Pay rise for Mickey & Co a happy result all round

For 'the happiest place on Earth', as they call it, Disneyland's first year in Hong Kong has been a trying time. Since the opening ceremony last September on one of the city's smoggiest days, Disney's micromanaged public relations image has faced one test after another.

It began with teething problems such as complaints about long queues for rides and climaxed during the Lunar New Year holiday with a ticketing blunder in which crowds with valid tickets were locked out because the theme park was full. The fact that the Hong Kong taxpayer is the major stakeholder in the park has not made damage control any easier for Disney executives.

So it is good news all round for a change to read today's report from the Magic Kingdom: Disney appears to have fended off the unappetising prospect of a revolt over a pay grievance among its famous characters including Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy.

Some of the 120 employees hired to wear Disney character costumes, greet guests and take part in parades had threatened to use one of the parades to highlight their case by holding up banners demanding more pay.

Disney has agreed to raise their basic pay by $1,000, or 11 per cent, to $10,000 a month, and introduce longer breaks between performances during the summer months. This is half what they wanted but seems likely to restore happiness inside the park for the time being.

It does not matter that their union is sceptical of Disney's claim that the pay rise had been under consideration long before it raised the issue. The important thing is that both sides can turn the page and move on. Hong Kong has too much at stake in Disney's success for the venture to be sidetracked any longer by disputes and administrative glitches in translating its western theme-park concept into China.

More important issues demand attention, such as recent attendance figures at the park. According to a staff member familiar with the figures, daily attendance has consistently fallen below 10,000 since the Lunar New Year, compared with the 15,300 a day needed to reach the target of 5.6 million visitors in the first year of operation.

Disneyland is a centrepiece of Hong Kong's strategy to become the premier regional family tourist destination. It must consolidate its head start on a rival theme park planned for Shanghai.

The recent arrival of fresh faces in the executive ranks from the revamped global marketing arm of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts may have been a catalyst in decisive resolution of the dispute. The settlement of 11 per cent is well above the norm of 2 per cent to 2.9 per cent found in a recent survey of Hong Kong companies.

Hopefully it reflects a fresh resolve by management to put the theme park back on course. Attendances in the coming summer will be a benchmark of progress.