I love theme parks. No idea why. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s the atmosphere, or maybe I just produce abnormal amounts of endorphins when I’m strapped into a giant colourful nightmare train, who knows. Anywhere I travel to, I make sure to visit their biggest and best theme parks. Hong Kong has been no exception.
There are two theme parks in Hong Kong. Firstly, there’s Hong Kong Disneyland; the second Disney park in Asia after Tokyo. It was opened in 2005 on the northeastern tip of Lantau Island (the one on the left with the airport on it). Despite its small size, it receives around 8 to 9 million visitors per year. In response to criticism of other Disney parks not incorporating local culture, Disney managed to incorporate Chinese customs and traditions in its construction. Feng shui consultants helped with the layout, making sure the placement of the popcorn stands and gift shops didn’t allow any of that sweet, sweet qi to flow out of the park. They even burned incense after each building was finished, and skipped ‘4’ when numbering the hotel floors due to its association with death.
The other theme park in Hong Kong is Ocean Park; a marine mammal park, oceanarium, animal theme park and amusement park all in one! It opened in the southern district of Hong Kong Island almost 40 years ago, making it much older than its competitor. It’s also huge; over 200 acres of land. You have to take a cable car to get up to the main area of the park, known as the ‘summit’. Unlike Disneyland, it boasts multiple thrill rides, giant pandas, and a dolphin show. It’s also a standalone theme park, which I’ve found to be much more interesting and unique than chains like Disney or Universal. The most impressive feature of Ocean Park, however, is the scenery. The park lies right on the coast, overlooking the diamond-blue sea and bright green islands.
While my girlfriend was visiting Hong Kong during my first week here, I knew I wanted to go to a theme park with her, but which one? I was told the locals preferred Ocean Park, but the decision was made when I saw the price of tickets. £32 for Ocean Park, or over £50 for Disneyland? Maybe another time, Walt.
We went on a clear, sunny and scorching hot Tuesday, arriving early enough to partake in the stampede of plebs sprinting to the cable cars right as the rope keeping us at bay was removed. We strolled through a strange ‘Old Hong Kong’ zone, then joined the short queue for the cable cars. The area around the entrance to the park contains the main aquarium, many of the animals, and a few small rides, mainly for kids. All the big-boy rides are at the summit, reachable by a scenic cable car ride or a rapid train ride. Right before boarding the cable car, the staff took our photo in front of a screen and handed us a little pink slip with a number on it. Okay then.
The cable car ride was breathtaking. Unbelievably pretty views over the park and out to the sea. This is definitely the most scenic theme park I’ve ever been to, maybe the most scenic in the world. I’m sure those with working eyeballs would get incredible views from the top of the rides, but we were forced each time to remove our glasses and therefore saw only green and blue blurs.
Upon reaching the summit, we walked over to the photo stall to see what this pink ticket thing was about. However, we didn’t even need to show them our ticket, because a strange, grinning man was already darting towards us, clutching a photo of us printed on high-quality photo paper and inside an Ocean Park frame. “It’s a lovely photo, very cute, you should buy it! Good memory!“, he told us. This happened on almost every ride. Does this strategy really work for them? Surely the cost of the ink they waste each time must add up. Plus paying the staff to quickly print them, pack them up and harass us into buying them. I didn’t see anyone else on the ride getting this treatment either. Maybe because we were a young, foreign couple? More easily pressured into buying photos? Whatever the reason, it was absolutely bizarre and unlike any theme park I’ve been to. So weird.
The flagship ride at Ocean Park is an intimidating red and yellow behemoth known as the ‘Hair Raiser‘. Being the first thing you see after passing over the mountain in the cable car, I’m sure the sight of it has both excited and terrified many. The entrance to the queue is through the mouth of a giant creepy clown. The ride is fast, the drops just keep coming, and the views are amazing (or so I’m told). However, it’s not the smoothest ride; my head took quite the beating. Ocean Park also offers many of the standard amusement rides: a drop tower, mine cart, carousel, Ferris wheel, gyro tower, river rapids, some pendulum rides, some swing rides… But the real joy of the park is in its variety of activities.
Fed up of rides? Go to the aquarium! Fed up of fish? Go see the penguins and polar bears! Too cold now? Go see the dolphin and sea lion show! Seen that? Go see the pandas or the birds or the lemurs or the turtles or the sharks or stingrays or any of the other animals! The park is huge and there’s simply way too much to see in one day, even if there were no queues. The park is also seasonal; it changes dramatically between summer and Halloween, for example. It’s just a lovely, lovely place to spend a day.
The only concern we had about the park was with its treatment of animals. Having seen the infamous documentary ‘Blackfish‘, I was a little uncomfortable with the dolphin shows, despite the animals appearing happy and the staff seeming to really care for them. The show also featured many lessons about marine animal conservation such as keeping rubbish out of the ocean. They were at least trying to be somewhat educational and spread a positive message. We left the park exhausted but happy. It was an awesome day.
Two weeks later, I noticed an email in my UST inbox. “Ocean Park Educational Visit for residents of UG Halls II, VIII and IX“. Wow! I’m in hall IX! Educational visit? Sounds interesting! “Only $50HK!“, the email continued. Seeing as I paid over six times that much to visit last time, I was intrigued. I was first in line the next morning to buy a ticket. It looked like I would be going to Ocean Park again!
The educational part of the visit involved a 1-hour workshop in the morning (which was rife with technical glitches and boring business rhetoric), then later on in the day, a special behind-the-scenes lesson on how the park is run. The 60 of us on the trip were split into 3 groups of 20. 1 one the groups would get a lesson in ‘Marine Mammal Training and Husbandry‘ (!), while the other two groups would learn about the running of the aquarium. Unfortunately, my roommate and I only received the email with the first-come-first-served group sign-up form around 8 hours after it was sent. Was it a technical glitch or did they stagger the emails? Whatever happened, we were too slow for the badass dolphin and sea lion group and ended up with the other losers in the smelly fish tanks.
Our guide, Christy, helped us skip the queue into the famous Grand Aquarium and enter via a staff-only door. Hilariously, on multiple occasions, random visitors to the park would join our group thinking it was public, and Christy would spot them and send them away with their tail between their legs. First, we saw the life-support room for the coral tank. I was surprised at how many huge scary machines were required for that one little tank. Next, we saw the diving area and the changing room where the divers put on their gear. Christy translated the Cantonese-speaking diver as she showed us all the cool gear and taught us about what the divers do. We then passed by the quarantine and transportation tanks on the way to the foul-smelling food preparation room. On the whole, I enjoyed the trip; I always love seeing things behind-the-scenes and hearing from experts about their jobs.
The best thing about the lesson was how it convinced me that the staff here really do care about the animals. Perhaps not the soulless executives at the top making all the decisions, but the aquarists and animal trainers and every other member of staff there seemed to really care. This sentiment was repeated to me by those in the marine mammal group. The animals seem happy, the trainers seem kind, and their relationships are deep and heartwarming. I’m undecided as to whether or not the dolphin show is ultimately good, but I’m sure of one thing; the animals are in great hands.
If you like cute animals or scary coasters, definitely check out Ocean Park.
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