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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disney's Hong Kong Park Struggling to Impress

HONG KONG -- Poking his white-gloved mouse paws into the sides of a giggling Chinese child, Mickey's antics have brought delight in the world's newest Disneyland in Hong Kong.

"I'm very happy," said 10-year-old Lucy Liao from Shanghai, visiting with her parents.

But the laughter seems to stop there.

Frustrated by overcrowding and long lines in the park, which is relatively small compared to Disney's other magic kingdoms, not all visitors are impressed.

"It's below our expectations," said Lu Hongsheng from the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, who saved for months to bring his wife and 8-year-old daughter to the first Disneyland on Chinese soil.

"There are too many people," he said, gesturing at the crowds stretching as far as Sleeping Beauty's castle 100 meters away.

Managing the sensibilities of Chinese tourists has been a crucial task for Disney as it tries to establish its business in China -- estimated to become the world's fourth-largest source of outbound tourists by 2020. Opened last September in Hong Kong on China's southern coast, the park failed to hit its full-year 5.6 million-visitor attendance target, but still managed to pull in over 5 million guests. At least one-third of them were from the mainland.

But Disney has suffered a number of controversies, including a lockout of angry ticket holders during the crunch Lunar New Year holidays, and the public airing of grievances by its staff who complained of low wages and mistreatment.

A public opinion survey in March found that 70 percent of Hong Kong residents had negative impressions of Disney. "I think their fundamental problem is a software one, the inability to understand the Asian mindset in terms of their customers and staff," said John Ap, a theme park expert from the Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management.

Ap said many of Disney's guests were not interested in white-knuckle amusement park rides like Americans and Europeans. "Asians are a lot more conservative," he explained. Disney had also not adequately catered to the Chinese fondness for photo-taking, though a "Fantasy Gardens" attraction built in the Hong Kong park for this purpose was a good start, he added.

While Disney has downplayed these setbacks as "growing pains," it admitted there were cultural hurdles to be overcome. "Our biggest challenge going into China is that familiarity with the Disney brand is high, but familiarity with a Disney theme park is not necessarily so high," said Josh D'Amaro, Hong Kong Disneyland's head of Sales and Travel Trade Marketing.

"There's a much more integrated marketing approach that needs to happen; there needs to be an education process. People need to understand what Buzz Lightyear is," D'Amaro said, referring to Disney's bionic toy character.

With this in mind, Disney will launch a 10-15 minute "pre-show" induction course at its Hong Kong theme park in the coming months to teach its guests about its characters, stories and park attractions. This crash course -- a first for any Disneyland -- is aimed at minimizing cultural confusion.

Disney has also strengthened its sales and marketing initiatives on the Chinese mainland, particularly in south China. An annual pass scheme, giving unlimited visits on one ticket, will be introduced later in the year, aimed at encouraging repeat visits. Disney is targeting not just the local Hong Kong market, but also the many affluent mainlanders who hold special travel documents allowing unlimited, visa-free visits to Hong Kong.

"The name of the game is to encourage repeat visitation. If you're unable to do that, you're going to be in trouble. And I think that's the challenge Hong Kong Disneyland will have, particularly with the mainland market," Ap said.

But this task will be made difficult by the park's small size, limited attractions and up to 90 minute waits for many rides, including the Space Mountain roller coaster at peak times.

While Disney struggles to adapt, its attempts to tap the lucrative mainland market are being shadowed by a homegrown competitor called Ocean Park.

This 30-year-old theme park, modeled on Sea World in the United States, with dolphin shows, panda enclosures and roller coasters has had a bumper year, drawing over 4 million visitors.

It is not considered a direct competitor with Disney. But according to Hong Kong's Travel Industry Council, almost 80 percent of tours from China, not including those from the southern Guangdong province, visit Ocean Park as part of their itineraries. In contrast, Disney tends to be an optional day out.

"Most tourists choose Ocean Park because it's been established for so long, especially on the mainland," said Paul Leung, a director of the Hong Kong Travel Industry Council.