Disney's newest theme park, Shanghai Disneyland, is an exotic destination that many of us will never visit. If you don't have "Fly to China" on the to-do list stuck to your refrigerator door, fear not: this book is the same as being there! Almost...
Renata Primavera is a Disney fan living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She had a crazy idea: get tickets to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland and fly there, alone. What true Disney fan wouldn't fly halfway across the world to experience the opening of a new Disney theme park, in a country where the language and the customs were strange, and without knowing a single person among Shanghai's 25 million residents?
As a fan, Renata couldn't wait to play in the new park; and as a journalist, she couldn't help but chronicle every memorable moment of her trip.
In this unique guide to Shanghai Disneyland, which includes a rundown of all major attractions, shops, and restaurants, you'll experience every nook and cranny of the park on its first two days of operation, and learn how to plan your own global adventure of a lifetime.
Part One: Arrival
Shanghai Disney Resort
Ni Hao, Shanghai
The Opening Day
The Day After
Disney for Real?
Part Two: In the Park
Gardens of Imagination
Toy Story Land
Disneytown and Hotels
Part Three: Departure
Disney Store and Clock Tower
Disney Asian Combo
I can honestly say I don’t remember when the obsession began. Obsession may sound exaggerated, but that’s what happened between Shanghai Disneyland and I in 2015 and 2016.
I had been covering the then-upcoming Disney resort for a while. At first, I did it through an experimental Tumblr I’d created in 2013 that became a full website called Parkaholic the following year. The site’s focus has always been to present the known and the not-so-known theme parks to the average Brazilian, and Shanghai Disneyland seemed like the perfect topic. A new Disney theme park. First of its kind. Large-scale project. Integrated Chinese and American cultures in one place, and much else.
Months went by. The news surrounding Disney’s newest venture in Asia kept getting bigger and better, as did my interest in it. By the end of 2015, when it was confirmed that the resort would officially open in the first quarter of 2016, I knew I had to figure out a way to be there, preferably for its opening day.
It all worked out—at least in my mind. When would I be able to attend a Disney park official opening day in the near future (since no others have been announced recently)? My personal situation also helped. I had a steady job and a couple of weeks off. My income allowed me to attempt taking such an expensive trip. And, to top it all, I had a loving and supportive husband who, as a Disney fan, would either join me on this trip or, if he couldn’t, would encourage me to travel from Brazil to China all by myself.
Such obsession may sound weird to the average person. But I’m guessing that, if you’ve chosen to read this book, it’s because you are very much into the theme park universe and totally get what I was feeling at the time.
New Year’s Eve came and went, 2016 arrived, and that feeling of “I have to be there for opening day” kept bugging me. Fortunately, I decided to follow that not-so-subtle voice inside my head and started planning what would eventually become one of the best experiences in my life.
This is my retelling of it all; from the planning to arrival, sprinkled with cultural differences between China and the West. And, of course, a ton of information on the newest Disney resort and how exciting it is to be part of a theme park grand opening day.
A journalist and publicist with over 10 years of experience, Renata Primavera is a longtime theme park enthusiast since her first visit to Orlando when she was only 4 years old. During college, Renata attended the International College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort, where she worked in and studied the theme park field. Between her current work, writing for different entertainment outlets, and running her own blog (parkaholic.com), she bustles all around the globe in search of thrills and superior storytelling. In her spare time, she Lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Shanghai Disneyland wasn't built for Americans or Europeans on vacation; it was built for the locals, the Chinese. These locals have different habits, different ways of life, and most don't speak English. If you arrive in Shanghai expecting a typical Disney experience, you're in for a surprise.
If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the question, “But does it really feel like a Disney park? For real?” when I’m discussing Disney resorts outside the U.S.
Since the beginning, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts has set a high bar for its theming and service standards. I’ve been going to the American resorts since the 1980s and, from the moment I was old enough to notice it, I could tell the difference in those elements compared to other (non-Disney) establishments.
I’ve been to three of the four Disney resorts outside the U.S. and have continuously been amazed at their service and theming. I’ve had a couple of disappointing moments at Disneyland Paris, but it was still better than what I would later experience in other European theme parks. So yes, to answer the main question, it does feel like you are at a Disney park in Shanghai when it comes to service and theming—you could just as well be in California, Orlando, Paris, Hong Kong, or Tokyo.
The Disney standard is felt everywhere at Shanghai Disneyland. Cast members are courteous and happy to help, though of course an occasional grumpy or not-so-happy face can be seen as well, just like at any other resort. The park follows and respects Disney guidelines. The signs are clear and everywhere, so no one can get lost or not know how to get where they’re going. The trash cans are placed in strategic areas, giving guests no excuse for littering, and many of the other usual Disney details are in place as well.
With that being said, it is important to stress that this is a Chinese theme park designed for Chinese guests. Even though every single sign is in both Mandarin and English, the vast majority of cast members don’t speak English fluently. I didn’t have to rely on mimes, yet you could clearly see that the cast members are not required to speak the language very well to work there. One even said, “Sorry, I don’t speak English” (in bad English) when I tried talking to him. They make up for this with overflowing sympathy and perseverance and I never left a place with a question unanswered. Cast members who couldn’t understand me very well always resorted to a nearby manager, who spoke English fluently.
The language can also be a drawback in some attractions, since they are all spoken in Mandarin. On Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, the visual elements speak for themselves and you kind of get what is going on. On the other hand, Stitch Encounter, in which the alien interacts directly with the audience, loses its charm. Everyone is laughing around you and you just nod and smile, without understanding what is happening.
For that reason alone, I would not recommend Shanghai Disneyland for theme park “beginners.” If you live far away and do not speak Mandarin, I would not choose Shanghai Disneyland as your first Disney park. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are better choices in that sense. Even Hong Kong Disneyland “next door” feels like a more international park, with attractions in English and cast members who speak the language.
A book on Shanghai Disneyland wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t get into the tricky subject of guests’ behaviors at the park. It is a dangerous territory with no right or wrong, but I feel that it is a vital subject. It’s just a matter of looking at things from a foreigner’s perspective so you know what to expect when visiting the resort.
I’ve read reports online about Chinese guests acting inappropriately inside and outside the resort. I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t see any kid “going to the toilet” where he shouldn’t or loads of trash on the ground. That doesn’t mean that Chinese guests won’t behave a bit differently than what people who have been to other Disney parks are used to. They (as well as Indian guests, I noticed) tend to stand closer to each other while queueing, for example. At times, it bugged me to have someone standing so close, practically breathing down my neck. I’m just not used to it. If I had stayed in the resort for longer, I might have gotten accustomed to it, but who can tell?
I’m from Brazil and we have a very bad habit of cutting lines. Unfortunately, that same condemnable behavior is common in China. I saw a lot of it going on at Shanghai Disneyland. Be prepared to pick your battles if you’re going to argue with someone about it—especially since the person might not speak any English and you may have to resort to physical tools (mimes, please, not fighting).
Something else that is worth mentioning is the variety of Chinese families visiting the park. Whereas in the West you will find a mixture of young couples and families with kids, in Asia their typical “theme park day out” family composition includes other relatives. It is common to see sizable families. I loved seeing how grandparents and their grandchildren enjoyed the park together, many of them experiencing a Disney park and its awe-inspiring features for the first time. It is so common that cheaper tickets are sold for seniors over 65 (it’s the same price as the children’s tickets).
These same large families have the habit of bringing outside food into the park. It’s a cultural thing as well as a way to save some money on dining—the prices in the park are cheaper only for foreigners; for the Chinese guests, it is an expensive day trip. So, Shanghai Disneyland has provided guests with big open areas for picnics in Fantasyland. Guests can sit on charming wooden tables or on the grass while savoring their food, relaxing or letting kids blow off some steam playing and running around. I spent some time in one of these spaces to restore my energy and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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You'll find many familiar Disney attractions at Shanghai Disneyland, but most have been changed (enhanced, if you like) in some way. A good example is the Soarin' franchise:
Soarin’ Over California was a hit from day one. Then, after years wowing guests at Disney California Adventure and Epcot, this simulator featuring a flight over California received a new video, now taking guests on a trip around the world. And the first park to feature it was Shanghai Disneyland (even if it premiered only one day before the others).
Imagineers thought of a great way to fit this flight simulator into the Adventure Isle backstory. The Arbori tribe deals with primal powers: their shamans can channel the spirits of animals; in particular, condors. They invite guests to follow a trail to the Arbori tribe’s celestial observatory—said to be an enchanted portal connecting the physical and mystical world—where shamans will help us adventurers to achieve one of mankind’s most ancient and elusive dreams: to soar like a bird.
You may think Disney went out of its way to make that connection to Soarin’. But unlike Roaring Rapids, Soaring Over the Horizon’s queue does in fact help us understand the background story before we ride it. It steers away from the modern-day flight theme at Disneyland and Disney World. We enter a cave that could have easily been taken straight from an Indiana Jones movie. There’s a little exhibition going on in the beginning of the line, showcasing artifacts from the tribe. It’s a shame they didn’t put up some sort of signs like an actual exhibition would have provided, with a brief description of the objects. Regardless, it’s still enjoyable and helps set the mood for what we are about to see.
Suddenly, the cave’s dark ceiling is replaced by an enormous nighttime sky full of bright stars all around. It’s the observatory that is supposed to help us fly. Before we board, there’s a brief video in Mandarin (although it is very visual and mostly independent of language) which gives us further context. I loved how they put subtitles during the safety instructions part, but don’t bother to use them during the rest of the video.
The rest of the ride is almost the same as the other two versions of Soarin’. We sit on the simulator chairs (divided in rows for up to four people), the ride’s wonderful score starts playing, and the rows are then lifted into the air. It’s the beginning of our “fly as a condor” experience. In this new video, we glide over some of the most famous sites in the world. Sydney’s Harbor (Australia), Neuschwanstein Castle (Germany), the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower (France), and many more are featured, accompanied by the 4D effects (water splashes, wind, smells) common in theme park simulators.
The ending is unique to this park: we see Shanghai at night, with an ongoing fireworks spectacle. Too bad they didn’t insert a shot of Shanghai Disneyland itself, like in the other two versions (Disneyland and Epcot are the ending shots at the California and Orlando versions, respectively).
Never underestimate the popularity of a Soarin’ attraction. Like anywhere else in the world, lines in Shanghai’s version are long and Fastpasses run out before noon. If you are a fan and want to make sure you don’t miss it, make it your first Fastpass stop of the day. If not, at least try to get a glimpse of the detailed queue.
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