A Review of Shanghai Disneyland
Opening its doors in June 2016, Shanghai Disneyland is the newest Disney theme park. As the first resort to open in the the Social Media age, it has garnered a lot of attention within the theme park community. The resort is very important to Disney as it opens the Mainland China market and its growing middle class. How does it stack up against the other Disney parks and is it worth a trip for the avid theme park fan?
Location and Layout
The resort is located between the Pudong International Airport and downtown Shanghai. From the airport it is about a 20 minute taxi ride. From the center of Shanghai you can get there by metro in about an hour. Shanghai Disneyland has a metro station right outside the gates.
While Hong Kong Disneyland will remind people of Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland has a lot in common with Walt Disney World. Shanghai has a large body of water in front of the park with the Disneyland Hotel on the other side. The master plan will eventually bring other resorts much like those that sit opposite the Magic Kingdom with the seven seas lagoon in between. One difference is transportation and ticket centers sit in front of the park instead of on the other side of the lake, which negates the hassle of all visitors having to cross a body of water. Shanghai’s answer to Disney Springs or Downtown Disney is next to the park like Disneyland in California. This is a much more efficient layout than what is in Florida.
It is obvious they are anticipating large crowds for Shanghai Disneyland. Everything was purpose built to accommodate a lot of people. Pathways are very wide and attraction queues wind around for what seem like an eternity. The hub in front of the castle which hosts daytime as well as nighttime shows is so massive, it is divided into several different sub areas with varying themes.
While it is understandable they wanted to create a large space to absorb crowds, it becomes a determent to the park. It lacks the coziness of smaller parks like Disneyland or Hong Kong Disneyland. Other parks that have large pathways like Disneyland Paris divided the pathways into two parts to accomplish the needs of crowds while make it look aesthetically pleasing. There are no such design elements in Shanghai. All the pathways look like airplane runways. There was very little effort taken to use vegetation or other design elements to make the park feel anything but cavernous.
The hub in particular represents a lot of the park weaknesses. The 11 acre hub called the Gardens of Imagination includes attractions such as a carousel, a Dumbo spinner, and a Marvel meet and greet pavilion along with pocket parks. On the outskirts of the hub is a traditional Chinese restaurant complete with ancient Chinese temple theme. Each individual element is nicely done, however combined into one themed area becomes a mismatched mess.
Shanghai Disneyland has much in common with its other castle park siblings. Upon entering, you are greeted by a Mickey floral and a train station that acts as a lobby before proceeding to main street. The park has a train station, but no train. Whether the train was cut in the development phase or Disney simply wanted to maintain consistency with other castle parks is unknown. Regardless, it draws attention to itself as strictly a facade.
The first land you encounter is Mickey Avenue, which is Shanghai’s answer to Main Street. The shopping street is very short and leads directly into the hub. Looming over Mickey Avenue and casting a shadow all over the park is the Enchanted Storybook Castle. The largest Disney castle ever has generated plenty of criticism online, but it looks better in person than in pictures. My biggest criticism of it is that is that it dwarfs everything else in the park including “mountains.” It throws off the scale of the park. If they added large trees to the area, the castle would blend in and feel more natural.
Branching out from the hub are the various lands. Going right to left we have Adventure Isle, Treasure Cove, Fantasyland, and TomorrowLand. Toy Story land is currently under construction.
It is obvious the master plan involves large scale expansion in the future. Expansion plots leave large gaping holes in the park. Walking from Mickey Avenue to TomorrowLand for instance is close to a ten minute walk with the pathway being nothing but open space. Eventually another land will go in, but for the moment it provides very little to look at.
My biggest complaint is the lack of kinetics throughout the park. As mentioned earlier there is no train or any other transportation system in the park. The exception is the area around Camp Discovery in Adventure Isle which is indeed the best section of the park. The rest of the park feels static and sterile. There is a lack of activity and energy. Combined with large open spaces with little to look at is going to be the biggest challenge in the early years of the park. Hopefully expansion will correct these issues.
There are both hits and misses when it comes to theming. Adventure Isle and Treasure Cove are the most cohesive areas of the park and have a lot going for it. The mountain overlooking Adventure Isle is beautifully constructed and has multiple attractions around it making it a hub of activity. Treasure Cove which is basically Pirates of the Caribbean land has many smaller do at your own pace play areas similar to those in Disneyland Paris. While not quite as good as them, Shanghai’s play area’s are well done and provide a nice place to do something other than rides.
The rest of the park has flawed theming. TomorrowLand may have looked interesting in the design phase, but the final result is sterile and unimaginative. TRON provides an interesting visual anchor but there was very little effort to hide the show building. TomorrowLand is a big miss.
Fantasyland has some interesting looking buildings, but the land as a whole lacks cohesion. Mickey Avenue is possibly the biggest offender of conflicting architectural styles. It appears Disney took a best of approach, with elements taken from other Disney Parks around the world and plopped them in with little regard to creating the right atmosphere. Carthay Circle’s presence at the end of Mickey Avenue stands out as a particularly odd choice for a land that has nothing to do with the art deco movement.
Using the latest ride technology, attractions are one area where Shanghai Disneyland shines. Peter Pan’s Flight is similar to other versions, but employs the latest technology and a new ride system that provides a smoother ride.
The rides that have garnered the most attention from the theme park community are Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure and TRON Lightcycle Power Run, with good reason. There is nothing really cutting edge about TRON and while it is too short, it is quite possibly the coolest ride out there. TRON is a lot of fun.
Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure is a new take on a Disney classic and delivers in spades. Rumored to be the most expensive attractions ever built, the result is a ride that pulls no punches and ascends up to the top of of any list of the best Disney attraction ever made. Instead of boats floating free like other water based attractions, Pirates uses a new ride system with an underwater track that allows synchronization with the show scenes. The boats move forward, sideways, and backwards at different points in the ride.
Practical sets including advances Audio Animatroinics combined with some of the large video screens to deliver an impressive attraction done on a truly epic scale. At various points in the ride you are inside a ship, underwater (simulated), or floating between two full scale war ships engaged in a cannon battle.
The most unique attraction at Shanghai Disneyland is the Camp Discovery Challenge Trails. Go on an adventure as you cross dangerous terrain with the aid of a harness. There are multiple trails with different difficulty levels. Camp Discovery is an absolute must for any visitor.
Shanghai Disneyland has an impressive lineup of shows both large scale and small. Atmosphere entertainment such as the Disneyland band, provide musical entertainment to Mickey Avenue and the hub. Various small scale shows can be found in every land. The two must see stage shows are Tarzan: Call of the Jungle and The Eye of the Storm: Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular. Tarzan is a Chinese acrobat show with a Tarzan theme. Traditional Chinese acrobat acts are fully on display by a group of talented performers. There is no language barrier as there is very little speaking throughout the performance.
Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular begins with you standing in a large open space, somewhat reminiscent of the opening act of Terminator 2:3D where guests are standing in a large room with the action going on above. After a few minutes you move into a theater where the rest of the show to takes place. It is part slapstick variety show and part stunt show with Jack Sparrow getting himself into trouble and fighting his way out. You will encounter a language barrier in this show as it is entirely in Mandarin. You get the basic idea and while some of the gags are visual, not understanding Mandarin will leave you wondering what was said as the crowds chuckles after a one liner.
Both stage shows provide some wonderful stunt work that would never be seen in an American theme park. Tarzan has several performers swinging from ropes without a harness or flying through the air without restraints. The stunt show features sword fights on moving scenery and without spoiling it, two actors having a fight scene in a jaw dropping fashion without any restraints.
The daytime parade is similar to what is seen in other Disney parades. If you like Disney parades, check out Mickey’s Storybook Express. A somewhat disappointing show is its nighttime spectacular Ignite the Dream. The projection heavy show is short on fireworks. Instead the show uses a variety of technologies including video projections, lasers, fire, and fireworks to produce a somewhat disappointing show when compared to the nighttime shows in other Disney Parks. Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris all have vastly superior nighttime spectaculars. The lack of fireworks in the country that invented them is disappointing.
Much has been written about the behavior of guests that may be off putting to westerners. In my admitted limited time, I found none of this. There was no line cutting and all guests behaved very well. Granted I have been in American theme parks much more than my time in Shanghai, but I have seen much worse behavior by American’s than by anyone in Shanghai. There had been an issue with people selling Fastpasses, but that has largely been taken care of as they now spot check Fastpasses against your ticket to confirm they match. Do expect re-sellers outside the gates and if you take the metro to the park to be in full force attempting to sell anything from Mickey ears to plushes. This is common in China and expect to find them all over in your travels to the country. Take it in as a cultural experience and they likely won’t even bother you if don’t look like a local as most don’t speak English.
Pricing has also been a major among local media. While it is a concern for the local base, most foreigners will find the prices reasonable with the favorable exchange rate. In American dollars prices currently range between $56 and $76 for a on day ticket, making it the cheapest park ticket in the Disney park family for an American. Disneyland and Disney World cost a minimum of $99 now. Food prices are similar to that found in an American park.
Shanghai Disneyland has opened with a solid foundation that will only get better as it grows in the coming decades. Many of it’s weaknesses can be corrected and will be as new lands fill in the dead areas and vegetation matures in the coming years. The parks strengths are attractions and shows and at the end of the day isn’t that why you go to a theme park?
Die hard Disney fans would certainly enjoy themselves and makes a great addition to a trip to either Tokyo Disney Resort or Hong Kong Disneyland, especially when taking advantage of the 144 hour Transit Visa that you can get for Shanghai. I would not make a special trip to exclusively visit Shanghai Disneyland, but as a nice compliment if you are already visiting Shanghai or somewhere nearby.