With giddy anticipation, I lept out of bed and packed up my suitcase, ready to leave Kowloon behind and head over to the newly-opened Hong Kong Disneyland. Despite all my experiences thus far (temples, casinos, hotels, spas, aquariums), none of these captured my interest more than the idea of seeing a brand-new Disneyland.
I’m not sure why I have this Disney obsession. Back when I lived in California, my family used to go to the original Disneyland once or twice a year. When I was in high school, I visited Dave Smith at the Walt Disney Archives. I’ve read all the books on the subject of Disney theme parks, ranging from paperback tourist guides and glossy coffee-table books to trashy tell-alls and hefty academic tomes. I’d say my interest is academic. I don’t collect animation cels or figurines; I don’t own a mountain of Disney t-shirts, and I absolutely won’t ever get involved in “pin trading“. But, I do have reprints of original attraction blueprints. I do read all the “insider” websites and listen to the podcasts. I don’t care so much about Mickey and Donald and Goofy, but I can tell you all about Paul Pressler and Tony Baxter and Matt Ouimet.
It may seem paradoxical, given that Disney is typically all about “fantasy”, but I’m fascinated by the “practical” side of the parks: the logistics, the engineering, the design. When I read John Hench’s book, for example, I found an entire chapter devoted to the logic behind the color choices for everything from the hotels to the cruise ships, and I was in heaven.
I’m lucky to have lived in a time when Disney parks (under the early direction of Michael Eisner) underwent a dramatic expansion. In Florida, EPCOT Center was followed by Disney-MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and a series of breathtakingly themed resorts with more hotel rooms than all of New York City. In Anaheim, Disneyland’s massive parking lot was replaced by Disney’s California Adventure and the Grand Californian Hotel. Abroad, Disney opened four more theme parks near Tokyo and Paris, together with their own themed shopping/entertainment/hotel districts. And, all of this within a 20 year timespan; impressive by any measure.
To get to Hong Hong Disneyland, you have to take the metro to Sunny Bay (about half-way between Downtown Hong Kong and the airport), and change to special trains that take you directly to the park. The Disneyland trains are unmistakable, with large Mickey Mouse shaped windows and golden Disney character statues in glass cases inside. The journey only takes a few minutes and lets you off at a dedicated station a few hundred yards from the front gates.
For anyone who’s ever visited the original Disneyland in California, a visit to the Hong Kong version is intensely surreal. Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland each feature their own unique central castle, Main Street area and train station. But, Hong Kong Disneyland’s castle, Main Street and train station are all exact duplicates of the original California versions. Meaning that a walk down Main Street in Hong Kong looks and feels identical to the same experience in California… except for all the Chinese people milling around. I joked to a friend that you could be walking down the California Main Street, hit with a tranquilizer dart, shipped to Hong Kong, wake up and never realize you were on another continent.
At least, not until you noticed the mountain behind the castle. In the original Disneyland, there’s a 100-foot tall, 1/100 scale cement and steel replica of the Matterhorn to the right of the castle. But in Hong Kong there’s a real multi-hundred-foot tall actual mountain right behind the castle. In fact, a whole range of mountains borders the western perimiter of the park, looming over everything within. You look toward the castle and think, “Hey! Who stuck this mountain range here?”, forgetting for a moment that it was here long before Disney came calling. It is a weird sensation though. And worse, the mountains throw off the scale of buildings in the park, making the already-small Disneyland castle look positively tiny.
So, how does the newest Disneyland compare with the others? It’s hard to tell… yet. The reason is that there’s not very much there at the moment. There’s no It’s a Small World, no Haunted Mansion, no Pirates of the Caribbean, no Mr. Toads’s Wild Ride, no Peter Pan, no Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Frontierland, no New Orleans Square, no Critter Country, no Liberty Square, no Big Thunder Mountain, no Splash Mountain, no Indiana Jones, no Star Tours, no Peoplemover… the list goes on. Right now, there are only about two attractions in each of the three lands. So desperate are they to increse the “ride count”, that Tarzan’s Treehouse and the Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse are treated in the guidebook as two seperate attractions even though it’s impossible to do one without the other. And, notice it’s Tarzan’s Treehouse, not Tarzan’s Island Featuring a Treehouse. In the American parks, the same island area features miles of dirt paths, forts and caves to explore. Here, it’s the treehouse, and you’re done.
This is not to say that Hong Kong Disneyland is a “bad” park. Quite the opposite. I loved it! But, it’s an infant park with a lot of room to grow. One thing it has a lot of (too many of) are restaurants. When you enter Tomorrowland, for example, the building on your right (where Star Tours is in Disneyland) houses a large fast-food place. And on the left (where Buzz Lightyear is in Disneyland), there’s another huge fast-food place. Space Mountain and Autopia seem almost like afterthoughts, crammed into the back. And, if the Tomorrowland situation isn’t mall-y enough for you, there’s an honest-to-God food-court in Fantasyland (They claim it’s the largest restaurant in any Disney theme park.), with four “stations” for Chinese dim sum, Japanese sushi, Korean barbecue and various soups (oddly labled as “Kettle”). By the way, if you’re a hapless American, there’s spaghetti on the kids’ menu.
My guess is that a lot of these eateries are merely placeholders for future rides. Rather than open up lands with big empty buildings in them, they went ahead with food as a temporary space-filler. Even during my visit though, there were some restaurants in Adventureland that were never open, including (ironically) the Tahitian Terrace, a restaurant that was permanently closed at the original Disneyland as well. Outdoor carts offer up the usual popcorn and hot-dogs. Unlike Japan, where the popcorn flavors run from cola to banana, all I could find at Hong Kong Disneyland was caramel. There were a few local additions to the eat-and-run menus though, like chicken satay and cuttlefish balls on a stick. I opted for a sit-down lunch of wonton soup and beef-with-broccoli. It was about what you’d expect at Disney, which is to say on par with your standard mall food-court chinese food (at subsantially higher prices).
After spending the morning at the park, I went back and checked into my hotel. There are two hotels on property, both owned and operated by Disney. The first, more expensive on is the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, which is a scaled-down version of the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World (which is itself a copy of the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego). The second, more moderate hotel is the Hollywood Hotel, which is basically a copy of the art-deco Ambassador Hotel at Tokyo Disneyland. I stayed at the Hollywood Hotel, and let me tell you, in Florida it would be considered “deluxe”. For less than the price of my room in Kowloon, I got a top-floor double-king (the room was huge!) with a sweeping view of the park.
After unpacking, I wen’t back to Hong Kong Disneyland and re-rode all the rides. It was mid-week, and the park was pretty empty. Of all the attractions, I think my favorite was the Jungle River Cruise. It’s basically the same as the Jungle Cruise in Califiornia’s Disneyland, but with a few added surprises. Frankly, I was surprised to see the ride here because it requires joke-filled narration by a live tour guide, and in an international city like Hong Kong (not to mention a country with hundreds of regional dialects), what language do you use? The French faced this problem in Disneyland Paris (aka: EuroDisney). Do we have it in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch? Their solution? No Jungle Cruise at all. For the Hong Kong version, they settled on three: English, Cantonese and Mandarin (each with it’s own line). Just for fun, I tried all three, and there wasn’t a lot of difference. I rode the English version first, and the guide told the canned jokes in a broken English-is-not-my-first-language rhythm that quite effectively removed all the humor. “Ah, you see man at bottom of pole with rhino underneath himself? Oh yes, he will get point at end, yes he will.” In comedy, timing is everything.
But, apparently it’s not the only thing. Thinking maybe the jokes were just getting lost in translation, I rode the Chinese versions too. Nope. Even in their native language, the boatfulls of passengers sat there stone-faced. Even the snapping mechanical aligators, charging hippos and squirting elephants barely got a reaction. The Chinese, I’ve found, are a tough room. The only thing they really love is taking picures, especially if the one with the camera is about 25 and he’s there with his girlfriend. Every five feet there’s some guy asking his girlfriend to pose in front of the castle, in front of the boat, the tree, the nearest garbage can, anything really. And, the girls all smile a fairly plastic smile and make the same little two-handed peace-sign gesture with their fingers, which when I look at it, I can’t help but think of Richard Nixon on his last day, getting on that helicopter.
In any event, I headed back to the hotel for dinner, hoping for something a little better than the theme park food. I stopped at the posh-er Disneyland Hotel first. It was nice in a fake Victorian way. The art-deco chrome and glass of my hotel gave way here to velvet and chintz. By contrast, the hotel restaurant (which I wish I’d eaten at) looked extremely sleek and modern. The front was a wall of deep-red glass, punctured by hundreds of large sparkling Swarovski crystal lotus blossoms. Behind that was a clear-glass wine vault, stocked with some choice vinatages I’m sure. To enter the restaurant, you crossed a “stream” of running water with koi fish swimming though it, except the whole thing was done through video projection. And, what’s more, the computer-generated fish actually reacted and moved according to where you stepped. The kids loved it, but the adults barely seemed to notice.
Back at my hotel, there was nothing so elaborate. Basically just a standard family-style restaurant with a menu that seemed designed to please the Chinese and Westerners alike. Like an Asian version of Denny’s. Or, come to think of it, exactly the East-meets-West menu you’ll find these days at any 24-hour casino restaurant in Las Vegas. I think I had a chicken-breast sandwich, and then went up to the room and fell asleep. Sadly, tomorrow would be my last day.
(Continued in Day 6.)