I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events. From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.
At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!
And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016. Okay “few” might be stretching the truth. The park opened in early May for a six week trial period. Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse. So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day. By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park. But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.
C and I visited the park not just once, but twice! Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate. We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.
I am not a Disney expert. I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks. I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year. We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go. I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.
There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter. There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them. I have never even been on the Mine Train. I am a single mom of a four year old girl. We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh. We meet a lot of Princesses. And that is totally okay. That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.
We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel. The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit. I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent. I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her. After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down. C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area. It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests. It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove. We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue. It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style. Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200. Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her. Then she wanted to ride again. (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)
I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida. The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising. So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows. We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view. (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze. The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though. You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.
If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit. Of course international visitors will still come. And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come. But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom. And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.
For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind. You read that right. And for the Chinese that is not a problem. And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me. I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option. I am getting a bit old to squat. Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be. Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in. That was not a fun day for me either. So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints. Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.
Then there is the food. If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you! Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park. If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place. None of these float my boat. If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind. It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck. Western food is not out completely though. You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park. The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads. In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.
There are a few downsides…
The FastPass system. It kinda sucks. When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online. In other parks there are FastPass machines. Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located. The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself. I much prefer the Disneyworld model.
Line Jumpers. This was a disappointment. Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly. At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it. At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me. When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.” When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China. You are not going to be able to control us all.” That does not bode well.
Language. Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese. You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language. i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean. Not a chance. Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese. Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town. We went to see the Stitch Encounter. I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait. In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. In Paris, it’s in English or French. In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese. (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese). My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again. Ever.
And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests. She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line. She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters. It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.
I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park. It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney. It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back. Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving. Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway. I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl. But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.
So did we have fun? We sure did. This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park. Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California… I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel. Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.