Entertainment and education is the lifeblood of Ocean Park, but for the park's Chief Executive Randolph Guthrie, it is about maintaining a balance that will entertain the entire family, from the youngest to the oldest.
"If this were just what they call a mechanical or iron-ride park, that would be one thing. You do the coasters and the different types of mechanical rides, they are quite easy as long as the maintenance on them is critical," he said. "But with animals, everything from the simplicity of our butterfly house to the complexity of maintaining the marine mammals or pandas, it is quite complex."
Financing such a balance is not easy. Since the park was officially opened by Sir Murray MacLehose in January 1977, the not-for-profit organisation has managed to enjoy a surplus income for 20 of those years. But the financial crisis of 1997 marked the start of two years of deficit, and Mr Guthrie is also expecting a small deficit for this year.
The park's expenses, relatively low admission fees and the financial crisis, have all contributed to the park's deficit, but being a live animal and marine mammal park and the ongoing expenses associated with that -- maintenance, veterinarians, trainers, Ph.D.s, veterinary hospital ??education department -- are very high.
Rehabilitating old rides and shows, in addition to adding new ones, has also required considerable capital.
"From 1977 to 1992, HK$900 million was spent in the park from its formation to attractions. In the past eight years, 120 per cent of that 15-year cost has been put into the park. Over the next five years we will equal that again," Mr Guthrie said.
In 1985, the park's Atoll Reef (above) was rehabilitated, and at the end of this year Pacific Pier, or Wave Cove, inhabited by California sea lions and harbour seals will open.
"We've just opened our Mine Train (right). We'll have a new thrill ride next May [The Abyss], which is a twin tower, 60-metre free fall in the headlands. In 1999, we had the addition of what is arguably the world's finest panda habitat. In 1997 we added the motion simulator ??. We have new things going on all the time. In this business, for the local market, you really need a new attraction coming up almost on an annual basis."
More rides, more shows, more fun On July 1 this year, the park raised its admission price for the first time in nine years. The price adjustment was to help reline the park's coffers and to finance expansion plans. But given that the park ranks in the top-25 theme parks in the world, Mr Guthrie said he feels Ocean Park still offers exceptional value for money.
The misconception that Ocean Park is still run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and that the club still supports it, makes people balk at paying more money. But Mr Guthrie said that while the Jockey Club has provided some very substantial help on specific exhibits since it ceased being a subsidiary of the club in 1987, the park still had to pay for half of the attractions and pays for ongoing maintenance costs.
"This park must be totally self-sustaining. If we want to continue to do the type of things we are doing we are going to have to make some adjustments on admission, but we must make the park worth the price," he said.
Last October, the park closed Waterworld, because the 2-hectare attraction had a short life span in the holidays and very high operating costs. In its place by the end of 2003 will be Adventure Bay, a water-related ride theme world built at an estimated cost of HK$500 million.
The new attraction will include three new water-related rides, which Mr Guthrie says will still be suitable for the whole family, but still give riders a thrill. Surrounding the rides will be new animal exhibits -- a combination of out of Africa, sea turtles and penguins -- to create an Adventure Bay kind of environment.
Bringing in more visitors, While the park still relies on local visitors for its bread and butter, 40 per cent of its guests are from overseas, 70 per cent of which are mainland tourists. Mr Guthrie says he plans to increase the number of overseas visitors, especially tourists from South Korea and Taiwan, to help beef up the number of people passing through its turnstiles on weekdays.
"With the expense of operating the park, the expense of acquiring the types of rides that we are purchasing or the attractions and exhibits, we no longer can just relay on Hong Kong people, because that number of people would not support the cost of operation or cost of capital renovations," he said.
"We will have moderate but necessary price increases as we continue to add more and more attractions to the park. Certainly, I don? think we will reach the levels Disney has proposed, which is around HK$300 today. We must earn the money, but our price structure for what we offer is among the lowest."
When Disney opens, Mr Guthrie said he expects substantially more families will visit Hong Kong, and the ongoing redevelopment at the park will give Hong Kong two world-class theme parks for families to visit.
"Over these four to five years, we are going to work very hard at improving the park. Adventure Bay is part of that effort," he said.
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