OCEAN PARK AND HONG KONG DISNEYLAND OFFER VASTLY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES, WRITES BERNARD O’RIORDAN
Whether you’re young, or just young at heart, one of the biggest headaches you’ll face in Hong Kong is deciding which of the major theme parks to visit.
Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s original home-grown theme park, ruled the local landscape here for almost three decades, until Hong Kong Disneyland opened its gates in 2005.
Although both these fun parks compete for the same tourist dollars, they’re actually very different attractions and offer vastly different experiences. There’s really no reason you couldn’t visit both parks if you’re in Hong Kong for a reasonable length of time.
If it does come down to one or the other, Ocean Park is probably better for teenagers in search of an adrenalin rush from thrill rides, while Disneyland is perhaps a better experience for toddlers and young children. But toddlers will love the pandas and sea life at Ocean Park too.
Located on the south side of Hong Kong Island just after the Aberdeen tunnel, Ocean Park takes about 10-15 minutes to get to from Central by bus or taxi.
But now that the new MTR South Island line has opened, you’d be mad not to take the MTR right to the park’s front door.
From Admiralty MTR station, it takes just four minutes to reach Ocean Park on the new South Island line.
Ocean Park is a massive marine mammal park, a zoo and amusement park all in one. Opened in 1977, it has long been the city’s grand darling of theme parks with an iconic cable car, or gondola, connecting the Waterfront and the Summit.
The cable car ride is worth the price of admission alone as it provides sweeping views out over Repulse Bay and the South China Sea as it glides over the mountain top.
These incredible ocean views are possibly the biggest plus Ocean Park has in its favour. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can take in breath-taking water views – while being thrown around in the back of a rollercoaster car.
A day at Ocean Park starts at the Waterfront (the lowland) where you’ll find the park’s best-known residents – four adorable Pandas known as “An-An”, “Le-Le”, “Jia-Jia” and “Ying-Ying”.
If you visit the Giant Panda Habitat or the Giant Panda Adventure, you might be lucky to see them moving around. They tend to be most active mid-morning or around lunchtime.
A lot of the playgrounds and rides for small children are also found at the Waterfront.
Take the cable car to the Headland for the Grand Aquarium, an artificial reef that hosts more than 5,000 fish, including 400 different species.
You can watch sharks, stingrays and sea turtles from behind a large glass enclosure. The Sea Jelly Spectacular is also a must-see with more than 1,000 jellyfish from all over the world on display.
Ocean Park is perhaps most famous for its dolphin show, a 60-minute show at the Ocean Theatre. But it’s best to arrive at least 15 minutes before the performance if you want a guaranteed seat.
There are other shows too, including a sea lion show at Whiskers Theatre.
While I’m not a fan of performing animals, it’s pleasing Ocean Park is the first park in Asia to be certified under the global Humane Conservation program for animal welfare. It’s one of only six organisations worldwide to earn the seal of approval.
If thrills and spills are more your thing, you’ll love Ocean Park’s rollercoasters – there are five in all.
As the name suggests, the 35 metre-high Hair Raiser is one of the park’s scariest rides and reaches a maximum G Force of 4, at a maximum speed of 88km.
There’s not a lot of time to enjoy the views out over the South China Sea though as you’re plunged into some frenetic twists and turns. Oh, and did I mention this ride is floor-less, as the picture above shows?
Another big thriller is The Flash, a pendulum-style mechanical ride that can swing you up to 22 metres high while spinning.
Over at Hong Kong Disneyland, which is based at Lantau Island near the airport, there are no rollercoasters; although technically Hyperspace Mountain is an enclosed rollercoaster. Its rides are aimed more at families and are very movie and animation based.
I first visited Hong Kong Disneyland in 2006 and was underwhelmed at what was on offer back then. Having visited Disneyland at Anaheim and in Paris on many occasions, I really expected more.
To be fair, it has slowly improved, but still lacks many of the big features that bring you back time and again – like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Even the Haunted Mansion is called the Mystic Manor in Hong Kong, while Space Mountain is known as Hyperspace Mountain.
Hong Kong Disneyland is a smaller version of the Disney theme parks found elsewhere.
But the popular attractions like Main Street USA, Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland have all been transplanted to the Hong Kong theme park. So too the ever-popular Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, pictured below.
Among the rides, you’ll also find Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, the It’s a Small World boat ride, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and the Jungle Cruise.
And if you keep your eyes peeled, you’re almost certain to see Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and the gang wandering around the park – maybe munching on Dim Sum, of course.
The grand finale to any day at Hong Kong Disneyland is the 12-minutes fireworks display and the parade that takes place each night. The times vary, so it’s worth checking out the official schedule online.
The biggest problem for both Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland right now, aside from dwindling visitor numbers, is the prospect of rising competition from theme parks across Asia.
Shanghai Disneyland has already opened and is partly blamed for diverting tourists from mainland China away from the Hong Kong theme parks.
From next year, Universal Beijing, 21st Century Fox World Malaysia, Six Flags, multiple new Legolands and many other smaller theme parks will be popping up across the region.
But neither Ocean Park nor Hong Kong Disneyland are resting on their laurels. Both are plotting expansion to win back the hearts of fans.
Ocean Park plans to turn itself into a full-fledged resort with the addition of a water park and two hotels while Hong Kong Disneyland has just received funding approval to launch new themed areas, attractions and entertainment, almost every year from 2018 through 2023. It will include the first Frozen and Marvel comics-themed attractions.
The centrepiece of the park and the gateway to Fantasyland – the castle – will also be transformed to create spectacular entertainment experiences for guests.
Interestingly, more than half of Disneyland’s expansion in Hong Kong will be footed by taxpayers as the government has a majority 53 per cent stake in the park.
It will be interesting to watch as the battle of the theme parks heats up across Asia in the years to come. For now though, Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are pulling out all stops to make your visit memorable.