The ride of his life: Disney's Noble Coker on how he won Hongkongers' confidence

Theme park's vice-president of operations, Noble Coker, has seen turbulent times in the magical kingdom in Hong Kong - until now

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 10:55am

Hong Kong Disneyland's vice-president of operations Noble Coker is finally having his moment. After years of setbacks, the park has turned a profit for the first time and promises to grow with the addition of new attractions. Coker can now walk tall.

Little could have prepared him for the rocky ride he's been on since starting at Hong Kong's magic kingdom project in 2002.

"Back in the US, people said 'wow' when I said I am an Imagineer [a title given to people who work in the design and development arm of the Walt Disney Company]," Coker said.

When he revealed his Hong Kong role, people would go "phew" and called it a shame because the park on Lantau is the smallest Disneyland in the world and some people's respect for his new job shrunk accordingly.

Then there was an unpleasant scene in 2006 when a large crowd of tourists failed to get into the park during the biggest holiday on the Chinese calendar. "I was at the gates on the Lunar New Year day. A Chinese guest told me in a very loud voice how disappointed he was," he recalled.

Others were equally unhappy: despite attracting large crowds and long queues for its rides, the park had failed to make a profit since opening in 2005. Taxpayers were concerned because the government had invested billions of dollars into it, even owning a 52 per cent stake.

So news of a change in fortune pleases Coker.

"I'm so happy about our performance … It shows that Hong Kong people finally have confidence in us," said Coker. "We can move away from profitability and go on to principles that can make us better … It's the expansion, not cutting back costs, which make you profitable."

Coker, who graduated with a finance degree and an MBA in business strategy, joined Walt Disney Imagineering in 1997.

When he heard a new park was planned for Hong Kong, he was determined to be involved and made sure his enthusiasm didn't go unnoticed once he made the trip.

For a whole year, on top of his ordinary working hours, he volunteered to design the technologies to be used in the park.

He also told Don Robinson, group managing director for Hong Kong Disneyland at that time, that he would like to join his team. After an endless wait, Robinson answered with news both good and bad, Coker recalled.

The bad news was that Robinson thought he was not the best person for the job, but the person they wanted could not relocate, so the job was Coker's.

Online sales systems and ticketing were his primary focus when he worked as the IT chief. The scope broadened as he progressed to overseeing operations of the whole park.

It is the meticulous attention to detail that makes the park excel, Coker said, things that most visitors won't even notice.

Walking on the pavement that runs through the Main Street USA, Coker lowered his head and said: "Do you see the cracks?"

There are 15,000 bricks in the town, some of which crack under the weight of the parade floats and are replaced at night.

Apart from the general rules that apply to all Disney parks around the world, adaptations are necessary to cater to the needs and wishes of the Asian audience, he said.

"They love rides, Pixar characters and hi-tech installations," Coker said.

These preferences prompted Disney to open Toy Story Land and mining town thriller ride Grizzly Gulch over the past two years. Mystic Point, a mansion full of latest visual effects, will open this spring.

Halal food is also available for Muslim visitors from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Along with the company's plans for further attraction expansion, they will also open a further three hotels.

One thing still that drives Coker is something that costs less than HK$10 - a label with his name on it. But where that label is attached is priceless.

Disney acknowledges staff members who make an extraordinary contribution by putting their names on a window on the park's Main Street USA for good.

Coker aims to get that recognition. Achieving it will serve as a constant reminder of why he must always strive to do better, he says.


Noble Coker

2007 Appointed Vice-President, Park Operations and Operations Development.

2005 Promoted to Vice-President & CIO of Hong Kong Disneyland in

2002 Appointed Director, Information Technology for Hong Kong Disneyland.

1997 Joined Walt Disney Imagineering.

Graduated in Finance from Brigham Young University.

MBA from the University of Southern California