Reuse and recycle

Late last month, several senior Walt Disney World officials winged their way from Orlando to Asia. Their mission: make nice at a two-day conference titled "Preparing for Hong Kong Disneyland."

Sponsored by the Tourism Office of the Hong Kong SAR Government, this forum was designed mostly as a cheerleading session for Disney's next big thing -- a theme park and resort the Mouse is building on Lantua Island, due to open in 2005. Thus, folks such as WDW's Randy Garfield -- executive vice president of sales and travel operations -- made the 7,000-mile journey just to "Rah! Rah! Rah!" about the project to Hong Kong's business leaders.

Though open to the public, this conference was a bit on the pricey side. Attendees had to fork over more than $500 apiece for the privilege of hearing Mouse House managers crow about the financial impact Hong Kong Disneyland (HKD) would have on the local economy.

Unfortunately, the people of Hong Kong are all too aware of that impact, having already shelled out millions for site preparation. Given the unexploded WWII-era bombs they keep finding just offshore, these folks can expect to pay a bit more before it's finally safe for the Mouse to begin construction.

Local government officials keep insisting that, over the next 40 years, HKD will add nearly $20 billion to the area's economy. Which, 40 years from now, would be a very cool thing. But in the face of the mounting immediate costs, some wonder if the government wasn't too eager to get into bed with the Walt Disney Co.

Consider the deal they cut with the Mouse. The Hong Kong government agreed to put up $2.9 billion for the project. In return, it gets a 57 percent share in a joint venture with the Mouse to co-manage the theme park, a 1,400-room hotel and a retail, entertainment and dining complex.

How much did Disney put up to secure its 43 percent stake in this $3 billion-plus project?

Just $315 million.

Why would the Hong Kong government agree to such a one-sided arrangement? Sources say officials were desperate to land a major theme park, which they believe is essential to create a world-class tourist destination. After losing in their bid for a Universal Studios park (coincidentally, Universal Studios Japan opens along Osaka's waterfront later this month), the Hong Kong government was willing to accept almost any terms -- and Disney executives gleefully took advantage of their panic.

Perhaps the imbalance wouldn't matter so much if the Hong Kong government were getting a big bang for their bucks -- a unique, state-of-the-art Disney park that would rival the over-the-top entertainment found at Tokyo Disneyland and the soon-to-be-opened Tokyo Disney Seas.

Unfortunately for those government officials, however, this new project reflects the less-is-more philosophy that Disney management currently holds so dear. That means the Mouse's new Asian enterprise won't create many attractions but instead will revive mostly recycled elements from the other Disney parks.

For example, if you like Disney's Animal Kingdom, you're going to love HKD's Adventureland. Look for "The Boneyard" interactive play area from Dinoland U.S.A., as well as the "Festival of the Lion King" show from Camp Minnie-Mickey to turn up as significant attractions in this part of the park.

You can also expect a copy of WDW's soon-to-open "Magic Carpets of Agrabah" -- sort of a Dumbo ride on floor mats. Disney/MGM's "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster" also will be recycled, although instead of sending riders whizzing along Los Angeles' freeways, this looping indoor coaster will take HKD guests through a dense forest filled with audio-animatronic dinosaurs.

HKD's Frontierland is a particularly impressive piece of patchwork. It will feature re-creations of the "Phantom Manor" ride from Disneyland Paris, the "It's Tough to Be a Bug" 3D movie from Disney's Animal Kingdom, as well as a "Lewis & Clark River Expedition" whitewater raft ride originally designed for Disney's America, the history theme park the Mouse intended to build in Virginia back in 1995. (Sure, this particular nod to Americana might be lost on the Hong Kong audience. But so what.)

HKD's "Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin" will be an exact replica of the one found at WDW's Magic Kingdom. The "Cosmic Waves" interactive water-fountain maze duplicates a similar attraction at Disneyland. Hong Kong's Toontown? Expect a copy of WDW's "Mickey's Toontown Faire."

And the park's centerpiece -- its castle -- will look exactly like Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland. With so much duplication, is it any wonder the Imagineers joke that Hong Kong Disneyland should be sponsored by Xerox?

The park undoubtedly will entertain the millions of visitors its backers expect. But given how Hong Kong officials have been snookered, maybe the Mouse's Lake Buena Vista neighbors -- the folks who run the hotels and attractions along Highway 192 -- also should make a trip to Asia to tell SAR government officials the real way to prepare for Hong Kong Disneyland.

Lesson No. 1: Mickey makes the rules.

Lesson No. 2: Mickey keeps most of the money.

Though, given what the people of Hong Kong already have laid out, they'll probably learn that on their own.

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