How Singapore’s Disneyland Went to Hong Kong Instead

On 12 April 1992, the Walt Disney Company opened Euro Disney Resort – a state of the art theme park located on the outskirts of Paris. Expectations were high, with a Disney executive saying during construction that his “biggest fear (was) that (Disney) will be too successful”. Opening day dashed all these hopes. Early estimates and surveys stated that over 500,000 people would rush to the park on day one. 

Instead, an abysmal 25,000 people trickled through the park’s gates in a sign of things to come. For years after its opening, the park and its parent company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Partially, this was due to the French feeling that the cultural imperialism of Euro Disney would encourage an unhealthy American type of consumerism in France. One journalist writing for a center-right newspaper even wrote, “I wish with all my heart that the rebels would set fire to [Euro] Disneyland”.

The company and its chief executive officer, Michael Eisner, were determined not to repeat the mistakes of EuroDisney – overinvesting in properties that weren’t financially performing.

Singapore’s Tourism Drive 

The Straits Times’ impression of what Aquaticus might look like.

Just as EuroDisney was being conceptualized, Singapore was looking for ways to boost its tourism industry. In 1985, Singapore Airlines enlisted the help of an American economics consulting firm to come up with a concept for a tourist attraction that would not only draw more tourists to Singapore but also lengthen their stay and spending. The study argued that Singapore should build a complex “consisting of a theme park, hotels, yachting berths, fast food and merchandising outlets”.  

In the coming years, the Singapore government warmed up to the idea too, and in 1987, put out a tender to build an entertainment complex on a 21-hectare plot in Marina South. Called the Singapore Entertainment Centre (SEC), the project attracted multiple bids from countries such as Japan, Australia, and the United States. One bid for the SEC, for example, was called the Aquaticus sea-world, and included ideas such as “walking through a transparent shark tank, snorkeling and scuba diving among a large variety of fish which can be hand fed”. Another proposal was the “ASEAN Cultural Park” which aimed to depict the city as a “cultural crossroads in a 1,200-seat state-of-the-art theatre using special effects such as those found in Disneyworld’s Epcot Center”. Unfortunately, the project languished in developmental hell for years, before being shelved in 1994 because the bid submissions did not meet authorities’ expectations.

Disneyland Singapore 

Location of the proposed park

Singaporeans were extremely fond of Disney’s products and productions in the early 1990s. In fact, during this period, Singapore was, on a per capita basis, the world’s topmost consumer of Disney products. The company also deepened its investments in the city-state in this period, incorporating the Southeast Asian division of Walt Disney Company on the island in 1994 and opening a satellite facility for its television channel in 1995.

Singapore was thus a perfect site for Disney expansion. Probably noting this and the failure of the SEC theme park tender, the Singapore government engaged in negotiations with the Walt Disney Company to bring a Disneyland to the island. Disney asked that the Singaporean government provide them with 300 hectares of land (Universal Studios Singapore is 20 hectares). 70 hectares would be used to build the first phase of attractions. Then in the future, Disney promised to expand, building Phase II and Phase III of the park. 

Considering the huge amount of land needed, the Singapore government earmarked a piece of land in Seletar Reservoir for Disney to look at. In addition to this, Singapore offered to build Disney a MRT station for the park between the current Yio Chu Kang Station and Khatib Station. In other words, the scenic stretch between Yio Chu Kang and Khatib MRT stations is where Disneyland Singapore was supposed to be.

(Source)

For Disney, the proposed site made much sense. It was a large tract of land that was easily accessible both by public transport and by road (through Seletar Expressway). The lack of tall buildings and visual obstructions around also meant that potential guests could be fully immersed in the theming that Disney created. 

Negotiations seem to have gotten far. The Minister of Information and the Arts, George Yeo, is even reported to have visited the Disney headquarters in 1994, though it is unclear whether he was there to discuss the park. 

Disney, however, demanded that the Singapore government sell the 300 hectares at a very low cost. The company also asked for a high level of investment from the Singaporean government – asking for things as such as a high development and management fee.  Considering that these negotiations were happening around the same time as the failure of EuroDisney, it is conceivable that the company was more risk averse and wanted to the financial risk to be borne by the government. 

The Singapore government, arguing that theme parks should be run predominately by the private sector, pulled out of negotiations. 

Disneyland Hong Kong

Early concept art for Disneyland Hong Kong

Following the failure of the Disneyland Singapore project, Disney started negotiations with the Hong Kong government in 1998. Unlike their Singaporean counterparts, Hong Kong’s authorities were willing to take up a significant stake in the park. In fact, the Hong Kong government paid for three quarters of the initial US$3 billion price-tag, ending up with a 52% stake.

When it opened in 2004, the park did not live up to its initial expectations. Since Disney was more occupied with reviving EuroDisney and upgrading its other parks, critics noted that the Disneyland in Hong Kong was an uninspired copy and paste of the original in Anaheim. 

Perhaps owing to this, the park struggled financially for its first seven years, only making its first profit in 2012. In other words, Disney’s lack of stake in the park meant that it could afford to provide a sub-par product. Thus, to some extent, the Singapore government’s argument – that theme parks should be run by the private sector – makes sense.  

All of this doesn’t mean that Singapore will never see a Disney Park. Even after the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, there have been multiple rumours of Disney coming to Singapore. 

In 2006, Lianhe Zaobao reported for example that Disney was looking to build a park in Marina East in collaboration with Capitaland. Likewise, a theme park publication reported “that Disney looked at the site on Sentosa Island where Universal ultimately developed Universal Studios Singapore, but Disney dismissed the site as too small”. 

In all likelihood, given the company’s sustained interest in the island, Disney attractions might be coming to our shores in one form or another at some point.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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