Sat, Sep 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

HK Disney's inauspicious start

Concerns about the park's size and a possible future rival in Shanghai have led some to question why the Hong Kong theme park was ever built in the first place

DPA , HONG KONG

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Disney consulted "feng shui" masters to pick an auspicious day for the opening of its Hong Kong theme park. The experts in the ancient Chinese art chose Monday, a day of sweltering heat, still air and a pall of heavy smog.

As officials in dark suits sweated heavily and actors dressed as Disney characters gasped for breath on a stage in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, the uncomfortable temperatures and the limited visibility seemed strangely appropriate.

Behind the carefully choreographed euphoria of the opening ceremony, question marks remain over whether Disney has got its formula right and whether the park can win over Chinese hearts and minds.

Like the weather on the day of the opening ceremony, the signals in the run-up to Monday's celebrations have not been altogether auspicious.

An unfortunate series of events saw Disney forced to take shark's fin off the menus, tackle an infestation of wood-eating beetles in the park's hotels and order the culling of stray dogs roaming the park's perimeter.

Now, after the chefs, the fumigators and the dog catchers have done their worst, a more fundamental question faces Michael Eisner's Magic Kingdom: Is Hong Kong Disneyland big enough to succeed?

More than 5 million visitors are expected, over the next year, to flock to the park which -- at 126 hectares is small enough to fit inside the Disney resort in Paris 15 times over, and inside Walt Disney World, Florida, almost 90 times over.

While Disney parks overseas, including Tokyo, have up to eight themed areas and a vast array of rides for all ages, the Hong Kong park has only four themed areas and only one rollercoaster in the whole park, Space Mountain.

The response from invited guests at a series of rehearsal days over the past months has been lukewarm at best and the avalanche of advance bookings from mainland Chinese visitors has turned out to be more of a presentable trickle.

Peak time tickets cost nearly as much as the entrance fee for the Tokyo and Paris parks, but visitors to the Hong Kong park get considerably less Mickey for their money.

One rehearsal day guest remarked: "In Tokyo, you walk past one ride and you won't see it again. Here in Hong Kong, you walk past the same ride many times."

The one thing guaranteed to make their day last longer are the queues. On the final rehearsal day last week, the park's most popular ride, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, had a 90-minute queue, with the park only one third full.

Disney has dismissed appeals to reduce the daily capacity of 30,000 guests, saying it might instead address the problem by extending opening hours on the busiest days. Three more big rides will in any case be added soon but it could take another four years.

Even before the complaints began to surface, Disney seemed to have fumbled repeatedly in its efforts to get its tactics and identity right while adapting its American model to a Chinese market.

It used feng shui to design the park and put noodles and rice instead of burger and chips on the menu in most of its restaurants -- both positive, headline-grabbing maneuvers.

But when Disney let slip in June that it would be offering sharks fin soup at wedding banquets in the theme park hotels, it drew an outraged response from conservation groups.

Disney was forced to relent when schoolchildren backed the conservationists and threatened to stage a boycott of the park when it opened. There was more creature discomfort when the furniture imported from China for the theme park hotels turned out to be riddled with beetles and had to be removed and destroyed to stop an infestation.

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