September 8, 2005

Disney Readies Blitz on China with New Hong Kong Theme Park

HONG KONG -- Disney officially opens its new Hong Kong theme park on Monday, bringing a slice of the Magic Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom with a careful blend of American showmanship and Chinese characteristics.

With just days to go, Mickey mania is nearing fever pitch in this crowded city of nearly seven million people on China's southern coast. Disney kitsch, from mouse-ear caps to crystal Mickey Mouse statuettes, is on sale across town.

Thousands of journalists and tourists are descending on Hong Kong for the opening, which could be one of the biggest media events in the city since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong is even coming from Beijing to open the park, Disney's first in China and its second in Asia after Japan.

"For Hong Kong people, we're just proud to have a Disneyland," said Grace Chan as she sat on a bench at the park, fanning herself on a recent, sweltering rehearsal day.

High hopes are riding on the joint venture between Disney and the Hong Kong government. The park cost $1.8 billion to build plus another $2 billion or so to reclaim land for the project and build roads and other public services.

For Walt Disney Co., it is a bold bid to gain a bigger foothold in the vast China market, where it has lagged other global entertainment giants and the government is keen to keep foreign media influences under tight control.

The American icon has been working to build its brand in China, even partnering "Youth Palaces" run by China's Communist Youth League to build awareness of its characters. But its presence on the mainland is limited to some syndicated TV programing partnerships.

By comparison, rivals like News Corp., Time Warner, Viacom and Sony Corp. operate a hodgepodge of ventures from TV stations to programing joint partnerships and movie theatres.

For Hong Kong, the park is expected to create thousands of jobs, boost retail sales and tourism and help the territory re-fashion itself as a more family-friendly vacation destination.

Hong Kong Disneyland is expected to draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year, with a third from China, strolling down its Main Street U.S.A. and lining up for rides like Space Mountain.

The park, which looks like it was transplanted from California, has gone out of its way to make itself attractive to a Chinese audience.

Designers consulted "feng shui" geomancy masters to ensure that "qi," or natural energy, flows properly through the area.

Alice, of Wonderland fame, sings and speaks in Cantonese, as do other characters. And at restaurants like Tomorrowland's Comet Cafe, hungry park-goers can dine on Chinese comfort food such as dim sum, beef noodle soup and roast duck (sorry Donald!).


But Disney and the government have not escaped criticism.

During practice runs, some patrons complained of having to wait hours for rides, and environmentalists say its nightly fireworks show will worsen the city's air pollution problem.

Concerned scholars say they found dangerous sweatshop conditions in some of the factories in China where Disney products are made. The company has pledged to investigate.

The Hong Kong government, which has a 57 percent stake in the park, has been accused of giving up too much in its negotiations with Disney, while other critics fear the company could open another park in Shanghai in a few years, undercutting profits.

Ironically, the park's efforts to cater to the local audience even came under fire when it put shark's fin soup on the menu for wedding banquets. The dish, considered a delicacy by Chinese, was withdrawn after protests by conservationists.

Visitors also have complained the park is too small and, at HK$350 per day for adults, too expensive.

The group Disney Hunter, which has a litany of complaints about the company and the new park, is planning an anti-Disney opening party outside the park on Sunday, an organizer said.

"It's the last chance before the opening of Disneyland to express our opposition," said co-founder Susanna Lee.