Disneyland finds little to celebrate on its anniversary
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Poking his white-gloved mouse paws into the sides of a giggling child, Mickey's antics have brought delight in the world's newest Disneyland in Hong Kong which celebrates its first anniversary today.
"I'm very happy," said 10-year-old Lucy Liao from Shanghai, visiting with her parents.
But the laughter seems to stop there.
Frustrated by overcrowding and long queues in the park, which is relatively small compared with Disney's other magic kingdoms, not all visitors are impressed.
"It's below our expectations," said Lu Hongsheng from Hangzhou, who saved for months to bring his wife and eight-year-old daughter to the first Disneyland on Chinese soil.
"There are too many people," he said, gesturing at the crowds stretching as far as Sleeping Beauty's castle 100 meters away.
Managing the sensibilities of mainland tourists like the Lu family has been a crucial task for Disney as it tries to establish its business in China - estimated to be the world's fourth-largest source of outbound tourists by 2020.
Opened last September, the park failed to hit its full-year 5.6 million visitors attendance target, but still managed to pull in more than five million guests. At least a third of them were from the mainland.
But Disney has suffered a number of controversies, including a lockout of angry ticket holders during the crunch Lunar New Year holidays, and the public airing of grievances by its staff who complained of low wages and mistreatment.
A public opinion survey in March found that 70 percent of Hong Kong people had negative impressions of Disney.
"I think their fundamental problem is a software one, the inability to understand the Asian mind-set in terms of their customers and staff," said John Ap Tsim-hung, a theme park expert from Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management.
Ap said many of the Disney guests were not interested in white-knuckle amusement park rides like Americans and Europeans. "Asians are a lot more conservative," he explained. Disney had also not adequately catered for the Chinese obsession for photo-taking, though a "Fantasy Gardens" attraction built in the Hong Kong park for this purpose was a good start, he added.
Disney has downplayed these setbacks as "growing pains" and admitted there were cultural hurdles to be overcome.
"Our biggest challenge going into China is that familiarity with the Disney brand is high, but familiarity with a Disney theme park is not necessarily so high," said Josh D'Amaro, Hong Kong Disneyland's head of Sales and Travel Trade Marketing. "There's a much more integrated marketing approach that needs to happen, there needs to be an education process. People need to understand what Buzz Lightyear is," D'Amaro said, referring to Disney's bionic toy character.
With this in mind, Disney will launch a 10-15 minute "preshow" induction course at its Hong Kong theme park in the coming months to teach its guests about its characters, stories and park attractions. This crash course - a first for any Disneyland - is aimed at minimizing any cultural confusion.
Disney has also strengthened its sales and marketing initiatives on the mainland, particularly in the south.
An annual pass scheme, giving unlimited visits on one ticket will be introduced by Disney later in the year, aimed at encouraging repeat visits.
Disney is targeting not just the local Hong Kong market, but the many affluent mainlanders now holding special travel documents allowing unlimited, visa-free visits to Hong Kong.
"Bottom line and the name of the game is to encourage repeat visitation. If you're unable to do that, you're going to be in trouble. And I think that's the challenge Hong Kong Disneyland will have particularly with the mainland market," Ap said.
But this task will be made difficult by the small park size, limited attractions and up to 90-minute waits for many rides including the Space Mountain roller coaster at peak times.
While Disney struggles to adapt, its attempts to tap the lucrative mainland market are being shadowed by homegrown competitor Ocean Park.
The 30-year-old theme park, modeled on Sea World in the United States with dolphin shows, panda enclosures and roller coasters has had a bumper year, drawing more than four million visitors.
Forbes magazine ranked it the seventh most popular theme park in the world last year. The Disney park in Hong Kong was not included in the ranking because it had just started.
Although it is not considered a direct competitor with Disney, according to Hong Kong's Travel Industry Council, almost 80 percent of tours from China, not including those from Guangdong province, visit Ocean Park as part of their itineraries. In contrast, Disney tends to be an optional day out.
"Most tourists choose Ocean Park because it's been established for so long, especially in the mainland," said Paul Leung Yiu-lam, a director of the Hong Kong Travel Industry Council.
Hong Kong drew a record 23 million tourists last year, drawn in part by new attractions like Disney. But many are still lured by the city's famed dining and shopping
"We never heard of Disney [being in Hong Kong] before we came," said Daniel Santos from Australia watching the Golden Mickeys musical in Fantasyland. "We mainly came for the food, we love eating."
While a series of high-profile extravaganzas have been planned for the first anniversary, last weekend's protests over poor wages suggest Disney's troubles are far from over.
"We will protest until Disney stops exploiting Chinese workers," said Vivien Yau Tze-wei, a spokeswoman for Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a grassroots pressure group behind Sunday's protest.
Dressed in animal costumes mocking Disney characters like Goofy and Captain Hook, SACOM protesters lobbied customers as they entered the park.
The group says that during visits to factories that produce Disney merchandise in Shenzhen and Zhuhai, they built up a dossier of alleged labor infractions. "Workers are being underpaid, they don't even reach minimum wage levels," Yau said. "They are also being denied their weekend holidays.
"We realize Disney is not the only company that contracts these factories, but if it made a stand then it would send a message to other abusive factories that it is time they changed their ways."
Disney defended itself against claims of contracting work to irresponsible employers. "We have a strong International Labor Standards Code of Conduct for manufacturers and conduct regular social compliance audits of the independently run factories that produce Disney branded merchandise," it said.
"When factory audits, or information otherwise brought to us by third parties, reveal noncompliance with our code, we seek to work with the factory and, if appropriate, the vendor or licensee concerned to develop a remediation plan to bring its operations into compliance with our code." AGENCIES