We arrived at Shanghai Disney 30 minutes before it opened, but the crowds of Chinese tourists were already gathering by the trainload. The Happiest Place on Earth had expanded its universe to Shanghai a few years ago and business was booming. I was more than a little curious how Disney would fare in the Far East. Would Chinese kids recognize Mickey or Cinderella? Would Mulan be the poster child for the park?
This boat adventure is a seamless achievement in technology and a great lead-in for the Pirates of the Caribbean stunt show. Since the show was in Chinese, we got very little of the humor, but some of the effects were still amazing. At one point the actors were literally flying and flipping around using wind-tunnel technology rather than outdated trampolines. Chinese Jack Sparrow even spoke his lines with his characteristic cadence and never came off as a cheap “made in China” knock-off. There’s also a big staged Tarzan show that is a little easier for non-Chinese visitors to understand complete with great effects, music, dancing and less focus on verbal elements. I was surprised to see Tarzan in Shanghai, but it’s probably because his story is the kind that everyone on the planet can understand.
The castle, as with all Disney parks, is the centerpiece of the property, but Shanghai boasts the largest palace of the six properties. Which princess has a claim on it is unclear. It’s called the Enchanted Storybook castle rather than it being named after any particular character. The ground floor features pictures of several princesses and other characters (Maybe they’re all roommates!).
Nearby there’s a Voyage to the Crystal Grotto ride that passes themed character scenes and then floats under the castle. The ride is a little more mediocre than it’s name, but none of the other Disney castles have a river in the basement, so there’s that.
Toy Story land has to be at least a 9 on a 1-10 scale kitschy level, but I couldn’t stop taking dozens of photos of the giant versions of toys I grew up with. I loved my Lincoln Logs, checkers and slinkies, and I’m old enough to remember Mr. Potato Head when you were required to supply a real potato. But what about the Chinese? My childhood was centered around Mattel and Hasbro . Did the locals embrace this franchise without understanding the nostalgia behind the toys? I would have thought maybe these elements would be lost on a non-American audience, but the Chinese seemed completely entertained. Mickey and the gang seemed to have a good following as well.
The fireworks finale show is unique in that the castle becomes a giant 3D mapping screen. Clips of Disney movies mixed with fireworks effects and music create an experience with much more character branding than I’ve seen at other parks. It mirrored the parade I had watched earlier: a lot of characters introduced quickly with their respective theme songs, then on to the next, without focusing on a particular story. It seems to me that Disney might be tossing out all it’s properties to see which ones work and which don’t. The finale is long and the perfect time to get on one more ride that normally has a long line. The last half hour loses the crowd fast as the Chinese try to catch the train or bus back to the city.
Shanghai Disney is quite a bit cheaper than it’s American counterparts. Tickets range from $55-$75 and you can buy a drink for less than $2. You can bring your own picnic if you like. Disney hotels are over half the price of what you’d spend in Orlando or Anaheim.
You can always visit this park on one of your free days in Shanghai or Suzhou if you’re booked for a Chinese tour. Most standard tours give you a couple of days in the area and Disney’s highlights can be done in a day. If you’re traveling elsewhere in Asia and have a stopover in Shanghai, you can visit China visa free for up to 24 hours. It might be worth arranging your schedule to take advantage of this travel loophole. Ironically enough, It is a small world after all.