Even before Walt Disney Company's 11th theme park in the world, and second in Asia, opened in Hong Kong on September 12, people had started complaining about its size.
At least 20,000 visitors filled its grounds on the opening day, after weeklong trials that drew daily crowds of similar proportions, and the general feeling was that the park was too cramped and should have been bigger.
Disney hadn't anticipated such a response. When they started negotiating for the park with the Hong Kong special administrative region government in 1999, they weren't sure if what was essentially an American icon would go down well in an essentially Chinese cultural environment. For the Hong Kong government, Disney's 57 per cent partner
in the $3.5 billion project, it was a gamble.
Now no one has any doubt. The trials and the opening provide ample evidence that Disneyland Hong Kong, complete with Main Street USA, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland, just like in Anaheim and Orlando, is going to be a runaway winner and an enduring attraction, not only for local and mainland Chinese but for regional visitors as well.
Chinese vice president Zeng Qinghong flew down to celebrate "the further prosperity and development of Hong Kong". Robert Iger, president of Walt Disney Co., described the Hong Kong theme park as a "giant step for Disney's search for more growth in the huge Chinese market".
The Hong Kong government estimates the first phase of the project alone will generate an economic value of $19 billion in benefits to Hong Kong over a 40-year period.
And, as an indication that the parties had done their homework well, Disney chairman George Mitchell declared that work had already begun on second phase of the Hong Kong project that will eventually add an entire new theme park next to the one just opened.
Together the two phases, he said, would transform the site into "a true multi-day destination resort". After more land is reclaimed from the sea off the Lantau Island, construction could start as early as 2010.
In fact, Disney is so enthusiastic about the China market, by most accounts likely to emerge as the world's topmost tourist destination in the not too distant future, that it's looking seriously at Shanghai as the location of its next theme park and has begun preliminary discussions with the mainland authorities.
tourist authorities are going gaga over the theme park's instant success. A week before the September 12 opening, the park's two Disney hotels with 1,000 guest rooms were fully booked. Tourist arrivals this year alone are expected to go up by 3.6 million because of the park.
Already the world's 14th largest tourist destination, Hong Kong received an unprecedented 21.4 million tourists in 2004. This year, some 28 million are expected, and the numbers are projected to go up even further as planned new attractions join the Disney theme park to keep Hong Kong on the cutting edge of the tourist market.
A Wetland Park is set to open early next year in the New Territories as a world-class ecotourism destination. Spread over 61 hectares and complete with swamp adventure, splash time, stream walks and boardwalks, the park is being groomed as a nature and bio-diversity reserve that the authorities believe will attract up to 500,000 nature lovers annually.
Also to open next February is a 5.7 km cable car gliding over mountains from Tung Chung to the site of the world's biggest seated Buddha statue on Lantau Island, near the famous Po Lin monastery.
Billed as the most exciting new tourist development in Hong Kong and described as the Journey of Enlightenment, it's not difficult to imagine why the 25-minute ride has the potential to become a popular day attraction for both local and foreign visitors.
A massive convention and exhibition centre, called AsiaWorld Expo, is due to open this December right next to the international airport on Lantau, vastly enhancing Hong Kong's attraction as an entertainment and business hub.
With 10 ground-level, column-free halls offering 66,000 sqm of space (expandable to 100,000 sqm), a seating capacity for 13,500, and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, AsiaWorld's next-to-the-airport location, easy connectivity to Hong Kong's central district (30 minutes by Airport Express) and to China through ferry and a planned Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is bound to make it a preferred location for international concerts, entertainment events, sporting shows, and conventions aimed at Asia.
A huge tourist machine is thus being built and cranked up to suck in visitors not only from the vast and increasingly prosperous hinterland of mainland China, but also from the rest of the region. Shopping and fun are part of the deal, no doubt, but Hong Kong is increasingly developing itself as a place for total family entertainment. And
Singapore has reason to worry.