You really haven’t done Disneyland until you’ve done it in a third world communist country, and no, Hong Kong does not count. Disney is rightfully famous for its stunning attention to detail and fabulous hospitality, all dedicated to creating an experience so magical that people from all over the world will happily empty their wallets in Mickey’s lap. But when you start with Howdy, then add Konnichiwa, drift to Bonjour, and finally embrace Ni Hao, something is bound to get lost in translation. Just compare Disneyland, California and Disney World in Florida. Each park has a little different personality, despite being in the same country, and largely employing Americans who paddled from the womb straight into Disney culture. If we can see that, we have to recognize that even Disney’s meticulously planned magic cannot stop the culture of place from invading its enchanted premises.
Mainland China is a culture in transition, winking and flirting with western social behavior, but perfectly content to do things their own way. This is highly frustrating to the prim and proper Hong Kongese who would rather break a heel than jump a queue, and have great difficulty welcoming the elderly mainland woman who may have just squatted to do her business on the public street. Mainland is very class stratified, and each class has its own rules, but I will point out three general basics that will certainly affect your experience at Shanghai Disneyland.
First of all, it is not shocking to find a middle-class man dumping the full contents of his 30 oz. tea flask onto the carpet in the corridor of the sleeper train, because it is more convenient that nipping ten feet to the restroom next door. (I know, oddly specific, but I had to hop to avoid getting my feet splashed, which bugged me.) Add to that the fact that Chinese infants and toddlers wear open split pants, rather than diapers, which is rather akin to walking your puppy. Finally, you must remain ever vigilant of the Chinese habit of crowding rather than queuing, and sliding into any possible gap to get ahead. Just remember trash, puppies, and cutting. Let’s head on in.
The entrance queue was the worst part of the day, and by “queue” I mean the snail-paced, line-shaped amorphous blob where everyone stood in each other’s underwear to block any possible gap, or to take advantage of any gap that might momentarily appear. Tragically, it was a heatwave at the end of July, 106° F in the morning, with 65% humidity. That’s 2000° in dog years, way too hot to be standing close enough to identify anyone’s deodorant, or lack thereof.
By the time we made it into the park, we’d sweated through our clothes, and I had questioned my decision to be born. Most of the family sped off to glean any fast passes still remaining an hour after opening, but my son Porter held back with his old mom to enjoy a quiche and some cold water under the ceiling fan at Remy’s Patisserie on Mickey Avenue. Eventually my body temperature came down, my stomach decided to keep its contents, and I felt it might be okay to live a little longer, so we ventured forth.
Before passing under the archway into the park proper, you must pass a series of folksy character banners laying out the rules of the park, including my favorite, “When ya need to go, just hop on over to the nearest toilet,” giving Shanghai Disneyland the honor of being the only park I’ve ever visited that felt obliged to post such an official instruction at the front door, not just in one language, but two. Remember those split pants, well, this was written for people who can read. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.
There is a main street in Shanghai Disneyland, though oddly enough the Chinese government didn’t want a sweetly idealized and nostalgic Americana street plopped into their communist country. I can see their point. As it is, every time we visited the U.S. from China, somebody would ask in all seriousness, “You live in China, are you on base?” For the record there are no American military bases in communist countries, but there is a Mickey Avenue.
Mickey Avenue architecture is still evocative Victorian revival, but there’s less gingerbread, and the colors are much darker, more chocolatey browns and vintage reds, rich blues, and charming greens. Imagine a Victorian street painted with a classic Mickey cartoonist’s pallet. The street would be recognizable to any Disney fan, shopping and sweets, though not so many as Disneyland. The Chinese are not bathing in sugar like Americans, and for some reason their clothes take up less room in the shopping arcade. It’s possible there is a connection.
The rides and shows at Shanghai Disneyland absolutely do not disappoint! The new Pirates of the Caribbean was a particular revelation, rivaling my all-time favorite, Mystic Manor, in Hong Kong. However, be aware it may take a little longer to get through the lines. It took less than a year to spawn an entire industry of fake Disney workers who charge a fee to help patrons cut in line. I know what China’s like, so it became part of the entertainment to spot the cloak and dagger act. Though it wasn’t nearly as fun as floating through a cavern in Roaring Rapids where I saw the cast member in the security booth had accidentally left her light on, so we could clearly see her fast asleep with her head on her desk. That was better than Tron, which was both more and less than I expected.
There was so much international hype surrounding the Tron ride that the lines were hours. Unwilling to sell my whole day to ride it, I just ran over by myself at the last minute when everyone else was watching the fireworks and clearing out of the park. What I found was TRASH. I mean that literally. Remember the man dumping his tea on the carpet in the sleeper train? Here is tea writ large.
Chinese people are accustomed to having an army of street cleaners sweeping up behind them, so nobody thinks twice about dropping trash where they stand. Disney did have a massive crew of cleaners and plenty of garbage receptacles, even hastily adding extra unthemed garbage cans, which would ordinarily go against the Disney grain, but it wasn’t enough. Without the hordes of people waiting in line, all I could see was a floor thickly carpeted with mounds of empty water bottles, wrappers, and used tissues. I’d never seen such a filthy ride in any park, let alone Disney. I should have taken photos because I know it’s hard to believe, instead I sped through the empty chutes to get to the famous ride so people behind couldn’t cut in front of me. The ride was good, it was, but the cool, clean Tron experience was rather spoiled by the refuse I’d navigated to get to it.
The castle, on the other hand, is sparkling clean, or at the very least sparkly. A couple of years before the park opened, I drove out to take photos of the castle while it was being built, and even that gave me a thrill. But the finished product, well, that’s a doozy. Until now Disney castles came in two models, the tally standing three to two with Sleeping Beauty stamping her tiara in Florida, Paris, and Hong Kong, while poor old Cinderella only twitches her tail feathers in California and Tokyo. You’d think Shanghai would even the score, but no. Shanghai is a storybook castle where all princesses are welcome.
In the Paris castle I reveled in the Sleeping Beauty walkthrough with its snoring suits of armor and gorgeous stained glass windows. Shanghai takes it up four levels, looks back, and laughs. The castle’s technologically advanced Once Upon a Time Adventure starts outside, the queue winding around a large, beautiful box planter, which some kid pooed in, so there’s that.
Once inside, you pass the obligatory Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and Crystal Treasures, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll spot a relatively unassuming door just beyond the vivid Princess Merida mosaic, the Royal Banquet Hall. The restaurant requires reservations, and feels like a private little escape from the heat and thunderous herds of the park, but first you must get past the maître d’ who might be A LITTLE STRESSED.
All Disney parks get their share of unreasonable patrons, and any Disneyphile worth their salt will hear the term “treasured guest” and know it’s code for “I need backup before I go postal.” But this is not necessarily the case in China where clerks and customers are known to go to the mattresses on the regular. I watched the poor young maître d’ getting increasingly desperate as he tried to reason with a large party of “treasured guests,” his chest puffing as he rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling, trying to gain strength from the plaster. The pressure built and built, the SNAP looming–
We were called inside before the final curtain, but I still remember his face, and my heart goes out to him.
After our photo op with Princess Aurora we were ushered into a beautiful dining room dripping with princess paraphernalia, and seated in a quiet little offshoot with stained glass windows, and barred and locked double glass doors leading onto a balcony, rather like a fake fireplace, all the charm and none of the pesky liability. The food will run you about $100 U.S. per plate, and has the distinction of being resoundingly okay. To begin they bring you a little roll basket, and halfway through our disappointing meal, four of us sought to fill our stomachs by asking for an extra roll. The server stared at us slack jawed. “No, that would be too much!”
Is that a fat joke? I think that was a fat joke.
Feeling a tad judged, we picked at our exquisitely meh food for another ten or fifteen minutes, resigning ourselves to walking away from our sumptuous meal in search of snacks, when in paraded a large number of briskly efficient servers, each carrying water or other implements of their trade, plus four separate bearers of full roll baskets. Apparently, there had been a discussion in the kitchen, and half the staff had come to see the gluttonous foreigners who apparently each consumed an entire loaf of bread at each meal. It’s possible that something was lost in translation, though I can’t be sure.
Here’s what I do know. I highly recommend Shanghai Disneyland, but don’t go expecting Mickey to speak English or own a California surfboard, because he will disappoint you. Instead, look for him in Chinese, enjoy Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean, and remember it’s fun to eat at the castle. Enjoy the atmosphere, eat your rolls, but not too many, and try not to think about how much you paid for your magnificently marginal piece of chicken.