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Hong Kong theme park outsmarts the mouse

As Disneyland sputters, a revived Ocean Park is making a comeback as the local choice.

June 30, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Mickey Mouse may have met his match -- the giant panda.

It was supposed to be a one-sided battle. Instead, in the nearly two years since Disneyland came to town, people in Hong Kong have rediscovered a theme park that's been sitting in their backyard for three decades, weathering all the ups and downs the territory has faced, from British colonial rule to its return to China to the deadly illness known as SARS.

Ocean Park, as it's called, made its improbable comeback under the guidance of a flamboyant businessman who repositioned it as the local choice, evoking nostalgia for the 200-acre park, and its resident pandas, where a visit has been a rite of passage for many Hong Kongers.

With Allan Zeman's help, the government-owned park has since set attendance records while Disneyland has suffered one blow after another, even failing to reach attendance goals. And Zeman, whose bald head and rail-thin body bring to mind Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons," without the evil, has just scored another coup: a gift of two toddler pandas from Beijing.

"China would never give pandas to Disney," said Lee Wing-tat, a Hong Kong legislator. "Beijing wants to show it cares about Hong Kong people. So they gave them to Ocean Park."

The reemergence of what was long a rickety marine park with aquariums and a few hokey rides comes at a time when Hong Kong continues to define its post-colonial identity. As July 1 approaches, the 10th anniversary of the 1997 transfer to China, Hong Kongers are recognizing the symbols that make them unique.

"People in Hong Kong had an identity crisis," said the 58-year-old Zeman, who grew up in Canada but moved here in 1970. "They said, 'Am I English? Am I Chinese? Am I a Hong Konger?' That was a huge problem. There was a lot of apprehension by locals who didn't trust China. Now the uncertainty is gone. Look at Hong Kong today. It's booming."

Opened in 1977 on the southern reaches of Hong Kong Island, Ocean Park was paid for by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the oldest and most powerful colonial institutions here. It still generates hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue with its gambling monopoly, sans the Royal moniker, of course. Chartered as a nonprofit to be run by the city, Ocean Park was Hong Kong's major theme park by default. It had no rival when the territory was emerging as an economic powerhouse and the gateway to China.

"The land was just a fishing village and a farm before we came," said Gary Wong, the park's chief curator of marine mammals who has been with the organization since the start. "Hong Kong didn't have any aquariums. When we opened, everyone was crazy about it."

What also set it apart was an ambitious four-line cable car system that stretches from a lowland area, climbing steep slopes that hang over the South China Sea to a headland region where the park's main attractions, such as dolphin and false killer whale shows, were housed.

In the years before Hong Kong's return to China, when Zeman was busy building a textiles and entertainment empire, Ocean Park moved along steadily, adding a water park, a shark aquarium, a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster named the Dragon. It was by no means a Six Flags.

"I'd always come here with my friends, at least once a year since I was a young teenager," said Alan Koh, 28, enjoying a hamburger near the hot air balloon ride one weekend. "My parents would also take me. We'd take the cable car, see the fish and eat fast food. Every kid experiences Ocean Park."

But by 1997, the park's once-consistent success had begun to fade.

Then in 1999, Hong Kong's government and Disney agreed to open a theme park on reclaimed land on nearby Lantau Island. City leaders needed to revive the economy and looked to the American corporate giant. Disney would pay very little for the land. Ocean Park officials predicted revenue losses of as much as 40% at their park.

When things couldn't seem to get any worse, a mysterious illness, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, struck the region in early 2003. The streets of Hong Kong nearly emptied.

Wong, the marine mammal trainer, said he would perform marine shows with barely anyone in the stands. He had to, because the animals needed the routine.

"One day, we only had seven people come see us," Wong said. "And I think one of them just needed to use the bathroom."

It was around then that Zeman, famed for developing the city's premier bar district, was recruited by Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to try to turn things around at Ocean Park. Against the advice of some friends, Zeman took the job. He rejected calls to relocate or close the park after he rode on the cable car for the first time.

"It's the most amazing view," he said. "It's as beautiful as Monte Carlo."

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