HONG KONG - Long before there was Hong Kong Disney, there was Ocean Park Hong Kong, a local theme park where many who grew up in this former British colony spent their youth. Then, when the glitzy Hong Kong Disney opened in 2010, Ocean Park was almost forgotten.
“It was always a hassle to get to Ocean Park because you had to take a long bus ride along winding roads and that really discouraged people,” says Dennis Chu, a former Hong Kong resident who now lives in Toronto.
However, that was before the completion of a new subway line - MTR’s South Island Line - that stops just metres from the entrance of Ocean Park. Now, a whole new generation of Hong Kong residents - and lots of foreign tourists, it seems - are discovering the excitement this longtime theme park - it celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017 - can offer.
Above: Hong Kong's Ocean Park finds new life with a younger generation.
As the name suggests, Ocean Park is snuggled up against the South China Sea and lovely Deep Water Bay and when seen from the park’s popular cable car, the view is breathtaking. The waters off Ocean Park are dotted with lots of uninhabited islands and the tranquil bay is filled with traditional junks - their occupants trolling for fish just like their ancestors long before.
While some people like to compare Ocean Park to Hong Kong Disney, there really is very little that these theme parks have in common. For instance, the “animals” you see at Hong Kong Disney are walking stuffed toys with humans inside, while at Ocean Park you get to see “real animals”, like the park’s beloved panda pair, one male and one female.
The pandas are among the thousands of animal species that reside in the 170-acre facility that’s part zoo, part amusement park, part aquarium, part open-air museum and all fun!
After arriving on the MTR (line green line), I rush to the Hong Kong Jockey Club-sponsored Giant Panda Habitat enclosure, where Ocean Park’s main stars are being showered with lots of attention. They seem totally oblivious to their stardom, though, and one appears asleep on a bamboo perch, while the other cools its butt on an island made of ice that’s located in the centre of the enclosure.
Left: Visitors to Ocean Park get a great view of Hong Kong's islands. Right: Park features a panda enclosure.
Ocean Park, the largest of its kind in the world, is divided into eight main sections - Amazing Asian Animals (where the giant pandas live), Marine World, Polar Adventure, Aqua City, Whiskers Harbour, the Rainforest, Adventure Land and Thrill Mountain.
The cable car lifts people to the park’s summit where the amusement area is located. In anticipation of the subway opening, Ocean Park has undergone a major facelift and thrill rides like Hair Raiser, The Dragon, Bumper Blaster, The Whirly Bird, The Abyss and The Eagle have been added.
After exploring the lower section of the park with some Hong Kong friends, we climb aboard the cable car for a slow-motion ride to Ocean Park’s summit where Marine World, Thrill Mountain, Polar Adventure and the Rainforest are located.
Above: The rides at Ocean Park are a thrill a second.
We stop to admire the thrill seekers screaming their lungs out on rides like The Abyss (it drops 182 feet like a runway elevator in the blink of an eye), Crazy Galleon (a ship that swings upside down) and the Hair Raiser (a massive roller coaster that twists and swoops at speeds of 77 kph).
Marine World is one of the biggest draws at Ocean Park. The pavilions within that section are home to over 5,000 precious fish and species, and Ocean Stadium is where the dolphin show is held several times a day - not to everyone’s liking but it still draws quite a crowd.
Above: Visitors can soar above the park, left, or visit replicas of old Hong Kong and China.
While walking around Ocean World, you’ll come upon a street made up to look like Old Hong Kong, and another to resemble Tai O, the historic fishing village on nearby Lantau Island that reminds visitors of Hong Kong’s humble beginnings - tours of Tai O are among the most popular for tourists.
The Shark Aquarium is another highlight at Ocean Park - the tanks in that popular pavilion are filled with some fierce-looking creatures whose razor-sharp teeth seem to scare the smallest visitors.
Not to be missed in Marine World is the Sea Jelly Spectacular and the Chinese Sturgeon Aquarium - it tells the story of the Yangtze River and its importance as China’s economy. The jelly fish are spotlighted in their glass cylinder tanks by coloured lights and the effect is quite mesmerizing.
The Expedition Trail introduces you to over 1,000 animals, including the smallest monkey in the world and the planet’s largest toucan. The Rapids - a river raft thrill ride - is what keeps people coming back to this section of Ocean Park.
Above: Ocean Park's ocean displays are some of the most impressive anywhere.
Polar Adventure, which opened in 2012, gives visitors an insight into the wintry wonders of the North and South Pole. It’s also where you can climb aboard the Ocean Express - a train that turns into a submarine when it leaves to station - and return to the main entrance area.
There’s plenty of places to eat within the park - the most popular with families seem to be Tuxedos Restaurant, Neptune’s Restaurant, The Terrace Café, which offers glorious views of Hong Kong, Panda Café and Café Ocean. There’s also plenty of fast-food options like Mcdonald’s and kiosks offer lots of traditional Hong Kong treats.
The people of Hong Kong are rediscovering Ocean Park and many visitors are discovering it for the first time. It’s a place well worth visiting when in Hong Kong.
Ocean Park is located in the Wong Chuk Hang and Nam Long Shan sections in Hong Kong’s Southern District. To get there, take the MTR’s South Island Line and get off at Ocean Park Station, Exit B. / A one-day adult entrance pass to Ocean World costs $438HK. Holders of Hong Kong residency cards get deep discounts. Go to www.oceanpark.com.hk for more details / The best way to get to Hong Kong is with either Air Canada or Cathay Pacific airlines, both of which offer direct daily service from several Canadian cities. / Tour East Holidays offers many tours of Hong Kong and can add a stop at Ocean Park in an itinerary. Go to www.toureast.com for information.