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I’ve got a baaad feeling about this…

Breaking news from the South China Morning Post:

30 jobs go as Disney halts HK expansion

No timetable for growth, park told

Dennis Eng
Mar 17, 2009

The Walt Disney Company has halted all creative and design work on the expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland, cutting more than 30 jobs.

The company acted after being told by the government that there was no timetable on the way forward, the US entertainment giant said yesterday.

Contracts with several architectural and consulting firms would also be suspended as a result, sources said. It is understood that Disney will have to compensate the firms involved.

Since its opening in 2005, Hong Kong Disneyland has been in desperate need of expansion. Even the notoriously stingy Walt Disney Company has realized this, and after it became apparent that the Hong Kong government – the majority stakeholder in the resort – was unwilling to foot the bill, Disney themselves offered to cover the cost of expansion.

The last couple of years have been marked by wrangling over details; a couple of times a year some unnamed Chinese official will leak some apocryphal details about future expansion to the press, but little actual progress seems to have been made. I’m not familiar enough with the situation to know exactly what is the sticking point – with Disney willing to underwrite the entire expansion themselves, all that remains is for the Hong Kong government to approve the plans. Yet the final green-light has not come; the plans continue to remain mired in mysterious and endless bureaucracy. As an Imagineer quoted in the article said, there’s “a feeling of an unending cycle of reviews.”

If anything, it should once more underline to Disney the perils of building in a nation whose business culture is unfamiliar – no doubt the executives in Burbank are pining for the benefits of the Reedy Creek Improvement District at this point. The mere fact that Disney is essentially having to plead to spend their own money only goes to underscore the bizarre nature of the situation. One can only hope that statements like the one below indicate that Disney is only using this drastic move as a tactic to shake the Chinese government into reality:

“After two years of Disney investment in creative and design work and extensive negotiations with our partner, the Hong Kong government, we have not yet reached a final agreement to expand Hong Kong Disneyland,” Walt Disney parks and resorts spokesman Leslie Goodman said.

“The uncertainty of the outcome requires us to immediately suspend all creative and design work on the project.”

Despite earlier hopes of a breakthrough in the negotiations with the government this year, the sources said senior management at Disney did not see any progress being made in the next six months.

No doubt this has been frustrating for Disney – remember, they’re actually lobbying to spend their own money on this project. If the Hong Kong government has delayed once more, and if Disney expects another six months to go by with no approvals, then this move makes sense from more than a bargaining perspective. After all, the plans for expansion already exist. Many of them were actually on the drawing tables before the park even opened. It makes no sense for WDI to continue to design new attractions, when the Chinese government refuses to allow the permits to build what they already have ready to go.

It was recognized from the start that Hong Kong Disneyland had far too few attractions to be successful, thus the fact that these negotiations began almost immediately after the park opened. One would think that the government would welcome Disney’s infusion of cash; unfortunately, though, it seems like the Hong Kong officials are intent on playing dumb:

A spokesman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said Disney had earlier informed the government of its layoff plans.

“We consider that The Walt Disney Company’s laying off of Walt Disney Imagineers who have been working on the design of Hong Kong Disneyland’s expansion will not be conducive to the discussions, and are puzzled by the company’s decision,” the spokesman said.

“We have expressed grave concern about the decision and urged the company to reconsider.”

Disney has already expressed its willingness to foot the bill to expand the theme park, but negotiations have dragged on for about two years. The government and Disney hoped to reach an agreement as soon as possible with both Hong Kong’s and the theme park’s interests in mind, the spokesman said.

Again, I don’t know what their game is here, as I’m not even sure what their objective could be. This obstruction has gone on for quite some time, while the Disneyland park sits unfinished and the plans for expansion collect dust on Imagineering shelves.

Hong Kong Disneyland Pirate Land, 2006 Annual ReportFuture Neverworld Candidate: Hong Kong Disneyland’s proposed pirate themed land, from the 2006 Disney annual report

Hong Kong Disneyland is small, and lacks many of the traditional attractions that guests expect from a Disney park. After its 2005 opening, it added an Autopia and a character-based version of its a small world, but was still in dire need of extra capacity.

The earliest known major expansion was intended to be a pirate-themed “mini-land” attached to Adventureland; this would sit across the railroad tracks from the current guest areas. Rumored for this land would be the park’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean (missing from the opening-day lineup), which would be the first iteration of the ride built to incorporate Jack Sparrow and friends. It would also feature added thrill elements, including possibly a flume finale which would serve as the park’s substitute for Splash Mountain. The area was rumored to include two or three additional smaller attractions with pirate themes.

Eventually, the pirate concept fell out of favor and rumors began to circulate around other possibilities. Almost from the park’s opening it has been expected that Adventureland would see the construction of a Haunted Mansion (incredibly, also absent from the park’s original design), possibly re-themed with some sort of colonial/voodoo storyline. This would also keep the tradition of having the Mansion in a different land in each park; personally, I think the voodoo makeover is a neat idea.

Last last year, the CEO of Hong Kong Disneyland mentioned that plans for expansion would be announced this year, and would consist of three new themed areas with some attractions unique to Hong Kong Disneyland. The most credible rumor is that the first of these expansions would involve adding a Frontierland section to the park – another thing Uncle Mike and his magic scissors forgot to include on opening day. The Frontierland will allegedly have a “north woods” theme and attractions that have been mentioned include a raft ride and a rollercoaster that will combine the technology of Expedition Everest with the themeing of California Adventure’s Grizzly Peak and – according to Alain Littaye – some show elements from Disney World’s legendary Western River Expedition. Alain suggests that Everest’s yeti would be replaced in this new attraction by a menacing Grizzly, and I think that’s a pretty good idea too.

So, basically, no one knows what’s coming to Hong Kong Disneyland save for the Imagineers, and they’re not telling me. A pirate area with Pirates of the Caribbean, an abandoned colonial plantation for a voodoo Haunted Mansion, a Pacific Northwest version of Frontierland, or even a Toontown – these are all possiblities. But none of it will happen unless the Chinese government gives Disney permission, and that’s what we’re waiting for.

I know I can be hard on Disney management, but this seems to be one of those times when they’re actually trying to do the right thing. Hopefully this is merely a negotiating tactic, and the wheels of progress will soon begin to turn.

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