The company that brought the world Mickey Mouse was set to take a major step into the lucrative China market today with the opening of its latest US$3 billion theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland.
Walt Disney Co hopes the venture, put together with an eye on local cultural values, will help push its powerful brand name into the booming market in China, where Mickey, Donald and friends remain largely unknown.
"It's a way for us to help spread the meaning of Disney," said marketing vice-president Roy Hardy.
But the run-up to the park's opening has not been a smooth one.
Two weeks of rehearsals, when staff put months of training to practice with specially invited guests, saw visitors complain that the park was too small, that queues for food and rides were too long, and that staff were unfriendly.
The company also clashed with environmental groups over its plan to serve shark's fin soup at wedding banquets held on site.
Environmentalists blame the popularity of the luxury dish in China for sudden drops in the world's shark populations. Disney eventually backed down and pulled the dish.
Park management expects to attract about 5 million visitors in its first 12 months of operations and up to 10 million a year after that, at a capacity of 30,000 a day.
Situated along the coast of Lantau, the southern Chinese territory's largest and least densely populated island, Hong Kong Disneyland will be the entertainment giant's smallest theme park.
At 126 hectares, with just 21 rides, it is dwarfed by the more than 130 rides over 11,000 hectares at the Walt Disney World park near Orlando, Florida.
To appeal to China's developing middle class, its tickets are the lowest priced of any Disney park in the world -- HK$350 (US$45) for a one-day pass, compared to US$59.75 in Orlando.
The Hong Kong government, which chipped in US$1.8 billion of the construction cost and owns a half-share of equity in the project, expects to make more than US$100 billion over the next 40 years, spurring the local tourism industry.
Disney president Robert Iger last week confirmed last week that the company also plans to open a second Chinese park in Shanghai.
"If we were to reach an arrangement for a second park in China, in all likelihood it would not open before 2010," Irene Chan, vice president of public affairs at Hong Kong Disneyland, said earlier this year.
Iger also said the Hong Kong park would provide momentum for the promotion of other Disney products in China.
Hardy anticipates visitors will be evenly split between those from the local market, China and the rest of Southeast Asia.