Ocean Park vs Disneyland

Dec 14, 2006
*Special to asia!

Under the sea, under the sea,

Darling, it's better, down where it's wetter...

(Under the Sea, from Disney's "The Little Mermaid")

Hong Kong's most famous theme park seems to indicate that under the sea is better than anything above.

In France, the Euro Disneyland is so popular that politicians fret about it undermining traditional French values. In Japan, the Tokyo Disneyland (together with its neighbour, DisneySea) is the best-performing theme park, drawing 25 million visitors a year, almost all of them Japanese. But when it comes to Hong Kong, the entire Disneyland cast, from Mickey Mouse to Donald Duck, has lost out to a bunch of jellyfish.

Disneyland opened in Hong Kong in great fanfare in September last year. A year on, it has proven to be a great disappointment. Attendance is way below the expected 5 million visitors anticipated for the first year. Many who forked out good money in the park complained about its small size (it is the smallest of all Disneylands). Chinese visitors, the mainstay, spit and littered as though they were still on the mainland. Employees said working conditions were worse than in a sweatshop. Worst of all, the theme park, of which the Hong Kong government has a majority share and underwrote most of the cost, lost money.

How much it lost is a closely guarded secret between the partners – the Hong Kong government, which is thoroughly embarrassed by it; and Disney, which has tried in vain to persuade its partner to spend more to expand the park. But analysts have gone ahead to make their own calculations.

A reputable European house said it estimated Hong Kong Disneyland lost HK$117 million (US$15 million) in the first year. This year losses will mushroom to HK$530 million. Disney, which has changed some of its management in Hong Kong, has come out with a series of measures, from concessions to entice longer stays in its hotels to a 60-foot Christmas tree, complete with artificial snow, to boost attendance. Even if the measures work, it would only mean a smaller loss for the Disneyland. A turnaround, if even possible, will be some years in the future.

Across to the southern tip of the main Hong Kong island, Ocean Park, Hong Kong's oldest theme park whose supporters once feared would be done to death by Disney, is alive, well and making tons of money.

In January next year, Ocean Park will celebrate its 30th birthday. Fully owned by the Hong Kong government, it has served two generations of Hong Kongers and holds a special place in their hearts. In 2003, Tung Chee-hwa, then the territory's Chief Executive, asked tycoon Alan Zeman, the so-called "father" of the Lan Kwai Fang entertainment district in Central, to revitalise the ageing theme park. Zeman, who hails from Brooklyn, hired an experienced team and spent 18 months formulating a response to Disneyland. He finally decided he would turn Ocean Park into "one of the top sea mammal parks in the world", featuring killer whales, beluga whales, polar bears, penguins, walruses, birds of prey and baby pandas. Like Disney, he also wants to build three hotels. Ocean Park reported record takings in 2005/2006 of HK$538 million, up from HK$505 million the year before. Attendance hit a record too, at 4.38 million, topping the previous high of 4.03 million set the year before. Against its much-hyped rival Disneyland, which failed to reach its first year's target of 5 million visitors, Ocean Park has won hands down.


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


Contact Han Shih