Mickey's Wayward Ways

Nov 14, 2005
*Special to asia!

Hong Kong has learnt that marrying into the Disney family is like marrying one of those men mothers have always warned against: a ne'er-do-well philanderer who comes home only to get more money.

Think of a marriage where the wife pays for 90% of the matrimonial home and gives a handsome monthly stipend to her spouse. The husband, on the other hand, spends his days philandering. When the wife is told her husband may have a few women outside, she does not complain. Instead she explains that everything is still fine because "there is space in our marriage for two to three others".

Is she deluded? Does she have a raw deal? Most would say yes. But the Hong Kong government could be forgiven if it takes a different view. After all, its relationship with the Walt Disney Company is as one-sided as the marriage described above.

On September 12, Hong Kong Disneyland opened its doors. It is Disney’s first theme park in China, and the second in Asia, after Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983.

Hong Kong has put in a lot to get a Disneyland. It hopes the theme park will help it attract more tourists and boost the economy. But three days before the grand opening, Roger Iger, then president and now CEO of Disney, casually mentioned to reporters that his company was in talks to build a theme park in Shanghai. Though Iger was sketchy on details, sources close to Disney said the park will be built on 500 hectares of land near the Pudong financial district. This will make it four times bigger than Hong Kong Disneyland, by far the smallest of all Disney theme parks.

Rumours are rife that Disney has also begun negotiations to build a theme park in Seoul. And Nick Franklin, who runs Walt Disney Attractions Japan, recently dropped the hint that Disney might help Oriental Land, the owner of Tokyo Disneyland, to build more theme parks in Japan, and perhaps even beyond its frontiers.

If all these projects bear fruit, north Asia could soon have as many as half a dozen Disney theme parks, all of them vying for the same tourist dollar.

This cannot be good news for Hong Kong. Yet Selina Chow, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, appears unruffled. In an interview with Yazhou Zhoukan, an influential Hong Kong-based Chinese weekly, she argues that Hong Kong would not be seriously affected by new Disney parks in its neighbourhood.

"There will be competition, but I don't feel threatened. China is big. It can accommodate two to three Disneylands. After all, there is more than one Disney park in the US," she says. It was in 1998 that Hong Kong, its economy tanking, began its courtship with Disney. Tung Chee-hwa, then the territory's chief executive, was casting around for a quick fix. His advisors suggested building a Disneyland. They were enticed by the huge profits generated by the Tokyo Disneyland and wanted a share of the pie.

Under instructions from Tung, Hong Kong officials approached Disney and proposed generous terms. In 1999, the parties inked an agreement to set up a joint company called Hong Kong International Theme Parks Ltd (HKITP) to build and manage a Disneyland in the territory. The dalliance had turned into a marriage.

But it is an unfair match. On paper, Disney is the junior partner with 43% of HKITP; the Hong Kong government holds the majority 57%. But Disney runs the show and gets the lion’s share of the profits. It also contributed relatively little money to the venture.

To build the theme park, the Hong Kong government spent more than $1.4 billion, reclaiming a huge plot of land next to Penny’s Bay in Lantau Island, where the airport is located. It also shouldered the bulk of the $1.8-billion development cost including the provision of a $782-million loan.

As a result, 90% of the $3.2 billion that got Hong Kong Disneyland off the ground came from the government. Disney chipped in only slightly more than $300 million. For 10% of contribution, Disney will receive 43% of the profits.

That is not all. HKITP also pays Walt Disney a management fee (2% of total revenue and 5% of net profit) and royalties (10% of revenue from admission, 10% from participation in events, 5% from merchandise, 5% from food and beverage and 5% from hotel accommodation). These terms ensure Disney a rich stream of royalties even if HKITP loses money. Given its limited attractions, this could very well happen, at least in the first few years before its expansion plans kick in.

In the weeks following the opening of the Hong Kong Disneyland, many Disney officials are said to have relocated to Shanghai, in preparation for the building of a theme park in the city. Disney, the promiscuous husband, appears to have found another bride soon after the consummation of its marriage in Hong Kong.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih