Disney breaks ground on new Chinese park

HONG KONG -- At a groundbreaking ceremony for Hong Kong Disneyland, top executives of Walt Disney Co. said Sunday they were confident their first theme park on Chinese soil will draw millions of visitors a year despite the global economic downturn.

"The world economy may be going through a relatively challenging time, but the prospects for this park and the prospects for the economy are looking very strong," Disney president Robert Iger told The Associated Press.

Hong Kong's political leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and Disney's chairman and chief executive officer, Michael Eisner, were among those who attended Sunday's ceremony.

"This historic day brings with it the dawn of a new era in tourism for Hong Kong, and also marks a symbolic milestone in the partnership between Disney and China," Eisner said.

Disney initially expects the 310-acre park -- the company's fifth -- to draw at least 5.6 million visitors a year, one-third of them from the Chinese mainland. Attendance is expected to eventually reach 10 million annually, Disney officials said.

Hong Kong Disneyland, designed to resemble the park in Anaheim, Calif., is scheduled to open by 2006. The project includes two hotels, shops and restaurants and will be connected to downtown Hong Kong and the nearby airport by rail and highway.

China recently signed a preliminary agreement with Disney rival Universal Studios to build a theme park in Shanghai, the mainland's wealthiest city.

Universal's park is also scheduled to open in 2006. Disney said in December that it wouldn't build a park on the mainland until at least 2010.

Hong Kong Disney is being built on reclaimed land at Penny's Bay on outlying Lantau island.

Environmentalists and fishermen complain the Lantau island reclamation project has ruined a breeding ground for some fish and an important habitat for the endangered Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins.

Not everybody believes the park will benefit Hong Kong.

Critics have voiced fears that Hong Kong Disneyland stands to lose much of its business from mainland visitors if Disney builds a second park in China.