Disney's Not-So-Magic New Kingdom

Sure, it lacks some of the big rides, but the Hong Kong theme park is still fun -- especially if you dig crowds and pollution, and bring a translator

By Bruce Einhorn

Hong Kong Disneyland, the first Magic Kingdom in China, officially opened on Monday, Sept. 12, but even before then, critics were having a field day. In the weeks before its official debut, the park was open to visitors for what Disney (DIS ) called "rehearsal days," and the Hong Kong newspapers were filled with complaints about the food, the lines, and the attractions.

A friend of mine went with her family on one particularly crowded, chaotic weekend rehearsal day. Some 29,000 people jammed the park, enduring excruciatingly long lines in very hot weather. "Let me know when you get back," she said when I told her I planned to take my children. "I'll try to talk you down off the roof."


  There will always be people who don't like theme parks, who hate Disney and the American corporate pop culture that it epitomizes. In Hong Kong, Disney's image problem is made worse by the fact that the park is a joint venture with the local government, led by the unelected Donald Tsang. As chief executive, he's ultimately accountable only to Beijing.

Plus, critics say that as No. 2 to former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Tsang had a hand in making a deal that had Hong Kong paying $2.9 billion to build the park, more than 80% of the total cost, but it ended up owning only 57% of the park itself.

Who else is angry with Disney? Environmentalists are upset about the destruction of coral and coastline. (Disneyland sits on land that the government reclaimed from the sea, especially for the park.) Nearby residents aren't happy about the noise and the smoke from the daily fireworks. Economists question the government's assertion that Disneyland will spur the local economy.


  All of these complaints may be valid, but I have to confess: I had a good time at the park last week. And my two kids had a blast.

We got there shortly after 10 a.m. and didn't leave until the fireworks ended around 9:15 that night. Of course, I went on a weekday, when the crowds were relatively manageable. (Now that Disneyland is officially open, there's no chance I'll take the kids on a Sunday anytime soon.) Moreover, I've always been a fan of Disneyland, and have been to the park in Anaheim many times.

Still, I think that Disney is going to face some major challenges as it tries to make its latest park a success. For instance, there's the matter of size. Disney executives and officials from Hong Kong don't want to admit this, but the fact is, Hong Kong Disneyland is small. It's just 306 acres and has just three "lands" -- Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. The park is only in Phase One, we've been told, and there's plenty of reclaimed land at the site to accommodate more. But that's not going to stop visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland from feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Not only is Hong Kong Disneyland smaller than the Magic Kingdoms in the U.S., France, and Japan, it's also missing some of Disney's most famous rides. At the opening ceremony, a choir sang the Disney theme song, "It's a Small World," but Hong Kong Disneyland doesn't have the Small World ride. (I realize that many people who have sat on those little boats at other Disney parks and listened to the endless loop of the song might consider this a plus.) Hong Kong also doesn't have the Matterhorn roller coaster ride, the Peter Pan ride, and many other Fantasyland favorites.


  Adventureland has little more than a Jungle Cruise and a Tarzan Tree House. In Tomorrowland, there's the Space Mountain roller coaster, but there's no Autopia, where you get to drive your own car on the twisting freeway. (Disney says this one is under construction and will open next year.)

Hong Kong Disneyland is officially trilingual: English and two types of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese. But "officially" and "actually" are two different things. At one of the live shows, the Golden Mickeys, the songs are in English but the narration is in Cantonese only. At the Lion King show, the performers stick mostly to English, with a few words of Cantonese thrown in.

Neither show features any Mandarin, although Disney hopes to attract millions of tourists from mainland China, where Mandarin is the most popular version of Chinese. Disneyland execs need to figure out how to make the park fully trilingual.


  There's not much that Disney can do about another problem: the weather. Hong Kong in the summer is hot and muggy. It probably would have made for better headlines if Disney had waited till the weather cools off in November and December before opening the park. Even worse, over the past few days, visibility has been terrible as the air-pollution index has been heading into dangerous territory.

The Hong Kong government has been trying to clean things up by, among other things, forcing all taxis to switch from diesel to cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas. That has helped, but Hong Kong won't make significant progress until polluters across the border in Guangdong province clean up their act. Guangdong officials have promised to take action, but it will probably be years before there's any noticeable improvement.

No doubt millions of tourists from China won't mind, since they're used to cities that are much worse. But dirty skies over Sleeping Beauty's Castle is not the image that Disney wants to present to visitors venturing to its latest Magic Kingdom.

Einhorn is Asia Economics Editor for BusinessWeek

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