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" expanded its universe to Shanghai in 2016, and business was booming. I was more than a little curious about how Disney would fare in the Far East.
Shanghai Disney was created as a joint venture between China and Disney with the understanding that the park needed to be better adapted for Asian tastes and Americana wouldn’t be ramrodded into the guest experience. Main Street USA was renamed Mickey Avenue and rides like "It’s a Small World" with ethnic stereotypes were abandoned. The ubiquitous train ride was scrapped. Food offerings were mostly Asian and a Chinese heritage garden was added near the castle. Not to worry though, it still looks like Disney.
The biggest news at Disney’s newest incarnation? The park built a new Tron ride before any of the other properties. Plus, it got an incredible reboot of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, has one of only two Toy Story Worlds on the planet, as well as a one-of-a-kind Toy Story hotel at the Shanghai Disney Resort, where you can park your boots for the night if you still haven’t gotten enough Buzz and Woody by the end of the day.
But more about that Tron attraction. It's one of the biggest draws at Shanghai Disney, and one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen in any Disney park. An amazing hi-tech facade houses the roller coaster inside. How Disney could take an '80s movie franchise and make it look futuristic almost 40 years after the film’s release is astounding. I’m not sure how many guests have ever heard of the movie Tron, but the attraction doesn’t require a backstory to enjoy it.
Riders are perched on futuristic motorcycles equipped with cool blue neon lighting. The ride springs into action super-fast and feels a little like the Rock and Roll Coaster or Space Mountain—high-speed turns, mostly in the dark. After lots of twists the coaster rockets screaming passengers outdoors for a few seconds before returning to the futuristic building. It’s only flaw is that it’s missing a soundtrack. The Tron attraction is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen in any Disney park.
I was under the misconception that Pirates of the Caribbean would be a doppelgänger to the 50-year-old ride that is a staple of Disney, but I soon discovered that it had been completely re-engineered—with cutting-edge technology—into the most exciting attraction that Disney has ever created.
Avatar World has nothing on this unparalleled swashbuckling adventure. The trip starts like a simple boat ride with a high-tech animatronic Jonny Depp, who speaks Pirate-Chinese, followed by a super-realistic Davy Jones shouting at the audience while seated at his barnacle-encrusted organ. Suddenly the doors fling open and the ride goes into overdrive. I can’t hope to understand the technology, but my watercraft was suddenly battling at sea with pirate vessels and a kraken that made King Kong look like a circus monkey. It's absolutely amazing. As of now, it's my favorite ride in the world.
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.
There’s also a big, staged Tarzan show that's a little easier for non-Chinese visitors to understand complete with great effects, music, and dancing. 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 scenes of numerous Disney characters and then floats under the castle. The ride is a little more mediocre than its 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-to-10 scale of kitsch. 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. I would've thought maybe these American toys 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 its 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 people try to catch the train or bus back to the city.
Shanghai Disney is quite a bit cheaper than its American counterparts. Tickets range from $55 to $75 and you can buy a drink for less than $2. You can bring your own picnic if you like. Disney hotels are 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.