Welcome to the Magic Kingdom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2005, 12:00am

Disney veteran Don Robinson says Hong Kong's soon-to-open park has a special enchantment

When Disney and the Hong Kong government reached an agreement to build an amusement park at Penny's Bay, who better to oversee the operation than someone who has been with the company for more than three decades?

Hong Kong Disneyland group managing director Don Robinson started working for Disney while at university and has been with the company ever since.

He might have started out washing dishes at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Disney World at the age of 17, but he quickly moved up through the ranks. Over the years he has opened 12 hotels and three theme parks in Florida and five hotels in Paris. He also helped with the opening of hotels in Tokyo and was involved with the development of hotels at the original Disneyland in southern California.

He is now in Hong Kong to oversee the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, the company's second theme park in Asia. As one of five Disneyland-styled theme parks in the world, Hong Kong Disneyland will be the first to incorporate many of the exact design features of the original park in Anaheim, which opened in 1955.

It will also have several original attractions - including entertainment and parades - created especially for Hong Kong, taking the city's unique culture, climate and preferences into consideration.

'We took what we feel to be the best and most popular from all our other parks and used new technology to create a better guest experience,' says Mr Robinson.

An important factors setting Hong Kong Disneyland apart from the rest is Hong Kong itself. With its stunning location at Penny's Bay, Hong Kong Disneyland has unparallel surroundings encircled by emerald mountains and azure seas.

'The location of this park is probably the most attractive of any of our parks. It's on the sea and next to mountains. It is striking,' Mr Robinson says.

One of the biggest challenges Disney faced when designing the park was how to deal with the city's often inhospitable climate. What happens if it rains for weeks during the summer months when the kids are out of school - usually the park's peak season?

'We've taken the weather as one of our primary design factors so most of our attractions are inside, covered and air-conditioned. Our dining facilities are all covered. We are probably the most weather-protected of any of the parks that we've built,' Mr Robinson says.

As with other Disneyland-style theme parks, visitors will enter the Hong Kong park through Main Street USA. Reminiscent of small town America at the turn of the 20th century, Main Street will transport guests from the real world into a world of make-believe where three distinct 'lands' await: Fantasyland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland.

Visitors will enter Fantasyland - the most emblematic of the mini-parks - through Sleeping Beauty Castle, the first to be modelled on the original in California. This is where they can take a spin in the Mad Hatter Teacups, soar above the rooftops with Dumbo the Flying Elephant, or ride an enchanted steed on the Cinderella Carousel.

A highlight of Fantasyland - and unique to Hong Kong - will be the Fantasy Gardens. This is where visitors will meet Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Winnie the Pooh, and other cartoon favourites.

'There will be gazebos with different families of characters. These themed pavilions will allow our guests a lot of photo opportunities and [the chance] to get pretty close [to the characters].'

Visitors will find one of Disney's more original and best-loved characters - the Lion King - in Adventureland, which is modelled after the jungles of Africa and Asia. In addition to the always popular Jungle River Cruise and an entire island dedicated to Tarzan, a Broadway-style show based on the Lion King, which is now playing in New York City's Times' Square, will be staged in one of the world's largest indoor theatres.

'The costumes and props were designed by the same people that designed the Broadway show,' Mr Robinson says.

One of the most problematic of Disney's traditional lands has always been Tomorrowland. Several years after the original Tomorrowland was launched it looked like a 1950s vision of the future. It has had to be rebuilt several times.

'Architecturally Tomorrowland is themed differently from any of our other Magic Kingdoms around the world. It is themed to be an intergalactic spaceport on another planet,' says Mr Robinson.

'Every Tomorrowland has had that same issue - how do you keep it fresh and how do you keep it futuristic. That's why we put it on another planet so we don't have to predict how we will live in the future.'

A key element of the original park is missing from the Hong Kong facility - Frontierland, which pays homage to the American West. But this was not an oversight.

'In our research it wasn't as well known as our other lands and attractions,' says Mr Robinson. 'We wanted to focus at the beginning on the brands that more supported our characters. So you will find a lot of the attractions in the other lands really focus on our characters.'

Two themed hotels, the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel - a six-storey Victorian-style resort with 400 rooms, and Disney's Hollywood Hotel, with 600 rooms, will round out the project, but it does not stop there.

'This park can expand to roughly double its size. The hotels can double. And the land is being reclaimed for us to eventually have a second park and more hotels.'

When Hong Kong Disneyland was announced in 1999 as a venture between the Hong Kong government and the Walt Disney Company, there were worries about what some referred to as cultural imperialism - why an American-style theme park and not something Chinese? Mr Robinson thinks the concerns have been misplaced.

'We did a lot of extensive research - in Hong Kong and southern China - and clearly people wanted a classic Disney park. That is what we are known for [and] that is what our reputation is built on.

'I think our focus on family interaction and entertainment transcends any culture and any language. Fundamentally, parents want their kids to grow up and be successful. They want them to be entertained and they want families to spend time together. It doesn't make any difference what country you are from. Those are the key values that we try to provide.'