LOS ANGELES • The Walt Disney Co's smallest theme park resort, Hong Kong Disneyland, which lost money amid declining attendance last year, will get US$1.4 billion (S$2 billion) in enhancements as part of a colossal six-year growth plan.
The upgrades, announced on Tuesday in Hong Kong, will include an entire section themed around the 2013 animated movie Frozen, a first for any Disney park.
Plans also call for a hugely ampedup castle, multiple rides based on Marvel superheroes, a new nighttime show with fireworks and fountains, and a performance venue based on Moana, an animated musical that arrives in theatres in the United States and Singapore this week.
Construction will begin in 2018 and end in 2023, with new offerings coming online almost every year during that period. The plans are subject to final approval by the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Disney board.
The expansion highlights Disney's belief in Hong Kong Disneyland as a potential profit machine - not just as a theme park, but also as a creator of demand in China and South-east Asia for the company's movies, toys, clothes, video games, books, cruise vacations and television programmes.
"We are more excited than ever about the future of Hong Kong Disneyland," Mr Bob Chapek, Disney's theme park chairman, said.
But the scope of the enhancements also reflects the difficult spot in which Hong Kong Disneyland finds itself.
Despite more than US$600 million in added attractions in recent years, including three new themed areas and a nighttime parade, the park lost about US$20 million last year, according to financial filings.
Attendance has recently perked up - a consequence, perhaps, of media attention surrounding the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort in June - but the 11-year-old park had a terrible 2015. Attendance dropped 9.3 per cent to 6.8 million, compared with a year earlier, said the Themed Entertainment Association. Occupancy at Disney's two Hong Kong hotels declined to 80 per cent from 93 per cent.
Hong Kong Disneyland's general manager, Mr Andrew Kam, was forced out in March.
Like its entrenched local rival, Ocean Park, whose attendance dropped about 5 per cent last year to 7.4 million, Hong Kong Disneyland was hurt by a sharp decline in tourism from mainland China after pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014.
A slowing economy added to difficulties.
But Hong Kong Disneyland has also been vexed by its relatively small size.
In particular, the park's 23.5m-tall castle, a replica of the original at Disneyland in California, has been a sore point among locals. And it did not help that Shanghai made a to-do about its 60m-tall castle being the largest in the Disney empire.
The renewed focus on Hong Kong Disneyland, with its lush gardens and classic Disney rides, comes just five months after the opening of the Shanghai resort, which generated global headlines for its opulence.
Disney has suggested that the Shanghai park will attract 10 million visitors in its first year; four million people visited in the peak summer months alone.
Hong Kong leaders, already feeling insecure about the ascension of Shanghai as a financial capital, do not want their Disneyland to be viewed as a lesser property.
"There seems to be an interesting growth in pride in Hong Kong in that park," Disney's chief executive Robert A. Iger told analysts earlier this month. "I guess their competitive spirit has somehow or another been stimulated."
The Hong Kong government owns 53 per cent of the park, with Disney controlling the balance. Funding for the expansion will be split in corresponding proportion.
The rides and shows announced on Tuesday come on top of additions already in the works. Hong Kong Disneyland will unveil an Iron Man-themed flight simulator on Jan 11 and a new 750-room hotel will open its doors in the months thereafter.
Starting in 2018, a new Marvel themed ride (taking the spot of a Buzz Lightyear attraction) and the Moana complex will arrive. The supersized castle will open the next year.
The snow-dusted Arendelle from Frozen - replete with a lake, an ice mountain, two rides, shops and restaurants - is the 2020 offering.
More Marvel attractions are planned in the years after that, with one based on The Avengers.