A Bumpy Ride For Disneyland In Hong Kong Despite Fixes, Some Observers Say Troubles Could Follow Company to Shanghai By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 20, 2006; Page A11
HONG KONG -- Before Hong Kong Disneyland opened last year, planners were careful to design the park according to the principles of feng shui, placing objects in harmony with their environment. They made sure to offer Chinese food. And they built a garden of costumed characters to satisfy the Chinese obsession with taking photos.
Then the best-laid plans went awry.
charity event before the official opening was chaotic and overcrowded. Local celebrities were offended by rude treatment during opening celebrations. Health officials were barred from entering the park in uniform.
Environmentalists protested against shark-fin soup on the menus.
It was only the beginning of a very rocky start for Disney, during which it was accused of arrogance and insensitivity by its visitors. Although the company has subsequently received favorable reviews, the early experience has raised questions about its ability to operate effectively in this culture, as well as concerns about what will happen when the company opens its first park on the mainland, in Shanghai, in a few years.
"If they got into trouble in Hong Kong, for certain they will get into trouble on the mainland. If they're arrogant there, it will be magnified 100 times," said Chan Kin Man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Disneyland is an icon of the West. When relations between the U.S. and China
turn sour, it might turn into a target."
Nearly half of the park's 5 million visitors in the past year were from the mainland. And it was during a peak season for those visitors, the Chinese New Year, that Disney made its biggest gaffe.
Despite several sold-out days over Christmas, Disney was unprepared for the early reaction to a discount promotion during the start of the Chinese New Year in February. Hundreds of already ticketed customers were locked out because the park was full, generating TV coverage of crying children, angry parents and mainland tourists climbing fences to get into the park.
The changes Hong Kong Disneyland has made since then -- more flexible ticketing and more profit sharing with travel agencies -- are now being watched closely as the company stands by plans to open its park in Shanghai, which will be even bigger than the one here.
"It will be even more interesting in China," said Chan, who took his family to the park in September 2005. "We have a group of people who are fond of anything Western, but we also have a strong group of nationalists. Things will be more intense."
Disney, which has previously called the problems "growing pains," declined to comment.
Hong Kong is not the first place overseas where the company has confronted challenges. Euro Disney, which later changed the name of its park to Disneyland Paris, was criticized for exporting American imperialism when it opened in 1992. The park had to offer wine to placate French visitors and was financially bailed out by a Saudi prince. Today it is a top tourist destination.
Disney also has a park in Tokyo, where it has had a relatively smoother go of it.
In China, Disney is trying to market its merchandise in a country enamored with Western brands and yet also notorious for piracy. It is pushing movies and TV programs, building retail stores and bringing traveling "roadshows" to attract more mainland tourists to Hong Kong Disneyland.
There are indications that it has had some success.
Huang Xianyi, a 50-year-old bank employee from central China, was among the first to arrive at Hong Kong Disneyland on a recent Sunday, an hour and a half before the park opened. By midmorning, he was front and center in a crowd, tapping his feet at a show celebrating the songs of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Mulan," "The Little Mermaid" and Woody, the talking cowboy doll from "Toy Story."
"I liked the rhythm of the show, from adventure to romance, from exciting to comfortable. It fits both children and adults," said Huang, on a break with a friend from a training program in Hong Kong. "All those stories remind me of my childhood."
He said the $46 entrance ticket didn't bother him, nor did the all-English narration on the Winnie the Pooh ride. "I don't expect to see many Chinese things in Disneyland," Huang said. "I came to see different things, fresh things."
His friend agreed. "The staff service and attitude is very good. They're more professional than those theme parks on the mainland," said Zheng Feiyue, 43, a bank employee from a city in Sichuan.
A pleasant experience at the park is considered especially important by some in Hong Kong because, as taxpayers, they helped foot the bill. After the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, at a time when restoring confidence in Hong Kong was crucial, the government paid $2.9 billion to build the park. Disney, meanwhile, paid $314 million for a stake in the project.
As a result, the company's failure to disclose specific attendance or revenue figures rubbed Hong Kong citizens the wrong way.
"They do need to improve communications with the public and ensure that they connect with the community," said John Ap, a theme park expert from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
On a recent Sunday, Li Qiyun, 35, a mother from Guangzhou, brought her 6-year-old daughter, Wen Haiying, to Disneyland, along with her mother and an uncle. Li paid about $223 for four train tickets and park admission. They saved money by staying with relatives, but Li's mother complained just the same.
"It's too expensive, too expensive. Not worth it," muttered Kang Runhao, 60, taking a seat on the spotless Disney train that connects Hong Kong's subway system to the park.
But by the end of the day, a 10-hour marathon capped by fireworks over Cinderella's castle, the park's spotless service had won over the mainland family. "What impressed me most is the toilet. It's really good,"
In September, Hong Kong Disneyland announced that just over 5 million people visited the park in its first year of operation, a figure that included promotional giveaways and fell just short of its target of 5.6 million visitors.
Disney has said that its Shanghai park is unlikely to be built before 2010.
"Understanding the Chinese market takes time," Ap said. "Hong Kong Disneyland is basically the pilot case study for them. Certainly they'll be a lot more wary when they go into China."