History, Theme Parks

Lantau Island may not seem like a name that sticks out at first but this large island in South-East China was planned to have one of the most ambitious Disney resorts of all time. A true testament to what Disney has to offer. It would solidify the Walt Disney company as a themed entertainment giant at the opportune time of the turning millenia. Two Disney theme parks, six themed hotels, a 650,000 square foot retail and entertainment district. All built and provided in two phases over 15 years.

Lantau Island is in Hong Kong, home to the Hong Kong Disneyland resort. At this time there aren’t two parks. There aren’t six hotels and looking around the nearest shopping district is a couple stops away on the MTR. In the eastern side of the artificial landmass that the resort sits on, there is nothing. Roads simply end. There’s a roundabout that isn’t connected to anything and there are empty plots everywhere. All of this suggests a clear intention to expand from the beginning but it took 7 years for any expansion to occur. A majority of the construction projects currently underway are at the park are cosmetic; they’re to fix mistakes that we’re made with resort. How did one of the most ambitious Disney projects turn into the smallest resort in Disney’s history?

Context

To really explore Hong Kong Disneyland’s troubling history we need context. Roughly 20 years worth of context focusing on the Euro and Tokyo Disney resorts. It’s the 1980s. Disney theme parks were generating almost 70% of the Walt Disney Company’s income. Walt Disney World was in it’s early infancy and EPCOT center was preparing to open in October of 1982. A real catalyst for change at this time was Disney partnering with the Oriental Land Company in Tokyo to open the first licensed Disney theme park outside of the United States; Tokyo Disneyland. Whilst the parks were doing incredibly well, the rest of the company was financially vulnerable. Disney needed a change within their company to spark some real growth and after a large buyout from the Sid Bass company, they decided to bring an expert in the entertainment field as the new CEO of the company. Michael Eisner.

Michael Eisner turned Disney into an empire. Many movies under his early career would go on to be critically acclaimed and generate a tremendous amounts of revenue. It was this era that gave us movies such The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King putting Disney as a staple for family entertainment. Whilst the entertainment side of Disney grew exponentially, the Walt Disney Theme parks department were about to experience their most intriguing yet turbulent years.

Disney had been looking into building a theme park in Europe since 1972. With the instant success of Tokyo Disneyland, Disney had more reason than ever to commit to their international expansion and by March of 1985 the leadership of Disney’s theme park division were eying off locations in France and Spain. Disney finally decided on a site in the rural town of Marne-la-Vallee for its proximity to Paris, and it’s central location for Western Europe.

Michael Eisner green-lit the project and planning between Disney and the French government finalised in 1987 with construction starting in August of 1988. The project was immense. At the time of opening the resort had seven hotels, an entertainment, shopping and dining district based on Downtown Disney and, ofcourse, Euro Disneyland.

Euro Disneyland was ready to redefine the Magic Kingdom style parks. It was an opportunity for the creative departments to use their collective knowledge and modern technology to create something that differed Disneyland and Disneyworld. The lands would tell stories, the designs would be grand and elaborate. Detail would define the project.

The resort finally opened in 1992. It was a disaster. The project was plagued in controversy. Critics despised the park for encouraging American consumerism in France. They felt it was an invasion of American ideals. The Euro Disney company shortly after opening announced an expected loss of 55 million USD. The resort was hemorrhaging money. By 1994 the company was still having financial difficulties and rumours were circulating that the Euro Disney company would be declaring bankruptcy. The Walt Disney company actually threatened to close the Disneyland Paris park at one point when the banks wouldn’t help with their debts. This would leave the banks with the land and a park that would need to be completely redesigned without the use of a license from Disney.

The failures of the Euro Disney resort shook Eisner and echoed through his future projects. He was determined not to make the same mistake twice. And he didn’t; he made other mistakes instead. Eisner went on to create Disney-MGM Studio and Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Disney’s California Adventure Park in Anaheim and Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. Each suffered from their own individual problems and each brought with it new challenges and complications that Michael Eisner was not willing to confront but instead ignore.

Conceptualization

After a long line of theme park openings with varying success, failure and issues; Eisner green-lit the first new Disney resort after the troubled Euro Disney. This resort would be on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. The Walt Disney company was determined to replicate the success of Tokyo Disneyland which was florioushing in Asia. Both Shanghai and Hong Kong were considered suitable candidates for the new Asian resort, but the Chinese Government ultimately decided to delay the Shanghai project to make way for Hong Kong’s.

Hong Kong during the late 90s was experiencing some what of an identification crisis. In 1997, Hong Kong was handed back to China after being under British administration for 154 years. The change from democratic ruling to the Chinese communist state caused some anxiety for the Hong Kong people, worried about the possible changes to their way of life, but thankfully Hong Kong pulled through. They were determined to be known as the “world city”. A cultural, economical and political utopia differential to the rest of China. Disney was a globally recognised brand and having a Disney park within the city went hand-in-hand with their vision.

In 1998, the Walt Disney company publicly announced their intention to construct a park in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. At the time Disney fans were always cautiously optimistic; Disney was known to announce projects before any agreements had been made. However Disney came through and in 1999 Penny’s Bay on Lantau Island was announced to be the future site of the Hong Kong Disneyland resort. An agreement had been finalised between Disney and the government of Hong Kong and the park was ready to get underway. Because this project was partially operated by the Hong Kong Government, there is a great amount of transparency in terms of documentation related to the project including a document outlining all the pollution possibilities from resort including noise and light. The Hong Kong Disneyland briefing paper provides a clear direction that the resort wanted to take including a rough map of where and what everything will be.

It outlines what is meant to be achieved in phase one of development and the benefits to the Hong Kong people because after all, they were paying for it.  The resort would bring about new service and creative quality standards, technological innovations and the quality family entertainment would enrich the daily lives of the Hong Kong people.

But still, nobody knew what the park was going to be like. There were many stylings for the resort to take inspiration from and nobody knew whether it would be an original concept like Euro Disney or a replication akin to Tokyo Disney.

The best idea people had of the park were a few samples of concept art. Don Carson, a Walt Disney imagineer conceptualised a rough idea of Hong Kong Disneyland which at the time was simply known as Disneyland Asia… Tokyo Disney might have something to say about that name. This concept of the magic kingdom style of parks includes only four lands, akin to what Hong Kong Disneyland opened with. Your typical main street, land of discovery, land of fantasy and land of adventure. The park has a dense design but is also far more intricate in it’s pathing and layout. It featured concepts borrowed from other resorts such as a hotel that borders the park which was used at Euro Disney, but also offered something new such as a castle which sat on a hill at the very back of the park which also featured an attraction called ‘Once upon a time’

Further snippets of the park were slowly released, and perhaps the most exciting was this one. A full conceptualisation of what the Hong Kong Disney resort would look like after completion. This new concept matched fairly well with the old for where Hong Kong Disneyland would be, but the new park was a mystery. It didn’t seem to be based off anything at the time and there a couple theories as to what it could but I feel that is cause for another video.

With the concepts out there, people were excited. But a majority of the construction and projects at Hong Kong Disneyland were kept very quiet. There was little information outside of a crude drawing and dark interpretation about what the actual Magic Kingdom would be. Whilst the park slowly made it’s way into the spotlight, Disney just around the corner in Japan was about to open a park which would chance the theme park world. In 2001 Disney completed what is regarded as the best Disney theme park on the planet; Tokyo Disneysea. The park was incredible with details unlike any theme park we had known. Knowing that Disney just made this, imagine what they could do with in Hong Kong?

Opening

September 12th, 2005. Opening day for Hong Kong Disneyland just two and a half years after groundbreaking in January of 2003. The resort was a culmination of the Eisner Era of Disney’s fears. The park opened as the most uninspired Disney resort in history. The resort was baron of originality. Not a single ride, show or attraction was original. The closest thing the park had to original design was it’s fireworks display. The entrance to the park, main-street and the castle were an almost 1-to-1 replication of that at Disneyland in California. Fantasyland featured only a single dark ride, a replication of Winnie the pooh at Walt Disney World. The main day parade used recycled floats from Tokyo Disneyland even going as far to share the same name. It was a pick’n’mix of concepts and ideas with very little flow or coherency. Each land was a shell of what any other park offered. Space Mountain was the parks only E-ticket attraction, though some could argue that perhaps the Jungle River Cruise with some exciting new elements, such a fiery finale, could possibly slot into this position as well.

Disappointment spread through the Disney and Hong Kong communities. The resort would join many other Disney projects from the time that simply missed the mark. Whilst it’s fair to say that the design of the park was kept very quiet and expectations should have been limited to what was officially announced, the various bits of concept art from Imagineering and design companies in collaboration with Disney that were available led people to believe that the resort should have contained far more.

But wven the briefing document from 1999 outlines a retail dining and entertainment complex in Phase one that was absolutely nowhere to be seen. Hong Kong Disneyland currently features an unusually long esplanade which is the empty shell of the RD&E complex. It starts at the MTR station and ends at the Ferry terminal just shy of the Hong Kong Disneyland hotel. This area was conceptualised as featuring retail with unique merchandise, dining with an emphasis on table services and alcoholic beverages, with entertainment using the example of a motion picture cinema and live entertainment theatre. The Hong Kong Disneyland hotel, MTR station and Ferry terminal all share an overarching victorian theme and I would assume that this was also meant to be the case for the RD&E buildings around the esplanade.

Even though they must have known that the park wasn’t going to spectacular at opening, Disney wanted to avoid the cultural backlash that they experience in Paris and were attentive enough to make sure that the park reflected Chinese and Hong Kong culture. Imagineers consulted a feng shui master in planning and building. Various earthly elements such as wood, fire, earth, metal and water were carefully balanced around the resort according to Feng Shui. The main gate was positioned in a north/south direction for good luck. Red is an extremely lucky color in Chinese culture so it is featured prominently throughout the resort. The resort would also sell traditional Chinese and Canto food. One fun fact is that no green hats are sold in the stores as it is said in Chinese culture that a man wearing a green hat is cheating on his wife.

It would prove that these decisions would be deemed good ideas over time but unlike Paris people weren’t bothered by cultural insensitivity, they were bothered by the fact that Disney released a sub-par product to the Hong Kong people. The work and money that went into this project left a sour taste in the locals mouths. I lived in Hong Kong for six months and it’s incredible how much this bitterness has echoed through generations. Even after all the modern expansions, many of my local friends believe Hong Kong Disneyland to be small and unnoteworthy. I had some which told that going to Hong Kong Disneyland was a waste of money, and I should save my money for Tokyo. The 2005 opening was a poor reflection of the park but obviously the most public. It created ideas that would stick with people and many people aren’t willing to pay money simply to be proven wrong.

The bitterness with the local people was further aggravated by the fact that the park in 2005 would never be able to compete with the world’s offerings which defeated one of the primary purposes of the park; to drive tourism. Why would anybody visit this resort when there are so many other far more superior resorts out there? The local people had a reason to be annoyed especially at Disney.

Why did Hong Kong Disneyland open like this? I have a theory based on the company at the time and everything seems to suggest that this was the most likely scenario. Around the world Disney was expanding. There were a multitude of projects preparing for the new millenia. Tokyo Disneysea, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris were four major theme parks that had opened in the five year lead up to ground breaking of Hong Kong Disneyland. In the United States alone, Disney was preoccupied in the 90s with the announcement and closure of Disney’s America, Disney Quest, and Disney Fair. That’s not to mention all of the rides, shows and spectaculars the currently open Disney parks were receiving.

I believe that Disney was drawn thin. Hong Kong Disneyland was the only project where you could literally throw anything together and call it a Disney park. There was no comparison in Asia apart from Tokyo but that park was heavily targeted to the Japanese and Japanese only. You could argue that barely any project at this time was necessarily quality especially ones like Disney California Adventure Park and Walt Disney Studios but they at least had original ideas.

But also keep in mind that the phased plan allowed Disney breathing room. If the resort wasn’t well-received to start off with then no big deal. This wasn’t their money they were wasting, it was Hong Kong’s money. If Hong Kong decided down the line that Disney needed to shape and offer more in terms of creativity and attractions it was Disney who came out on top. Hong Kong would pay for the majority of the attraction and the R&D in which the R&D could then be used in their own parks. Disney may be highly regarded but they are still a company with the prime goal of staying relevant, and staying financially stable. Decisions like this wouldn’t surprise me.

Shortly after Hong Kong Disneyland opened, Michael Eisner felt it was best to step down from his position at Disney and he would be replaced Bob Iger. A lot of people vilify Michael Eisner and I’ve tried to keep a neutral tone for this video as I don’t necessarily believe that Michael Eisner deserves all the hate that comes his way. He made some misguided decisions for Disney but ultimately saved the company from certain Bankruptcy.

Conclusion

Lets address the elephant in the room. Plans change all the time, why is it worthwhile to investigate Hong Kong Disneylands History? First off we need to understand who owns the resort. The Hong Kong Disney resort is operated by Hong Kong International Theme parks,  a company that is jointly owned by The Walt Disney Company and The Government of Hong Kong. That means that the taxes that the Hong Kong people pay for roads, rail, housing, public schooling and all other government projects also paid for the Hong Kong Disneyland resort. The Hong Kong people and government were undertaking a major financial risk by developing the park with $1.7 billion dollars required to buy the land and reclaim Penny’s Bay and a further $1.81 billion dollars to develop the resort. In addition, the government loaned Disney $718 million dollars for research and development. This would be a $3.5 billion dollar undertaking with a company that in recent years had an incredibly shaky history with opening parks.

The Bob Iger era of Disney has spent a lot of time and money correcting the mistakes of the past with expansions and developments that echo what Disney is all about in their theme parks and Hong Kong has been on the receiving end for a lot of this. Whilst progress has been slow due to Disney’s focus on the Shanghai Disney resort, Hong Kong Disneyland has leisurely climbed it’s way out of the hole that Disney originally put it in. Efforts are being made to give the park it’s own sense of identity instead of being the lessor of its counterpart. It may be a decade before we see the original phased plans come to fruition. The RD&E section of the resort may never come about but I believe there is still a fighting chance that Disney will invest in a second park for the resort in the future. It falls in-line with their plan of making sure that people remain on their property for as long as possible.

And that is the History of Hong Kong Disneyland. The resort in it’s current state, in my opinion, is excellent. They’ve removed the cloud of doubt that surrounded the park in it’s early years and it’s definitely worth a visit. I hold fond memories from when I visited with my now fiancee and just simply visiting the park after a day of university absorbing the great atmosphere which the park offers. The somber or bitter tone in this video is towards the potential the the park originally had and it should not have taken this long for the park to be recognised as world class.

“To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Many years ago, Walt Disney introduced the world to enchanted realms of fantasy and adventure, yesterday and tomorrow, in a magical place called Disneyland. Today that spirit of imagination and discovery comes to life in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Disneyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart – with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration, and an enduring symbol of the cooperation, friendship and understanding between the people of Hong Kong and the United States of America.”

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