Hong Kong Disneyland's anniversary

Hong Kong Disneyland marked its first anniversary Tuesday after an inaugural year of poorer-than-expected attendance, bad publicity and chaos at the gates.
( [email protected] ) Sep 12, 2006 12:20 PM EDT

HONG KONG - Hong Kong Disneyland marked its first anniversary Tuesday after an inaugural year of poorer-than-expected attendance, bad publicity and chaos at the gates.

Braving heavy rain, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy helped piece together a large puzzle that resembled a birthday cake, surrounded by park workers waving large Mickey-style gloves. Pop star Jacky Cheung, a celebrity spokesman for the park, applauded.

The cake was decorated with the words, "Thank you Hong Kong."

"We know we've got a lot of work to do, but we're very pleased about the momentum," said Bill Ernest, the park's managing director.

Later in the day, several protesters paraded through the park with four banners that said, "Disney exploits Chinese workers" and "Disney is a sweatshop." What appeared to be park staff confiscated one banner but did not interfere further.

The protest came after a survey released Sunday alleged factories in southern China that make Disney merchandise underpay their workers, overwork them and only selectively buy health or accident insurance for their employees.

Disney said it has a strong labor standards code and regularly audits factories that make Disney merchandise.

The Hong Kong government invested massively in the first Disney theme park on Chinese soil on hopes it would tap the huge China market and transform the territory into a regional family tourism hub.

Hong Kong taxpayers shouldered most of the $3.5 billion construction cost and own a 57 percent stake in the joint venture with The Walt Disney Co.

Hong Kong Disneyland, however, hasn't been an instant success. It missed its first-year target of 5.6 million visitors.

Ernest said a week before the anniversary that attendance had exceeded 5 million but won't hit 5.6 million until later in September or in early October.

Adding to worries, that goal was conservative because it was made in 2002, when China only allowed its citizens to visit Hong Kong as part of tour groups. Beijing authorized individual travel to this semiautonomous former British colony in 2003.

In a ticketing miscalculation that became a major publicity debacle, the park had to turn away thousands of Chinese tourists with tickets during the peak Chinese New Year holidays in February. Angry guests tried to storm the park gates, with some climbing over them.

The park has also been dogged by negative publicity. Environmentalists protested shark's fin on the menu, and it was eventually dropped.

Critics accused park management of abusing its jurisdiction by asking health officers to remove identifying parts of their uniform in the park, and complained about the park's secrecy on attendance figures despite Hong Kong's huge public investment in the project.

Ernest called the initial slip-ups "teething problems."

He acknowledged not doing a good job of educating mainland Chinese tourists who haven't been exposed to Disney characters and themes in the past. The park plans to launch a "pre-show" briefing for visitors. It will also launch new promotions during Halloween, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

"They should understand they can't just bank on the Disney brand and not have to do any publicity or promotion. They shouldn't be so complacent," opposition lawmaker Sin Chung-kai said.

"I think they have learned their lesson after this year," he added.

John Ap, professor of hotel and tourism management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said it's too early to deliver the final verdict on Hong Kong Disneyland.

"It's going to take 10, 15 years for us to really say 'yeah, was it worth our while?'" Ap said. "No business is necessarily going to be operationally successful and viable in the first year of operation."

He said the park's record was still outstanding by local standards.

"How many attractions in Hong Kong can get 5 million plus visitors in its first year of operation?" Ap said.

The Hong Kong government has defended its investment, saying it's already seen signs of increased family tourism. Official figures show over 40 percent of overnight visitors to Hong Kong in the first quarter of 2006 brought their children, compared with 20 percent in the same period last year.

The government said in a statement ahead of the anniversary, Hong Kong Disneyland has created jobs and "provided a very good training ground for tourism practitioners."

"The government considers its stake in the Hong Kong International Theme Park Ltd. (Hong Kong Disneyland) as a long-term investment," the statement said.