Mickey at Marina?

SINGAPORE: One month before the four bidders for the Sentosa integrated resort (IR) put their cards on the table, comes a stunner: The winner could face a theme park rival, right here in Singapore. Mickey Mouse – who has spurned the advances of Johor – could come to town.

According to market talk, US-based operator Walt Disney has been in discussions with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on a possible theme park in Marina East. The site in question is an empty plot of land beside the new 18-hole Marina Bay Golf Course at Tanjong Rhu, operated by a unit of NTUC Club, Lianhe Zaobao reported yesterday.

While some areas around the golf course have been marked for development – such as for the 30 ha Marina East Garden – the use of this plot of land "has not been decided yet", said the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Although Disney and STB would neither confirm nor deny the rumours, a source told Today that negotiations have been progressing well.

"The talks went further than they have ever gone before," he said.

In the 1990s, Singapore almost had its own Disneyland in the Seletar area, but the deal fell through because Disney wanted a huge 300 ha chunk of land – over four times bigger than its Tokyo attraction – but was not prepared to fork out its own money.

Disney eventually went to Hong Kong because its Government owned 57 per cent of the whole operation. On why Disney may bite this time, the source said: "Disney could be emboldened by the plans for the Marina area, including the IR there, and agree to come since so much is being done to attract tourists."

It remains to be seen whether the government offers to take a stake in the project, how large the park will be and how the proposal affects the Sentosa IR aspirants. Genting, for instance, is counting on rival park operator Universal Studios as its trump card for the Sentosa race, while Kerzner International is likely to operate its own water-based theme park. Said Mr Sean Monaghan, an analyst at Merrill Lynch: "The viability of the Sentosa theme park will be dependent on the kind of competition it would face. Just five weeks before submission, it would be difficult for the government to announce anything major that will affect their plans."

Still, if Disney is successfully wooed, the head-on competition here could prove interesting, he said.

"If Singapore adopts the Hong Kong Disneyland model, then the private investors in Sentosa IR will effectively be in competition with the government," he added. According to reports, it's believed that the Singapore Disneyland – if it goes through – would be of the same scale as the 70ha Tokyo theme park.

This small scale, and Singapore's hot weather, could lead to Disney adopting a new generation of indoor theme parks that its CEO Robert Iger floated last year in a Wall Street Journal report.

He said there were "three or four entities in the world, locations with money, that are looking for site-based entertainment" – full rides and shows within a building.

"I'll call them theme parks but they won't necessarily be along the same lines as parks we've built before … In the next year to two years … we will commit to creating a new concept or some entity outside the US," he said then. Analysts pointed out he could be hinting at Singapore.

STB declined to confirm anything yesterday but said that it was always on the lookout for major tourism projects, beyond the two IRs. It said it maintains a "healthy dialogue" with key players, but did not identify anybody. A Disney spokesperson added that Singapore continued to be a good market but it had nothing to announce.

Whether Mickey Mouse will cause unhappiness among the Sentosa bidders remains to be seen, as three of the quartet – Genting, Kerzner and Harrah's Entertainment – remained tight-lipped when asked to comment. The fourth, Eighth Wonder, hailed Disney as the "undisputed global leader" in the theme park industry, taking a dig at Genting's tie-up with Universal.

Mr Nicholas Mak, a director of consultancy and research at Knight Frank, is more sanguine about the potential tussle between rival theme park operators.

He said: "Look at Gold Coast. It has three theme parks, yet each of them is different. Without these parks, Gold Coast is just a small town with nice beaches. So why not two in Singapore? This will really make the whole place more exciting." – TODAY



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