“Start waving, start waving” urged a manager walking behind rows of youthful park staff lined up on both sides of Main Street at Hong Kong Disneyland. It was seconds after 10 a.m. Thursday, the brief meet-and-greet formalities with the press had been completed, and the park’s first paying guests in some four months were just making their way through temperature checks, ticket scanning and security searches.
Many of the park staff, known in Disney circles as “cast members,” used the four-fingered white gloves to fan their faces until the guests arrived. On what may turn out to be the hottest day of the year so far — it was 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) by 10 a.m. — shade was in short supply and one female cast member needed to be given water.
Moments later, as well as fervent waving, the first guests were welcomed with a faint cheer and “Welcome back!” calls. Some guests appeared bemused by the absence of crowds and the large number of professional lenses pointed at them, but plowed on quickly towards the park’s interior.
The blistering hot day made for picture-perfect photos — blue skies and puffy white clouds — even if due to social distancing measures close-up snaps with Disney characters were off-limits. At the Mad Hatter’s Teacups, a gentle ride perfectly suited to pre-schoolers and their parents, a Mickey and Minnie Mouse duo hammed it up gamely, trying to throw themselves into everyone’s viewfinder.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said Diana, a local mother who attended with her infant school-age daughter Hanna, sporting a green Disney princess dress. She declined to provide her full name, but noted, “We are members here.”
“Hong Kong has done well in its handling of the virus, yet this park is the one that has been closed the longest,” said Heather, one half of a North American couple who are residents in the city, and who also declined to provide her full name. “This is a happy place. We know it is clean and safe. It’s time!”
Heather was not sure of her favorite ride — “Maybe ‘Mystic Manor,’” she pondered — but instead offered: “We’re mostly here to see the shows. They are indoors and air-conditioned.” According to the park’s electronic noticeboards, there were to be four indoor performances Thursday.
The same noticeboards showed that Castle of Magical Dreams was still off limits due to expansion works due to be completed later this year, and that the Disneyland Railroad was also closed. But all other attractions and rides were open and, with one exception, advertising a queuing time of less than 10 minutes.
The park appeared easily capable of encompassing the health and safety protocols required by Hong Kong authorities and the park’s operating company. Temperature checks were reassuringly obvious, but also unintrusive. Choke points in shops and restaurants and queues at rides were dotted with newish white lines, suggesting optimum separation. A third of the seats in one theater was festooned with elegant white sashes keeping patrons apart in the dark.
And, on every corner, a cast member held up a two-handed reminder for people to keep apart. One, Peter, who declined to provide his full name but whose sole job description may as well be “social distancer,” told Variety: “We did a lot of rehearsals.”
The bigger challenge facing the Hong Kong park seems not to be luring back die-hard fans like Diana and Heather. Rather, it may be finding enough for Peter and other cast members to do — as well as keeping the local politicians on side.
Hong Kong’s social and political problems, which spilled on to the streets in June last year, meant that the mood in the city turned sour. The protests quickly reversed the financial progress that Hong Kong Disneyland might have claimed (attendance had been 5% up, pre-tax revenues up 20%) after four consecutive years of losses. Instead it was left with a $13.5 million (HK$105 million) loss for the financial year to September.
The social fractures then tipped the city’s economy into recession, making recovery unlikely. And the coronavirus, which Hong Kong began responding to in late January, has had an economic impact far more lethal than the disease itself. (Hong Kong recorded just 1,100 cases and only 4 deaths, the last of which was back in March.) For the park, that is a toxic combination.
On an earnings call in February, Disney execs warned that if the Hong Kong park were closed for two months, it would likely lose around $40 million in operating income. In the end, Hong Kong Disneyland was closed for double that (Jan. 26-June 17), and a return to normal operating levels still may not be possible before the end of its current financial year.
The park’s management is coy about providing a precise figure on capacity restrictions and how much of a crimp the limits place on guest numbers. In this regard, Mainland China has been more transparent than Hong Kong. Shanghai Disneyland reopened at a publicly-stated 20% of maximum capacity.
“During the initial phase, we have deliberately taken a measured approach in reopening the park in accordance with relevant regulations and government requirements. These include operating at reduced capacity, promoting social distancing and putting in place enhanced health and safety measures,” said Tim Sypko, senior VP of operations at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, in a statement emailed to Variety. “We will review these measures from time to time.”
Travel and tourism restrictions in Hong Kong and the Southern China and Southeast Asian regions are certain to linger, creating problems for months to come. Until borders are reopened, airlines are restored and the traveling public is minded to restart leisure, Hong Kong Disneyland will heavily depend on a strictly local catchment area.
Illustrating the problem, the park’s MD, Stephanie Young, stood alone to meet the press on Thursday. No executives from Burbank were able to fly in to join her on the podium. And no local dignitaries braved the heat either.
According to the park’s own data, locals accounted for 41% of the 6.6 million visitors in the year to September 2019. Guests originating from Mainland China accounted for 33%, and other markets 26%.
Disneyland’s recurring losses have already been a political as well as financial anchor. The park is 53% owned by the Hong Kong government, and 47% by Disney, which means management has had to lobby legislators for money for expansion. Some objected on the grounds that the park is run by a fee-earning Disney subsidiary that gets paid whether or not the park is in profit or loss.
Still Variety spotted at least one sign of hope.
While ‘reservations only’ is the stated policy, a row of four booths appeared to be selling tickets for immediate entry. The queue looked impressive, but stretched out by social distancing, it was hard to be sure.