in 1999 -- just two years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule. The city had been battered by the Asian financial crisis and desperately needed a new project to boost its spirits and troubled economy.

The park is expected to employ 5,000 people and draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year.

The biggest complaint among some of the thousands who got a sneak peak at the park during a preview period was that Hong Kong Disneyland is too small. It's Disney's smallest theme park -- about 100 acres for the attractions and about 298 acres including the two hotels. There's room to expand to 494 acres.

Chinese tourist Zhang Wei predicted that the park would be a big hit with the mainland Chinese.

"Disney has a big name, and it will definitely attract people and be a success," said the 38-year-old businessman from Beijing as he finished watching the daily parade of floats carrying a waving Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland and Buzz Lightyear.

Hong Kongers have a reputation for being brusque and unsmiling, but the new park's staff, including cleaners and guards, has been trying to master the Disney tradition of giving guests a warm smile and hello. The greetings were Hong Kong visitor Evie Chan's favorite thing about the park. "The staff here is very friendly," said Chan, a marketing firm employee in her late 20s. "It's like we've known each other for a long time."

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