Counterfeit tickets. Broken rides. Food shortages. Plumbing issues. 100-degree weather so hot it softened the partially-set pavement. As compared to Disneyland’s “Black Sunday” opening day some 60 years ago, Shanghai Disneyland’s opening day was uneventful. Although there are radical differences between the launch of Walt Disney’s big, personal gamble on his park, and the one financed as a joint endeavor between the Chinese government and the corporate behemoth that is today’s Walt Disney Company, there are some parallels, too.
These parallels start before opening day, with the trailblazing done in the former orange groves of Anaheim and the unprecedented collaboration between an American corporation and the Chinese government that gave rise to Enchanted Storybook Castle among the rice paddy fields outside of Shanghai. They continue with how each project was perceived through opening day, and persistent questioning as to whether the projects were follies.
In deference to Mr. Disney, with 60 years of experience, one would expect today’s far more polished and sophisticated theme park operators to have learned a thing or two about opening new theme parks. In the intervening years, lessons have been learned in Florida and beyond. It’s not as if Bob Iger was taking loans against his personal property or having his brother make personal visits to banks to assist with funding. Conversely, to modern Disney Co.’s credit, Walt didn’t have the unique challenges of building in mainland China. Only time will tell whether Bob Iger is vindicated the way Walt Disney was 60 years ago. If early response is any indication, it seems Shanghai Disneyland will quickly vanquish criticism of the project as “Iger’s Folly.” Of course, opening day festivities can be pandemonium or peaceful without being indicative of the likelihood of long-term success.
This post offers my thoughts on the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland, with the first page focused on our opening day experience, the second offering my feelings on each individual land, and the third my overall, early analysis of the park. (Note: it’s 5,000 words…if that’s too much, I’d recommend skipping the rest of page 1, as that’s the least interesting.) The post is meant to provide some quick impressions while the experience is still fresh in my mind, and will do so without providing attraction spoilers.
Let’s start at the beginning: how Sarah and I ended up in China in the first place. Our desire to visit was motivated by the dorkiest reason no one outside Disney fandom would probably understand. We wanted to be part of the spectacle of opening day for a new Disney park. It’s like getting nosebleed seats to the Super Bowl–you’d have a better view of the game on an HDTV at home–but there’s a certain energy and feeling in being there. In the case of opening day at a new Disney theme park, the word “magical” seems apropos for describing the experience.
After this, we figured it’s unlikely another castle park will open in our lifetimes, so this was our last shot at being there to witness the momentous occasion, firsthand. It was this rationale that made opening day at Shanghai Disneyland a ‘Disney Bucket List’ item for us as soon as we got serious about visiting all of the Disney parks. I could go on about the rationale for our opening day visit, but it’s one of those things you either “get” without elaboration–or don’t get, and no amount of explanation will change that.
With the mentality that opening day would be some form of chaos, we approached our first visit as a chance to soak up the experience and savor whatever opening day threw at us. Sure, riding TRON Lightcycle Power Run or Voyage to the Crystal Grotto would be great, but we were most concerned with playing witness to history. (Little did we know the longest wait would actually be for turkey legs…) After all, the attractions would all be there weeks, months, and years later–and with much shorter lines–so going for opening day made little sense from that perspective.
Instead, we went because we wanted our own crazy stories that we’d be telling our grandkids decades from now about our shoes sinking into wet pavement or no working plumbing so we had to go in the bus–bad example, I’ll stop there. 😉 In the sense that the opening day experience is always–for better or worse–all about the stories, it could be said that opening day at Shanghai Disneyland is a pretty boring story.
For starters, if you’re reading this, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve seen more of the opening day festivities than we have. The television special and grand opening ribbon cutting were both held only for invited guests and media, so no regular days guests saw these. We strongly suspected opening festivities would be for invited guests only when we saw the noon opening time before even purchasing tickets, so this was totally on us, and not a huge deal. Little touches throughout the day, and a spectacular finale more than made up for missing a ceremony. (Unless I watch a replay of that ceremony later and find out it featured a trope of Panda acrobats and was basically the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony 2.0.)
I’ll offer more details in a full trip report to follow, but after dropping off our luggage, we (Sarah, me, and our friend Mark Willard) left Shanghai Disneyland Hotel via bus for the park. Upon getting through bag check there, we got in line at the turnstiles so they could validate our electronic tickets and give us paper tickets marked “used.” From there, we were ushered away from the turnstiles to backstage holding corrals until noon. We had arrived a little over 2 hours early, expecting baggage check and the lines to get into the park to be crazy. It turned out that baggage check was a breeze and validating our tickets was also quick.
Around 11:45 a.m., the corrals started moving, and moving quickly. With no re-check of tickets, we were ushered right into the park. Removing the wait we experienced from arriving so early, the whole process of baggage check to ticket redemption to corral entry took maybe 20 minutes. I’ve had longer waits with the new security screening process at Disneyland.
Crowd control and organization were both exceptional. After years of seeing D23 make the exact same mistakes again and again, I was flabbergasted that the opening day entrance experience at a new theme park was so painless. As a blogger, I feed off of drama, panic, and hyperbole, so I suppose you could say Shanghai Disneyland’s opening day was super disappointing in at least one regard.
All of this was facilitated by a surplus of Cast Members, both local and foreign, and they were all great. (As a whole, the local Cast Members were exceptional throughout the day–cheerful, energetic, friendly, and sometimes just a bit nervous.) They were handing out buttons, stickers, and other items to guests, while gleefully shouting “have a magical day” to anyone who appeared western. (And unlike in Florida, this enthusiasm did not feel feigned.)
From there, it was time to explore! It became fairly obvious early that tickets were purposefully capped for opening day, and I’d guess the park was restricted to around 75% capacity or less. This was an incredibly savvy move, as esteemed members of the worldwide press was present for opening day. They were (mostly) conveniently gone by the time the reality of day 2 operations rolled around, when some vulnerabilities appeared.
Some attractions–Soaring (with a g) Over the Horizon, Roaring Rapids, and TRON Lightcycle Power Run–had waits that climbed above an hour early on, but most attractions had <20 minute waits until the evening hours when the shows and other minor attractions with ‘dusk’ closings had concluded for the day.
As far as anything special went, opening day buttons, and “first visitor” cards at select attractions were about it. There were also fireworks during the post show of the Ignite the Dream (this post show is emotive and perfectly fitting for the park–it’s one of my favorite experiences at Shanghai Disneyland)…but honestly, that’s about it. So much for war stories to recite to the grandkids. Oh well, I can always make something up. Not like they’ll know the difference.
On our subsequent days in the park, when the weather was hotter and crowds were significantly worse, issues started to appear. Most notably was the lack of shade and easily accessible attractions with air-conditioning. I normally take restaurant seating area photos in mid-afternoon (the trials and tribulations of Disney blogging) because this is a time when they’re emptiest. Not so at Shanghai Disneyland. I found nearly full seating areas with guests resting around tables. The breezeway through the castle was reminiscent of large exhibits at 3 a.m. during the past 24-hour parties, with bodies strewn everywhere.
Lines for everything were excessive; walk-through exhibits with 60+ minute waits were demonstrative of this. Multiple attractions broke down. This is all still a far cry from the type of chaos we expected, especially after much ado had been made guest behavior online before the park opened. (We saw a few instances of poor guest behavior–but we see a few instances per day no matter where the park; by and large, the guests were respectful, friendly, and polite.) I’d have to embellish day 2 & 3 in order for these scenes to even remotely resemble chaos. If anything, the takeaway here should be that Disney needs to work on more shade (and not waiting for trees to mature over the course of years) and air conditioned attractions in the park ASAP.
While I plan a much more thorough report once I get back home, I thought I’d offer some preliminary, land by land assessments. Most of the park has already been “revealed” via the internet, so I don’t consider anything on the next page spoilers. I will not detail or show the interiors of any attractions on page 2, but there will be photos showing the various lands, so if you want to avoid anything that might be construed as a spoiler, you may not want to continue reading…