Dazzling start to Disney carnival

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am

Crowds enjoy a smooth ride as heat and pollution fail to take the gloss off theme park's big day

Hailed as an 'everlasting carnival' and a multibillion-dollar 'strategic investment', Hong Kong Disneyland was finally inaugurated yesterday with few of the problems and complaints that plagued it during a month of teething troubles.

Amid the highest pollution levels of the year, dignitaries including Vice-President Zeng Qinghong and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen gathered in front of the pink Sleeping Beauty Castle as lion dancers gave the occasion a local flavour before the familiar Disney characters poured out for a grand parade.

'The joyous Disneyland will become an everlasting carnival for the Hong Kong people,' Mr Zeng said.

'It has been said Hong Kong is a playground for entrepreneurs and a shopper's paradise. I hope that, with the establishment of Hong Kong Disneyland and other cultural and entertainment facilities, Hong Kong will further become a major tourist destination.'

Mr Tsang, who marked the occasion by wearing a Donald Duck bow tie, said the government's much-criticised $23 billion injection into the park was a 'strategic investment' that would enable the city to 'capitalise on the drawing power of the Disney brand to complement our renowned strengths in dining and shopping, and as a city that perfectly blends east and west'.

With the park filled to only about half its capacity and many problems ironed out, the chaotic scenes that plagued the month-long rehearsal period were not repeated yesterday and any complaints were mostly about the 30-plus temperatures and the pollution. But the real test will be today, the first official day of business, when a capacity crowd of about 30,000 is expected.

Some of the longest queues yesterday were at the shops and one unofficial estimate put total spending by the 16,000 visitors at more than $20 million. The park is projected to generate $148 billion of economic benefits to the city over the next 40 years and has already created 5,000 jobs.

Disney's fifth park, and its third outside the US, was inaugurated soon after the air pollution index at nearby Tung Chung hit the dangerous level of 105 at 10am. By early evening, the index had fallen to 85, which is still considered high.

'The air is filthy. My eyes were stinging,' one visitor complained.

Secretary for Environment, Transport, and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung acknowledged the threat to Hong Kong's image from the poor air quality on a day when the world's eyes were on the city.

'Air pollution is a long-term battle and we will strive to improve it as it is related to the city's international image,' she said.

Exco member Bernard Chan complained: 'It's way too hot.'

Ocean Park chief Allan Zeman, his white shirt translucent with sweat, welcomed the rival park's opening, but said he would give it more time to 'get its feet wet and understand the market and customers' before gauging its success.

Vice-President Zeng used his speech to renew his call for social harmony in Hong Kong.

'Time has proved that only with harmony can there be stability and prosperity. I wholeheartedly wish compatriots in Hong Kong will treasure and cherish the present good situation of economic development and investment atmosphere together, and work hard to build a more harmonious and prosperous Hong Kong,' he said.

Mr Tsang said the park would 'provide thousands of direct and indirect jobs and, over the long term, bring billions of dollars of economic benefit to our economy'.

Outgoing Walt Disney Company chief executive Michael Eisner called the theme park a 'breathtaking achievement', while his successor, Robert Iger, applauded the partnership between the US entertainment giant and Hong Kong. Both Disney officials greeted the audience in English, Cantonese and Putonghua.

Most of today's tickets had been sold by last night, although the park said visitors could 'try their luck' at the gates when they open at 10am.

The park opened at 1pm and was to have closed at 10pm, an hour later than the regular time. But at almost 11 pm, guests still lingered.