Hong Kong Disney's Ernest upped to president

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts on Wednesday created a new uber-exec post in Asia to emphasize the importance of the region — then dismissed reports of imminent expansion.

Hong Kong Disneyland head Bill Ernest has been upped to prexy and managing director, Asia, underscoring Disney’s “commitment to international growth, especially in this region,” said Parks and Resorts chairman Jay Rasulo. The company played down comments made by Toshio Kagami, chairman of Oriental Land, which operates Tokyo Disneyland as a franchise.

Speaking at celebrations for the Tokyo park’s 25th anniversary on Tuesday, Kagami said the company wanted to operate a park outside Japan and added that Southeast Asia was its top priority. Kagami did not specify that he wanted to open a Disney-themed park.

“We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary, and Mr. Kagami was speaking about new challenges for our next 25 years,” Disney spokesman B.C. Lo said. “It is widely known that we are talking to the Shanghai government about a park there and that they are talking to central government. As yet, there is no agreement and no deal.”

Lo added that Ernest’s appointment reflected more than an interest in theme parks and Disney-themed hotels and was really about Disney’s growing presence in Asia. “In the past months, we have bought a major stake in Indian TV (Daily Variety, Feb. 18) and a Chinese games company (Daily Variety, April 8),” Lo said.

The 30-month-old Hong Kong Disneyland missed its first-year targets and saw attendance fall 23% in the second full year of operation.

“Multimillion-dollar investments of this kind do not make their money back straight away. We are only at the beginning,” Lo said. He said that the company began discussions with the park’s majority owner, the Hong Kong government, last year concerning “capital realignment” and plans to convert debt into equity.

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