The Mouse's Surprise : Hong Kong Rival
HONG KONG — As Mickey Mouse heads north from Hong Kong to Shanghai, he runs the risk of being followed by his Asian nemesis: Whiskers the Sea Lion
Whiskers is the mascot of Ocean Park (Hong Kong Ocean Park
), a 32-year-old Hong Kong theme park that was widely expected to wither with the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland four years ago. But Ocean Park has unexpectedly thrived instead
and is now reviewing requests for franchised theme parks from cities across Asia and the Middle East
— including Shanghai, where the Walt Disney Co. has just obtained permission to open its next theme park.
Hong Kong Disneyland has stumbled repeatedly, starting as Disney’s smallest theme park and disastrously miscalculating the dates of the Chinese New Year during a promotion. Disney even took the unusual step of forgoing some fees at the theme park, a joint venture with the Hong Kong government, when attendance fell short of expectations. Ocean Park has emphasized its Hong Kong and Chinese ties and gained attendance even in the first year after Mickey Mouse arrived in Hong Kong, when it had budgeted for a 25 percent slump in visitors.
“I wasn’t really trying to kill the Mouse, but I think they didn’t really understand the culture and got it wrong,” said Allan Zeman, the 61-year-old chairman of Ocean Park, who has repeatedly grabbed the spotlight from Hong Kong Disneyland with stunts like d being shot out of a cannon. Cities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and across China have asked Ocean Park to open theme parks, Mr. Zeman said. Ocean Park is less likely to consider Shanghai until after the new Disneyland has been built and its performance can be assessed, he added.
Overseas expansion of Ocean Park would also require the Hong Kong government to change an ordinance governing the park, which was built for the city by a local nonprofit group. The government is reviewing the ordinance.
Disney is already taking steps that suggest it has learned lessons from its experience in Hong Kong. The Shanghai theme park is slated to be enormous when it opens — 400 hectares, or 1,000 acres — instead of starting small and gradually adding one or two attractions a year, as Hong Kong Disneyland has done. The Shanghai park also has a somewhat less remote location than Hong Kong Disneyland — although neither can rival Ocean Park, a 10-minute drive from the Hong Kong business district.
A spokeswoman for Hong Kong Disneyland said that design work for the new Shanghai theme park, announced late Tuesday in Burbank, California, would probably be done separately from Hong Kong Disneyland. She declined to discuss competition with Ocean Park.
When Hong Kong Disneyland opened in September 2005, it had an image as the Wal-Mart of theme parks — the American Goliath that would put local competitors out of business.
But organizers of mainland Chinese tour groups complained that the park was expensive, while Hong Kong residents groused that the park was aimed mainly at very young children. It has only one fairly large roller coaster, Space Mountain, while Ocean Park has three and is building more; Hong Kong Disneyland does not have animal attractions like the dolphin shows at Ocean Park or its four giant pandas.
Hong Kong Disneyland’s most memorable miscue came when it failed to allow for the full length of the mainland’s Chinese New Year holiday five months after it opened and made it possible to use discount tickets on the last three days of the holiday. Faced with throngs of visitors who were flooding the park, Disney security guards shut the front gates so quickly to halt the flow that a very unhappy young child was separated from his family and passed by the crowd over the green spikes atop the gate. The scene replayed over and over on local television.
Ocean Park had 3.68 million visitors in 2004, the last full year before Hong Kong Disneyland opened, and 5.03 million last year. Hong Kong Disneyland does not report annual figures but said it had seen over 17 million visitors from its opening through the end of May 2009 — or an average of about 4.5 million visitors a year.
Ocean Park has stressed its combination of exhibits of pandas and other Chinese wildlife and more exciting rides than Hong Kong Disneyland’s.
National Geographic Kids magazine rated Ocean Park several years ago as the second “wildest” theme park outside the United States, trailing only a rival in Queensland, Australia.
“Ocean Park is more fun — Disneyland is more for kids,” said Frankie Tong as he admired the pandas at Ocean Park on Wednesday morning while celebrating his 38th birthday at the park with his wife, Mandy Ma. “Disneylands are more or less the same in places all over the world — Disney is more American.”
But Disneyland continues to enthrall the very young. Sam Wong, a 40-year-old civil servant, took his 5-year-old son, Keith, to Ocean Park because he thought it would be educational. Keith Wong said he would rather go to Disneyland, adding wistfully, “Disney has Mickey Mouse.”