Disney opened their first theme park in mainland China last June 2016 to much fanfare. It was all over international news, with articles ranging from anticipation, to apprehension, and understandably so. It is the first Disney to open in communist territory (Hong Kong Disney doesn’t count, by virtue of the “one country two systems” principle), and the first time that Mickey Mouse, an icon of western culture, sets up shop in a society where western influence is not exactly free flowing. And there was the question of how Disney, a true blue American invention, will be received by a people who are not exactly big fans of Uncle Sam. Still, Disney bet big, and to start they acquired a piece of land 11 times larger than the original Disneyland in California. Mickey’s got balls…big ones!
The park’s opening did get its share of praises and jeers from international media. There was the awe at the sheer size of the park, and the innovative rides never before seen in other Disney parks like the visually captivating Tron roller coaster, and the ultra-high-tech “Pirates of the Carribean” and “Soaring over the Horizon”. And on the dowside were pictures of children peeing on the grounds, garbage on the streets and reports of shoving and pushing on the queues. Still, whenever Disney does something, you know it’s big, and so on my son’s first break from school for the year, we packed our luggage and went to see Mickey in China.
The first thing you will notice in the Shanghai Disney is that it is geared towards the local market big time. You’ll be surprised at how each Disney character has become so fluent in Mandarin, as all the songs, shows and ride narrations are in the local language. Mulan is probably so relieved that she can finally speak in her native tongue. Second, a lot of things were “orientalized”. Don’t go looking for Main Street USA here, as the street at the entrance has been named “Mickey Avenue” instead, and it doesn’t take a genius to know why.
As in any Disneyland, there’s got to be a castle, and Shanghai’s holds the record as the largest so far, beating the one in Orlando, Florida, the previous record holder in height and width. In another break from Disney tradition, the Shanghai castle does not belong to any particular princess. While California, Paris and Hong Kong are Sleeping Beauty’s, and Orlando and Tokyo are Cinderella’s, the Shanghai castle is simply called (for reasons I do not yet know), the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Still, despite not having a princess, the Shanghai castle is a thing of beauty, with its intricate details and sheer imposing presence. This thing makes the one in Hong Kong look like a school art project – no joke.
To the right of the Enchanted Storybook castle are two themed lands, the Treasure Cove, and the Adventure Isle. The pirate-themed Treasure Cove is the first of its kind in any Disney park. Anchored almost entirely in the Pirates of the Carribean movie franchise, the highlight of the area is the “Pirates of the Carribean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure” ride, a sort of grand-scale version of Hongkong Disney’s Mystic Manor with added water and water-effects. Prepare to hear Davey Jones and Jack Sparrow taunt each other in Mandarin as they fight in burning, sinking ships. I guarantee that the sheer scale and high-techness of the ride will leave you in awe, even if you don’t understand one syllable of Mandarin like myself.
Right beside Treasure Cove is Adventure Isle. The Adventure Land (or Isle) theme is pretty common in Disney Parks. In Hongkong, their version centered around the story of Tarzan, while in Shanghai it centered on no particular single character. But like all Adventure Lands, it had that Indiana Jones-ey feel. The highlight in Shanghai is one attraction called “Soaring over the Horizon”, a high-tech, virtual ride that brings you to many of the wonders of the world. Unfortunately the queueing time had already ballooned to 70 minutes by the time we got there, so we skipped it instead, so we could see more of the park.
Behind the castle lies Fantasyland, the staple of any Disney Park, the part where you see the characters from fairy tales, plus Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and everyone else that pops out of children’s storybooks. I’m not really a big fan of this section of the parks, and I’m sure any middle-aged male like myself knows the feeling. Needless to say we didn’t spend too much time here, except to take a boat ride along one of the park’s many man-made lakes. The boat ride took us to many scenes of fairy tale movies that Disney has made, like Little Mermaid, Alladin and such. It was fine, and quite visually pleasing, but to be honest, you will only get into rides like that because you have a child in tow. They do have a flume ride in this area, for adrenalin junkies, plus a Frozen show, which we unfortunately missed.
To the left of the castle is an entirely different story. Here lies Tomorrowland, and this is where most of the action in Shanghai Disney is. Inspired heavily by the Tron movie, I would give Shanghai Disney’s Tomorrowland an A+ for effort to live up to its name. This is one part of the park that trully stands on its own. You could detach this Tomorrowland from the rest of Shanghai Disney, and it will still generate it’s owm stream of revenue generating visitors. It’s…that…awesome!
Unlike Hong Kong’s Tomorrowland which looks like it grew on the imagination of, well, Buzz Lightyear, the Shanghai version is all grown up. This one is a man’s park, not a boy’s one. The theme revolves around the Tron rollercoaster, which replicates the movie’s iconic lightcycles. Now, unlike most rollercoasters which try to scare your wits out, the Tron looks pretty mild. There are no scary drops, loops, tumbles and all that. Instead, what it does is drop jaws with its awesome, lighted canopy, as well as giving the riders an innovative, motocycle-like ride rather than the usual hanging or sitting position in other rollercoasters. Unfortunately the Tron shut down at some point while we were there, for some technical reason, so we took a ride called the “Jetpack” instead, which is like a spinning ball with arms. Not as awesome in any way, and it does look like a kiddie ride, but it spins quite fast. Apart from the rides, there’s also one section here dedicated to the Star Wars series. Trekkies, beware.
Shanghai Disney also does the customary parade, but again be prepared to sing along in Mandarin. The usual characters are there ranging from the staple Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story and such, and the latest Disney cash makers like Olaf and Elsa of Frozen, plus of course Mulan, the heroine of China, as the anchor Disney princess.
Oustide the park itself, and outside the entry turnstiles (which means it’s open to the public without a fee) is Disney Town, a sort of Disney version of a strip mall, with numerous restaurants and shops, including a huge two-storey Lego store. If you happen to be in this part of Shanghai for more days than one, and don’t want to spend for entering the park in multiple days, then Disney Town could be a good place to hang out on.
Even if you stay far from Disney, which itself is quite some distance from the center of Shanghai, transporation is no problem. The Disney Resort Station, of Shanghai Metro’s line 11, is just a short walk from the entrance. The train ride from the Bund (East Nanjing Road station) to Disney takes around 50 minutes to an hour, with 2 transfers.
So how was the experience? Well, for one there is that undeniable Disney magic once you enter – that feeling of being in another world. Although unlike the one in Hong Kong which retains an international flavor, this one in Shanghai feels like it trully is China’s own Disney, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, even if you can’t converse one second in Chinese. The staff are trained, and though some can command English better than others, you can see the effort to accomodate as much as they can. And that’s good enough in a city where the language barrier still forms sort of an invisible great wall. And about the bad press it got? Well, the park was as clean as any, though I did see just one, and only one, kid who pee’d behind a rock, and there were a couple of times when people in our back attempted to jump the queue. Not appreciated, but tolerable, especially if compared to the shoving match we were anticipating courtesy of news reports. And the park itself is really beautiful, to say the least. It would not be an exaggeration to say Disney made a masterpiece in Shanghai.
*Photos taken October 2016