http://www.latimes.com/business/la-f...,4729042.story


Mickey Mouse may have met his match the giant panda.

It was supposed to be a one-sided battle. Instead, in the nearly two years since Disneyland came to town, people in Hong Kong have rediscovered a theme park that's been sitting in their backyard for three decades, weathering all the ups and downs the territory has faced, from British colonial rule to its return to China to the deadly illness known as SARS.

Ocean Park, as it's called, made its improbable comeback under the guidance of a flamboyant businessman who repositioned it as the local choice, evoking nostalgia for the 200-acre park, and its resident pandas, where a visit has been a rite of passage for many Hong Kongers.

With Allan Zeman's help, the government-owned park has since set attendance records while Disneyland has suffered one blow after another, even failing to reach attendance goals. And Zeman, whose bald head and rail-thin body bring to mind Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons," without the evil, has just scored another coup: a gift of two toddler pandas from Beijing.

"China would never give pandas to Disney," said Lee Wing-tat, a Hong Kong legislator. "Beijing wants to show it cares about Hong Kong people. So they gave them to Ocean Park."

Meanwhile, over on Lantau Island, Hong Kong Disneyland opened its gates in September 2005, charging $45 on peak days, compared with Ocean Park's $24. Already criticized by many as being too small, Disneyland suffered a series of gaffes.

During the 2006 Lunar New Year, chaos erupted when Disney employees started turning away people because of overcrowding. Television cameras filmed angry mobs outside, shouting matches with staff members and people hoisting children over the park's pointy fences to get in.

Although Disney draws more guests than Ocean Park, it revealed late last year that it had failed to reach its attendance goal for the first year.

"One of the challenges for Disney is they've got to learn how to connect to the community here and the mainland Chinese," John Ap, associate professor of tourism management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "I don't think they're doing a very good job. Contrast that with Ocean Park, where their promotions are becoming more Chinese."