MANILA, March 21, 2006 (STAR) JACKIE O’FLASH By Bea Ledesma - To people under the tender age of 10, it is Mecca. To those in their 20s, it’s a theme park that never loses its charm. To the 30 and above, it’s a safe place to stow their children and have more than a few blissful moments of fun. To those in their 40s and above, it’s home to memories, both past and future, of family and friends frolicking in the park’s rides. To everyone else, it’s Disneyland.

The magic kingdom of Mickey and friends, once limited to fellow compatriots and tourists in Anaheim and Orlando, has broadened its reach, bringing joy and laughter to more than two billion people from as far as Paris and Tokyo. To date, Mickey’s been relocated to Lantau Island, a small plot of land northeast of Hong Kong, which can take tourists about 10 minutes to reach from the Hong Kong International Airport. Or 30 minutes if you’re trekking from the shopping haven of the downtown district by way of train or ferry.

Before you even enter the park, the magic of Disney already begins to weave its spell on excited tourists. For parents, it begins with the wide, paved roads leading to the park and the efficient shuttle that buses people to and from the Disney hotels. Every 10 minutes, the bus leaves, with or without a gaggle of visitors – an homage to American efficiency that every Asian secretly envies. For children, it starts as soon as they hear the beloved songs of their favorite Disney movies, from as far back as Pinocchio and Cinderella to Little Mermaid and Toy Story, or catch a glimpse of the fountain a few meters before the entrance featuring Mickey riding a wave of water coming from Monstro, the whale in Pinocchio.

It is upon entering Main Street, that Disney institution of gaslight-edged brick streets, where turn-of-the-century buildings flank each side and old-fashioned automobiles idle slowly down the path, that Disney actually comes to life. A recreation of Walt Disney’s hometown during his childhood, Main Street’s antediluvian charm greets guests with the kind of quaint Americana and upbeat spirit that Walt so loved. It’s here that the train, a passion of Walt’s since childhood, makes its first stop. It winds down each area of the theme park, giving children and seniors a chance to get a bird’s eye view without the trouble of walking.

Only the Chinese accents of the staff at Hong Kong Disney alert guests, many of whom are local anyway, to the fact that the park is indeed in China. Friendly and bi-lingual – most of them anyway – the cast members, code for staff here at Disneyland, are quick to greet guests with a cheery, "Have a magical day!" or a courteous "How may I help you?" in easy-to-understand English.

Walk down Main Street and you’ll pass the opera house, a picturesque building with a marquee edged in gilt that reads "The Disneyland Story." Here you’ll find the story of Walt and Mickey and their intertwined fates: from Mickey’s beginnings as Mortimer (Walt’s original name for the stalwart cartoon character before his wife wisely advised him to change it to Mickey) to his original sketches of his dream theme park. A few buildings down and you’ll hit the jewelry store, featuring astonishingly cute charms in the likenesses of famed Disney faces, done in silver or gold. Ask a cast member what the priciest thing in the store is and he’ll show you to a reproduction of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, a main feature in Disneyland Anaheim, with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and Donald in their gold finery prancing by the entrance. You’ll consider buying it – if only for the bragging rights – but reconsider once you remember your luggage’s maximum weight limits. You’ll sigh then you settle for a picture in front of it, so you can tell friends that you once stood next to a castle done entirely in gold.

Once you hit the main thoroughfare, you’ll catch a glimpse of Sleeping Beauty’s castle set against the countryside’s stark mountain range. "There’s something breathtaking about walking down Main Street and seeing the mountain range as a backdrop," says Mike Hyland, Disneyland Resort’s director of broadcast news planning and development. "It’s just breathtaking." With its gothic structure and dramatic archway leading to Fantasyland, where guests can walk over the wide bridgeway over a moat, the castle represents Disney’s promise: a place where fantasies can come true. And as you see Cinderella and two prettily-dressed mice walking by, you can’t help but relive a few of your own childhood fantasies of dancing in glass slippers and meeting a very rich and handsome Prince Charming to take you away from the drudgery of deadlines and phone bills and appointments and then you realize you’re getting carried away. As you tap Cinderella on the shoulder to ask for a photo, you realize that you’re halfway through to your fantasy – any minute now, Prince Charming will be bounding up the steps to chase after her and now will be your chance to steal him away.

OK, moving on. Dream A Little Dream Fantasyland is home to Disney’s classic fairy tales. Rides veer from the tame like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (which is kid-friendly and fun, good for those under eight, featuring a very gentle ride through one of Pooh’s adorable adventures) to the so-bad-you’ll-turn-green-from-the-motion-sickness Mad Hatter Tea Cups (a very enjoyable ride, despite all the rotating and whirling, featuring spinning tea cups from Alice in Wonderland). Check out The Golden Mickeys, a 30-minute awards show featuring a handful of Disney characters. The host speaks in Chinese, though, but otherwise it’s pretty self-explanatory. Do not leave the area without visiting Mickey’s PhilharMagic, a wonderful 3D animated presentation that will – literally – blow your socks off. Even if the lines are long (and during weekends, they’re bound to be), make time to watch it because it’s an astonishingly great show that makes you feel young again – what with the wonderment and awe you feel as you sail along the magic carpet ride with Donald Duck. As soon as you leave, you’ll tell everyone you see within the next 12 hours and one mile radius that they should see Mickey’s PhilharMagic.

Move down a theme and you’ll be right smack in the middle of Adventureland, a rollicking series of rides that often you leave you wet and over-stimulated – at least if you attempt the Jungle River Cruise, a short tour down a river filled with statuesque crocodiles, playful apes and bathing elephants. It wouldn’t be complete without watching the critically-acclaimed Festival of the Lion King , a 30-minute compendium of the award-winning Broadway musical, which features songs like I Just Can’t Wait to be King, Hakuna Matata and the Elton John-penned Circle of Life performed by talented entertainers.

Head over to Tomorrowland and have a burger for lunch, the Char Siew burger that is, a pork patty with sweet seasoning available at the Starliner, a diner that also offers American burgers. Hong Kong Disneyland is famous for offering Chinese menu items, from hearty noodle dishes at the Tahitian Terrace Restaurant in Adventureland to sushi and curry (served separately, of course) at the Royal Banquet Hall in Fantasyland. But don’t eat too much, because you’ll be dropping by the Space Mountain ride, a highly-sophisticated indoor roller coaster that’s been darkened and filled with star-like pinpoints of light to recreate – what else? – space. This bumpy, exciting, electrifying ride will leave you breathless, unless you’re prone to screaming, then it will leave you hoarse and unable to stand properly for 10 minutes – but it’s totally worth it, you’ll brag to your friends later on. A week later, you’ll even be mentioning that you were quiet and cool the whole time, making sure to hide the damning evidence: a shot of you with your mouth wide open, screaming for dear life and clutching the stranger next to you like a bear does to raw meat.

Take a break from the obscenely amazing entertainment and chill out by the Main Street sidewalk, preferably by three o’clock, so you can catch Disney on Parade, a marvel of costumes and floats, which has about 100 performers either dancing or playing music on the street.

If you have enough energy, stay for Disney in the Stars, the nightly pyrotechnic extravaganza that begins with a series of clips from several animated features, usually with a theme. Projected against the façade of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the light bouncing off the water in the moat, it’s a stunning showcase of technical ingenuity. And often, the clips tug at the hearts of the older group, making them reminisce about their favorite Disney moments. By this time, you’ll be pretending dirt entered your eye as you feel yourself getting teary when you see Cinderella finally owning up to her true identity. And then the light show begins, and as the children gasp in awe around you, you can’t help but smile. Maybe because you realize it’s been the best vacation you’ve had in years. Or maybe it’s because you’ve introduced something wonderful into your kids’ lives, just as your parents did with your first trip to Disneyland. Or maybe, just maybe, you felt like a kid again and gasped right along with them. No shame in that. This is, after all, where the magic happens.

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A ticket to Hong Kong Disneyland costs HK$295 for adults, HK$210 for children and HK$170 for seniors (65 or above). For more information, visit http://park.hongkongdisneyland.com.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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