Disney for the Holidays, Shanghai Style

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Shanghai Disneyland begins decorating for Christmas

I am a convert.

As a child I liked Disney well enough.  I liked the movies, the songs,  the Happy Meal tie-in toys.  But it was not until I had my child, and really since we moved to Shanghai knowing the newest park would open here, that I came to love Disney.  Since moving to Shanghai we have visited Disney parks in Florida, Hong Kong, California, and Shanghai.  I am already planning to visit Disney World again on my next home leave, and I know at some point we will get to Tokyo and Paris.  We move next to Malawi, which is a long way from any Disney park and yet…Paris is the R&R point for Malawi and my daughter already talks of Paris–two of her favorite Disney movies, The Aristocats and Ratatouille, are set there.

Right now my daughter is at an age where Disney is particularly magical and I am so grateful to be in Shanghai at this time and to be able to give her these experiences.  I do not acknowledge it enough, but we are extraordinarily blessed to live this lifestyle.  And here we are living someplace we can reach a Disney park within 75 minutes of leaving our apartment.  Just over an hour door to door.

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Part of the Shanghai Disneytown Halloween decorations

Back in June we had our first two experiences with Shanghai Disney during the trial opening period.  We had a really fun time.  I had been plotting our return for some time.

The next chance came – Disneytown, the free retail and dining area outside of the park, held a Halloween Carnival the last weekends of the month.  Things were pretty busy in October for me and the weather left so much to be desired (wet and overcast); however, on October 29 the weather cooperated — cool and overcast but not raining–we would make the trip.

We would be there too early for the parade and trick or treating would only happen on the 31st (a work day), but we enjoyed the decorations, the photo booth, and the shopping.  C just likes any excuse to go into the World of Disney or LEGO store.  Me, I like just about any excuse to eat at the Cheesecake Factory.  It is the first location of the popular chain in Asia.  Since it’s opening in Disneytown I have eaten there 5 times (on every visit to Shanghai Disney)–I think that is more times than I have ever eaten at the restaurant in the US!   At 4 pm C and I caught a Disney Halloween stage show complete with appearances by Mickey and Minnie.  I saw very little of the show due to the size of the crowd, but C on my shoulders claims to have seen it and pronounced it “great!”

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The Lion King in Mandarin is riveting

A few weeks after Halloween a friend suggested a mommy/daughter date to see the Lion King.  The first ever Mandarin-language production of the stage musical is currently shown exclusively at the Shanghai Disneyland resort theater located in Disneytown and in November tickets were discounted 30% to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the Broadway show.  C and I met ST and her daughter M outside the theater.  C had not seen the movie (it is currently in the Disney vault and I am not willing to shell out the $104 the DVD is currently selling for on Amazon) but I had explained the plot line.  Well as much as I could  explain such a thing to a 4 year old, especially since I too had not seen the production in over 10 years.  And it would be in Chinese.  Though C takes Chinese at her preschool and talks daily in the language with her nanny, I am never quite sure how much she understands.  I should not have worried.  The show transcends language and C seemed to understand enough, asking me a few pointed questions during the performance, but loved it enough to clap loudly, cheer, and be found humming the songs since.  We finished up our day with, no surprise here, a late lunch at the Cheesecake Factory.

For Thanksgiving we, along with several of my colleagues, made our way out to Disney to enjoy the holiday.  We arrived on the Wednesday evening so we could enjoy two nights at the Toy Story Hotel.  I bought only a single day park ticket for C and I while the others bought two day passes.

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Left: The entrance to the hotel.  Center: Woody and Bullseye great us on the seventh, and top, floor.  Right: A view of our comfy and fun room.

I loved the hotel.  All the little accents like the giant marbles used to decorate the front of the front and concierge desks, the Slinky Dog drawing on the ceiling light in the room, the Toy Story character inspired carpets, and the giant ABC blocks that served as pillars outside the main entrance.  It was whimsy and fun, just as Disney should be.  I also had the best sleep I had had in over a week.

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We pay homage to Woody and Bullseye at the hotel before heading to the park for a rootin’ tootin’ time

A cold random Thursday in November meant the park was not at capacity.  We lucked out that the fierce wind, overcast skies, and occasional rain of the day before gave way to blue skies and sun.  It was still a chilly 38 degrees in the morning, but it warmed to 50 for most of the daylight hours.  C and I met our friends at the park entrance and headed together to ride Soaring Over the Horizon, only a 30 minute wait.  I have heard the video in Shanghai has now become the gold standard and is now in all the parks with this ride (Epcot and Disney California Adventure).  C was now tall to ride and she quickly declared it her favorite (“Mom, let’s go ride it again next week!)  After Soarin’ my friends sans children (i.e. everyone but me) headed off to Tron and Pirates and other adult favorites while C and I headed to Fantasyland to ride the Hunny Pot Spin and Peter Pan’s Flight, with only a 5 minute and 20 minute wait respectfully.

We had lunch at our usual spot in Tomorrowland.  Unfortunately for me the park does not sell Diet Coke but rather Pepsi Max and the only place to buy it is in the Stargazer Grill.  Yet it was warm.  Why?  Because Chinese people do not like to drink cold beverages in the cold.  Sigh.  I asked how many Chinese people even buy diet soda and was told almost none.  They tried to accommodate me and brought my Pepsi Max bottle to the table in a fancy metal ice bucket! That was my lost in translation moment when the Chinese characteristics took over.  (I think it would not be Shanghai Disneyland without one)

We rode  Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue and C really enjoyed it this time.  There was just a 10 minute wait!  Such a difference from last time when we waited over 45 minutes and C hid under the game console for the first minute of the ride.  We were first in line for a photo with Stitch.  We visited Marvel Universe and had only a short wait to take photos with both Spiderman and Captain America (the first C was very enthusiastic about, the second, well it looked like she was headed to the gallows while in line, but she agreed to the photo anyway).  There was a 20 minute wait for C to Become Iron Man.  We stood front row along the parade route and also had an unobstructed view of the Golden Fairytale Fanfare review in front of the castle.  Oh the things I had missed on earlier visits!

C only made it to 5 pm, which in my book is pretty good for a 4 year old.  Because honestly the 4 year old’s mom was not sure how much longer she would make it.  We topped off our visit with C selecting a Thanksgiving Day gift (um, what?) and Cheesecake Factory (of course!).  Back in the hotel C could not decide between Ratatouille or Mulan of the free Disney movies on offer and so watched a little of both.

On  Friday morning we took a “yes, we were all here” photo with friends in front of the Toy Story hotel tree, which looked as if it had been made with Tinker Toys and ABC blocks.  Then we headed off on the shuttle to the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, the fancier and more pricey of the two. While the Toy Story Hotel has only food court and convenience dining options, the sit down and character meals are at the other hotel.  There, at Lumiere’s Kitchen, one has the chance to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy and dine on beautifully displayed Chinese and Western food options.  C only wanted the character pancakes, fruit, and time with the characters.  Again, the dining room was not at capacity and we had lots of opportunities to mingle with our Disney friends.

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C has a chance for some quality time with Goofy in the lovely Lumiere’s Kitchen

After breakfast it was back to the hotel and then a walk to the Disney Resort metro station.  I love that we are so close to the magic of a Disney park but almost as soon as we head through security at the metro station I begin to miss the park and even sort of dread returning to the real world.  I guess that sounds melodramatic, but I felt something like that all the same.  The magic lasted just a bit longer though as we lucked out boarding one of the few Disney inspired metro trains in service.

Later in the weekend we went to see the just released Moana. (That sounds easy enough, but seeing a US movie in China is not so straightforward.  The Chinese government allows only 34 foreign films to be shown in theaters each year.  That is 34 foreign films, not just US films.  Though most animated Disney films destined to be blockbusters are usually given screen time, sometimes it can be weeks after the US release.)  It was a wonderful movie and a great way to top off our holiday weekend of Disney.

Maybe there is time for one more Shanghai Disneyland visit before we leave?

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Left: Our amenities from the Toy Story Hotel (the toothbrush tin is so fabulous).  Center: Our tickets to the park issued at the hotel.  Right: A view of the Disney metro train blissfully free of crowds!

 

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Shanghai Disneyland Trials

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!

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We got the “golden” tickets

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.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

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.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

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.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

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.

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This is joy!

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.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

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.