However, the real test lies in whether Disney is able to transport the magic of the Disneyland brand into Asia with Hong Kong Disneyland, while avoiding the mistakes it has made in its European foray with EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris).
Disneyland Paris’ teething problems have famously demonstrated the tough challenges that even a globally known and loved brand like Disney faces in extending its brand experience to another culture. From cultural insensitivities such as a blanket English-only policy for staff and the prohibition on wine consumption on park grounds, to exorbitant pricing on tickets and merchandise, mistakes could provide valuable lessons in what to avoid in future international ventures.
Disney has gone to great lengths to make the Hong Kong park culturally sensitive to the Hong Kong population and attractive to Chinese visitors.
Consulting local feng shui masters, especially to appease the prosperity-conscious Hong Kong population which has invested HKD 316 million in tax dollars in the park, the main entrance gate of Hong Kong Disneyland was shifted by 12 degrees and cash counters are placed close to corners or along walls to maximize prosperity. Auspicious dates were picked for the commencement and completion of each building on the property, lucky numbers like 8 abound (the main ballroom at one of the hotels is 888 square feet large), and unlucky ones like 4 (which sounds like the word death in Cantonese and Mandarin) do not appear at all on lift buttons.
Beyond putting local folks at ease, Disneyland executives have also gone the extra mile to make the park more accessible to Chinese tourists.
Park signs are written in both Chinese and English, and there are bilingual explanations for each of the park's rides. The Jungle Cruise boats that have Mandarin-speaking guides feature names such as Lijiang Lady, which bears reference to Lijiang in China, famous for its scenic rivers.
Meals and Disney merchandise at Hong Kong Disneyland are also priced reasonably, encouraging visitors to bring home a piece of the brand experience.
In bringing the Disney brand closer to Asia, however, the same overtures may have in turn brought Hong Kong Disneyland further from what’s central to the brand.
For many visitors to Disneyland, the magic of the Disney brand lies in its ability to transport you to a fantasy world. As you walk down Main Street in most Disneylands, with its quaint shop fronts and cobbled street, cast members and characters greet you with trademark exuberance; it’s a magical journey into a new realm.
Disneyland is also quintessentially about American culture. This has been adjusted to varying degrees at different parks all over the world and, while kitschy at times, has been at the center of the brand.
This is where Hong Kong Disneyland seems to have overcompensated for cultural differences and settled for a less than authentic Disney experience.
While a lot of attention was paid to incorporating Asian elements during planning and construction, less attention seems to have been paid to offering more rides and bigger thrills. The Hong Kong Disneyland experience is far more tame, perhaps to cater to mainland visitors who, for now, seem to prefer taking photographs than taking rides.
Life-size characters, a common sight on the streets of Western Disneylands, are not as easily seen in Hong Kong. And while cast members exude a warm friendliness that Hong Kong service staffs are famous for, they still have yet to fully get into character to create the trademark fantasy world that Disney is so known for.
The lack in authenticity trickles down to even food choices—where you may expect to find cotton candy and hot dogs, instead are vacuum-packed drumsticks cooked in soy sauce and black sesame ice cream. Bakeries on Main Street draw visitors in with window displays of blackberry pies, but long queues form within for the main product available—egg custard tarts, a ubiquitous pastry found all over Hong Kong, making the experience too local and commonplace.
Perhaps the park size may also be a factor in this. At 299 acres, Hong Kong Disneyland is just one percent the size of Florida’s Disney World and is Disney’s smallest theme park yet. It is estimated to take just 30 minutes to walk through all parts of the theme park (without crowds of course). Arguably it may be difficult to replicate the Disney experience in such a small space.
Consequently, many Western visitors find Hong Kong Disneyland cramped and sometimes claustrophobic during peak periods. Westernized Hong Kong Chinese have also complained.
Bearing in mind that Disney’s main target are mainland visitors, the current version may be doing its job at keeping the target market entertained. Tickets to Hong Kong Disneyland were sold out on three separate days in December 2005, with research showing continued interest by the younger crowd to Disneyland.
However, as mainland visitors warm to the brand and the experience, it may be worthwhile for Disney to pay attention to the local community for return visits, as well as international visitors who may want a piece of the authentic Disney experience, with Asian flavor.
To appeal to these audiences, Hong Kong Disneyland may have to restore some of the magic that Disneyland is famous for.