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Insert Pithy Reference To My Hong Kong Disneyland Disappointment Here

I’m a pretty nice guy – really, I am. I consider myself fairly affable; I think being southern at least predisposes one to a general aspiration to pleasantness. I abhor confrontation. As much as I’d like to be Walt, I could never be Walt because I could never look someone in the eyes and tell them that their idea was terrible.

Thankfully, someone invented the internet.

Actually, even the pseudo-anonymity afforded by modern technology and the joy of sniping snidely at strangers from a remote vantage point isn’t bulletproof; I’m thinking about going to the D23 thing in September and would prefer having someone friendly sneak me into the Burbank studio or Flower Street to having random offended Imagineers dumping drinks on my head at the refreshment stand.

This is a lengthy way of saying that despite the fact that I don’t want to become branded an inveterate Internet crank or a boringly predictable naysayer, I’m still really irritated and just plain disappointed by the plans released today for the long-awaited Hong Kong Disneyland expansion. These plans have been in the works for four years – four years full of leaks, hints and predictions – and the final result of all the prolonged negotiations is hardly worth the tumult. This is the second big park-related unveiling of the Lasseter age (the first being the redesign of California Adventure), and it does little to inspire hope for future developments.

Hong Kong officials display plans for Hong Kong Disneyland expansionDesperately trying to look enthused: Hong Kong Chief Economist Helen Chan, Secretary for Commerce & Economic Development Rita Lau, Tourism Commissioner Margaret Fong and Deputy Secretary for Financial Services & the Treasury Bureau Clement Leung unveil renderings for the planned expansions of Hong Kong Disneyland

The nuts and bolts of the deal have been covered by Reuters and others, but the deal, in short, is this: Disney will pay the full cost of the expansion, also converting some of their existing loans to the park into equity. Much of the trouble during negotiations centered around what this would mean to Hong Kong’s stake in the park; many Hong Kong citizens and politicians have objected to the terms of the original ownership deal, which saw Hong Kong investing roughly five times more than Disney in the new resort for only a 57 percent share of control.

As the imperative of park expansion became apparent, the Hong Kong government remained unwilling to send “good money after bad” and invest further in the resort. Disney, realizing the urgency of the situation, offered to foot the bill for expansion themselves. Hong Kong balked at this, because any additional investment by Disney in the park would only serve to dilute Hong Kong’s ownership percentage – which they thought was far too low in the first place. In the end, Disney has agreed to let Hong Kong convert some of its existing loans to the park into equity, and thus retain its majority stake. Hong Kong’s share of the park will decrease from 57 to 52 percent, while Disney’s will rise from 43 to 48 percent.

The expansion will take five years to be completed, and Hong Kong claims it will add 3,000 jobs. Expansion will include three new areas, increasing the park’s footprint by 23%. Interestingly, one of the conditions that the Hong Kong government forced into the deal requires Disney to release an annual report of park attendance and financial data.

But I’m not here to bitterly complain about equity stakes. What about the attractions?

Rendering of Pirate-themed area for Hong Kong Disneyland, 2006Rendering from 2006 Disney Annual Report for planned Pirate-themed expansion area

Having waiting four years for these expansions, there has been plenty of time to speculate about what form they would take. For most of that time, the best-known rumor has been a planned pirate-themed addition to Adventureland. This “mini-land” would sit on the expansion pad across the railroad tracks from the rest of Adventureland, and would contain two or three new rides. The main E-ticket for the area would be the park’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean, which would be more thrilling than its stateside counterparts due to a flume-based finale more akin to that of Splash Mountain.

The other rumor, of more recent vintage, is that the park would at last receive its own version of Frontierland with a new mountain-based roller coaster. Other additions would include a voodoo-themed Haunted Mansion in Adventureland and a third new land, Toontown. So how did the rumors stack up?

Site plan for Hong Kong Disneyland expansionWe don’t need no steenkin’ hub and spoke: Your new Hong Kong Disneyland. Grizzly Trail, Mystic Point and Toy Story Land.

First I have to give credit to Alain Littaye, who not surprisingly has provided the best coverage of the new expansions so far. Hong Kong Disneyland’s own press site has yet to provide any sort of official release, but somehow Alain comes through every time. All the images here are his; as always, click any of the images in the article to enlarge.

Anyway, the attractions. It turns out that while some rumors proved true, the announcement still held some surprises. And, as I’ve subtly hinted above, it’s not all good. But, since I’m such a nice and pleasant guy, I’ll start off with the single strongest point in the new plan.

Rendering of Mystic Point for Hong Kong Disneyland, 2009Rendering of Mystic Point: Mystic Manor and the Adventurer’s Club

Hong Kong Disneyland will finally get its own Haunted Mansion in a new mini-land called Mystic Point. While not located where most fans predicted it would be built, the Mystic Manor, as it will be called, embraces an aesthetic familiar to Disney fans. Its story, which is said to involve “an eccentric world traveler and adventurer and his collection of exotic international artifacts,” is similar to that of Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror. The entire area has that Edwardian feel of colonial adventure; one can assume that Joe Rohde is knee-deep in this one, or that he’ll at least make a cameo appearance in some fashion.

What’s interesting is that Mystic Manor will depart from tradition and incorporate a new ride system. Unlike like its predecessors’ Omnimovers, this haunted house will feature the advanced trackless ride technology that had previously only been seen at the Tokyo resort. This system will allow ride vehicles will move “freely” about the show building, giving Imagineers a new degree of freedom in the show’s design. The ride’s storyline is priceless – with no Master Gracey to be seen, instead we’re told that “strange things are afoot as an enchanted music box releases its magical powers, thanks to a mischievous monkey.” Monkeys. Golden. With a storyline focusing on magic, it’s certain that the ride will feature a high degree of visual and audio effects.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that this attraction is forced out of Adventureland into a new “land,” which seems completely unnecessary. If the original Disneyland had followed the pattern of this new development, it would have had 20 separate, tiny lands with one attraction apiece. The other bad news is that the only other thing in this area, aside from a garden of optical illusions, is a restaurant called the Adventurer’s Club. Anger rising…

For those of you for whom Walt Disney World is not your home park, you might not be aware of the world-famous Adventurer’s Club, which was closed so tragically last year. It was rumored since that the artifacts and props within our Club would be crated up and shipped to Asia for use either in Hong Kong Disneyland or something intended for Shanghai. But here it is – a no doubt watered-down version of the Adventurer’s Club in Hong Kong. Adventurer’s Club In Name Only. I feel as if Jay Rasulo drove to my house, knocked on my door, pooped on my doorstep and drove away. I mean, if there’s any way they could better figure out how to spit in the eyes of their most devoted fans, I can hardly think of anything more symbolic – aside from building an exact replica of Horizons in Siberia, opening it for five hours, and then burning it to the ground.

Rendering of Grizzly Trail for Hong Kong Disneyland, 2009Manifest Density: Your new, bite-sized Frontierland. Looks like the sewage line has ruptured at the saloon!

Another rumor that held true is that the park is finally going to get a Frontierland – it just won’t be called Frontierland. Instead, it’s yet another mini-land called Grizzly Trail. Occupying the expansion pad intended for Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s sort of a smash-up of various concepts at other parks; mostly, it resembles California Adventure’s Golden State area with a western mining town overlay.

The sole attraction, the Big Grizzly Mountain Coaster actually sounds much like I had predicted – “a combination of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Expedition Everest in a Grizzly Peak setting.” The ride sounds like a winner; Littaye’s press release says, “Guests careen backward down an incline that propels them through twists and turns, before a launch sequence “blasts” the mine train out of the mountain.” Again, much like Mystic Manor, the best part is the backstory:

The path along Grizzly Trail offers high-spirited frontier fun in an abandoned mining town called Grizzly Gulch, set amidst mountains and woods. The town was founded August 8, 1888 – the luckiest day of the luckiest month of the luckiest year – by prospectors looking to discover gold. Bears have now started causing havoc at the Big Grizzly Mountain Mining Company.

BEARS! I love how they just drop that in there at the end, all nonchalant. It’s like some Stephen Colbert fever dream. Much like the rumors predicted, the ride will feature life-sized animatronic bears menacing guests. So, the park now has monkeys and bears going for it – that’s nice.

The rest of the land is pretty much a wash – literally. Sadly WDI returns to one of the hoariest gags of recent years, the water play area. Says the blurb, “Guests visiting Grizzly Gulch are part of the action, experiencing hands-on water features, massive geysers and various leaking structures in the abandoned town.” Yippee. The one thing any good muggy, smoggy Hong Kong day is missing is intense chafing. When will Imagineers realize that this concept is a loser? Just this month at Disneyland we’ve seen the final traces of Cosmic Waves finally removed; this “walk around in a fountain” attraction proved such a mistake that it’s been turned off for years. Even if you like this sort of thing, this is the park’s second public bathing area attraction after Tomorrowland’s UFO Zone – did we need two?

And that’s it for Grizzly Trail. I realize that Disney had made no promises about this area, and that the final design is competing against my imaginary vision based on internet rumors, but it seems like such a letdown. The rumors of a large Frontierland based on the Pacific Northwest seemed so appealing and different; a “north woods” version of Expedition Everest and a raft ride – the idea is so much more exciting than this underwhelming combination of Radiator Springs and Tweetsie Railroad (minus the railroad, or attractions). Aside from the coaster, which should be excellent, it’s a wasted opportunity. Now, just to be bitchy, I’m going to post a rendering that was painted for Disneyland Paris’s Frontierland.

Rendering of Frontierland for Disneyland ParisAIM HIGHER, WDI

This brings us to Toy Story Land. This is just unfortunate. Taking some of the physical space many thought destined for Frontierland, and the budget that most thought would go to creating a Toontown, this area will instead continue the poorly thought out new trend towards basing “lands” on single films or properties.

What if, in Disneyland, Walt had put in “Lady and the Tramp Land”? Or “101 Dalmatians Square”? Those films were big hits in Disneyland’s early years, and they’re still beloved and widely-viewed today. But wouldn’t they be seen today as strangely anachronistic? Wouldn’t new guests wonder why so much show space was being devoted to a single, older film? Chasing trends is a dangerous game and I think that eventually Toy Story Land and “Carsland” will come back to haunt WDI.

Rendering of Toy Story Land for Hong Kong Disneyland, 2009And Marketing said, “Let there be Toy Story Land”; and there was Toy Story Land. And Marketing looked down and saw that it was profitable.

This land is a direct copy of Toy Story Playland that’s currently under construction at Walt Disney Studios in Paris. It’s underwhelming there, and it’s underwhelming here. One also wonders the need of three off-the-shelf funfair rides for the kiddies when, compared to its counterparts, the park’s Fantasyland is still missing at the very least: Peter Pan’s Flight; Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; dark rides for Alice, Snow White and Pinocchio; Storybook Land or Casey, Jr., etc. There are a slew of unbuilt Fantasyland possibilities as well, and of course the entire Toontown concept. This Toy Story area just seems to miss the mark, with kitchy rides that seem “beneath” a flagship park.

So that’s the new Hong Kong Disneyland. A couple of quality attractions, and a handful of items that continue to build upon worrying trends. Perhaps they would have been better served by using this money for a single, large expansion – say, a fully-formed Frontierland. The odd little chain of three tiny areas, two with one real attraction apiece, seems very un-Disneylike. Their layout also eschews the familiar, tried and true hub-and-spoke layout; note on the map above that guests must walk through all three lands to get from one end of the expansion to the other. It seems more like Universal’s Islands of Adventure than a Disney park, with guests promenading from one area to another through unrelated environments. It’s hard to imagine a sensory tickle powerful enough to cloak the slamming thematic dissonance of a desert/jungle/whimsical toyland transition.

Lots of this can eventually be remedied, though. With the huge expansion plot next to Grizzly Trail, there’s more than enough space to expand this cul-de-sac into an official land. It would needs its own outlet to the park’s hub to make sense from a layout standpoint, but perhaps they could shave off the bottom-most section of Adventureland to allow an orderly transition. In this event, it would make more sense to cede the area now marked for Toy Story Land to Adventureland, to allow for future expansion and the inevitable addition of Pirates of the Caribbean. Mystic Point could then serve as the New Orleans Square, of sorts, to this park’s Adventureland, and it would not really matter that it only has one attraction. Toy Story Land should be relocated to less prime real estate, preferably somewhere out in Penny Bay. Whatever they do, they shouldn’t hem themselves in and they mustn’t keep adding tiny single-attraction lands in no apparent order.

The final, and most bizarre, element of this story comes from a small factoid that was in not only the press release, but most of the media coverage so far as well. To quote the Hong Kong government site:

The three new themed areas are “Grizzly Trail”, “Mystic Point” and “Toy Story Land”. They will feature 30 new attractions – including thrill rides – bringing the total to over 100.

In what universe? Now I realize that modern P.R. involves a level of ballyhoo just a hair short of P.T. Barnum, but this crosses into the realm of borderline psychosis and flat-out baldface lies.

Now, I think it would be awesome if these areas wound up having 30 new attractions, but I think that might be slightly overstating it as, if I count correctly in the available descriptions, I can only find seven. And that’s being very generous and counting the “playing in a fountain” attraction as well as the “garden full of optical illusions.” If there are 23 attractions yet to be announced, I really think they’ve buried the lede.

It’s also hilariously comic to claim that the park will now have 100 attractions. I’ll let you peruse Wikipedia’s list of the park’s attractions, which itself is very generous in bestowing the title “attraction”, to see if you can find the missing forty or so attractions they claim are in the park now.

It’s a mixed bag, for sure, and it’s not all bad – two groundbreaking E-tickets are nothing to sneeze at, to say the very least. But I expected more from the new leadership, and I’ve yet to see much evidence of it. Hong Kong Disneyland will see many, many expansions in the future; let’s hope that they’re laying the groundwork now for eventual success.

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7 comments to Insert Pithy Reference To My Hong Kong Disneyland Disappointment Here

  • DC

    Similarly disappointed. Some interesting concepts, but hardly big enough to be THREE new “lands”. And wow, that artwork seems VERY below-par.

  • Obviously, I agree. As I said, I think they would have done better focusing their effort on a fully-formed single new land instead of just trying to grab headlines by saying they were adding three. Of course, if they’re willing to say the park will now have more than 100 attractions they’re willing to say anything.

    I don’t know what the deal is with WDI artwork anymore. Everything they release is done in a very cartoony, comic style. Not that there isn’t room for that sort of art, but they don’t release anything at all anymore in that evocative, artistic tradition of Herb Ryman, Dorothea Redmond, or Sam McKim. Everything also has the distinct flavor of Photoshop or Illustrator… someone needs to pick up a paintbrush!

  • RandySavage

    There was another, second generation of master artists after the Rymans, Redmonds and McKims retired. This generation included Dan Goozee, Nina Rae Vaughn, Bryan Jowers among others.

    The key word being “master.” The individuals that worked for WDI during the creation of Disneyland Paris, DisneySea and Animal Kingdom were not only great at painting awe-inspiring Disney concept art, they were highly-esteemed artists outside Disney. And just as they learned their craft from the likes of Ryman and Redmond, if they were still there they would be passing their craft on to the 3rd generation of WDI concept artists.

    Alas, WDI has been reorganizing for years and these great talents were let go. What they have now are younger concept artists like Chris Turner who are adept at cartoony renderings and Photoshop, but are not well-experienced in the brush, broad-stroke oil and watercolor paintings that really inspired us all in 1970s-1990s.

    As far as your assessment of the HKDL expansion, I think you are a little on the negative side. Could it have been better? Of course. Would I have planned it differently? Yes. But considering the economic conditions and that it could have been far worse (Raging Spirits), I am happy with 2/3 of the current plans.

  • DC

    Keep in mind that it’s not the medium that makes for a great piece. PLENTY of current concept designers and artists are using Painter and Photoshop to create WONDERFUL art that is easily on par with the oil, watercolor and gouache works that we’ve loved in the past.

    That being said, I’m surprised they’re using these pieces as their primary art for release to the public. They’d be fine as secondary concept illustrations, but as key art, they seem rushed and broad. It’s quite possible that’s on purpose, to maintain some secrecy and allow the concepts further development.

  • Randy: Glad to see you back! I know that I was a little hard on the expansion, but I think that after years and years of hearing about the acknowledged necessity of this project, it seems so underwhelming – especially in a park that everyone says is beautiful but devoid of attractions. It certainly could have been worse – yes, Raging Spirits – and let there be no doubt that I’m very excited to see what they do with the two big E-tickets. But just dropping in some E-tickets and nothing else doesn’t make a Disney park. It seems scatter-shot instead of cohesive.

    I know that WDI is having to pay now for poor decisions made by management almost 10 years ago, and that blame for poor decisions must now be shared between Disney management and the HK government. I feel better about underwhelming expansions when I think that they’re laying the groundwork for success in the future – like I said, Grizzly Trail could hold a lot of potential, but only because there’s adjoining space to expand it into a serious land. Where I get worried, and feel the need to agitate, is something like Toy Story Land that, I think, locks them into a seriously flawed concept and layout that will prevent future additions. Once something cruddy is built, even temporarily, it’s hard to get rid of it – just look at Mickey’s Birthdayland.

    So, it’s a mixed bag, and I think the expansion will really only be able to be judged several years from now, when we see how they expand on these ideas.

    About the concept artists – it’s true that there was a second wave of these master artists, but I have to admit that I’m sadly unfamiliar with them in specific. I think that’s probably because this art was less widely distributed as time has passed and Disney plays their cards closer to their vests than in the time of EPCOT’s construction. Obviously a lot of fantastic art was being done in the early 1990s because it can be seen for Port Disney, Disney’s America, WESTCOT & Animal Kingdom. We just never see this art except on the sly, so we don’t know the artists.

    I certainly think there’s room for all styles, but it seems like that crucial element has been missing for several years now.

    DC: I agree with you as well, that the medium isn’t crucial to the piece. But I would like to see a mix of things. After all, a lot of Marc Davis’s character pieces were cartoony but they were also brilliant. My problem is that, almost uniformly, the sole art pieces they release for projects anymore are in this very literal, descriptive comic style. It’s been this way for HKDL, the DCA expansion, and pretty much everything else they’ve added for quite a while. In an odd way, it almost seems patronizing – although I can’t justify that feeling at all.

  • I should also point out that I have no artistic talent whatsoever, so don’t think that I think I could do any better…

  • CR

    Reused props from Adventurer’s Club. Likely, reused bears from Country Bear Jamboree. Perhaps, some reused flat rides from an out-of-business county fair. This is so underwhelming, but what can else can we expect from WDI these days? I had hope Lasseter was going to usher in a new era for WDI and the Disney parks, but alas, there seems to be no there there. What we get are retread ideas from the folks at WDI who’s noses are so far up Lasseter’s butt (“Listen! He’ll TAKE HIS EAR OFF! How cool is that!?”) with bringing Pixar’s intellectual properties to the park there’s very little actual innovation going on because they’re too busy brown nosing. That’s not fair. Innovation disappeared long before Pixar was purchased.

    One thing not discussed is the supposed budget for all this stuff. How in the love of Walt can all this stuff cost so much money?! If this release talked about a full-on Pirates ride and a full-on Mansion I’d think about it. But I fear the Mansion will be more akin to something you’d see at a regional theme park than a Magic Kingdom.

    It’s insulting to see these off-the-shelf rides with a modicum of theming turning up in a Magic Kingdom park. Somehow, at crapfests like California Adventure and Disney Studios Paris I’ve come to accept it, but even Hong Kong Disneyland deserves better!

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