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Disney opens its newest theme park in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (AP) _ When Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck landed in Paris in 1992, French officials shunned the opening of Euro Disney, intellectuals decried the invasion of American pop culture and park workers protested the strict dress code.

Disney's latest experience _ its new park in Hong Kong _ couldn't have been more different.

Hong Kong Disneyland opened Monday with musicians clanging cymbals, Chinese lion dancers prancing precariously on tall poles and fireworks bursting in the sky. Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong joined Disney executives in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle, declaring the park Hong Kong's ``eternal carnival.''

The ceremony ended with a parade of skipping Disney characters old and new: Mickey, Donald Duck, Mushu the dragon, Lilo and Winnie the Pooh.

Earlier, hundreds of people lined up outside the gate, waiting to get in despite the sweltering heat.

Michael Kuzma, of Celebration, Fla., was first in line. ``For over 50 years, the American people have experienced the happiness of Disney theme parks. I hope the people of China can enjoy the happiness,'' the 36-year-old consultant said.

It was a much warmer welcome than in France, where officials skipped the opening ceremony and critics complained that Euro Disney was an assault on French culture.

A government agency filed a complaint contending Euro Disney's ban on beards, mustaches and colored hosiery may have violated France's work code. And President Francois Mitterrand dismissed the park as ``not exactly my cup of tea.''

Hong Kong's government, however, is the biggest investor in the new $3.5 billion park, believing the attraction will help turn this global financial capital into Asia's best family holiday spot. Disneyland says it employs 5,000 people and will draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year.

Hong Kong and Disney struck a deal to build the park in 1999 _ just two years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule. The city had been battered by the Asian financial crisis, and desperately needed a new project to boost its spirits and troubled economy.

Hong Kong's embrace of Disneyland is also the product of a Westernized, ruthlessly capitalistic and non-ideological mind-set that's short on cultural roots. The territory was ruled by Britain for more than 150 years, and it's still governed separately.

``A relatively more acute awareness of practical gains and losses, a more worldly mentality and a relatively weaker nationalism are part of Hong Kong culture,'' said political scientist James Sung at the City University of Hong Kong.

Ordinary Hong Kongers don't see Mickey and Donald as a cultural threat.

``Hong Kong is used to customs from all over the world,'' said Thomas Choi, a 45-year-old clerk.

Even so Disney deferred to Hong Kong custom, tweaking the park design after consulting masters of feng shui, the Chinese belief of improving fortunes by adjusting the layout of objects and keeping various elements in harmony.

Disney hopes the park _ the 11th in its global empire _ will be a magnet for increasingly wealthy Chinese tourists, who have a reputation for being big spenders.

The attraction and its two resort hotels are surrounded by mountains on lush Lantau Island, just 30 minutes away by subway from bustling central Hong Kong. It looks much like the first Disneyland in California, with a Space Mountain thrill ride, a classic Cinderella Carousel and the Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Robert Iger, president of the Walt Disney Co., also hopes the Hong Kong park will expand the company's reach into China, where generations have grown up with little or no familiarity with Mickey Mouse. Iger expects the park to ignite interest in Disney films, TV shows and other products. Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television broadcast the Disneyland opening live to viewers across China.

Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer, said China and Disneyland will be a perfect match because they both value families.

``You go to the park and you see mothers, daughters and kids and grandparents. The family unit in China is unbelievably strong. It's not just Hong Kong, it's mainland China,'' Eisner said.

Hong Kong Disneyland hasn't been all smooth sailing. The park has drawn criticism from environmentalists for wanting to serve shark's fin, an item eventually dropped from the menu, and letting stray dogs at the site be rounded up and put to death.

An hour before the opening ceremony, activists gathered outside, chanting ``No Conscience'' and ``Evil Mickey.'' They were protesting alleged labor abuses at factories making Disney products in China. Disney has said it's investigating the claims.

Disney could face a tougher sell in mainland China, where it is speculated to build a Disneyland in the financial capital of Shanghai.

The communist Chinese government, despite moving toward capitalism and opening up the country to foreign investment, is still wary of foreign culture overtaking traditional values, political scientist Sung said.
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