Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Another Disney Park we have to visit


Hong Kong Disneyland opens with wealth of challenges
By Jonathan Landreth

HONG KONG -- Fifty years after Disneyland opened in California, heralding America's postwar success, the Walt Disney Co. is betting that China, the world's newest economic giant, will welcome Mickey Mouse to Hong Kong with open arms.On Sept. 12, after six years of planning and building costs of $1.8 billion, Hong Kong Disneyland will greet the first of the 5.6 million guests it projects in the first year.

The park is a joint venture of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), which invested $419 million for a 57% stake, and Disney, which invested $316 million for a 43% stake, a government spokesman said. In addition, the Hong Kong government spent $1.75 billion on infrastructure works that would have been carried out in the area for tourism and recreational development regardless of whether Disneyland was built, the spokesman said.

Nestled on a bay against a backdrop of green hills on Lantau Island in the South China Sea, the 310-acre park is 10 minutes by light rail from the international airport and 24 minutes from Hong Kong, a part of the People's Republic of China since 1997, when Britain gave up its colonial rule after 156 years.

Although statistics show 21 million visitors arrived last year in Hong Kong, which abuts Guangdong, mainland China's richest province, industry observers say the cost of admission to Disneyland could scare off many guests from the mainland, where the official average income is less than $1,000 a year.

Adult tickets will start at HKD295 ($37) in the offseason, when a night at the one of the park's two hotels -- the Hollywood Hotel and Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel -- will start at HKD1,000 ($129) and HKD1,600 ($206).

"Disney will do well to keep its price point down in China," said J. Clark Robinson, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which held its annual Asian Expo in June in Hong Kong.

Tickets at Hong Kong Disneyland, however, are cheaper than those at the parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris and Tokyo, and Stanley Cheung, managing director of the Walt Disney Co. China and a Hong Kong native, said he is not worried about mainland Chinese attendance.

"About one-third of our guests are expected to come from mainland China, primarily from the richer, southern regions such as Guangdong province," Cheung said from his office at Disney China headquarters in Shanghai.

Drawing even a fraction of the mainland's 1.3 billion people to the park is a worthy challenge, even though China's consumers are expected to spend more on entertainment in coming years than other Asians.

U.S. accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers sees a 25.2% rise in Chinese entertainment and media spending through 2009, making China the fastest-growth market in Asia. PwC said China's amusement industry will swell an average of 5.7% a year in the same period, leaping to more than $7 billion in 2006 alone.

It's been a long march to Sept. 12 for Disney, which first showed "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in China in the 1930s. Andy Bird, president of Walt Disney International, said that Hong Kong Disneyland will provide guests with an immersive experience to re-ignite what he calls "the magic that is the Disney storytelling tradition."

"The park will act as a springboard for our other businesses throughout China and the region," he said in an interview from his Los Angeles office."Whenever we open a park, we find there's a very good halo effect that is created," he said, noting that a martial arts retelling of "Snow White" called "Snow White and the Seven Monks" is in preproduction. EDITOR’S NOTE: HARD TO SPOOF SOMETHING THAT SEEMS INTENT ON SPOOFING ITSELF, EH?

Still, in some respects, Hong Kong Disneyland is as American as apple pie. It features Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland -- four environments that echo the Anaheim originals -- and a staff of 5,000 "cast members," many of whom went to Orlando for training.

Yet sensitivity to Chinese culture was important in creating the park. A Chinese menu was developed to complement Disney's traditional Western fare; there are Mandarin-, Cantonese- and English-speaking staff; and a master of the 14th century art of feng shui was consulted on the park's design to make sure it sits harmoniously with the natural environment, Bird said. EDITOR’S NOTE: I’M REALLY LIKING THE IDEA OF DISNEY BUT WITH GOOD ASIAN FOOD!

To please a different set of beliefs, Disney entered into a partnership with the nearly 70-million strong Communist Youth League. Music and video materials were sent to members, who range in ages from 14-28, in the hope of raising awareness of Mickey Mouse. EDITOR’S NOTE: OK, NOW THIS IS JUST PERVERSE. ON THE ONE HAND, A CLEAR SIGN THAT DISNEY WILL SELL ITS SOUL TO SELL ITS SOUL. ON THE OTHER HAND, HOW MANY OF THESE KIDS WILL STILL BE TRUE BELIEVERS AFTER THEY’VE SEEN THE DISNEYCOMMERCIAL LIGHT? (INTERESTING PETRI DISH, HMMM?)

In case budding interest in Mickey and pals failed to get Chinese kids to push their parents for tickets to Hong Kong Disneyland, the park chose as its spokesman pop singer Jacky Cheung, a household name in Hong Kong and across much of Asia.

Industry observers say that all the effort that Disney has put into the Hong Kong park was meant to meet the challenge of selling Disney's clean and controlled approach to family entertainment to a small group of newly wealthy Chinese whose nascent tastes are tough to gauge.

"Chinese think of theme parks as places for children only, but Disneyland has the chance to change this misperception," said Ji Xiangqun, deputy general manager of the Suzhou New District Economic Development Group, which runs amusement parks outside Shanghai.

According to Greg Hale, Disney's chief safety officer, all Disney parks succeed in appealing to guests of all ages by upholding the four core tenets of safety, quality, showmanship and efficiency.

"These set expectations high, and now we have to deliver on the promise," Hale said, noting the importance of defining exactly what is expected of each cast member, then making sure everybody, from all levels of management, adheres to those four core behaviors."No one will walk past a piece of trash or something that's improper without bending over to pick it up," Hale said.

James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Assn., identified another challenge Disney might face in serving its mainland Chinese guests: "Low-paying guests always ask for more services than high-paying guests, but neither likes to ask for service and then wait."

"That's why we must have ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," said Lu, noting that Disney might also face a talent shortage as hotels, resorts and amusement parks compete in coming years for educated young employees in the technology and information industries. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND THE MOUSE IS NOT USED TO HAVING TO PAY WELL TO COMPETE FOR THESE PEOPLE.

Brian Ho, human resources director of Ocean Park, a Disneyland competitor now undergoing a $700 million renovation, noted the same challenge. "Why, when they could be working in air-conditioned offices, would kids want to work outside on a hot Hong Kong day, dealing with mainland tourists?" he asked.

For some, Disney's rigorous culture might also prove too straitjacketed.

Reporter Alexandra Harney wrote in the Financial Times that a free media tour of the new Hong Kong park was "presumably intended to convert cynical journalists to Disney's all-American entertainment philosophy. Instead, it created a slightly uneasy feeling of pervasive control." EDITOR’S NOTE: YEAH…WELCOME TO UNCLE WALT’S GILDED CAGE.

"I have been to Walt Disney's first theme park in China, and I can report that it is the scariest place I have been since I visited North Korea a few years ago," she wrote on July 30. EDITOR’S NOTE: GIGGLE. A BIT OF AN EXAGERATION, DON’T YOU THINK? (AT LEAST A LITTLE? SNICKER).

Shanghai surprise?

When the opening-night fireworks have dimmed over Hong Kong Disneyland, the question of a second Disney theme park in China will linger.

In the past several months, Disney's newly appointed CEO, Robert Iger, has traveled several times to Asia, with stops in China, India, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Iger sees the region as one of Disney's main growth opportunities. For about a month, he has been fending off speculation that Shanghai, China's largest city, is the proposed site for a possible second Disneyland in China in the coming years, going so far as to say that it isn't likely to happen before 2010.

"Two Disney parks in China is not market saturation," IAAPA's Robinson said. "Disney changed the face of the industry in the United States in the 1950s and has probably been the most influential around the world ever since."

Disney China managing director Cheung added this about the possibility of Shanghai: "Disney has been engaged in talks over the years with the Chinese government about opening a park in China. The first one is going to be in Hong Kong, and that is the focus of our efforts for now."


Dis makes 'Wise' move with retailer
In a move that reflects the growing clout of big retailers, the Walt Disney Co. is giving Wal-Mart exclusive sales rights through the end of the year to the animated holiday feature film "The 3 Wise Men," which debuts on DVD Nov. 1.

The Arenas Entertainment production, released theatrically in Spain and France in 2003, was animated by Animagicstudio, whose principals are veterans of such Disney hits as "Fantasia 2000," "Hercules" and "Tarzan." Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez and Eddy Martin were among those tapped to provide voices for the English-language version of the film. The voice cast also includes Christian recording artists Jaci Velasquez and Marcos Witt. EDITOR’S NOTE: DOESN’T SOUND LIKE A BIG RISK TO PUT THIS ALL ON WALMART’S SHOULDERS. I MEAN, IT SOUNDS LIKE THE WALMART SHOPPER IS THE PRIME TARGET MARKET FOR IT, AND NO ONE ELSE WILL REALLY MISS IT.


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