The precarious history of Hong Kong Disneyland Resort
Is Hong Kong Disneyland destined to be the first Disney theme park to close its gates? If the first 13 years tell us anything, the future of the park is uncertain, at best.
To paint a clear picture, we need to go back to the creation and development of EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris). Michael Eisner's first European endeavor turned into a major calamity stained with cultural and financial controversy. The French people were vocal in their belief that Disney was imposing American ideals in a country they didn't belong. When the idea of a Chinese park came about, Eisner was determined to get this one right.
Planning & Construction
In 1999, the local government approved plans to move forward with Hong Kong Disneyland Resort on Lantau Island with a 2-phase construction outline. Phase 1 consisted of the Magic Kingdom-style park, 2,100 hotel rooms, and a Downtown Disney-style district. It is important to note that Disney is not the sole owner of Hong Kong Disneyland. In fact, to this day Disney does not have the controlling interest with only 48% ownership. The Hong Kong Government holds 52% ownership of the park, and together they formed a joint venture company called Hong Kong International Theme Parks Limited.
The selected location for the park was underwater, so a process called dredging began in 2000 to create the land needed for the resort. Around this time, Disney announced plans for a second Chinese park to be built in Shanghai. This raised concerns with the local government in regards to protecting tourism in Hong Kong, and Disney agreed to hold off for at least 8 years. Once the land was ready, construction on the resort began in 2003. Disney worked tirelessly with Chinese consultants to make sure all cultural differences were addressed respectfully. They even brought in a feng shui specialist to help with the layout. This was a step in the right direction, and one that was missed in the planning in Paris.
Expectations were ambitious to say the least. Plans for phase 1 projected 10 million annual visitors and an expected economic benefit value of $19 billion (USD) over 40 years.
Hong Kong Disneyland Resort opened on September 12, 2005 with one theme park, 1,000 rooms, and no retail and dining entertainment district. At 68 acres, it was the smallest Magic Kingdom style park to date (17 acres smaller than Disneyland Park in Anaheim which was 50 years old at that time). Almost everything inside the park was a replica of Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. Frontierland was cut during development stages for fear the Chinese people would not appreciate it, but it was never replaced with another land. The only e-ticket attraction on opening day was Space Mountain.
An almost exact replica of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Anaheim, the castle serves as a symbol of the lack of creativity and effort. While it was intended to pay homage to the original, this idea fell flat to the visitors of the park. A castle built in 1955 in the original park has charm. A castle built 50 years later to the same specifications shows disrespect and laziness.
The press caught onto this immediately and expressed the dissatisfaction with the size and originality of the park. In a desperate attempt to boost attendance numbers, the park ran numerous promotions to reach a goal of 5.6 million visitors. At the close the first year of operation, they only made it to 5.2 million.
Attendance & Profits
2006 proved to be even worse than the year prior. Attendance dropped to 4.6 million and the park did not turn a profit, but rather lost millions of dollars. In fact, the park did not turn a profit until 2012. Things seemed to be trending in the right direction for Hong Kong Disneyland; however, they, once again, took a dive in 2015. Since then, the park has not turned a profit, and in 2017 they reported a loss of $4.5 million (USD). Attendance has remained stagnant between 6.1-6.8 million visitors per year.
Expansion & Transformation
The addition of Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, and Grizzly Gulch have been a step in the right direction for the park. However, a major glimpse of hope was announced in 2016. Disney has released big plans for expansion including a transformed castle inspired by all Disney princesses. The concept art shows a castle nearly three times the size of the current with a built in stage along the front surrounded by a moat which includes fountains. Along with a new castle, the plans make way for new Marvel (2023) & Frozen (2020) themed areas of the park.
A third (and beautiful) hotel, Disney Explorer's Lodge, opened in 2017, giving more hope that Disney has plans to revive the property.
While there is no official announcement regarding the opening of a second park, entertainment district, or additional hotels, the land to hold all of it still sits vacant. Disney hopes to turn Hong Kong Disneyland Resort into a multi-day resort, but as of right now, most see it as a half-day park. This doesn't bode well to travelers looking to make a vacation out if it, especially when Shanghai and Tokyo are so close.
To be fair, the park looks charming and the surrounding mountains make it visually stunning and unique to any other Disney park. We hope things turn around for Hong Kong Disneyland in the coming years as it has the bones and the right intention. Good leadership and investment can bring this resort up to speed with her sisters around the globe. Sometimes it just takes a bit of extra pixie dust.