The Disney magic kingdom concept, started 50 years ago this year by a "daddy and two daughters" in Anaheim, Calif., opens Monday in this Asian hub - with a potential to reach around four billion persons between Karachi and Seoul. A chief market for the patented Disney gospel of simple hope, of underdogs transformed into princes and princesses, and of colorful happy endings, are families from the 1.3 billion party-state of mainland China.
It's already being called a "meeting of Mickey [Mouse] and Mao."
Hong Kong officials hope the magic kingdom on Lantau Island, beside the South China Sea, will add to an economic boom, and start to make Hong Kong a family destination, as well as the commercial center of East meets West.
Disneyland will "continue to grow, as long as there is imagination left in the world," according to its founder Walt Disney. Yet it has been nearly 15 years since the last magic kingdom opened, in Paris. The compact $3.5 billion Hong Kong park takes after the original in Anaheim. It also adds Asian elements, built its Main Street USA in consultation with a feng shui master, and focuses on Tomorrowland. But to finish the joint venture between Hong Kong and Disney took seven years, with more twists and turns than Space Mountain, the park's most popular ride.
"Is there a more futuristic city than Hong Kong?" asks Dave Fischer, senior show writer for Walt Disney. "It's way ahead in technology and design. It's already in 'Tomorrowland,' so we focused on space exploration."
Politically, Disney's opening may serve to help China tighten bonds to the cosmopolitan former British colony it inherited in 1997. Vice President Zeng Qinghong of China will formally open Disneyland Monday as part of a three-day trip, a move of real significance, experts say.
Mr. Zeng is the first top Beijing leader to visit here since a grass-roots democracy movement put hundreds of thousands of protestors on the street July 1, 2003. Those marches appear to have lost their energy after Beijing removed Hong Kong leader Tung Che-hwa this year. Zeng will advocate greater obedience and understanding between Hong Kong and the Chinese motherland, sources say. Hong Kong's democrats are even attending a dinner where Zeng is a guest, and have been invited en masse to visit to the mainland city of Guangdong, a first.
Hong Kong is not Asia's first Disneyland. Toyko took that honor in 1983. Yet while Tokyo's park is mainly a destination for Japanese, and has a strictly American design - Hong Kong aims to capture Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, even a South Asia historically familiar with Hong Kong.
Moreover, even though Hong Kong was designed in Glendale, Calif., by Disney's Imagineering group, and uses the "hub and spoke" design where different "lands" are situated around the blue-turreted Sleeping Beauty Castle, Hong Kong incorporates many Asia-friendly elements: Rides and shows are trilingual, using Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. "The Golden Mickeys," unique to Hong Kong, mixes Cantonese dialogue and English song lyrics in a high-energy stage show of Disney vignettes that left yesterday's audience wide-eyed. Ditto the food: Except for a small diner in Tomorrowland, all cuisine is Asian.
One popular Asian element, not found in other Disney parks, is Fantasy Gardens. Visitors can photograph friends and family next to a grinning Goofy or Minnie Mouse or Donald Duck. With a penchant for pictures in Asia, the Garden has been a major success, though the dragon character of Mushu, from the film Mulan, has not been so popular. However, a small scaly-green mechanical dinosaur named "Lucky" (a popular Asian name) who wheels a cart around Adventureland, is a huge hit. Sleeping Beauty Castle here is the only one in the world framed by mountains.
Prior to its opening, the Disney park seemed to endure a steady blitz of problems, critics, and questions. It was criticized for offering shark-fin soup (now off the menu), something served at nearly every elite restaurant in Hong Kong. Last month park officials put down a pack of some 40 stray dogs after trying to round them up - angering some locals. Nightly fireworks were criticized for potential air pollution, though the park satisfied city codes. Labor unions stirred up a storm last week, threatening to organize when it was found that Disney disallows employees' use of cell-phones on break. Finally, a dress rehearsal with long lines and questions of food safety got lots of negative attention in the local media. The Hong Kong Standard finally asked on page one if any local company "ever received such scrutiny?"
The three most popular Disney characters in Asia are Winnie the Pooh, Mickey, and Buzz Lightyear. Each has a show. There's "Mickey's PhilharMagic," with a surprise appearance by a certain "con-DUCK-tor."
"I really love it," said 14-year-old Wa, who came with her friends. "The lines weren't as bad as I heard," says Allan Lo of Hong Kong. As a father, he likes his daughter to think about the egalitarian message of Disney's theme song, "If you wish upon a star, it doesn't matter who you are."