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Disney set to miss mark on visitors

Wendy Leung

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hong Kong Disneyland has drawn more than five million visitors in its first year of operation, but is not expected to hit its target of 5.6 million by the time it celebrates its first anniversary next Tuesday.

"We received well over five million visitors since last summer, and we're getting close to our attendance target," managing director Bill Ernest said Monday in an annual review of the entertainment giant's operations.

Without giving exact figures, he said Disney had "a very strong attendance wrapping up our first year" and added that he is confident the company will reach its attendance target by the end of this month.

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According to former managing director Don Robinson, the theme park attracted about 270,000 visitors during 18 soft runs alone between mid-July last year and the grand opening on September 12.

The government, which holds 57 percent of the joint venture, had said in 1999 both sides expected a first-year attendance of 5.2 million, but Disney revised that to 5.6 million in 2002.

The attendance results came under fire from critics, with Democratic Party lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming attacking Disney's failure to meet its first-year target as a "disappointment for Hong Kong taxpayers."

The project cost each taxpayer HK$3,000, he said, while the government had spent another HK$13.6 billion on roads and other infrastructure projects.

Li said he will push the government in an upcoming Legislative Council meeting to explain why the actual target had not been met and reveal the actual figures. "After this failure, the government should monitor Disney's future operations closely," he said.

In May Walt Disney chief financial officer Thomas Staggs said in a statement: "We're still targeting our goal of 5.6 million guests for Hong Kong Disneyland's first year of operation. We are a seasonal business with a busy summer season yet to come."

For the summer, Ernest said, the theme park had "20,000 to 30,000 guests on any given day in July and August" and that more than 60,000 passes for an unlimited number of visits in the summer had been sold.

Various marketing campaigns were launched in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, such as "buy one, get one free" tickets for local residents as well as free admission for taxi drivers.

Ernest declined to disclose the company's financial situation beyond saying that "we're on solid ground financially."

Business was particularly brisk during the Lunar New Year, with the theme park being forced to close its gates amid an influx of mainland visitors. About 1,000 mainland tourists had to climb over the gates in an attempt to get in, causing chaotic scenes. The travel industry blamed Disney for the chaos saying it had ignored the opinions of mainland tourism organizations.

Ernest said the theme park is now moving in the right direction.

"We expect business to grow next year," he said, adding that he was optimistic business in the second half would be better than in the first.

Charles Ng Kwong-wai, chairman of the Inbound Tour Operators Association, accused Disney of "making many unreasonable requests."

The travel industry needs to pay huge deposits when taking visitors to the theme park, while Ocean Park does not require them to do, he said.

The good summer attendance figures do not mean anything as Ocean Park broke its attendance record during the period, he added.

Ng urged Disney to cut its prices, saying "it's more practical than making empty promises."

A Tourism Commission spokeswoman said: "The admission figures ... during the second quarter were affected by the incidents during the [Lunar] New Year holidays. Through the concerted efforts by Hong Kong Disneyland, the travel trade and the Tourism Board, increased publicity, especially in the mainland, and the opening of new attractions, the park's performance has picked up with more visitors from both overseas and locally during the summer holidays."

The board plans to step up promotions for the theme park in the mainland and Southeast Asia.


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