Hong Kong Disneyland opensits door to the paying public today after a weekend of celebrations attended byDisney president Robert Iger, outgoing CEO Michael Eisner, China's vice president Zeng Qinghong and a host a localcelebrities.

Hong Kong stars such as KarenMok, Coco Lee, Charlie Young and HK Disneyland spokesman Jacky Cheung turned upfor the park's three-day launch party,although rumours that international stars such as Johnny Depp, John Travoltaand Zhang Ziyi would also put in an appearance proved to be unfounded. Depp was in Toronto on Sunday promoting Corpse Bride.

About 16,000 tickets havebeen sold for the park's opening day (September 12) when the doors open at 1pm local time.

The $3.5bn park - located onHong Kong's outlying Lantau Island - is a joint venture between Disney and the Hong Kong government which stumped up $419m for its 57% stake and a further $1.75bnfor infrastructure costs, including land reclamation. Disney invested $316m fora 43% stake.

Iger, who takes over from Eisner as Disney CEO at the end of this month, described the park as a keycomponent in the company's plans to break into the China market.

"We fully expect this is agiant step in the direction of growing the company and all its Disney brandsand businesses in this very populous region," Iger told the Associated Pressover the weekend.

While Mickey and friends arehousehold names in the former British colony of Hong Kong, they're less well-known in mainland China; something that Disney hopes to remedy with the parkserving as a launchpad to raise awareness of its products, TV shows, movies andcharacters.

Mainland tourists areexpected to make up about one third of the park's 5.6 million annual visitors,with Hong Kong Chinese and visitors from the rest of the world also accountingfor about one third each. Adult tickets, priced at HK$295 in the off-season,are expensive for the majority of mainland Chinese although Disney officialspoint out that Hong Kong is adjacent to China's relatively affluent Guangdong province.

However further access tomainland China remains a contentious issue for Disney and otherinternational media conglomerates eyeing the world's most populous market.

Disney has long been engagedin talks with Chinese officials about the launch of TV channels and otherbusinesses in mainland China. But although China has been gradually opening its film and TV sectorsto foreign and private investment, the government has clamped down in recentmonths with calls for tighter control of cultural imports. Last year, Sony,Viacom and Warner Bros all announced agreements to establish production jointventures with Chinese entities, but mainland officials put the brakes onfurther joint ventures earlier this year.

Therefore Disney'sshort-term China strategy is likely to centre around a second themepark. Last week, Iger confirmed Disney's long-rumoured plans to also operate a themepark in Shanghai, although he noted that it wouldn't open until atleast 2010. "Those discussions are ongoing," Iger said.

Two years ago, the proposed Shanghai park ignited a storm of controversy in Hong Kong with local legislators criticising the Hong Kong government for not including an exclusivity clause in its deal withDisney. Meanwhile, Disney argues that China, with a population of 1.3 billion, is big enough fortwo parks.

The second China park was one of a myriad negative stories about HKDisneyland to emerge in the local press. More recently, park officials have weathered a stormof bad publicity, ranging from plans to serve luxury Chinese dish shark's finsoup, which angered environmentalists, to criticism that the 298-acre park istoo small.

The most recent gripesfollow a series of rehearsal days in which the park suffered from crowding andoperational problems. This resulted in the last-minute addition of 600restaurant seats and 20 food carts although the park has refused to lower itsmaximum capacity of 30,000 visitors.

However the park has tickeda few boxes by striving to take local culture into account. A feng shui masterwas hired to consult on the design; Chinese food, including Cantonese specialtydim sum, is sold in the restaurants, and park staff speak Cantonese and Mandarinin addition to English.

It was the feng shui masterwho insisted on the Sep 12 opening day, three months ahead of schedule and,some might say, unfortunately close to the anniversary of the September 11terrorist attacks.