Hong Kong Disneyland's fairy tale had wicked first chapter

From Minnie Mouse threatening a strike to low attendance, the theme park had a rocky start

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

It is supposed to be a fantasy land, but Hong Kong's Magic Kingdom is more often remembered as a zone of controversy and complaints.

Hong Kong Disneyland was touted by the Hong Kong government as the key to making the territory "Asia's most popular city tourist destination".

But right from its opening in September 2005 the world's smallest Disneyland theme park let visitors down, amid tales of favouring overseas tours companies to local travel agencies, which it allegedly underpaid.

Media reports of management glitches, involving everything from ticketing to employee relations and allegedly refusing food hygiene officers entry to the park, did nothing for its image.

Perhaps the most embarrassing moment came during the Lunar New Year in 2006 when hundreds of tourists were turned away after the park filled up.

Angry tourists screamed at workers, and TV news crews filmed one family trying to pass a child over the fence.

Not even staff inside the park was happy. Character performers complained of being overworked and underpaid, and threatened to hijack a parade in protest for better conditions.

During those tough early years, Disney refused to release detailed visitor attendance rates. It was not until 2008 that some sketchy figures were released by the Hong Kong government - a majority owner - after repeated calls from legislators.

According to projections made in 1999, the park's attendance should have reached 5.21 million in the first year of operation, growing up to 8.14 million by last year.

The theme park met the first year's target, but in its second year of operation attendance fell to about four million - compared with the original projection of 5.47 million, according to Legislative Council documents.

In 2009, the legislature approved a finance restructuring deal to let the park expand. But that same year the Shanghai government announced the construction of a Disneyland, scheduled to open in 2015. It is much larger than Hong Kong's.