Image: A tourist has his picture taken with Minnie and Mickey Mouse.
Ted Aljibe  /  AFP/Getty Images
Walt Disney Co., hoping to tap into China’s huge market, has struggled a bit in its debut year in Hong Kong. Its park hasn’t quite reached its first-year attendance goal of 5.6 million, and its had some hiccups along the way.
updated 9/11/2006 1:31:27 PM ET 2006-09-11T17:31:27

Mickey Mouse should be really worried about people like Shum Nai-ho.

The middle-aged man from southern China could have ridden Space Mountain or posed for photos with Donald Duck at the new Hong Kong Disneyland, which was expected to be a top attraction for mainland Chinese.

Instead, Shum took his wife and daughter to Hong Kong Ocean Park, a 29-year-old marine-themed park many thought would be wiped out by the time Disneyland celebrates its first anniversary this Tuesday.

Just the opposite has happened. In the past year, Ocean Park has experienced its largest attendance boom ever, luring customers with its cheaper ticket prices and diverse attractions like dolphin shows and a cable car ride with stunning views of the South China Sea.

“We didn’t try the rides and just strolled around, but it was fun,” said Shum, who’s from the city of Guangzhou. “Many people tell me I should try Disneyland instead, but I heard it’s small and there aren’t enough things to do there.”

Walt Disney Co., hoping to tap into China’s huge market, has struggled a bit in its debut year in Hong Kong. Its park hasn’t quite reached its first-year attendance goal of 5.6 million, and its had some hiccups along the way.

Disneyland’s image was dealt a blow in February, when the park had to turn away thousands of Chinese tourists who bought tickets during the peak Lunar New Year holidays. TV viewers were not impressed with the footage of angry visitors besieging the overcrowded park, rattling its gates and forcing themselves in.

Another factor may be that most mainland Chinese don’t have a strong attachment to Mickey and friends.

“If you haven’t grown up with the brand, its characters and themes, you’re not quite sure what you’re walking into,” said Hong Kong Disneyland’s managing director Bill Ernest, who stressed the park is working hard to learn what Chinese want.

“We realized we needed more educational materials out in the market,” he said.

But such adjustments are to be expected initially, said John Ap, a professor of hotel and tourism management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He pointed out that both the
Tokyo and Paris Disneylands faced initial difficulties but are now doing fine.

“Disney’s challenges are mainly in the software, like understanding the Asian mind-set and Chinese consumer culture,” Ap said. “You’ve got to put it in perspective.”

But one of Disney’s biggest — and most unexpected — challenges has come from Ocean Park.
The park, which sprawls across both sides of a mountain in southern Hong Kong, was overhauled a few years ago in preparation for Disney’s arrival. Ocean Park knows its strengths — a hybrid of thrills and animals, fun and education — and sells them well, said Allan Zeman, the park’s flamboyant chairman.

“Disney is all about fantasy, cartoons, castles,” he said. “What’s Ocean Park? It’s real. It has real animals, real fish.”

It has pulled in more than 4.03 million visitors so far this year, Zeman said, already more than the 4 million people who came last year. That’s the best visitor count the park has seen since opening in 1977, and Forbes magazine recently named the park one of the world’s 10 most popular amusement parks. Disney has declined comment about Ocean Park.

Some have decided that Hong Kong Disneyland may not be worth its steep entry fee — $37.90 to $45 — compared to Ocean Park, which costs $23.80. Ocean Park is also more centrally located than Disneyland, which is built on the lush Lantau Island 30 minutes away from downtown Hong Kong.

Owned by a nonprofit organization, Ocean Park hasn’t always been so popular. Just before 2000 it was an aging, poorly maintained attraction, and business was so poor that it was on the verge of being closed down.

A facelift complete with new management and upgraded food outlets injected new life into the park a few years ago. Ocean Park now has a new jellyfish house and five annual events — including a Halloween bash that proved a huge success — on top of its popular pandas, giant aquarium, and cable car ride.

“If we didn’t have the goods, people wouldn’t come,” he said. “I don’t want to out-Disney Disney, and we can’t because they’re good at what they do.”

Some visitors have been disappointed in the size of Hong Kong Disneyland, the smallest among other Disney parks at 310 acres.

Although it has plans to add new attractions, many Chinese appear to have taken a wait-and-see attitude, especially with reports that a bigger Disneyland in Shanghai may be in the works. Disney has said it is in talks with Shanghai authorities about building a park in the city, but that no agreement had been reached.

Undaunted by the new competition, Zeman has big plans for Ocean Park. He wants it to become the world’s best marine-themed park, and an ambitious revamp and expansion worth $707 million is slated to start at the end of this year.

By 2010, the park will have brought in three new hotels, more animals — including a killer whale and penguins — and doubled its current 35 attractions. It will be able to handle 53,600 visitors a day.

“We have so many exciting things planned,” Zeman said. “I’m pretty confident we’ll keep appealing to both locals and tourists.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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