HONG KONG (AP) - Hong Kong Disneyland threw open its gates to the public on Monday, marking Mickey Mouse's biggest push into China _ a market the U.S. company hopes will flood the theme park with splurging tourists from the world's most populous nation.
With the pink Snow White Castle behind them, Disney executives and a senior Chinese leader celebrated the opening with musicians clanging cymbals, Chinese lion dancers prancing precariously on tall poles and fireworks bursting in the sky.
The ceremony ended with a parade of skipping Disney characters old and new: Mickey, Donald Duck, Mushu the dragon, Lilo and Winnie the Pooh.
Robert Iger, president of the Walt Disney Co., said it was exciting being part of China's future.
"As millions discover the wonders of Hong Kong and China - one of the most rapidly growing travel destinations in the world - the future is indeed bright,'' he said.
Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong called the park "Hong Kongers' eternal carnival.''
Hundreds of visitors lined up outside the park's gate, waiting to get in despite muggy, sweltering heat.
Michael Kuzma, of Celebration, Florida, began queuing up a day early and was first in line. "For over 50 years, the American people have experienced the happiness of Disney theme parks. I hope the people of China can enjoy the happiness,'' the 36-year-old consultant said.
The attraction and its two resort hotels are surrounded by mountains on lush Lantau Island, just 30 minutes away by subway from bustling central Hong Kong.
It looks much like the first Disneyland in California, with a Space Mountain thrill ride, a classic Cinderella Carousel and Sleeping Beauty Castle - which Disney predicts will be one of the most photographed buildings in Asia.
Hong Kong's government - the biggest investor in the US$3.5 billion park - says the attraction will help turn this global financial capital into Asia's best family holiday spot.
Disney hopes the park - the 11th in its global empire - will be a magnet for increasingly wealthy Chinese tourists, who have a reputation for being big-spenders.
Iger, president of Walt Disney Co., has said the Hong Kong park is a "first big step'' in expanding the company's reach into China, where generations have grown up with little or no familiarity with Mickey Mouse.
Iger said the park would create a media buzz and word-of-mouth excitement that would ignite interest in Disney films, TV shows and other products.
Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television broadcast the Disneyland opening live to viewers across China.
Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer, said China and Disneyland will be a perfect match because they both value families.
"You go to the park and you see mothers, daughters and kids and grandparents. The family unit in China is unbelievably strong. It's not just Hong Kong, it's mainland China,'' Eisner said.
An hour before Monday's opening ceremony, a small crowd of labor, human rights and anti-Disney activists gathered outside the park's front gate, chanting "No Conscience''and "Evil Mickey.''
They were protesting alleged labor abuses at factories making Disney products in China. Disney has said it's investigating the claims.
Hong Kong and Disney struck a deal to build the park in 1999 - just two years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule.
The city had been battered by the Asian financial crisis, and desperately needed a new project to boost its spirits and troubled economy.
Disneyland says it employs 5,000 people and will draw 5.6 million visitors in its first year.
So far, the biggest complaint among some of the thousands who got a sneak peak at the park during a soft opening period has been that Hong Kong Disneyland is too small.
It's Disney's smallest park at 40 hectares (about 100 acres).
The entire attraction - including the two hotels - is 121 hectares (298 acres) - and there's room to expand to 200 hectares (494 acres).
Chinese tourist Zhang Wei predicted the park would be a big hit with the mainland Chinese.
"Disney has a big name and it will definitely attract people and be a success,'' said the 38-year-old businessman from Beijing as he finished watching the daily parade of floats carrying a waving Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland and Buzz Lightyear.
Hong Kongers have a reputation for being brusque and unsmiling, but the Disneyland staff - including cleaners and guards - have been trying to master the Disney tradition of giving guests a warm smile and hello.
The greetings were Hong Kong visitor Evie Chan's favorite thing about the park.
"The staff here is very friendly,'' said Chan, an employee of a marketing firm in her late 20s. "It's like we've known each other for a long time.'' - AP