EARLY SIGNS ARE that those cheering for the home team in the battle of the theme parks have been vindicated in their loyalty. On a recent visit to Ocean Park, marketing executive Kong Kin-sum and her family were surprised to find several areas almost as crowded as the streets of Mongkok. 'There were so many people, it was impossible to get in to some attractions,' she says. Although it long enjoyed the benefits of being the only leisure facility of its kind in Hong Kong, Ocean Park became a losing proposition after the 1997 handover. So when Hong Kong Disneyland opened four months ago, the naysayers were predicting its demise. The homegrown attraction might endure for a few more years by catering to mainland visitors, they said, but it would eventually succumb to the competition. Yet the theme park in Wong Chuk Hang has showed no signs of fading. Although it refuses to disclose attendance figures for the past few months, the 29-year-old, 870,000-square-metre facility has apparently thrived, despite the presence of its big-brand rival. The recent holiday period was particularly busy, with so many locals trying to get in on Christmas Day that they caused gridlock in the district. Cheaper tickets than Disneyland's may be one reason for rising attendance at Ocean Park. But there's more to the revival. The park has been undergoing a revamp over the past few years and the threat posed by Disney has only spurred the management to redouble its efforts. Ocean Park's work is bearing fruit. Despite the crowds, Kong, who was making her first visit in six years, says the experience has changed her impression of the park. 'It's much cleaner than the last time I visited,' she says. 'It has improved a lot and it's much more fun now.' Kong, who is in her 20s, says her family favours the homegrown attraction because it offers activities that children and adults can enjoy. 'In Hong Kong, we'd prefer Ocean Park to Disneyland,' says Kong, who brought along relatives from the US. 'Disney parks in the US are bigger and more spectacular than the one in Hong Kong.' Ocean Park is divided into Headland and Lowland sections. Its attractions include a panda enclosure, shark aquarium, seals and sea lions, an artificial reef, a theatre for marine performances, roller coasters and a cable car. Observers say Ocean Park has carved a niche for itself. Whereas Disney is about fantasy and its cartoon franchises, Ocean Park emphasises its nature and 'edutainment', often collaborating with school groups. Rather than slice into earnings, the US rival has lifted the theme park business. That has been the experience of Australia's Gold Coast, which has four international facilities, says theme park watcher John Ap, an associate professor in tourism management at the Polytechnic University. Bad publicity may also have dulled people's interest in visiting Hong Kong Disneyland. Disney's arrival has forced Ocean Park to raise its game. 'Disney sets a high standard in terms of cleanliness, service, aesthetics, and above all, fun,' says Richard Foglesong, author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. 'Maybe they've pushed Ocean Park to a higher level.' Ocean Park logged more than four million visitors during the past financial year - more than two million of whom were from the mainland. Locals make up about 38 per cent of the total, with the remainder mostly from South- east Asia. Credit goes to its managers for improving the facilities and clever promotions. Besides special discounts - for people with IDs ending with certain numbers, for instance - the park has also emphasised seasonally themed events. These are mostly devised by senior events and entertainment manager Todd Hougland and his 60-strong team of production and technical crew and performers. Staff have also travelled the world to assess the latest entertainment trends and come up with new schemes. 'Our focus is to produce unique entertaining activities and themed atmosphere to give our guests a special reason to come back throughout the year,' says Hougland, who has worked in 15 parks, including Universal Studios and Disney World in the US. For example, last year's Big Splash summer activities attracted more than 900,000 visitors, a rise of about 40 per cent compared with the same period the previous year. Besides its popular Halloween revelry, the park also introduces special activities for the Lunar New Year and Easter holidays. Wing On Travel Service general manager Lanny Leung Kong-lan says that although Disneyland is still the top attraction for mainland tourists, Ocean Park is an attractive alternative for locals, and its diversified programmes have boosted visitor numbers. 'Ocean Park's special programmes are quite appealing to locals who aren't holidaying overseas,' she says. 'Disneyland has its own limitations since it's only about Disney. Ocean Park can change its theme according to different festivals.' Park chairman Allan Zeman is buoyant about Ocean Park's future. That's a major turnaround from the dire situation he inherited in 2003. Due in part to its ageing facilities and the impact of the Asian financial crisis, the park suffered several consecutive years of losses - $85.1 million in 1998, $33.2 million in 1999, $23.7 million in 2000 and $80.5 million in 2001. If losses continued, the park was expected to fold within five years. Zeman had to decide whether to close the park or overhaul it into a world-class marine park. He chose the latter. Thanks to refurbishment and promotions, the park has logged increasing profits, rising from $95.7 million in 2003 to $119.5 million in 2004. The makeover will be complete in five years with a number of new attractions. Experts say savvy marketing has been crucial to the turnaround. Good relationships with travel agents - a major channel for ticket sales - have been key to the park's success, says marketing professor Oliver Yau Hon-ming of City University. By offering them bigger commissions, Yau says agents have more incentive to promote Ocean Park as part of their tour packages, while making Disney an optional stop. 'Distribution isn't something you can manage on your own,' he says. 'A lot of people in the tourism industry don't support Disney. This is a serious problem.' The park will also have to improve its transport links. On a busy day, a long queue snakes around Lippo Centre in Admiralty for the shuttle bus to the park. A concern is whether the MTR Corporation's proposed South Island Line will be extended to provide a rapid rail link to the area. 'If Ocean Park can solve its transport connections, it will enjoy a bigger advantage,' Yau says.