As Hong Kong Disneyland turns 10, a look back at park’s roller-coaster history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 6:39pm

Hong Kong Disneyland has long been billed as the “happiest place on earth”. But its history has been far from fun-filled, with the park operators dogged for years by struggles with tourist numbers and revenue, as well as labour issues.

The mostly rough roller-coaster ride began in 1998, when the idea for a Disney resort and park was proposed. At that point, Tokyo Disneyland was the only one operating in Asia.

Mickey got the green light in 1999 when Hong Kong’s legislature gave funding approval for the construction at Penny’s Bay, Lantau Island. Officials were optimistic that Disneyland’s first 40 years of operation would yield HK$148 billion in net benefits and lead to annual GDP growth of 0.4 of a percentage point.

They also predicted that mainland visitors would account for more than 70 per cent of 1.2 million extra tourists who would visit Hong Kong would come specifically for the theme park. Excited children and parents looked forward to the chance to welcome the magical world of Disney at their doorstep.

But the US company caused drama in 2000 when it was discovered that it had plans to build a rival Disneyland in mainland China. Commentaries at the time accused Disney of “taking the Mickey”, and tourism workers associations and lawmakers urged the company not to push through at risk of draining tourists from Hong Kong.

Disney vowed not to open a mainland China theme park for at least eight years.

INTERACTIVE: Timeline of Hong Kong Disneyland's history

The project organisers took pains to incorporate Hong Kong touches in the park, with feng shui masters offering advice on the placement of the gates and some park features, and Disneyland restaurants offering Cantonese favourites.

Construction at Penny’s Bay hummed along in the next few years even through the 2003 Sars outbreak (when plunging construction costs saved the firm HK$1 billion).

The lead-up to the opening saw quite a few bumps, including a labour protest, a food poisoning scare and boycott calls from one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Daniel Wu Yin-cho, after American performers rubbed him the wrong way during a promotional shoot.

A “Welcome to the Magic” red-carpet event billed to draw international stars like Johnny Depp, Zhang Zhiyi and Jennifer Lopez also fell flat when only novice singers and little-known actors came onstage. VIP reviews of the rides also proved underwhelming.

Nevertheless, Disneyland opened its doors to the public on September 12, 2005 to much festivity, with fireworks and musical performances. It made history as the first such theme park in China and as the smallest (but as designers insisted, just as exciting) Disneyland park in the world.

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The magic wore off quickly, it seemed, as the park failed to draw crowds in the initial days as well as for “golden week”, one of China’s biggest public holidays marked by feverish shopping sprees and travel chaos across the country.

A rare bright spot in February 2006, when Lunar New Year visitor numbers surged so much that the park had to shut its gates, turned into a public-relations disaster. Furious ticket-holders who were turned away hurled abuse at staff and rattled the doors.

The head of Hong Kong Disneyland at the time, Bill Earnest, made an emotional public apology over the ticketing chaos and pledged a better understanding of Chinese culture.

For a while it seemed like Mickey was a lame duck. The park registered a HK$1.6 billion deficit in its first two years of operation.

According to confidential documents seen by the South China Morning Post at the time, the park had 4.17 million visitors in its second year. An 8 per cent growth in attendance meant it received more than 4.5 million visitors in its third year – an average of about 12,300 a day.

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In a splash of cold water for Disney, rival Hong Kong hotspot Ocean Park fared better on world rankings of the world’s most visited theme parks.

In the next decade, Disney would go on an aggressive marketing drive to boost attendance, including offering new ticket promotion schemes and opening a 300 square metre showroom in Guangzhou to lure more mainland tourists. Expansion plans and more rides and bigger capacity were also announced.

Still, it would take seven years before Disneyland would make a profit: HK$4.3 billion in the year ending on September 2012.

It also secured a breakthrough in negotiations with the government in 2009 for more land and investment to accommodate more rides and raise capacity, which at the time was at 37,000.

As of this year, it has posted solid growth and seen an uptick in visitor numbers, and has several expansion projects under way. As it marks its 10th anniversary, Disney seems to have finally found the magic.