IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Walt Disney

Disneyland's first theme park had a rocky start like Hong Kong branch

Hong Kong Disneyland had as rough a start as the original theme park, but after billions in investment it's finally made a profit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 5:02am

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On July 17, 1955, when moviemaker Walt Disney turned more than 64 hectares of farmland into a theme park based on his animated characters, many people thought it was a fantasy that wouldn't look out of place in one of his films.

Nearly 58 years later, the southern California cultural landmark in Anaheim has spawned offspring in Florida, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and is due to open in Shanghai in 2015.

Disney came up with the idea after taking his daughters to amusement parks. Construction began in 1954 and the first Disneyland was unveiled the next year in a live telecast on the ABC Television Network.

But it couldn't have got off to a worse start.

Only an appropriate number of guests were invited to the opening, but many others forged invitations or gatecrashed it. Disneyland.com tells how 28,000 people packed themselves into a space that was not built for so many people, causing pandemonium. The large crowds made the visitors hot and frustrated. And someone forgot to lock Sleeping Beauty's Castle, so people went rummaging through it.

"Rides broke down after their first few runs. Disneyland restaurants and snack carts ran out of food and drink," the website said. "To add to all this, a gas leak in Fantasyland made the entire area closed to the public. The Mark Twain steamboat's deck was nearly level with the water of the Rivers of America; there were so many people on board."

It was an inauspicious beginning, but since then Disneyland has gone from strength to strength. More people have walked through its turnstiles than any other of its kind. It has the largest growing attendance for a theme park in the world, with close to 600 million guests since it opened.

The fortunes of its Hong Kong branch, however, have been muted since its opening in September 2005.

Despite being touted by the government as the key to making the territory "Asia's most popular city tourist destination", Hong Kong Disneyland - the world's smallest Disneyland theme park - generally let visitors down.

Management glitches, involving everything from ticketing to employee relations and allegedly refusing food hygiene officers entry to the park, made headlines. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment came during the 2006 Lunar New Year, when hundreds of visitors were turned away after the park filled up.

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

But seven years after opening, the park announced last week that it had made a profit, of HK$109 million, for the first time, thanks to rising visitor numbers. "Expansion is the No 1 factor of success," Andrew Kam Min-ho, managing director of the park, said.

He'll be wishing upon a star that it continues.