Pandas or Mickey Mouse? No Contest!
"We call them crocodiles," the skipper of our cruise boat intoned, pointing to the murky depths of the River of Adventure in Adventureland.
"They call us Dim Sum!", he added after a well rehearsed pause. Judging by the looks on the faces of the majority of visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland, it might have been better if the designer of this theme park had been force fed to the plastic crocs.
The park, built on reclaimed land on Lantau Island, has been repeatedly criticised as being far too small and lacking in some of the staple attractions of Disney theme parks elsewhere. The fact that you can easily walk from one side of the park to the other in less than ten minutes, and complete the perimeter in around 15, combined with rides that are so underwhelming that anyone aged more than about five years will soon be asking "is that all?", means that attendance has been low ever since it opened in September 2005.
In an attempt to boost attendance, the park has been relying on lower cost, parade style attractions that leverage popular Disney properties such as High School Musical. But Disney Corp. has had to provide $423 million of loans to replace a similar amount of commercial debt that was due to expire.
The capacity of the park is 34,000 visitors per day but attracted only 5.2 million visitors in its first year, well below its target of 5.6 million. Visitor numbers then fell a further 20% in the second year to 4 million. The resort currently has 310 acres, with the actual park taking approximately one third of that.
Talks are now underway to significantly expand the struggling theme park. But a timetable and financing are unclear. According to the South China Morning Post the Hong Kong government and Disney are now discussing the addition of three new themed 'lands' at a cost of some US$645 million. Over a 15 year expansion period, the park’s capacity will be increased to handle up to 10 million visitors annually.
In stark contrast, families can enjoy a day at Ocean Park on the southern side of Hong Kong Island for two thirds the price of Disney. Based on marine and edutainment themes, it has set itself the vision to be the world's best marine theme park. And it is doing just that. With roller coasters, large aquariums, an atoll reef with 250 different types of tropical fish, and much else besides, it's still packed on weekends with families and tourists after having opened to the public 30 years ago. The cable car, offering spectacular views of the South China Sea, is an icon in its own right and an essential link between the two parts of the park. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of local people would far and away choose Ocean Park if they had to pick a single theme park to attend.
For many, the chance to see Hong Kong's pandas would also be a deciding factor in that decision. Young adults will be attracted to a wider range of rides than you get at Disney; and a major redevelopment of Ocean Park which began two years ago, will over the next six years double the number of attractions to around 70.
Two major new areas are on the drawing board: The Waterfront will have Aqua City, Birds of Paradise and Whiskers Harbour; whilst The Summit will feature Marine World, The Rainforest, Thrill Mountain and Polar Adventure. And three resorts are planned for completion by 2012, compared with the present two at Disneyland.
Given that one of the most popular signs in Hong Kong Disneyland has to be the one saying Exit, the choice of which theme park to visit should not be a difficult one to make.