THE DISNEYFICATION  OF  HONG  KONG

MANILA, September 23, 2005
 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - There is no one inside the Mickey Mouse costume." What seems like an answer to a misunderstood question turns out to be a revealing company philosophy. The life-sized Mickey Mouse walking in the park and greeting guests – never growing old, never changing, forever smiling – is the same Mickey Mouse you see in movies and on TV, magically transported to your side and obliging you with a souvenir photo.

Jean-Francois Remacle of Disneyland Paris is talking to us on the eve of Disneyland Hong Kong’s opening. He is part of the 15-man team from Paris to help open the park located on Lantau Island and train the "cast members" (they are never called employees). He says that cultural diversity has always been one of the hallmarks of Disneyland, and that, indeed, everyone is happy in the "happiest place on earth."

When we ask him how they train the mascots, he says, "What mascot? That’s Mickey Mouse."

No, no, no, we mean the person inside the costume.

"There is no one there but Mickey."

Right. And I have a pet unicorn at home.

This is where the famous Disney magic begins: with its people believing with their hearts that indeed there is magic. In a place that’s designed to bring out the child in you and goes to great lengths (and a lot of money) to convince everyone to believe – in fairy tales, in happy endings, in pretty princesses that never get tired of waiting for their respective princes charming, and yes, in a talking, walking mouse wearing white gloves and a bright red polka-dot tie (sometimes, he wears a space cadet’s uniform or a safari jacket) – reality quickly buckles and gives way to wonder.

Founder Walt Disney envisioned his first theme park in Anaheim, California, as a place where "you leave today and enter worlds of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy." That blueprint hasn’t changed much in the 50 years the company has been creating theme parks around the world. Imagination, today coupled with astounding technology, is still the force behind Disney. No wonder Disney’s designers, architects and artists are called "Imagineers."

Disneyland Hong Kong is similar in many ways to the one in Anaheim, the first Disneyland. When Anaheim opened in 1955 it was also just big enough to accommodate guests of up to 30,000 .

Tom Staggs, chief financial officer of the Walt Disney Company, says during a media briefing at the Disneyland Hotel that Anaheim started at this size and each Disney park is a continuing project. Or as Walt Disney once said, "Disneyland will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." Staggs says a third of the projected 5.6 million guests in the first year is expected to come from Hong Kong, a third from Mainland China, and a third from the rest of Southeast Asia. It seems like a huge number but it’s really a modest start compared to Tokyo’s 13 million visitors or Florida’s 15 million visitors last year. Disneyland HK employs about 5,000 employees and estimates the park will generate HK$148 billion over a 40-year period.

Sleeping Beauty may well sleep in her pink castle (the most photographed attraction in Disneyland) she’ll wake up a multi-billionaire.

Lands Of Imagination

Disneyland Hong Kong has four main themed lands: Main Street, USA; Fantasyland; Tomorrowland; and Adventureland. Apart from the design and architecture of each land, the costumes of cast members play a huge part in establishing the fantasy.

Alex Boen, director of costuming, says that for this park alone, there are a total of 394 garment styles and 115,000 pieces. Instead of being given their costumes for the day, cast members get to choose from a clothing store-like center – from their themed wardrobe, they can mix and match their tops and bottoms and accessories, allowing for individual looks.

Main Street, USA, recreates small-town America circa 1890 to 1910, the era of Walt Disney’s childhood, when electric lamps and cars were just beginning to be used. It’s a picturesque slice of a town square containing typical Victorian buildings such as an apothecary, opera house, a firehouse, city hall, a shopping emporium, bakery and restaurants.

Adventureland’s main attraction is the Jungle River Cruise, a boat ride sailing past waterfalls and Tarzan Island, where visitors can explore his treehouse. There are also elephants, hippos, crocodiles and apes created by Disney Audio-Animatronics.

Fantasyland is where kids will most enjoy themselves. Here, more familiar Disney characters are featured: Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Snow White’s Grotto, Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mad Hatter Tea Cups, and Cinderella’s Carousel.

Don’t forget to take the kids to Mickey’s PhilharMagic, an animated 3-D show where Donald Duck crashes into scenes from Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The effects are so real that when Ariel throws jewels under the sea, you find yourself extending your hand to catch one or when Jasmine’s carpet makes a somersault, you’ll find yourself ducking.

The night before the park opened, Tomorrowland was opened for the media. This is the home of all the futuristic characters and attractions that Disney has created: The Incredibles and Buzz Lightyear (to me, one of the best moments in the history of animation is when Buzz crashes to reality upon seeing himself in a TV ad with the announcer going, "This is not a flying toy"); Space Mountain, an indoor roller coaster that careens through star-lit space and spectacular visuals (I’m a coward when it comes to roller coasters, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one – and screamed my head off, of course); and Orbitron, a ride on "flying saucers" that are spinning while going up a 13-meter structure (another ride I enjoyed, partly because of the views from high up).

A Disneyland Is A Disneyland

Disneyland Hong Kong is the 11th Disney theme park worldwide and the second in Asia, after Disneyland Tokyo. It is also, as the Hong Kong media never tires of pointing out, the company’s smallest park in the world.

This is just one of the series of complaints that Disneyland got from the HK media – first there was the shark’s fin soup brouhaha (it was pulled out of the menu after environmentalists protested), then the health inspectors issue, labor complaints (which was bannered by the South China Morning Post on the day we arrived, two days before the opening), and the planned nightly fireworks in the park.

Associated Press writer William Foreman put it in perspective when he said, "In the months before the park’s opening, the media sometimes sounded as though Disney were building a shoddy nuclear plant, rather than a cheerful amusement park with cartoon characters and a pink Sleeping Beauty Castle."

As the park opened last Monday, 16,000 people came rushing through the turnstiles to be the first to experience this American-style entertainment. But even as Disneyland is as American as, well, apple pie, this Disneyland has, in a way, become very Hong Kong-ized.

Starting with the construction, Disneyland incorporated so much of its host country’s traditions including feng shui – they consulted a leading Hong Kong geomancer who specified the orientation of entrances and major public spaces – its cuisine (there is only one American-style restaurant in the entire park) and, most obvious of all, in its merchandising. You see moon cakes in the shape of Mickey’s head, Mickey wearing Chinese robes, and T-shirts with Mao collars and cheongsam style.

In the end, of course, not even all the critics combined can knock the park down, thanks to a mouse with his strange ability to make kids and adults smile.

And, hell, just enjoy the ride. This is Disneyland: the happiest place on earth. Thank God we have one so near now.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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