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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s beloved theme park

By Shania Siu 19 August 2021 | Last Updated 20 August 2021

Header image courtesy of Andrew Suddaby (via Gwulo)

Out with the old, in with the new. Ocean Park—the oldest theme park in Hong Kong that’s still in operation—is currently undergoing a large-scale revamp. With the public scrutiny that comes with the massive overhaul, some have turned back to observe the amusement park’s history and its significance to our city.

We have probably all been to Ocean Park quite a handful of times, most likely for the pandas, penguins, and thrilling rides, but do you know what the park has endured—or what’s in store for its future? Here’s a brief look at Ocean Park’s turbulent, triumphant, and intriguing history over the past four decades.

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Park origins and initial development

Ocean Park first opened its doors to the excited Hong Kong public on 10 January 1977. Hoping to carve in some space for marine conservation and education in Hong Kong’s international image, the government provided free land to the Hong Kong Jockey Club on the southern area of Hong Kong Island for the construction of the park. The initial project cost $150 million, and within the next decade, another $240 million was allocated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club to expand the park to include thrill rides and other facilities.

At the start of its operation, Ocean Park welcomed guests while proudly presenting itself as the largest oceanarium in the world. While in its first stage of development, the park was divided into two distinct areas—the headland and the lowland—connected by the park’s signature mode of transport, cable cars.

The lowland housed birds and other animals, and various gardens and places for sightseeing, like the Waterfall Gardens, Rose Garden, Floral Cabin, Suspension Bridge, and the Bonsai Display. The number of animal attractions back then, however, was a fraction of what it is now, comprising only an otter pool, deer park, bird show plaza, bird sanctuary, and a touch and feed area.

As the park wanted to establish itself as a family-friendly and educational spot for young children, there was also a children’s playground. The design for its map was functional and simple above all else, printed on white paper and folded to be pocket size, making it quite different from the colourful and glossy maps they evolved to (prior to their full digitisation).

Meanwhile, the headland—located 500 feet above sea level—housed the park’s marine life, with attractions like the now-adjunct Atoll Reef, Ocean Theatre, Wave Cove, Summit Garden, and various restaurants. Attractions were spaced quite apart from one another, as the park was yet to fully utilise the massive 91.5-hectare land they were given.

Next-stage development and successes

In 2005, the year that welcomed Hong Kong’s largest theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland, Ocean Park launched a $5.5 billion redevelopment plan to help it maintain its competitiveness in tourists’ and locals’ eyes.

The stupendous plan entailed a massive increase of animal attractions and rides, from 35 to more than 80—many of which we know and love today. Some highlights include the Aqua City, with a three-level Grand Aquarium quadruple the size of the old Atoll Reef, the Amazing Asian Animals exhibit that houses our beloved giant pandas, red pandas, and more, and the Ocean Express, the ultimate solution to park transport for those who fear heights or wish to skip the long lines at the cable car terminus.

The Headland, which was then renamed the Summit, housed Thrill Mountain, the hotspot for game booths and all things that keep your adrenaline pumping. The six rides at Thrill Mountain soon became sought-after, must-ride classics, particularly the Hair Raiser—Hong Kong’s first-and-only floorless roller coaster—that brings guests along several inversions at a speed of up to 88 kilometres an hour

Others may turn to The Flash, a bright yellow ride that swings guests around like a pendulum in full 360-degree spins. Clearly not for the faint-hearted, the park’s target audience widened to include teens, and young adults looking for a quick thrill ride, aside from families and others looking to visit their favourite animals.

Having surpassed 100 million guests in 2011, 34 years after its grand opening, it’s clear that Ocean Park has solidified its reputation as a go-to spot for thrill rides and appreciating the beauty of marine animals. In 2006, the park was named one of the “10 Most Popular Amusement Parks in the World” by Forbes, and was ranked as one of the “50 Most Visited Tourist Attractions in the World” by Forbes Traveler the following year.

According to the TEA/AECOM Attraction Attendance Report in 2013, Ocean Park was even ranked twelfth in the world, fourth in Asia, and first in China for annual attendance!

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Conservation and education work

After the park stepped out from underneath the Jockey Club as its subsidiary in 1987, the park became a not-for-profit organisation managed by the Ocean Park Corporation. The new management has narrowed its focus on the park’s development as a recreational and educational space, and they’ve carried on this mission until now.

Some notable contributions the Park has spearheaded is the Ocean Park Academy Hong Kong, which is what we now know as the best way to make children excited for an educational field trip—in the 2000s, around 30,000 school children in Hong Kong visited the Park to learn about animals yearly.

The conservation work does not stop at organising field trips—Ocean Park also actively partakes in initiatives such as the Ocean Park Conservation Chill Club, which allows secondary school students, university students, and young adults to gain hands-on experience in ecological and conservation-related training. It’s a way for them to pass on the torch of environmental awareness and protection to the next generation, and it was launched late last year.

Controversy and recent development

Despite its success, Ocean Park has hit a rough patch over the past few years, with a fall in the park’s primary source of visitors—mainland Chinese tourists—compounded by months-long park closures caused by the pandemic. With closures and unsatisfactory attendance setting it back on the repayment of government loans and operation costs, the park has turned to further upgrades and expansions to boost its competitiveness.

In the last few years, Ocean Park has made moves to establish itself as a resort-style destination with the addition of the Hong Kong Ocean Park Marriott and an expansion of in-park dining establishments, including a Chinese fine-dining restaurant inside The Grand Aquarium. 

What’s in store for the future of Ocean Park?

After four years of delay, Ocean Park is set to unveil its new and exciting water park next month, with celebratory events and special opening discounts planned to mark the occasion. With all sorts of fun attractions like slides, pools, and playgrounds, it looks to be a great fit for families—and of course, water-loving teenagers and adults. 

The government has poured in $5.4 billion into Ocean Park’s newest phase of development, waived the five percent interest, and pushed back the deadline for returning the loan to 2028. As part of the new development plan, Ocean Park has promised to transform 42,000 square metres of land near the Ocean Park MTR station into a retail, dining, and entertainment space (RDE). The rejuvenated area will be rented out to other service providers in hopes of alleviating the park’s burden of handling all operating costs. 

On top of that, the park’s board has announced that it will scrap its one-day entry fee, making the RDE free to access and ideally turning the park a regular destination for hangouts and day trips, instead of a once- or twice-a-year excursion. Instead, the board has proposed a pay-as-you-go ticket model, which would allow guests to pick and choose the attractions and facilities to pay for. 

As part of its plans to refocus on conservation and education, the park’s controversial Ocean Theatre, which has come under fire for animal welfare issues regarding marine animal captivity, will be shut down for good. Marine animals who used to occupy the area will be relocated, though it is not clear which other exhibits will be created in its place. Other upgrades include the retirement of three old rides—the Mine Train, the Abyss, and the Raging River—and the creation of new adventure- and wellness-themed zones, comprising new rides and retreat-style attractions, respectively.

Whatever its future may hold, we—and the rest of Hong Kong—will be watching with interest as Ocean Park enters this bold new phase of its life. Though it has not been free of controversy, Ocean Park continues to hold a place in Hongkongers’ collective memories as the little theme park that could, and a homegrown success story that has proudly held its own throughout 40 years of Hong Kong history.

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Shania Siu

Editorial intern

As someone who grew up speaking three languages at home and another two at school, Shania is an avid language learner with a passion for creative writing, music, film, and television. If she’s not out with her friends and family, you will most likely find her at home doting on her two tortoises, watching the latest K-drama sensation on Netflix, or typing away on a new story.

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