Hong Kong theme park outsmarts the mouse
As Disneyland sputters, a revived Ocean Park is making a comeback as the local choice.
By David Pierson, LA Times - June 30, 2007
HONG KONG — 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."
The reemergence of what was long a rickety marine park with aquariums and a few hokey rides comes at a time when Hong Kong continues to define its post-colonial identity. As July 1 approaches, the 10th anniversary of the 1997 transfer to China, Hong Kongers are recognizing the symbols that make them unique.
"People in Hong Kong had an identity crisis," said the 58-year-old Zeman, who grew up in Canada but moved here in 1970. "They said, 'Am I English? Am I Chinese? Am I a Hong Konger?' That was a huge problem. There was a lot of apprehension by locals who didn't trust China. Now the uncertainty is gone. Look at Hong Kong today. It's booming."
Opened in 1977 on the southern reaches of Hong Kong Island, Ocean Park was paid for by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the oldest and most powerful colonial institutions here. It still generates hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue with its gambling monopoly, sans the Royal moniker, of course. Chartered as a nonprofit to be run by the city, Ocean Park was Hong Kong's major theme park by default. It had no rival when the territory was emerging as an economic powerhouse and the gateway to China.
"The land was just a fishing village and a farm before we came," said Gary Wong, the park's chief curator of marine mammals who has been with the organization since the start. "Hong Kong didn't have any aquariums. When we opened, everyone was crazy about it."
What also set it apart was an ambitious four-line cable car system that stretches from a lowland area, climbing steep slopes that hang over the South China Sea to a headland region where the park's main attractions, such as dolphin and false killer whale shows, were housed.
In the years before Hong Kong's return to China, when Zeman was busy building a textiles and entertainment empire, Ocean Park moved along steadily, adding a water park, a shark aquarium, a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster named the Dragon. It was by no means a Six Flags.
"I'd always come here with my friends, at least once a year since I was a young teenager," said Alan Koh, 28, enjoying a hamburger near the hot air balloon ride one weekend. "My parents would also take me. We'd take the cable car, see the fish and eat fast food. Every kid experiences Ocean Park."
But by 1997, the park's once-consistent success had begun to fade.
Then in 1999, Hong Kong's government and Disney agreed to open a theme park on reclaimed land on nearby Lantau Island. City leaders needed to revive the economy and looked to the American corporate giant. Disney would pay very little for the land. Ocean Park officials predicted revenue losses of as much as 40% at their park.
When things couldn't seem to get any worse, a mysterious illness, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, struck the region in early 2003. The streets of Hong Kong nearly emptied.
Wong, the marine mammal trainer, said he would perform marine shows with barely anyone in the stands. He had to, because the animals needed the routine.
"One day, we only had seven people come see us," Wong said. "And I think one of them just needed to use the bathroom."
It was around then that Zeman, famed for developing the city's premier bar district, was recruited by Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to try to turn things around at Ocean Park. Against the advice of some friends, Zeman took the job. He rejected calls to relocate or close the park after he rode on the cable car for the first time.
"It's the most amazing view," he said. "It's as beautiful as Monte Carlo."
Although he grew up in Montreal, Zeman says he's more Hong Konger than Canadian, having lived here for 37 years. He speaks some Cantonese, but Hong Kong remains a city largely accommodating to English speakers. Foreigners have been striking it rich here since the British arrived more than 150 years ago.
When Zeman joined Ocean Park, the goal was to make it different from Disneyland.
"Ocean Park just needed a little TLC," said Zeman, who has become a folk hero of sorts in the local media for dressing in costumes — one was a jellyfish outfit — for news conferences.
"Disney and Ocean Park are totally different. Disney is about castles, fantasy, and they have a mouse. Ocean Park is really about nature, ecology, sea mammals and education. One is an American import. One is local."
There were doubts, of course, that Ocean Park could compete with Disney. But a year after Zeman took over, it registered its second-highest attendance total. Hong Kong had relaxed rules for Chinese tourists and the park saw immediate benefits.
Then the following year, local patronage surged by as much as two-thirds.
Zeman had people send in photographs from past visits. Many responded with images of moms with feathered 1970s hair, dads in leisure suits and children in terrycloth sweats in front of Ocean Park's old statue of its logo, a hollow-eyed seahorse. The pictures were plastered to the famous 740-foot-long escalator that takes guests up one of the park's steep mountainsides.
"I knew I could count on the locals coming back," Zeman said.
The campaign touched a nerve in a territory worried that it would lose its flavor after Beijing took over. Hong Kong is now a special ward of China, its legislature stacked with lawmakers appointed by Beijing. "Hong Kong people are very determined to survive in any circumstance," said Lee, the legislator. "You can say Ocean Park is the story of Hong Kong people. We made it past 1997, the real estate bubble burst and also SARS. We rebounded."
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."
Zeman's biggest success may have been the two giant pandas. He had been urging lawmakers for months to obtain the pair from China. The youngsters, named Le Le and Ying Ying, were escorted by police from Hong Kong's airport to Ocean Park, where they joined two older pandas. The four will be presented to the public Sunday at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Giant Panda Habitat.
When the gift of the pandas was announced, Zeman told reporters, "We've embraced 'one country, two systems' for 10 years. Now it's time for 'one park, four pandas.' "
A comparison of Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park:
Hong KongDisneylandOcean ParkPark openedSeptember 2005January 1977 AdmissionAdult:$38-$45Adult:$24 (USD)Child:$27-$32Child:$12 (varies for peakand off-peak days)MascotMickey MouseWhiskers the Sea LionParking$15$9-$10Normal hours10a.m.-8p.m.9:30a.m.-6:30p.m.Area (acres)3102152005 attendance5.2 million*4 millionMajor AttractionsMain StreetAdventure Land,U.S.A,Marine Land,Fantasyland,Headland RidesAdventurelandBird Paradise(includingPirates features)TomorrowlandReviewsPros: Good for kids,Pros: Mix ofeasily reachable,educational/good hotelsentertainment,Cons: Fewshort lines,attractions,good priceexpensive, distanceCons: Ongoingbetween attractionsconstruction* September 2005-September 2006 (first year)
Sources: Hong Kong Disneyland, Ocean Park, About.com, Disneyland Report, Forbes, ESRI