Why Hong Kong Disneyland loses its magic in the rain
Melissa Stevens says a star attraction facing tough competition from Shanghai and an even tougher local business environment cannot afford to turn off its loyal customers because of a lack of wet-weather contingency plans
Hong Kong is one of the most bustling cities in the world and, as any parent will tell you, it offers plenty of high-quality activities for children, including Hong Kong Disneyland. With a five-year-old, my family is right in the Disney target demographic and we have enjoyed several pleasant visits, with my daughter delighting in the park’s attractions, particularly getting to see her favourite characters “in the flesh” during the parades. Every outing culminated in the fireworks display around the Storybook Castle.
While the appeal of Disney’s characters is enduring, it is well documented that Hong Kong Disneyland itself is facing challenges: along with many other local tourism attractions, it is feeling the effects of a decline in mainland tourist numbers. Figures show there was a 23 per cent drop in the number of mainland tourists last year,part of an overall decline of 9.4 per cent in visitor numbersat Disney.
One country, two Disneys: can Shanghai and Hong Kong theme parks share the spoils in battle for the tourism dollar?
It is anticipated that this decline will become more pronounced when Shanghai Disney, which is three times larger than Hong Kong’s offering and will boast the most elaborate Disney castle in the world, opens its doors in June. Tickets for the grand opening were snapped up within five minutes of going on sale – the kind of frenzied reaction usually associated with stadium concerts for global superstars.
While Hong Kong Disneyland bosses remain optimistic that there is enough regional demand to share between the parks, they are also working to keep their park fresh and competitive, planning to offer discounted entrance fees and hotel room rates, and opening a new Iron Man Experience attraction later this year.
But while the focus appears to be on big-picture responses, I was struck on a recent visit with my daughter that looking after your clientele can be done in many small, but effective, ways.
I had planned our visit in advance, choosing a day where, while the forecast was cloudy, there was no rain expected. On arrival around noon, it was sunny but this changed mid-afternoon when thunderstorm warnings saw all the outdoor rides closed for safety reasons. By 5pm, the rain was heavy, sending everyone rushing into the restaurants to sit it out and to the merchandise stores to stock up on ponchos and umbrellas. Not long after that, it was announced that the night parade would be cancelled for safety reasons, leaving many visitors trudging through the sodden park for more than three hours waiting for the fireworks display.
Weather is unpredictable and, of course, safety paramount. I am not suggesting that rides should have stayed open or the night parade continue in the rain, but what I was struck by was that an operation as slick as Disneyland did not appear to have wet-weather contingencies.
Here are three simple suggestions that could have been implemented to improve the experience for visitors.
First, offer reasonably priced wet-weather gear – when the rains came, merchandise store staff were quick to pull out a supply of Disney-branded adult and child-sized ponchos, in addition to the Disney-branded umbrellas. When visitors have paid HK$539 per adult and HK$385 per child to enter the park, and ponchos can be bought for as little as HK$8.50 in a convenience store, charging HK$65 and HK$55 for ponchos feels like price-gouging.
Second, the night parade is without doubt one of the highlights for many children. Cancelling it for safety reasons is understandable but why not have cast members offer alternative indoor performances?
Third, even in good weather, the 8.45pm scheduling of the fireworks show is a stretch for young children. But when you take the night parade out of the equation and the fact visitors are standing in the rain to watch, should consideration not be given to bringing the show forward?
The Tourism Board has predicted that overall tourist numbers will dip another 1.8 per cent this year. If Hong Kong Disneyland is not careful, it may find itself turning its loyal local customers into fair-weather friends.
Melissa Stevens is the Post’s features editor (Hong Kong)