Sep 13, 2005Hong Kong Disneyland opens at last
By Andrew Dembina
HONG KONG - After six years of planning and construction, with 600 Hong Kong government officials, visiting PRC Vice President Zeng Qinghong, 900 members of the international and local press and hundreds of local VIPs (local tycoons, corporate bigwigs and stage and screen stars) in attendance for the grand opening ceremony, Hong Kong Disneyland officially opened its doors to the public at 1 pm on September 12.
The constant talking up of Disneyland by the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) and the government here has often seemed like overkill, as if the theme park was a golden egg that would propel the southern Chinese Special Administration Region (SAR) well and truly out of its economic doldrums of the past eight years.
Nonetheless, since the deal was sealed in 1999 to open a park here, coverage of construction progress has been constant, and
there has been absolutely no escape from news of the impending opening in the past few months. A gaudy, cartoon-embellished, hoarding-clad LED display has been counting back the days till blastoff in Central's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station, to the delight of photo-opportunists. Magazine and newspaper covers
and inner pages alike have been full of speculation, and then accurate reports of the theme park's performance after a sequence of trial runs.
In the SAR, we have heard how laborers at the site went on strike over working conditions; how protesters stood at the gates to make lucky-draw free-ticket preview winners aware of underpaid
mainland Disneyland merchandise factory workers; and about how nightly firework displays would add toxic particles to Hong Kong's already over-polluted air. A Food and Environmental Department investigation was underway, following reports of unsatisfactory conditions at two food outlets, just three days before the park's September 12 grand opening; when its officers visited, management insisted they remove official identity badges while conducting their work. At the same time, newly hired park staff have been complaining of alleged Disney violations of human rights: some have claimed they are not allowed to dye their hair (gasp!), use mobile phones during break periods and are given only 15 minutes rest time every four hours, whereas their US counterparts rest after two. Even Cantopop stars added to the chorus of kvetching: several stars who participated in promotional videos, including Kelly Chen, were said to have complained about the rudeness of upper-level Disney managers.
Despite all this, it is hard to argue against the insistence of the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau, the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, and the SAR government that Hong Kong Disneyland will be a financial shot in the arm for the territory, acting as an additional attraction to Asian and international tourists. For the regional tourist, Disney offers a marginally more affordable Disney experience than Asia's only other branch of the US theme park chain - Tokyo. Admission fees in Hong Kong cost US$37.80 (for adults) and $26.90 (for children) on weekdays, and $44.90 (adult) and US$32 (children) on weekends. These prices are almost identical to those at Disney's US parks in California and Florida and not greatly dissimilar to fees in Tokyo and Paris.
With an anticipated 5.6 million visitors per year, the Hong Kong park is forecast by the local government to generate US$19 billion in profit over 40 years. The Hong Kong government has a keen interest in such figures - it is in direct partnership with Disney in this project, holding a 57% stake. The government, which itself invested US$3 billion into Disneyland, also says the opening of the park generated 18,400 jobs here. At the opening ceremony Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said that Disneyland marked "a new chapter in tourism for Hong Kong - a chapter in which Hong Kong becomes a premium family-oriented destination ... in the long term, it will bring in billions of dollars of economic benefit."
Vice President Zeng Qinghong also heaped economic praise on Hong Kong's completion of the project and its positive knock-on effects. "This marks a new point of growth for Hong Kong's economy," he said. "Hong Kong used to be described as a paradise for entrepreneurs and shoppers ... I hope that the new theme park will also make it [a] paradise for tourists. Zeng commented that the opening affirmed international belief in the SAR. "This [business] partnership shows confidence in Hong Kong," he declared. "Hong Kong has [a] secure market and legal systems ... I hope that foreign companies will continue to invest in Hong Kong."
Disney officials presiding at the opening, CEO Michael Eisner and president and chief operating officer Robert Iger, both made references to the booming economy in the mainland and looking forward to capitalizing on that, with the opening of its seventh theme park in 50 years. Roy Tan Hardy, vice president of marketing and sales of Hong Kong Disneyland, explained the selection of the park's attractions prior to its opening. "We carried out extensive, in-depth consumer insight studies, which revealed that potential guests would prefer a classic Disney theme park over any other experience," he said. "This is the only theme park to be modeled closely on the original Disneyland in Anaheim [California]."
The marketing of the park
Marketing operations for Hong Kong Disneyland began two years ago, explained Jennifer Chua, director of strategic marketing. "In 2003, we started regular programming on Hong Kong's TVB Jade [terrestrial channel]," she said. Weekly real-life and animation programming has been preceded by three-minute documentaries on the history of Disney and Disneyland theme parks. "We aimed to educate people on how Walt Disney first built the parks for his family, and the parks' progression, right up to the building of the one in Hong Kong."
In the last year, Chua says there have been plenty of targeted campaigns to increase Disney awareness in southern China's Guangdong province - from where most mainland visitors are anticipated. This region, too, has seen TV spots on TV channels in 20 selected cities, and Disney storytelling visits to schools in several cities. Though not planned yet, Chua says Disney is considering a similar strategy in Shanghai and Beijing in the future. In February 2005, a telephone call center was launched for tickets and hotel rooms (the park has two hotels) and online booking has been available since July. Chua said she was unable to name any figures connected with Disney's marketing budget.
Secretiveness over figures persisted too in an interview with Phyllis Wong, director of merchandising for the park. It has to be said that official merchandise is carried in an unexpectedly wide price range. Casual wear is inexpensive, such as baseball caps ($10) and T-shirts (kids' start at $11.50, adults at $14); children's decorated straw cups are only $3. For those with more to spend, higher-priced jewelry and golfing apparel ranges are on offer. Significantly, the cheaper merchandise is priced reasonably enough - or so Disney hopes - to dissuade the public from buying equivalent pirated goods that can easily be found in shops and markets around the SAR.
Wong could supply neither projected figures for merchandising sales, nor figures for sales at the two Disneyland outlets that have been operating at Chek Lap Kok airport (on Lantau Island, like the park itself) since mid-June, 2005. On the latter, she said: "Sales at the airport shops have been beyond expectations. The most popular item there was the park logo T-shirt."
The park has nine merchandise outlets onsite, and does not plan to open more in Hong Kong. However, Giordano, a local clothing brand, is selling its own Disney merchandise in partnership with Disney. Disneyland shops only carry their own products. Elsewhere in the SAR, local airline Cathay Pacific currently hands out in-flight Disney goodie bags, and the Hong Kong Postal Service has just introduced Disneyland stamps for the park's launch.
Key attractions include "Main Street USA" - a colorful turn-of-the-20th century boulevard full of shops and restaurants, originally conceived by Walt Disney to evoke an idealized US small town - and three themed sections, each named something-land: Fantasyland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland. Linking these areas is Sleeping Beauty's Castle, at the park's hub.
This Disneyland has been given several specific Hong Kong touches. The opening date was picked in consultation with local feng shui experts. No green hats are sold in any of the park's shops because green hats are unlucky in Chinese culture. The onsite luxury hotels, Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel and the Hollywood Hotel, have no fourth floor, since the number four sounds like the word for death in Cantonese.
Fantasy Garden capitalizes on the perceived love of Hong Kongers and Asian leisure-travelers for taking photos. "[This] centerpiece of Fantasyland is a one-of-a-kind attraction," Roy Tan Hardy explains. "Asians have an affinity for nature and for taking photos, so Fantasy Garden is a perfect addition to our classic Disney attractions." Symbols of water and fish are used throughout - water is synonymous with prosperity and wealth, while fish mean abundance in the Chinese belief system. In Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel's Chinese restaurant, you can walk over two Koi carp ponds  with many brightly colored fish darting underfoot.
There may not be as many rides in Hong Kong Disneyland as elsewhere - largely due to limited space - but the park has immediately impressed its first visitors. One day before the opening, there was a limited public attendance by invitation - typically through product suppliers and media handouts. Hong Kong resident Philip Soden, 53, and his daughter Lauren, seven, were enraptured by The Lion King Show at Theatre in the Wild, a polished show that will run several times daily. "It was great," said Lauren. "A fantastic spectacle!" enthused her father. "This has been a highlight of the park for us."
Another Hong Kong resident, Pauline ****, 45, was most impressed with the Disney Parade - which lasts for 45 minutes and comprises impressive floats and a procession of characters and dancers. "Space Mountain was my favorite ride - there is nothing like it in Hong Kong," she said. "And it's air-conditioned on this very hot day!" Some of the first visitors through the gate after official opening were sporting homemade costumes; many others were clad in garments or wore accessories bearing their favorite Disney characters.
Foodwise, there is plenty on offer, with dozens of outlets at the park and its hotels. Almost every region of China is covered, as well as cuisine from Southeast Asia, Japan and the West. Starliner Diner has the fastest turnover in the park, with the serving of 1,750 meals possible in an hour. At just 25 minutes from Central on Hong Kong's mass Transit Railway (MTR), this must be one of the easiest Disneylands in the world to access. A special one-stop MTR line was constructed to reach the park. The Disneyland train has mouse ear-shaped windows and houses bronze statues of Disney characters inside the carriages.
On opening day, then, all seems bright at phase one of Hong Kong Disneyland. Phase two may or may not happen, depending on the financial success of the park in the next two to three years, say officials. However, by then, Shanghai Disneyland, already on the drawing board, could be a reason for holding back on expansion in Hong Kong.
 Koi carp are an ornamental strain of the common carp bred in Japan; they look like large goldfish.
Andrew Dembina is a freelance writer. Based in Hong Kong for 13 years, he was previously editor of Hong Kong Life, the Sunday magazine of the Hong Kong Standard newspaper. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/GI13Ad02.html