When Walt Disney set out to establish the original Disneyland in California in the early 1950s, he aimed to create “the happiest place on earth”. The company that carries his name still has that ambition for all its theme parks around the world, 11 at last count with the twelfth, in Shanghai, set to open next month.
The present generation of Disney executives have carried Walt’s ambition to extraordinary lengths. In 2014 (the last full year for which figures are available) Disney operated all of the top 10 theme parks in the world. Hong Kong was at number 15 that year with 7.5 million visitors, just behind Ocean Park at 13 with 7.8 million. No doubt Shanghai will be a huge success also, and it would not be surprising if attendance in its first full year propelled it into the top 10 worldwide.
The opening of Shanghai Disneyland, and the dip in tourist numbers visiting Hong Kong in 2015 which was reflected in visitor numbers at our two parks, has led some to worry about future prospects of our Disneyland. I think those fears are overblown. Let us put matters in perspective.
First, it was an extraordinary achievement for Hong Kong, a city of just over seven million people, to have no fewer than two theme parks in the world top 15. Although attendance at both fell last year, and the Disney park went into the red, the main cause as we all know was the steep fall in the number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong. Our community has a big job to do turning round the antagonism of some towards mainlanders which has contributed to this decline. Hongkongers are pragmatic people, I am confident common sense will prevail and a smoother relationship can be achieved. The philosophy of our tourism industry has always been to welcome all visitors from everywhere.
Second, many people have forgotten the detail of the original deal between the Hong Kong SAR Government and the Walt Disney Company which led to construction of the park. At Disney’s request, the land lease for the site runs for 100 years from 1999 when the land grant was executed (technically 50 years plus a guaranteed right of renewal for a further 50). The deal covers potentially three theme parks: the one we have; a second on an adjacent site which the joint venture company has the right to buy; and a possible third on a site to the south in respect of which the company has first right of refusal. What we had on opening in 2005 was less than half of the first park, and the company has been busy in the 10 years since then filling out the park towards its full potential, a process that is ongoing. A new attraction based on the Iron Man character will open later this year.
Will Shanghai steal our business? Some commentators have cast doubt on the company’s commitment to the Hong Kong park. If Disney can have six successful parks in a country of 320 million (two in Anaheim, four in Orlando) it can certainly have two in a country of 1.3 billion. And why ask for 100 years if you plan to cut and run after just 10? I have visited all 10 of Disney’s overseas parks and will certainly go to the Shanghai one as soon as the inevitable teething problems have been sorted out (and – dare I say it – queueing habits have improved). But every year I buy a premium annual pass to the Hong Kong one, in my mind the best in the world.
I cannot and should not pretend to be neutral on the subject of Disney generally and Hong Kong Disneyland in particular. As many people know, I was the lead negotiator for the Hong Kong SAR government in the discussions which led to the creation of our park. What many people may not know is that ever since I was a small boy at primary school in England my nickname has been Mickey Mouse. Some think the nickname was one of the consequences of the talks. I have always suspected the truth to be the other way round: I was appointed as lead negotiator by then financial secretary Donald Tsang because of my nickname. The combination gave rise to some excellent cartoons. My favourite was a scene where the two of us were waving butterfly nets trying to capture the two most famous Disney characters with the caption “Mickey and Donald in pursuit of … Mickey and Donald”