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Chinese sprint into Magic Kingdom

Hong Kong, Disney pin high hopes on company's first foray into China

By Marianne Bray
CNN

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DISNEY IN HONG KONG

Following are details of the theme park's expected economic impact.

-- The park is expected to boost tourism and consumer spending, which is a driver of the local economy.

-- Some 5.6 million visitors are expected to visit Hong Kong Disneyland in its first year, most of them from mainland China and many of them first-time visitors to Hong Kong.

-- Hong Kong Disneyland projects visitor numbers will reach 10 million a year within a few years.

-- Investment house CLSA forecasts the benefits of the opening of Disneyland in terms of tourism and extra spending will help Hong Kong's economy grow by 7 percent this year, making it one of Asia's best performers.

-- Hong Kong Disneyland estimates the park will generate US$19 billion in revenue over 40 years.

-- The government and Disney have formed a joint-venture company, with the government owning 57 percent and Disney 43 percent.

-- The park will create 18,000 jobs across the economy in its first year and another 36,000 jobs in the next two decades, according to government estimates.

Source: Reuters

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Just after one o'clock on a steamy afternoon, hundreds of Chinese sprinted down Main St, U.S.A., past the Corner Cafe and Sweet Store in their Disney T-shirts and caps, gripping their cameras.

Too rushed to talk, they ran through the heat of a Hong Kong summer's day, to the hottest ride in town -- Space Mountain in Tomorrowland -- just minutes after Disneyland flung open its gates in its first foray into the massive China market.

Not to be outdone, I followed them and after entering the darkness of the ride, and spinning through a starry night with meteors, I emerged dizzy and disorientated.

In the haze outside, Chinese were taking pictures in front of every monument -- there they were beside the sold-out sign, Disney lampposts and Mickey Mouse bobbing up and down on a fountain at the main entrance.

Among the crowds was Pang Hao, a 31-year-old businessman who had come across the border from the city of Shenzhen. He was visiting with his wife and another couple, and he is exactly the kind of "guest" Disney and Hong Kong is looking for.

For U.S.-based Disney, Hong Kong is a launch pad into the world's most populous nation and fastest-growing market, and a huge play on China's burgeoning middle class.

As many as 150 million people live within a 300-mile (482-kilometer) radius of Disneyland, and Disney is counting on them to visit this park, which sits on reclaimed land between the mountains and the South China Sea.

In a show of support for the special administrative territory perched on its southern coast, China's Vice President Zeng Qinghong attended the opening at the 129-hectare (318-acre) park, flanked by Hong Kong's leader Donald Tsang and Disney's top executives.

As many as 16,000 people flocked to Penny Bay on Lantau Island on Monday, a half-hour train ride from this congested city's central business area, in what was likely the biggest media event since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

Where are the children?

The opening comes six years after Hong Kong's government and the California-based Disney agreed to jointly develop the $3.5 billion project.

Hong Kong was in the doldrums at the time, and desperately wanted to add some glamour to its economy -- known for banking, investment, shopping and shipping -- now it was in Chinese hands.

To give Hong Kong a helping hand, China in 2003 allowed its nationals to travel to the city of 6.8 million people.

Since then, floods of mainland Chinese have flocked to Hong Kong picking up brand-name goods from its luxury malls, crowding to its jewelry stores and eating out at its myriad restaurants.

Hong Kong's tourism board said it expects 27.14 million tourists in 2006, a 15.9 percent jump over 2005, and officials say they expect the park to bring in $19 billion over 40 years, and create 35,800 jobs over 20 years.

The world's best-known entertainment company is counting on these increasingly affluent mainland Chinese tourists in its third international venture, and its second in Asia after Japan. It is also hoping it can export its magic to China, where there is no deep knowledge of its culture.

Officials estimate one-third of Disneyland visitors will be from mainland China, one-third from Hong Kong and the rest from Southeast Asia.

In a telephone survey of 1,500 mainland Chinese who lived in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, market research firm ACNielsen said one-third would either consider going or had decided to go to Disneyland.

Software engineer Zhou Ling for one, was enchanted by Adventureland, with its waterfalls, fake elephants, flaming torches and Cambodian relics.

"The stars and the sky is so beautiful, it's like a dreamworld here," the 28-year-old from Shenzhen said, after climbing down from the 19-meter high Tarzan Treehouse, with her 29-year-old husband Chen Zhen.

It's not just the young mainland Chinese who are flocking to the park. Indeed children were in short supply on Monday as middle-aged "guests" wiped the sweat off their faces, waving and shouting at a passing river barge to the beats of the jungle and guffawing monkeys.

Perched on the balustrade of 320 Main Street to watch Mickey Mouse and Snow White parade by, 48-year-old businessman Li Zhi Biao from the southeastern Chinese town of Shantou said he had come on a tour group to watch the grand opening.

"The show is great, as is the fireworks and parade," he said, adding he would bring his friends and family along next time.

French lessons

Disney says it has learned from its park in France. It decided to start off small in Hong Kong, so that it could become profitable with 5.6 million visitors a year, and build the second phase later on.

The U.S.-based company also learned that it needed to fit into the local culture after it realized it made a major faux pas in Paris by not serving wine.

In Hong Kong, "feng shui" has played a large part in the park's design. A master moved its main gate so it was facing the right direction, put a bend in its walkway so that "chi" or energy does not flow into the South China Sea and does not have the unlucky number four in its elevators. (Full story)

A feature of the Hong Kong park are the Chinese garden pavilions, where trigger-happy picture snappers can pose with Mickey Mouse and the trilingual cast. The 21 rides at the Hong Kong park are tame, after research showed Asians weren't after more scary versions.

In weeks of rehearsals leading up the grand opening, where as many as 100,000 people turned up, Disney discovered that Asians like to have long, expensive dinners of noodles and rice and had to upscale on mobile food trolleys and seats.

The park -- which looks much like the first Disneyland in California, with a Sleeping Beauty Castle and a Cinderella Carousel -- has had its shares of troubles.

Earlier in the year, beetles began eating up the hotel beds, while in August packs of wild dogs wondered down from the hills and invaded the park. Disney also had to ditch shark fin's soup after local uproar over its use.

What's more, early visitors said the lines were too long at the 21 rides in the four themed lands and the size at 126 hectares (311 acres) was too small (Tokyo has 180 hectares, Paris 1,943 and Florida 11,300 hectares).

Still, the majority of people in Hong Kong support the park, according to local surveys and China's government is also very much behind the project.

"In the past, people used to say Hong Kong was an entrepreneurs' playground and a shoppers paradise. But with Hong Kong Disneyland here, there is more culture and entertainment available. Hong Kong will further become a tourist mecca," Chinese vice president Zeng said at the open.

Plans are afoot to build the second phase of the project. Hong Kong has given Disney an option to buy 54 hectares of land east of the site, but Disney officials have been tightlipped about future plans.

Construction has already started on the Autopia ride, due to be finished in 2006.

Disney executives have said China can support two Disneylands, but they have said no other park would open on the mainland before 2010.

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