CNN  — 

When Hong Kong Disneyland Resort announced it would be saying a permanent good night to its Sleeping Beauty Castle on January 1, 2018, fans around the world let out a collective gasp.

The reaction was to be expected given it’s the first time Disney has closed one of its six castles, says Stefan Zwanzger, aka The Theme Park Guy, who has been to 350 parks in over 100 countries.

“Transforming the castle from small to big is a unique undertaking Disney hasn’t done before,” he tells CNN Travel.

The Hong Kong iteration – a replica of the original in Anaheim, California – is now being transformed into a much larger, grander version.

Due to be unveiled in 2019, the new castle will feature a mix of architectural styles inspired by different cultures, while paying tribute to the multiple Disney princess stories, including Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Moana and Anna and Elsa.

“I think it’s a great idea for Hong Kong Disneyland, since the Anaheim castle clone always appeared dwarfed by the stunning Lantau mountains behind,” adds Zwanzger.

Big changes afoot

Though visitors to the park can still see the top of Sleeping Beauty Castle, the base is surrounded in blue construction fencing bearing the words “Magic is happening,” cranes towering ahead in the background.

It’s a jarring sight for those familiar with Disney’s incredible ability to keep its behind-the-scenes movements, well, behind-the-scenes.

But it’s also symbolic of the grand overhaul now taking place as part of a multi-year, $1.4 billion expansion plan, designed to increase its competitiveness in the region.

Times have been tough for the park, of which the Hong Kong government is the majority shareholder. It posted its third year of losses this week, according to local media, its deficit hitting HK$345 million (US$45 million) in 2017.

Rolling out over six years from 2018 through 2023, the expansion will include new attractions and entertainment options, many unique to Hong Kong Disneyland.

An Ant-Man themed attraction is among the new rides planned for Disneyland Hong Kong.

The most recent reveal came in early February 2018, with Disney releasing the first renderings of a new experience featuring Ant-Man, The Wasp and S.H.I.E.L.D. that will be launched in Tomorrowland, replacing the recently-closed Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride. It’s due to open this year.

It will be the park’s second Marvel ride, following last year’s Iron Man Experience opening, and part of an entire Marvel-themed area planned for 2023.

Among other highlights rolling out in the next six years include a Frozen-themed area featuring rides, dining, shopping and entertainment based around the characters and stories from the kingdom of Arendelle.

It’s due to open in 2020.

World’s most sought-after Disney resort?

In the early days following Hong Kong Disneyland Resort’s 2005 opening, many mocked that you could experience the park in a half a day – and that wasn’t really an exaggeration.

There was a handful of Disney staples but overall it was thin on thrills – particularly if you’ve experienced the Florida and California parks.

However in recent years, with the additions of new sections like Toy Story Land and Mystic Point, it’s managed to transform itself into something far more magical.

Zwanzger seems to agree, telling CNN Travel the Hong Kong park has the potential to be one of the most appealing of all Disney properties.

“I always thought that HK Disneyland had the best setting of any Disney resort worldwide,” he says.

“The surrounding mountains and ocean, plus Inspiration Lake … this park is hidden away from mainstream Hong Kong like a Lost Valley and provides real relief from the stressful pace of the city.”

Though the park opened with extremely few attractions back in 2005, he says it’s greatly improved since the latest expansion – and could be poised for even greater things.

“Depending on what attractions & budget the Imagineers and the HK government settle for – it may one day turn into the world’s most sought-after Disney resort,” he says.

“Shanghai Disney has the better rides today, but being located in that flat, rural, depressing, smog-infested neighborhood, location-wise it can’t compete with its HK counterpart, not even remotely.”

Hong Kong Disneyland today

So what can guests heading to Hong Kong Disneyland right now expect?

In addition to traditional Disney fare like Dumbo and it’s a Small World, there are a few attractions you won’t find at any other Disney park.

Take Mystic Manor, which opened in 2013. Inspired by the legendary Haunted Mansion ride found at the two American Disney parks and Tokyo Disney, it’s high-tech and track-free, the first Disney ride in the world to operate with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

This one takes guests on a wild ride through an enchanted mansion brought to life by a monkey named Albert.

The ride’s theme music was composed by Danny Elfman, who famously worked with Tim Burton on a number of film soundtracks, from “Edward Scissorhands” to “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Hong Kong Disneyland's Toy Story Land.

Meanwhile Toy Story Land, which opened in 2011, is full of quirky photo ops and fun rides – including the absolutely terrifying RC Racer and the Toy Soldier Parachute Drop, a tone-downed version of the traditionally scary drop tower rides.

Grizzly Gulch, opened in 2012, is home to one ride – the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, which offers a thrilling backwards rip down the tracks as part of the experience.

But Tomorrowland is where all the action is happening right now, with Disney’s takeover of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises heavily influencing recent openings.

The newest addition to the park, Iron Man Experience opened just over a year ago and takes riders on a multi-sensory flight through Hong Kong’s skies to battle the evil forces of Hydra.

There’s also a mock Stark Expo, where Tony Stark shows off his latest high-tech creations in various exhibition halls.

Meanwhile, HK Disney has reimagined its classic Space Mountain indoor coaster, dubbing it Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain. Here, riders zip through a dogfight between Rebel X-wing starfighters and Imperial TIE fighters.

The Star Wars Command Post offers photo ops with various characters like Chewbacca or BB-8. Young Jedis-in-training can also take part in a stage show and face off against Darth Vader.

Know before you go

Overall, there’s just the right amount of attractions for those who want to experience the park in day, take in some of the shows and don’t mind committing to a full-on schedule.

Side note: The fireworks display has been put on hold till the castle transformation is complete.

The usual common-sense advice applies – if you can avoid going on a weekend or holiday, do it.

On a recent week-day visit ride lines were never more than 20 minutes long – and that’s the worst-case scenario.

Mystic Manor is a trackless ride that applies radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Do download the new HK Disney app. Wi-Fi is free throughout the park and the app offers up-to-date ride wait times and show schedules as well as a GPS-enabled map. You can also make restaurant reservations or locate character photo ops.

Got cash to burn and can’t avoid visiting on a weekend or holiday? Consider signing up for the private three-hour tour, which allows you to skip the lines and get VIP seating at all performances and parades.

The cost of this celeb-favored option is HK$5,688 ($726) and includes up to six guests.

Language issues are dealt with in a typically efficient Disney manner. On the Jungle River Cruise in Adventureland, for instance, guests can choose whether they want a guide who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese or English.

While those who understand English will get more out of the excellent Lion King live performance, it’s Cantonese that dominates the “Mickey and the Wondrous Book” stage show.

What about food? While the Hong Kong park does offer burgers and popcorn, local flavors dominate.

Turkey legs? Nope. You’ll find grilled squid, though. Hot dogs come on a stick rather than in a bun.

There are Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles – but there’s also dim sum shaped like Toy Story aliens.

Where to stay

The Hong Kong Disneyland Resort now has three hotels: Hollywood Disney, Disneyland Hotel and the new Explorer’s Lodge, which just opened in 2017.

The new property offers a completely different vibe from the grand Victorian-inspired Disneyland Hotel and is a great option for those who want something higher end than Hollywood Disney.

The seven-story, 750-room Explorer’s Lodge features safari themed decor and is divided into sections – Asia, Oceania, South America and Africa. The decor – made up of art and artifacts – is a reflection of these continental themes.

The Explorer's Lodge is Hong Kong Disneyland's newest hotel.

The Explorer’s Lodge doesn’t scream Disney – rooms have busts of Mickey and Minnie on the walls and Disney toiletries, but otherwise are fairly standard.

Little surprises, such as an elevator designed to look like a hot air balloon basket and Goofy announcing your floor number, add to the magic.

There are two excellent restaurants serving Western and Asian cuisine – character dining is on offer too – as well as a cafe with takeaway options like sandwiches and fruit.

The Explorer’s Lodge is not quite within walking distance of the Disneyland theme park but a shuttle bus provides regular journeys.

Hong Kong Disneyland, Lantau Island, Hong Kong