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Fixing A Hole – Three New Lands in Hong Kong?

Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty Castle at Hong Kong Disneyland“Could I interest you in an economy-sized theme park, only slightly used?”

We’ve discussed the ongoing and contentious negotiations surrounding expansion at the under-built and poorly-attended Hong Kong Disneyland, culminating in the standoff last month when Disney fired thirty of the Imagineers working on designing new attractions for the park. Disney claimed that there had been no progress in negotiations with the Hong Kong government over financing and approvals for the expansions – both parties are shareholders in the park itself – and that after years of fruitless negotiations, Disney was halting their plans until Hong Kong officials got their act together.

Hong Kong Disneyland mapWho tookah my theme park?

But has something changed? This article has appeared in the South China Morning Post, and seems to indicate that progress is being made. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen this mentioned on the other Disney sites, but it seems to be legit and meshes with many of the prevailing rumors for expansion.

The government and The Walt Disney Company appear to have agreed to include new “lands” and rides based on wilderness, arctic and adventure themes as part of a planned expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland, informed sources have said.

But how the new attractions will be paid for and by whom, and the impact on the existing shareholding structure of the theme park, have yet to be resolved.

First, there’s the obvious hilarity of trumpeting an “agreement” that’s good to go aside from the silly little details like how and by whom will the attractions be financed. Heaven only knows how long those negotiations will go on. But what’s interesting is the word from “informed sources” about the themes of the new rides – wilderness, adventure and the arctic. What does that mean?

A brief recap of previous Hong Kong Disneyland rumors: executives have said in the past that expansion plans will include three new themed “lands”. Recurring rumors include a “mini-land” themed to pirates that would be attached to Adventureland, and a northern woods-themed version of Frontierland. Possible attractions that have been mentioned over the years include a more thrill-oriented Pirates of the Caribbean flume ride, a voodoo-themed Haunted Mansion based in Adventureland, a Frontierland mountain themed similarly to California Adventure’s Grizzly Peak which would feature a roller coaster similar to a re-themed Expedition Everest, and a whitewater raft ride with wilderness show scenes. But how does that fit with the new rumors? According to the article:

The expansion plan would see the largest area in the site become a nature wonderland. Passengers on a roller-coaster ride would pass through mine shafts, tunnels and a wilderness area complete with audio effects and animatronic (robotic) animals, the sources said.

When parsing press reports, it’s always hard to tell exactly what they’re talking about. Unlike fan reporting, the media in general is unfamiliar with Disney parks and terminology and they often tend to muddy the waters with their stories. This problem is even worse when dealing with issues of lingual translation. The Hong Kong reports specifically seem to blur the distinction between “lands”, “areas” and “rides”.

Nevertheless, this pretty clearly is talking about Frontierland. It’s only reasonable that it would be the largest expansion, as it would entail the addition of an entire major land to the park. This is obviously the coaster we spoke about before, which would in effect be a combination of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Expedition Everest in a Grizzly Peak setting. An intriguing rumor that Alain Littaye has mentioned involves the attraction replacing Everest’s Yeti animatronic with a menacing grizzly bear. Other rumors involve either the coaster, raft ride, or both featuring show scenes adapted from Marc Davis’s plans for the unbuilt Western River Expedition. Back to the story:

The arctic environment would allow visitors to enjoy real snow slopes in enclosed, temperature-controlled areas. A train ride was also planned.

You’ve got me on this one. I have no idea what they’re talking about. The article speaks of this as if it would be included within the park, but it sounds more to me like one of those insane indoor ski slopes they have in Japan or Dubai. Or, it could be a misinterpreted addition to Frontierland. I can’t imagine that they’d build another train-themed roller coaster in addition to the one previously mentioned, so again – I have no idea what this is about.

A third land was based on the “unexpected” theme. Inspired by the adventures of early explorers, the area will see visitors transported on computer-controlled rides. The different environments would incorporate supernatural elements and animatronic figures, but the sequence of the rides would vary to let passengers enjoy a different experience each time, the sources said.

Here’s another mystery. Again, it’s hard to tell if they mean a “land” with multiple attractions, or just a single ride. Could this be the rumored colonial-style building with the voodoo-themed Haunted Mansion? And if so, would it be the first to have randomized ride scenes? The mention of a random ride sequence also naturally points to two other attractions – the Tower of Terror or the Indiana Jones EMV ride. Both have “supernatural elements”, but I suppose Indy would be best adapted to Adventureland. Ironically, there’s an old concept for the Tower of Terror ride system that would fit perfectly in the new Frontierland, but I doubt that’s on their radar.

Each of the three new lands would have a specific storyline to immerse visitors in the ride.

Well, that’s nice. Again, note the confusion of “land” and “ride”.

The article mentions that Hong Kong officials viewed models of the expansion areas last March, and again last November. Apparently the officials “found previous designs ordinary and uninspiring and demanded changes, but was unable to explain to Disney what [they] wanted.” I find that very amusing, on many accounts. I’d love to know the inside story on that one – did Disney try to pawn off Toy Story Mania, Laugh Floor, and Nemo only to be rebuffed? Or are the Hong Kong officials clueless? At least the Hong Kong government seems to be asking WDI to up their game, and hopefully that’s improved the caliber of attractions the park will be getting. Things seem to be worked out on this front – the article says that “there did not seem to be any major disagreements about the themes and designs of the lands.”

Of course, nothing is official until it’s announced, and the cast members of EPCOT’s Spain pavilion will tell you that nothing is certain until shovels meet dirt. Most importantly, critical financial issues have yet to be resolved:

Both joint-venture partners agree that expansion is necessary to help Hong Kong Disneyland grow in attendance and business. But given that the multibillion-dollar price tag attached to such an expansion will attract intense scrutiny by the public and lawmakers, it is understood that the government wants to ensure that it negotiates the best possible deal.

Disney will probably have to foot some of this bill themselves, as many in Hong Kong still resent that Disney paid such a small share of the park’s original cost and received a major ownership share in return. The Hong Kong government will probably try and use the opportunity to renegotiate its franchising deal, or reallocate the ownership percentage of the park. Disney will likely do the same. But both realize that the park is, at the moment, a costly embarrassment and that attendance will not start to rise meaningfully until expansion begins. Hopefully last month’s game of chicken has sufficiently shaken up the negotiations and soon the realms of “wilderness, arctic and adventure” will begin to emerge – whatever that means!

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