THERE has been no official word but the talk is that preliminary meetings have been held to get Disneyland to Johor.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was in Japan for a five-day working trip, reportedly met officials from Oriental Land, the Japanese partner of Tokyo Disneyland.
The plan, according to speculation, was to bring Mickey Mouse and the fantasyland to the proposed 9,645ha Nusajaya, a massive new township in the southern Johor corridor.
The state is said to have set aside 960ha and investments worth RM2bil for the plan, which could create 20,000 jobs.
Interestingly, in April last year, Abdullah said he had no objection if Disney were to come to Johor.
Following that remark, Singapore's Straits Times contacted Michelle Nachum, the spokesman for Disney theme parks in California for a confirmation but all she was prepared to say was that Disney constantly evaluated strategic markets around the world.
She would not confirm or deny that Johor was on the list.
No one is surprised that Singapore is keeping a close watch on developments in neighbouring Johor. The Lion City, in fact, almost got its own Disneyland in the Seletar area but the plan fell through.
It was reported last year that negotiations went so far as identifying the site and the government was even prepared to add another station to the North-South MRT Line, with the reservoir as a backdrop.
Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kang was quoted in the Straits Times as saying that in the end, it did not work out because Disney wanted a 300ha chunk of land and was not prepared to pay for it.
Lim told Parliament that this happened in the 1990s when the government was keen to attract a major theme park like Disneyland or Universal Studios to set up in Singapore, saying "theme park operators are actually content providers, they really only provide the software and the intellectual property."
He said they wouldn't "want to put in too much of their own money" and that "they earn a development fee even before the theme park operations starts" – management fees would be added when operation started, followed by a cut of the gate takings.
Johor, on the other hand, has plenty of land. It is ready to offer up to 1,000ha of land and in comparison to Hong Kong's 70ha and Singapore's reluctance to give up 300ha, the southern state has a distinct advantage.
But running theme parks is not easy, especially in South-East Asia. The humid weather obviously works against us in Malaysia, especially when visitors have to do plenty of walking and waiting in a sprawling theme park.
The theme park in Genting Highlands is successful because of its cool weather and not forgetting the casino element.
The Sunway Lagoon's wet concept is also successful, given the fact that Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, which have no beaches, have a big market.
The present Disney locations are in California, Florida, Paris, Hong Kong and soon, Shanghai.
Florida has warm weather but it is not humid, unlike Malaysia, and can be windy at times.
But our hot weather need not necessarily be a minus point.
The Formula One race in Kuala Lumpur is now touted the "hottest race on earth" and even the monsoon season in Terengganu has helped put Malaysia on the world map with the Monsoon Cup.
Singapore has had two bad experiences – the 12ha Tiger Balm Gardens, set up in 1935, which later became the Haw Par Villa. It had over 1,000 statues depicting Chinese legends but visitors found them gruesome.
It lost RM72mil.
The Tang Dynasty City was another flop, with one report finding the place too hot on sunny days, having too much concrete with too few shelters and people having to queue up for 40 minutes for a boat ride.
It was part of a comprehensive finding by National University of Singapore's Associate Prof Peggy Teo, who does research on tourism.
Since then Singapore has played safe, preferring the air-conditioned indoor kind of theme parks such as Underwater World and Snowcity.
Malaysia has taken the right direction by planning new tourist attractions as scenic spots and shopping malls alone won't do, especially if we wish to get repeat visitors. That was the view of some Arab tourists, interviewed by a newspaper here recently. Our country should also not be in the category of short-stay destination.
More attractions need to be created as the tourism industry becomes more competitive.
Huge sums of money have to be invested to shift world attention to Malaysia.
For example, Brazil paid more than US$1mil (RM3.6mil) to the Rolling Stones for a one-night concert recently. Although the city treated its people and tourists to the free concert, it drew world attention. Shanghai also paid for the ageing rockers.
But in Malaysia, our politicians and some sections of the people may not be so receptive; but it is a small sum to pay for assured global advertisement.
As travelling becomes easier, tourists have also become more demanding. They expect their tour guides to know what they are talking about, having done their research on the Internet before they started their visits.
If they wish to visit a zoo, it must be like San Diego Zoo, a world-class outfit, or a safari park, where animals are allowed to roam freely and not locked up.
Snakes and crocodiles are also passe now.
Plenty of homework needs to be done, especially on the financial prospect of attracting regional visitors, if we wish to set up world-class theme parks here.
Malaysians would surely like to see Mickey Mouse in Nusajaya but we believe careful planning and plenty of common sense are needed as massive public funds would be involved, so that no one takes the mickey out of us.