By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman
IF HONG KONG Disneyland (HKDL) is in a romantic relationship, it has grown past the seven-year itch, because it is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary — and is looking forward for more years to come. While the hash tag #walangforever (there’s no forever) reigns supreme among embittered Filipino netizens, there is forevermore and a happy ever after in this 28-hectare theme park.
But the past decade was not easy. The park had its fair shares of difficulties, including fluctuating tourist arrivals and competition from neighboring parks (and it looks like it will soon be competing with a sibling when Disneyland opens in Shanghai next spring). The South China Morning Post said that the theme park, which is a joint venture of the Hong Kong government and Disney, “finally reported a profit in 2012 and now has ambitious plans.”
While unable to interview HKDL bosses to ask about, say, its challenges and future plans, we were able to experience what the theme park has in store for the coming years. A few media people were invited to celebrate Disney’s decade of fun on Nov. 16-18, which coincided with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in the Philippines. Many flights were canceled and rescheduled, including ours, but it was a good problem — there’s no best place to be stranded than in “The Happiest Place on Earth,” right?
In line with its 10th birthday celebration, here are 10 reasons to spend your holidays at Hong Kong Disneyland.
1 A NEW SHOW
After a decade of The Golden Mickeys, HKDL finally decided to stage a new musical show. The replacement is a better version in terms of stage setup and musical lineup.
The folks behind Mickey and the Wondrous Book, the 25-minute show on view at the Storybook Theater, made sure that it’s never short of spectacle. It is a Broadway-inspired musical featuring seven beloved Disney tales. It starts with Mickey Mouse and Goofy sneaking into a library and accidentally opening a hardbound book that sets Olaf, the beloved snowman from Frozen, free from its pages. They then have to find a way of bringing Olaf back before he melts. While Goofy stays with Olaf to make sure he’s still frozen, Mickey meet other beloved characters like Merida of Brave, Queen Elsa of Frozen, and Baloo Bear from The Jungle Book on his quest.
The music numbers change from Broadway to Bollywood to hip-hop, jazz, and even gospel.
“To be part of the development of the music was a thrilling experience,” said Filipino music director Rony Fortrich, who’s been with the park since day one. “The creative team worked closely with the musical directors and arrangers from the US and took all-time favorite classics and gave them a contemporary twist for guests of all ages.”
Mr. Fortrich oversees all the music requirements, vocalists and musicians in all HKDL productions. Before becoming the musical director, he worked with Filipino theater companies Trumpets, Atlantis Productions, and Repertory Philippines.
Mickey and the Wondrous Book will run until the management decides to change it.
2 FILIPINO PRIDE
It’s impossible not to spot a kababayan (countryman) when in Disney. After all, of the more than 7,800 crew members in HKDL, the majority are Filipinos working on and off the stage, on the streets, and behind the kitchen. In fact, in Mickey and the Wondrous Book, 80% of the talents are Filipinos. Singers Gian Magdangal and Raki Vega, for instance, opened the show with the theme song “Happily Ever After.”
The two performers were both products of local talent shows before trying their luck in Hong Kong. Mr. Magdangal was a runner-up in Philippine Idol in 2006. He started working in Disney a year ago — “I’m doing this for my son,” he told reporters.
Ms. Vega shares the same motivation. She’s helping her family in Cebu. The singer was a finalist in ABS-CBN’s reality singing show Born Diva in 2004. She has been working at HKDL for five years, and is currently its voice principal.
“We’ve given another, bigger, stage. We have millions of people watching us every day. I think it’s more of the palaban ang Pinoy (the fighting spirit of Filipinos) because you’re not only representing yourself but the whole country. This is a blessing,” she said when asked what Filipino flavors they bring to the Disney table.
Mr. Magdangal agrees. He said: “For me it’s the experience and the culture we carry to the stage. Kahit ’di ako nakaipon na isang taon lang ako dito, ito lang ang nakuha ko, basta andito ako, ito ang kaya kong gawin. (Even if I wasn’t able to save for a year, it’s okay because this is what I can do.) This is what I feel whenever I sing to an audience. You always bring your background, ’yung ipakita mo na ito ang kaya kong gawin, (to show that you can do conquer the stage),” he said.
3 FOOD: TOO PRETTY TO EAT
While Mickey Mouse dimsums may be cute, they’re so last season. In line with the upcoming theatrical release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Dec. 17, HKDL has come up with Star Wars-themed food. Darth Vader burgers, anyone?
But one can still find Mickey Mouse waffles; Minnie Mouse hakaw (a Chinese dumpling with shrimp); Olaf as a mung bean steamed bun; and Queen Elsa on top of a chocolate-coated apple, among others, in the park’s cafes and the Disney Hotel and Hollywood Hotel restaurants. The catch is: they’re too pretty to eat!
According to HKDL culinary director Rudolf Muller, who’s been at the helm of the Disney kitchen since 2003, the culinary team has a “Mickey check” plan, which ensures that the food menus are “healthy, fun for the kids, and with certain amount of calories needed by the body” to fuel up a day of trying out the rides.
4 THE RIDES
An ordinary vacationer has to line up for at least 10 minutes, depending on the ride and the crowd, before getting on a ride at Disneyland. Thanks to our media passes, however, our group of Filipino reporters from different publications was able to use the express lane and try out Disney’s iconic rides minus the long queues. “Just don’t look at the people in line unless you want them to shout at you,” a friend warned me.
The theme park is divided into seven attractions: Toy Story, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, Adventure Land, Main Street USA, Fantasy Land and Tomorrow Land.
Here’s a suggestion when planning your rides, go from mild to wild so as not to upset your stomach.
First stop: It’s a Small World in the Fantasy Land. Perfect for families with kids, the 15-minute boat ride is eye-candy for children and the young-at-heart as the cruise takes passengers on a journey around the world, including the Philippines, as cute mannequins and teddy bears sing “It’s a Small World” in different languages.
While at Fantasy Land, try the Cinderella Carousel, which has 60 horses that go ’round and ’round. Nobody’s too old for a good old carousel ride!
At Adventure Land’s Jungle River Cruise, kids of all ages take a mysterious river adventure replete with hidden hippopotamus, elephants taking a shower, and playful monkeys perched on a tree — none are the real thing, although they look it.
Voted as the favorite ride among Filipino visitors is The Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. The thrilling multi-direction roller coaster goes up and down, left to right and vice versa — and even backward. Like a worm swimming in salt, the coaster crisscrosses its way through the entire Grizzly trail.
But nothing beats the indoor interstellar roller-coaster ride Space Mountain in Tomorrow Land. Warning: this is not for the weak. The high-speed journey does not take its time — it starts and ends real fast! The riders are first taken into a seemingly black hole, where everything, is, well, pitch dark. This heightens the tension. Then — zoom! The next thing you know, you’re one with the stars and the meteors. Keep your eyes wide open if you can, and wonder at simulated galaxy. But then again, who has time to appreciate the lights and the stars when everything happens in the speed of light?
The minimum height requirement for this ride is 102 centimeters.
5 A NEW ATTRACTION
If you think you have already seen all there is to witness and experience in Disneyland, there’s more. Opening on Dec. 17 is the Fairy Tale Forest, a live storybook garden peppered with miniature iconic scenes from Disney’s animated features Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, and Beauty and the Beast. Visitors can activate a music box and then the Disney characters come to life. Tinker Bell is up for a meet-and-greet while she sprinkles some magic pixie dust into your hair.
6 PARADES AND PICTURE TAKING
Take a break from all the rides and head over to Main Street, which is just near the park’s entrance. At around four or five every afternoon, the Disney characters gather to showcase their costumes and floats in state-of-the-art parade. Again, it is impossible not to spot a Filipino dancer, singer, or musician clad in a costume. Don’t be too shy to say hi, and take a selfie.
7 Frozen CHRISTMAS TREE LIGHTING
The -ber months, especially December, are the best time to take a trip to Hong Kong and enjoy the winter. It is also the time that Disneyland Hong Kong also celebrates Christmas in its own way. This year, the sisters Queen Elsa and Princess Anna glow and glimmer as they sing the iconic theme song from Frozen, “Let it Go,” while a Christmas tree illuminates the dimly lit Main Street. The show will run only until Jan. 3, 2016.
8 SHOPPING, SHOPPING, SHOPPING!
Need we say more? The boutique strip along Main Street has an overload of Disney character collectibles that range from tumblers to T-shirts, car toys to key chains. To give you an idea of how much they cost, a refrigerator magnet costs HK$45 (P1 = HK$.16).
9 AWAY FROM HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
While taking a break from life in the Philippines — or visiting an OFW relative — the theme park can serve as your home away from home. It’s convenient because it’s near the airport, and, besides, it’s the Happiest Place on Earth!
Take the case of Marvin Naadat, an OFW in HKDL. A former dancer with Douglas Nieras’s dance company, he started out at Disneyland as a parade dancer in 2005, then worked his way up to becoming one of HKDL’s dance directors along with two other talented Filipino performers. They make sure of the quality of every dance production in Disney.
“It’s very hard to be away from your family,” said Mr. Naadat, “especially if your kids are growing.”
The HDKL management surprised Mr. Naadat during an early Noche Buena (Christmas Eve dinner) with the media and the Filipino crew members — his wife, Lhedda, and their two children, Mavie and Maia, flew from Singapore, where they are based now, to meet their dad.
After the press con and the dinner, the Naadat family said they would tour Disneyland first thing in the morning.
10 END IT WITH A BANG!
After all the eating, riding, shopping, and picture taking, literally end your trip with a bang and a beautiful showcase in the sky. Running every day at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle until Jan. 3 is a colorful spectacle of modern pyrotechnics called Disney in the Stars. The fireworks show displays 49 Disney characters, including the newest additions Sadness and Joy from the animated film Inside Out, Lightning McQueen of Cars, and Hero and Baymax of Big Hero Six.
HKDL looks forward to 10 more magical years, because, in the words of Walt Disney: “Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Who knows what tomorrow brings?