Shanghai Disneyland Review & Impressions

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As soon as you pass under the train station (never mind that there’s no train circling the park, it’s still a great reveal), it’s readily apparent that this is a different beast than the other castle parks. It does have a castle and many familiar lands, but a lot is different, too.

This much is obvious with Mickey Avenue. Much ado has been made about Shanghai Disneyland not having a Main Street USA. After all, even the parks in Hong Kong and Tokyo have this, so why should Shanghai Disneyland be any different? I don’t purport to be an expert on mainland China, but let’s not forget that only 30 years ago, the political and economic landscape of China looked very different than they do today.

Unlike Hong Kong and Tokyo, both of which embraced Western culture, mainland China was essentially cordoned off from it. This is easy to forget as the metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing have transformed rapidly into futuristic world cities. While I found the lack of Main Street to be jarring, the reality is that Shanghai Disneyland was not built for American bloggers, and for the park’s target demographic, a traditional Main Street might have had little resonance.

As it stands, Mickey Avenue is the introduction to Shanghai Disneyland. It feels like Toontown meets Main Street with a dash of World Showcase thrown in for good measure. It’s lined with charming storefronts run by various characters, and it probably serves as a way to introduce Chinese audiences–most of whom did not grow up with the characters, so no background knowledge can be assumed like it can at other parks–to these Disney characters before digging into the core of the park.

Even after a day in the park, I found myself getting used to the concept of Mickey Avenue. By the third day, it had really grown on me. My biggest remaining issue with it is its length. For a park that has no shortage of space, Mickey Avenue feels exceedingly short. There is not ample time to direct visitors’ attention towards the towering Enchanted Storybook Castle before allowing them to roam off in whichever direction. Beyond this, I found the whimsical building styles to be a bit too eclectic. On one end, you have a building that appears to have been cobbled together by Goofy on a boatyard. On the other, a clear homage to Carthay Circle Theatre.

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In what amounts to the hub for Enchanted Storybook Castle, there’s the Gardens of Imagination. For whatever reason, this is being treated as a distinct land, but it most definitely is a glorified hub. This area offers a viewing place for shows, and contains seven individual gardens (supposedly) with their own motifs, plus bridges and trails that form a crossroads to other lands in the park.

This area was clearly designed as a people-eating space for nighttime spectaculars and other shows, and to that end, it’s effective. I found there to be a significant quality imbalance among the various gardens, though. Some have winding little trails that take you past peaceful streams, complete with rockwork. Others are sprawling planters that are just sort of there. As far as hubs go, it’s very nice, but it should not be given its own name (especially one touting “imagination”) and billed as a land.

Name aside, my only big issue with this area is Dumbo. I don’t have a problem with the idea of an attraction in these gardens, as I think the Fantasia Carousel works really well, and does so by integrating Chinese influences in its design. By contrast, Dumbo feels as if it was ripped out of Storybook Circus–signage, popcorn lights, and all–and plopped into Gardens of Imagination. The style is totally different from the rest of the area, and it sticks out.

Then, there’s the castle. I didn’t know what to think of this when I first saw the models. When I saw the models and even some finished product photos (which were unavoidable even as I sought to avoid spoilers) I thought it looked like the strange love child of Sleeping Beauty Castle, Hotel Hightower, and a Costco.

While I think there is too sharp of a contrast between different accents and flourishes used on the castle that sometimes makes it look like a bit of a hodgepodge, it looks far better in person than in photos. This is true as you walk around it and view the castle from various points in the park, and is especially true at night when it is bathed in show lighting that makes the disparate styles fade away.

One reaction that I don’t quite think is fair is the claim that it dosen’t look like a castle. To be fair, it doesn’t look like a Disney castle. If you look at real-world castles, many have very little in common with their theme park interpretations. This appears to be another case of the artistic decisions for Enchanted Storybook Castle not comporting with fan expectations. I can’t say that this is my favorite castle (that goes to Paris), but it has grown on me considerably. Count me as a fan.

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From here, let’s head around the lands, counter-clockwise, starting with Adventure Isle. This and its neighbor to the north, Treasure Cove, are essentially Shanghai Disneyland’s Adventureland. The centerpiece of Adventure Isle is Roaring Mountain, a peak shrouded in mystery and legend, with tribal legend telling tales of the reptilian creature (Q’aráq) that roams the mountain.

Adventure Isle seemed a bit like a fictionalized version of Asia in Animal Kingdom, complete with its own Everest and Yeti. More solemn than Adventureland, but heavily dramatized. There are some really interesting spaces and detail here, but Roaring Mountain complete with its waterfalls is by far the most captivating element.

Its sister land, Treasure Cove, is the “pirate land.” While it’s based on pirates and set in the Caribbean, it is not simply “Pirates of the Caribbean Land.” This was a concern of mine given its main attraction is centered around the movie, as is its action show, and restaurant. With all of that, it stands to reason that this Treasure Cove itself would be a “stepping into the movie” experience. That’s what I expected, with the thought that this would be a film-based subland within Adventure Isle (akin to Caribbean Plaza in Magic Kingdom), but it’s more a divergent extension of Adventure Isle than an area within it.

To the degree that you’re in the environs of pirates, as are the films, I suppose it is. However, it’s an environment all its own. Perhaps a better comparison would be to Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea, which conjures the settings of Aladdin, without having drawn from the film explicitly. The burroughs (for lack of a better term) in Treasure Cove have personality, and are not dependent upon any film. I don’t think these are realized quite as well as Arabian Coast (that’s a high bar). Still, I would consider the twin lands of Adventure Isle and Treasure Cove to be my favorites at Shanghai Disneyland. These two lands are among my worldwide favorites, and the mood here at night is perfect.

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In its normal location behind the castle, you’ve got Fantasyland. The quintessential Disney land. Even for those who have never stepped foot in a Disney theme park, I don’t think any description here is necessary. The concept has so permeated pop culture and is pretty well understood. I suspect the same is not true in China, but over time I’d expect that Fantasyland will typify the Disney experience and similarly establish it as rite-of-passage park for families with small children the same way Fantasyland has elsewhere.

Given that, I think a Fantasyland highlighting many classic animated films via charming dark rides makes sense, no matter the country. Yet, Shanghai Disneyland only has two (Peter Pan’s Flight and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), which is still one better than Hong Kong Disneyland at opening. There’s much more to Fantasyland than this (including Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and an Alice maze), and Voyage to the Crystal Grotto does take a “greatest hits” approach to the animated classics, but I still suspect this land will see expansion sooner rather than later.

Although this is Shanghai Disneyland’s largest land, it is the most underdeveloped. This “Fantasy Forest” land isn’t just large–it’s frustratingly large. When Voyage to the Crystal Grotto was announced, it sounded like a great way to give Fantasyland kinetic energy. Unfortunately, it’s not visible from most parts of the land, and there’s literally fencing and trees blocking it off from view. As a result–and due to other design decisions–there are far too many stretches of Fantasyland that are wooded areas with only a glimpse of an attraction in the distance. In fact, there are too many stretches of Fantasyland from which the castle isn’t even visible. Maybe this will work better when a few of the visible expansion pads are filled in with attractions, but right now, it doesn’t congeal or have the charm you’d expect of a Fantasyland.

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I hope that expansion doesn’t take the form of Toy Story Land, which is already (oddly) partially present at the border of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland in the form of two buildings. (I haven’t followed construction closely enough to know where it was planned and got cut, or if this is the foundation for a phase 2 expansion.) I’m not nearly as down on Toy Story Land as a lot of other theme park pundits, as I realize it’s a popular and efficient way to increase capacity and allow for resources to be allocated elsewhere. At an ambitious castle park, it’s just so lazy. Moreover, it’s at odds with the otherwise strong thematic foundation at Shanghai Disneyland, and it would weaken that, and feel cheaply plopped down. I know there will be a desire to fill in the gaps at Shanghai Disneyland quickly, but I hope that is not done at the expense of the overall core quality of the park. I’m fine with Disney going nuts adding Toy Story Lands to all of its studios/catch-all parks, but I hope they aim higher in Shanghai.

Tomorrowland is the final stop on our tour and is visually impressive, particularly at night. There are a lot of sleek, fluid lines, and the land is bursting with vibrant lighting. Tomorrowland purports to celebrate the “hope, optimism and potential of the future.” Uh…ok. I guess that is true if you ignore how Tron, Buzz Lightyear, Stitch, and Star Wars all end up here instead of coming up with tortured backstory to explain away their presence.

All of the Tomorrowlands stopped being about futurism long ago, and even if that is a tenable theme, it’s not what is on display in Shanghai Disneyland. The thing is, attraction lineup aside, the aesthetic almost works here. From the water features to the lighting to the fixtures and even pavement, it feels very forward-looking.

It also feels somewhat cold and impersonal. I’m a bit surprised that in a city that is so futuristic, this approach was taken. I would think part of the draw of a theme park in such a metropolis would be as a respite from the impersonal design of the city (and otherwise, the park does offer such a design), but this seems to reinforce the style of the city rather than contrast or compliment that. This is true right down to the background music, which provides an ominous and tense score, as opposed to the cheery and bubbly sounds of the other Tomorrowlands. I’m still up in the air on my personal feelings of Tomorrowland, but I’m surprised the Imagineers didn’t just punt and go all-in on the “Future-Fantasy Space Port Area Land” concept here.

Now that we’ve completed our tour, it’s time for some overall takeaways. I’ll cover those on the next page.

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47 Responses to “Shanghai Disneyland Review & Impressions”
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