It’s Sunday 6th November and our stay in Tokyo is coming to an end. Damn, I really hate goodbyes… While boarding our airport shuttle, I get a final glimpse of Tokyo Disneyland’s Cinderella Castle and Mount Prometheus at DisneySea. It’s sad to leave Tokyo Disney Resort and Japan, but there’s definitely no reason to cry. The end of our adventure in Japan actually means that the second leg of our trip is about to start. And that second part is at least as exciting as the first one: we’re planning a short stopover in Shanghai. The main reason to spend some time in this Chinese metropolis is the brand-new Disney resort which is located close to the city’s Pudong Airport. Shanghai Disneyland is finally open and we’re thrilled to be visiting the park only four months after its inauguration.
I haven’t been this excited to visit a new theme park since a long time. Unfortunately, our arrival in China turns out to be considerably less amusing than expected. After an on-time departure at Narita and an early arrival at Pudong, practically everything starts to go wrong. Our plane is parked at a remote area of the airport, there are issues with the power supply and buses to the main terminal don’t show up. When we finally reach border control (that’s about 60 minutes later than planned), we encounter a line of at least 4.000 tourists. Luckily, I’ve heard about a dedicated queue for transit passengers who are staying less than six days (yay, that’s us). We find this line in the far right corner of the terminal and there are only 25 people in front of us. For a moment, we feel relieved. But then we start noticing that this queue hardly ever moves. Eventually, it would take nearly three hours to get to a customs officer. After we’ve finally obtained the necessary stamps in our passports, it’s nearly midnight and we’re totally exhausted. But there’s another challenge ahead: getting to our hotel. We booked a room at the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel and we already know that a taxi is the easiest way to get there. The only thing we didn’t know, is that a taxi ride in Shanghai can be more thrilling than a coaster ride. Our driver seems crazy and he reaches top speeds which are only common on German highways. The only advantage of these dangerous driving skills is the fact that we arrive at our hotel within 20 minutes. But during those 20 minutes, my whole life flashed before my eyes several times. I usually love crazy rides, but that doesn’t apply to this one.
Long story short: arriving in China wasn’t nearly as idyllic as I expected it to be. Fortunately, that suffering is forgotten quickly when you’re suddenly embraced by Disney service. After entering the stunning lobby of the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, some very friendly Cast Members hand our room keys with a big smile. We’re staying here for the next two nights and it’s a huge relief to finally get some peace and quiet. But it gets even better: we booked a room at the ‘Magic Kingdom Club’, an executive floor with a seperate lounge area. Rooms on the club floor are a little more luxurious and the atmosphere is relaxed. That’s exactly what we need after such an exhausting evening. I’m trying to forget the past few hours and I enjoy the heavenly bed room 57055 has to offer. Good night!
The next morning. However I thoroughly enjoy sleeping in, we get up early today. That’s because there’s a brand-new Disney theme park in the backyard of our hotel and we don’t want to waste our precious time. My alarm clock goes off at 7 AM and just a little later, we’re enjoying breakfast at the ‘Magic Kingdom Club’. That’s a quite opulent experience: the buffet is superb and there are more serving Cast Members than hotel guests in the room. Another amazing aspect of the ‘Magic Kingdom Club’ is the view. While eating a huge pile of freshly baked Mickey-shaped waffles, I enjoy a breathtaking view on Shanghai Disneyland. The skyline is filled with enormous fairy tale castles, futuristic roofs and an enormous mountain including a cascading waterfall. Goosebumps all over. After getting one last Mickey waffle, we quickly head to a shuttle bus which leaves right in front of the hotel lobby.
That’s right: we’re taking a bus to get to the park. That’s because the Disneyland Hotel isn’t located at the park entrance, like it is in Paris. Between the hotel and the park lies the ‘Wishing Star Park’ and a big lake. We could cross that lake with the so called ‘Wishing Star Ferry’ or we could walk along the shores, but almost everyone seems to choose for the shuttle bus. It runs frequently and you get to a central transportation hub within minutes. A short walk later, we arrive at the location where we want to be: Shanghai Disneyland. The entrance is marked by a very cute ‘Steamboat Willie’ fountain and a large amount of (not so cute) metal detectors. Luckily, Disneyland Cast Members are working in a more efficient way than airport staff yesterday: there’s hardly any queue at the bag check. A few seconds later, we reach the park’s gates and that’s quite a big moment for me. While scanning my two-day admission ticket, I officially re-conquer the Disney Parks Bingo. After seeing the parks in Paris, Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong and Tokyo, Shanghai Disneyland is the 12th Disney theme park I visit. I’m excited about today, that’s for sure.
It’s the very first time I accurately followed the creation process of a Disney park. After looking at construction photos for nearly four years, it’s a unique feeling to finally enter the park myself. I guess there must be one hell of a smile on my face while I’m standing underneath the arches of the iconic Shanghai Disneyland gate… we are finally here! We are immediately surrounded by the cartoonish atmosphere of Mickey Avenue, a new take on the classic Main Street USA idea. In this case, the area isn’t filled with Victorian facades and shiny old timers. The Chinese opted for a less serious decor with loads of references to famous Disney characters. The result is wonderful: Mickey Avenue is filled with funny gags and the level of detail is truly magnificent.
While waiting for the 9 o’clock rope-drop, we decide that a Fastpass for the extremely popular ‘Soaring Over The Horizon’ should be our first priority. However, it quickly becomes clear that lots of other guests have the same idea. At the time the crowd starts moving, a huge part of them instantly head to Adventure Isle. Some people are running, some are sprinting and others are screaming. Most of them are pushing and pulling, but that just seems part of the game here in China. Anyway: it takes quite an effort to get to the Fastpass machines and we would eventually end up in a long, winding queue (that’s a little contradictory since I’m talking about a Fastpass, isn’t it?). Luckily for us, we are early enough to secure a ‘Soaring’-Fastpass in the early afternoon. That Fastpass appears to be extremely valuable: although the park opened a quarter of an hour ago, the stand-by wait for ‘Soaring Over The Horizon’ is already at 150 minutes.
We exit the overcrowded Adventure Isle for now and we head to Fantasyland for another extremely popular attraction: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Whoever has ridden the Magic Kingdom version, knows exactly what to expect. This is a rather simple rollercoaster with swinging cars. The fact that this ride isn’t that thrilling at all, doesn’t mean that it’s not fun. On the contrary… ‘Seven Dwarfs Mine Train’ is an ideal family coaster and it features an amazingly well themed darkride section. The one and only downside of this coaster is its location in Fantasyland. Unlike its Florida counterpart (where the ride is right in the centre of that land) the Chinese version lies in a remote, silent corner of the park.
Fantasyland is usually filled with tons of darkrides. That rule actually applies to every Magic Kingdom except Shanghai Disneyland Park. Don’t try to find frightening darkrides about Snow White or Pinocchio and fans of ‘It’s a Small World’ will notice that their favourite attraction didn’t make it to China. The only classic Fantasyland-darkrides at this park are The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh and Peter Pan’s Flight. The latter got a decent upgrade compared to its siblings, but both attractions remain quite simple and unsurprising. In fact, I am even a little disappointed that Shanghai Disneyland didn’t get the XXL Tokyo version of ‘Winnie the Pooh’, a copy of the wonderful ‘Ariel’s Undersea Adventure’ or a completely new ride concept. There’s a beautiful restaurant with a ‘Tangled’-decor within Fantasyland and it just begs to be accompanied by a Rapunzel-darkride, in my opinion.
Be careful what you wish for… I just asked for a new ride concept and my wish is almost immediately granted. Opposite ‘Peter Pan’s Flight’ we find the loading platform of Journey to the Crystal Grotto. This boat ride is located right in the middle of Fantasyland and it looks like a larger version of the ‘Storybook Land’ rides in Anaheim and Paris. It’s very familiar: we board a brightly coloured vessel and we sail past scenes about famous Disney movies. Those scenes contain an overload of cuteness, but they remain mostly static. The only dynamic elements worth mentioning are the fountains Disney integrated into the different scenes. And although these fountains really aren’t that spectacular, most Chinese visitors appear to be euphoric about them. Is there some kind of national fountain fetisj in this country or did I miss something? The tunnel at the end evokes a similar ecstatic reaction with my fellow passengers, but it’s once again not that crazy. Inside the ‘Crystal Grotto’, we get to see the earlier movie scenes once again, but this time with video-mapping on the rock walls. It’s definitely a nice touch, but I may have hoped for a more dazzling finale. ‘Journey to the Crystal Grotto’ is a perfectly fine family ride, but just don’t expect it to be more than an updated version of ‘Storybook Land Canal Boats’.
The visual icon of Shanghai Disneyland is the ‘Enchanted Storybook Castle’, a huge pile of pink concrete. Or at least, that’s the impression I had until today. I really didn’t like the castle on photos, but it looks considerably more elegant in real life. Just like at Tokyo Disneyland, there’s a walk-through about Disney princesses behind those facades. Once Upon a Time Adventure is about Snow White and this attraction makes good use of modern video projections. It’s a pretty nice attraction for in-between, but most Chinese visitors don’t seem to get the point. They don’t care about the timing of the scenes and they just force the automatic doors to open if they want to continue. Bad behaviour in Disney parks, don’t we all hate it?
Right next to the castle, there is the Alice in Wonderland Maze. Despite its opulent theming, I’m not that fond of it. I don’t see why Disney Imagineers based it on Tim Burton’s live action version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Unlike its beautiful counterpart in Paris, it just doesn’t fit within the cheerful world of Fantasyland. And to be completely honest: I don’t like Fantasyland in its entirety here at Shanghai Disneyland. It’s too stretched out to be cozy and it really lacks coherence. It looks as if Imagineers just picked some random rides and didn’t even consider the area as a whole. The result is a shredded Fantasyland which doesn’t even come close to the intimate versions in California and Europe.
Fantasyland didn’t amaze me, but things will only get better from now on. Much better, in fact. As we exit Fantasyland, we approach the phenomenal Treasure Cove. This buccaneer village consists of picturesque facades, enormous pirate ships and more details than we’ll ever notice. From a ride perspective however, the area may seem underwhelming at first. That’s because Treasure Cove only offers a stunt show with Jack Sparrow and one single darkride. The good news is that this darkride is so ridiculously amazing that you’ll want to ride it again and again and again, all day long. I promise.
All right, let’s start a new paragraph. That’s the least I can do for Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure. Honestly: we have all seen pirate darkrides and we all know what they’re about, don’t we? The main ingredients are always similar. We enter an ancient fortress, we board a boat and we then look at rum barrels, pirate ships and cannon battles. All these elements can also be found at this particular ride because in its core, this is still ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ as you have always known it. But it goes so much further than that. Imagineers even succeeded in eliminating a classic darkride issue: you’re not just sailing past scenes, but you really become a part of the action here.
Disney utilizes fully rotating boats, onboard audio, terrific animatronics and – you might have expected this one – sky high projection screens. This combination leads to complete immersion, especially in the final battle scene. Cannon balls fly around our heads as we witness a nerve-racking fight between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow. It all culminates to a bombastic finale, which is followed by a small but surprising drop. While approaching the platform, I just don’t know what to say or think. That much brilliance, that much beauty and that much technical ingenuity in one single ride… that’s insane. It’s safe to say that ‘Battle for the Sunken Treasure’ must be one of the greatest darkrides on the planet. It’s on par with ‘Mystic Manor’, ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ attractions in Anaheim and Tokyo. It’s definitely not a coincidence that the rides mentioned above make up my all-time top five of theme park rides.
The splendour of Treasure Cove is seamlessly extended into the equally beautiful Adventure Isle. This land is filled with exotic vegetation and mysterious sounds, but the main draw is without a doubt Roaring Mountain. This towering rock formation can be seen throughout the entire park, but its actual size only becomes clear when you’re standing right next to it. Besides, Roaring Mountain is more than just a visual icon: the three main Adventure Isle attractions are all located on or around the mountain. The most surprising attraction might easily be the Camp Discovery Challenge Trail. I call it surprising because I didn’t expect a rope course within a Disney theme park. And although the capacity of such an installation may seem limited, it’s really not an issue. There are three different routes and Disney hired a huge number of Cast Members to quickly secure guests into their harnesses. I actually enjoyed this unusual attraction very much and it’s especially fun to cross a shaky suspension bridge right next to Roaring Mountain’s huge waterfall. It is a pity that the most challenging obstacles are closed due to this morning’s rain, but safety first, right?
Life can be unfair from times to times. European Disney enthusiasts have been praying for a water ride at Disneyland Paris for more than 25 years, but without any result. Chinese Disney fans however received a rafting ride called Roaring Rapids in the park’s opening season. And although its name lacks any kind of originality, the experience leaves nothing to be desired. The adventurous setting is beautiful and the actual ride is top notch as well. The lay-out is almost identical to the one of ‘Grizzly River Run’ at California Adventure. That’s a good thing, because that’s one of the most intense and varied rapid rivers on Earth. The biggest strenght of this Chinese copy is an indoor part, which features a massive audio-animatronic. Unfortunately for us, this crocodile-like creature doesn’t move as it should be moving today. If Disney fixes this issue, ‘Roaring Rapids’ will be one of the world’s most powerful water rides. Locals don’t seem to care about the defective animatronic: they don’t mind waiting in line for more than two hours on a cloudy Monday afternoon. That’s exactly why we postpone our rafting adventure until tonight.
Adventure Isle is the happiest place on Earth for those who like to queue: ‘Roaring Rapids’ and Soaring Over The Horizon generally have the longest wait times at Shanghai Disneyland. The queues at ‘Soaring’ are simply ridiculous. Those wanting to enjoy the scenic flight in the afternoon, need at least three hours to get through the full waiting area. Fortunately we picked up our Fastpass tickets this morning, so we can board within a few minutes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Cast Members send us to the third row of gate C. If you’re familiar with ‘Soaring’, you probably know that this is one of the worst seats in the house. The result: we fly past a curved Eiffel Tower, an oddly shaped version of Taj Mahal and the Shanghai skyscrapers look awful. One day later, we kindly ask for the best seats and the experience suddenly becomes so much more powerful. I like the subtle movements, the fact that you can literally smell the scenery and the ride’s soundtrack is still fantastic. So please don’t get me wrong… I really think ‘Soaring Over The Horizon’ is a brilliant attraction, but it’s sad that everything depends on the seating. Being in a less favorable seat means that you’ll miss most of the ride’s magnificence.
Disney is well known for its high quality entertainment and that’s not different here in China. Shanghai Disneyland offers a ‘Frozen’ sing-along, a stunt show featuring Jack Sparrow and an acrobatic ‘Tarzan’ performance. The funny thing is that Tarzan is played by an Asian actor with a body-painted sixpack, but I have to admit that the show is actually quite impressive. Another piece of good Disney entertainment is Mickey’s Storybook Express, a parade which crosses the park at 2 PM. It’s definitely not as spectacular as the parade we saw at Tokyo Disneyland last week, but it’s not inferior either. The music is catchy, the dance moves are cheerful and the floats look great.
The best thing about Shanghai Disneyland is the fact that this park isn’t just copy-pasted. Imagineers really did their best to redevelop the original lay-out of a Magic Kingdom style theme park. One of the most striking innovations is known as Gardens of Imagination and it’s located in the centre of the park. It’s a peaceful area where we can make valuable selfies with the ‘Enchanted Storybook Castle’ and we could ride the classic carousel or Dumbo. Although there isn’t any big ride within the Gardens of Imagination, I really love the idea and the elaboration of this stretched-out area.
Gardens of Imagination is new, but Tomorrowland isn’t. You might even recognize some of the rides in this futuristic area. Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue for example. This is an upgraded version of the well known ‘Buzz Lightyear’ interactive darkride at several Disney theme parks. Despite the fact that I never really liked Toy Story and the associated lasergun-attraction, I have to admit that this is a quite good ride. Disney integrated extra screens and a few good special effects to make it more immersive. It’s clearly not the most thrilling ride ever built, but just don’t skip it whenever you visit Shanghai Disneyland. There’s hardly ever a line anyway.
The good thing about a Disney theme park which opened four months ago: Tomorrowland is still a land of the future and not some kind of Yesterdayland. This area is simply stunning and I love the pathways which seem to be floating through the land on different levels. But unfortunately, perfection doesn’t exist. There’s one ugly part of Tomorrowland and it’s called Star Wars Launch Bay. It actually reminds me of that terrible ‘Pizza Planet Restaurant’ at Disneyland Paris, because it’s integrated in a cheap-looking tent structure as well. Crowds don’t find their way to this ‘Star Wars’ museum and they don’t seem to care about a Darth Vader meet and greet. So let’s hope together that this ugly mess will close soon. Maybe we could even build a new Tomorrowland ride on this location? ‘Space Mountain’ anyone?
Yes, I know… there is little chance that Shanghai Disneyland will ever get a copy of ‘Space Mountain’. That’s because there already is a thrill coaster in Tomorrowland. A quite massive one actually: TRON Lightcycle Power Run. This ride’s iconic contours can be seen from afar, but the real beauty is reveiled when we approach the ride. Ultramodern motorcycles are racing underneath a curvy roof structure every 60 seconds and that’s truly an amazing sight. If there was one rollercoaster in the world I should define as sexy, then it should be this visual masterpiece. I’m pretty excited to finally ride this coaster, so we quickly proceed to the entrance which is located underneath a giant ‘TRON’ sign.
‘TRON Lightcycle Power Run’ comes with a few surprises. First of all: I guess this is the only Disney coaster on which you’re not allowed to take luggage. The seats feature a small compartment for a wallet or a cellphone, but bags and backpacks should be placed in a free locker at the ride entrance. Unfortunately, we discover that this process isn’t that smooth during busier moments. Disney may have underestimated the locker capacity they need for such a popular coaster and Chinese visitors don’t mind pushing other people away to obtain their locker. I would advice not to use the automatic lockers, but to choose for the lesser known coin-operated lockers.
Second surprise: thanks to the double loading platform, the ride’s capacity is considerably higher than I expected. That’s why queues for ‘TRON’ really aren’t that bad (the displayed wait time during this busy afternoon is 45 minutes) and the indoor waiting area is simply beautiful. The modern design, the futuristic looking lighting and Daft Punk’s outstanding soundtrack all contribute to a very unique atmosphere. I literally feel like I’m entering a giant computer game. During our wait, we are also familiarized with the story behind this rollercoaster: we are all members of Team Blue and we’re about to race against the evil Team Orange. Alright, let’s go!
Third surprise: ‘TRON Lightcycle Power Run’ is a magnificent coaster. The launch is more powerful than it looks, the lay-out features some forceful curves and the smoothness is remarkable. Especially the indoor part is worth mentioning, as Imagineers really did their best to depict the battle between Team Blue and Team Orange. They made clever use of video screens, projections and mirrors to fully immerse riders in a thrilling pursuit. Spoiler alert: Team Blue wins every time. And although the winner of this motorcycle race is very predictable, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to experience it again and again. ‘TRON’ is simply awesome and we would eventually revisit this coaster multiple times. Remember that the very best rides are given at night, when the roof structure is transformed into one massive light show.
During last week’s stay at Tokyo Disney Resort, we got used to extended operating hours. Both parks opened at 8 AM and they stayed open for 14 consecutive hours. Things are a little different in Shanghai, because attractions close as early as 7 PM today. Fortunately there’s one last moment of Disney magic left: Disneyland wouldn’t be Disneyland without a nighttime spectacular. That’s why we head to the Gardens of Imagination to secure our spot for Ignite The Dream. It’s everything you would expect of a Disney show, including fountains, fireworks and video-mapping on the castle. Just don’t put your expectations too high. You may think that a Chinese fireworks display should be above average, but that’s definitely not the case at Shanghai Disneyland. ‘Ignite The Dream’ is actually just like almost every other nighttime show at Disney parks, but with one major difference: I can’t understand one single word of the storyline. What I do like about this show, however, is the enormous viewing area. The Gardens of Imagination are so huge that you will always find a nice spot to watch the show, even if you arrive just in time.
Fireworks are cool, but they also mark the end of our day at Shanghai Disneyland. One thing is certain: it was great. It’s always fun to see an amusement park for the first time, but a first visit to a brand new Disney theme park is even better. And although my expectations were at a pretty high level, Shanghai Disneyland didn’t disappoint at all. I presumed this park to be a slightly modernized version of a Magic Kingdom style park, but it turned out to be very different. That uniqueness is mainly caused by the innovative park lay-out, but there are some other reasons as well. Those centralized Fastpass kiosks for example, or the fact that most classic Disney rides got some modern touches. It’s clear that Shanghai Disneyland was built with the expertise Disney gained in other resorts. The result is a theme park that guarantees an excellent experience which is Disney-worthy. Some visitors used to complain about lacking service during the first months of operation, but that problem really seems to be resolved nowadays.
How do the Chinese visitors experience their Disneyland? Since the opening of the park, I’ve heard horror stories about line jumping guests, littering, aggression and even about visitors who use flowerbeds as a toilet. Luckily, I had a different experience over the past two days. That might be due to a massive safety brigade which is clearly visible throughout the park, but that’s a good thing in my opinion. Of course, there are a few selfish and annoying visitors at Shanghai Disneyland, but I guess those people can be found at the other resorts as well. The only remarkable difference is the fact that Chinese visitors just don’t care about Disney characters. They don’t mind queueing up to three hours to enjoy a ride, but character meet and greets are practically empty. They also tend to leave early during parades and the nighttime show. That seems a little disrespectful at first, but it’s no big deal after all.
While saying goodbye to Shanghai Disney Resort, there is one last thing which should be cleared out: is Shanghai Disneyland the best Disney park on Earth? Is this place really so overwhelming that I suddenly forget about every other theme park? Thanks to mindblowing rides like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘TRON’ and ‘Roaring Rapids’, you may expect the answer to be positive. Besides, the park already offers enough attractions and shows to be a satisfactory full-day experience (which definitely wasn’t the case during Disneyland Paris’ and Hong Kong Disneyland’s opening year). But although Shanghai Disneyland offered an amazing time, my answer to the above question is no. That’s because the park still features some uninteresting areas, especially in the Fantasyland section. I’m sure that this problem will be resolved by building new rides; there’s plenty of space available for additions anyway. And if Shanghai Disneyland can maintain the current attention for detail, this will easily become the best Magic Kingdom on Earth. I’m sure that Shanghai Disneyland awaits a bright future.
It’s Tuesday 9 PM and our holiday has unfortunately come to an end. But before we get seated on a plane for 12 hours straight, we once again meet our friends at the Chinese border security. I say ‘Ni Hao!’ while handing them my passport. I actually wasn’t planning on being that friendly after our horrible arrival on Sunday. At that specific moment, I really thought that this would be my first and only visit to China ever. But opinions can change quickly. Now I know how breathtaking it can be to fly through a computer game on a supersonic motorbike. And I discovered that darkrides with pirates aren’t as old fashioned as we think. Those are the things I’ll think about whenever I end up in a three-hour queue for Chinese customs again. But one thing is certain: Shanghai Disneyland was worth the wait.