It's been a long seven-year itch, but Hong Kong Disneyland is finally making some money. The park made $14 million in the last financial year, while this is only about a 2.5 percent return on revenues of $550 million, it's still a profit. Even then, there's still a long way before it makes up for nearly $500 million in accumulated losses in just the last half decade.
Adding some new attractions like Toy Story Land and mining town Grizzly Gulch lured 13 percent more visitors, 6.7 million in all. Disney is planning more attractions and may build more hotels on top of the two already in business.
The birth of Disney Hong Kong was hard from the start. The joint venture between Hong Kong and Walt Disney was announced in 1999. Hong Kong, like most of Asia, was reeling from the Asian Financial Crisis, and hopes ran high the theme park would be a confidence booster. But even before groundbreaking started, conflicts over the financing hit the press.
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Hong Kong taxpayers footed three quarters of the initial $3 billion cost of the project, yet the government only ended up with a 52 percent stake. Operational hiccups dogged the theme park from the beginning - from ticketing mix-ups, to allegations that government health officials were barred from inspecting food outlets.
One particularly memorable moment was during the Lunar New Year in 2006, when tourists were turned away after the park got too full. Livid tourists screamed at park officials. One family even hoisted their child over the perimeter fence in a vain effort to get him in.
Despite booming attendance on the odd occasion, Disneyland Hong Kong hasn't lived up to early hopes. After the first year of operation in 2005, maybe after the novelty wore off, attendance plunged by more than a million and has largely lagged targets since then. Even last year's visitor numbers are nearly 1.5 million behind the old 1999 projections.
But projections are just that, projections, and they're old….looking ahead….the reality is, more stress tests are coming. Mainland China is getting its own Disneyland in 2015 in Shanghai, and it's going to be far larger than Hong Kong's theme park, which is the smallest of all Disney parks. Considering that 45 percent of visitors are from China, they might find a bigger, newer park closer to home more appealing.
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I know this sounds ridiculous considering I can see Disneyland Hong Kong from my balcony, but I've never been there. Maybe it's because I enjoyed the original Anaheim theme park as a young kid and never really saw the need to see Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto, Chip, or Dale here. And as lovely and as huggable as they are, I prefer real things.
I've been to the other theme park here, Ocean Park, countless times. This marine themed park attracts even more visitors than Disney, clocking 7.3 million visitors in the last year.
Thrill rides are interspersed with exhibits like Amazing Asian Animals. You can see 1,500 pound pandas, red pandas, all kinds of unique wildlife, and they've added in the last year a Polar Adventure feature, with penguins, walruses, harbor seals, arctic foxes and all kinds of amazing creatures from the Arctic and Antarctic. Some of you may have seen me last year feeding and playing with (and getting nibbled by) the penguins on CNBC Asia. It was so much fun, I didn't leave for hours. My producer couldn't drag me out of there.
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Neither Disney nor Ocean Park considers each other as a competitor, and after all, if you take the trouble to come to Hong Kong why not do both? Maybe I need to do that myself. It's been 33 years since I was in Anaheim. I should catch up on old times with Mickey. And I might even get a senior discount now.