There is no denying the ambition of Shanghai Disneyland. A lot was learned from the last castle park opening in Hong Kong, that was lambasted as an on-the-cheap clone of Disneyland. By contrast, Shanghai Disneyland is mostly original, with a lot of attractions and areas that strive for outside-the-box greatness.
To an extent, it seems like Shanghai Disneyland was an over-correction of Hong Kong Disneyland. There are almost no clones, and so many of the fundamentals have changed that it is the most dissimilar of the castle parks. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the park is incredibly fresh and original, but I can’t help but wonder whether the project would have faced fewer challenges and delays if it struck a better balance between originality and the classics.
There’s no knowing now, so all we can do is speculate. Given the rumors of delays, cost-overruns, and work that had to be rebuilt, it would certainly seem the ambition of the project worked to its disadvantage–at least during construction. I might have done some things differently myself, but I’m not here to armchair (re-)Imagineer the parks.
Of course I have some complaints, though. I am a Disney fan, after all. My biggest of these is Shanghai Disneyland’s size and layout. I have no issue with meandering around a large park, but Shanghai Disneyland is just too large for what it contains. Part of this is obviously to absorb crowds, and another part is expansion pads, but even in places where no expansion could be planned, there are empty expanses that are at odds with adjacent, densely detailed areas.
There is definitely a strong emphasis on the park in theme park here, and I understand that much of that is cultural. However, the park is still too vast, and the grassy picnic areas could have been positioned differently if they are actually meant to be that in the longterm (as opposed to just expansion pads that are being used as makeshift capacity right now and touted as something guests supposedly desire). This vastness undercuts some of the intimate exterior designs that are otherwise quite charming. I’ve already hammered on this point, but Fantasyland strikes me as the biggest offender in this regard.
Then there’s the absolutely confounding layout. I don’t purport to be a theme park designer, so I can’t say what’s “best” from a guest experience perspective, but navigating the park can be counter-intuitive. One of the ideas behind the castle as a visual “wienie” is so that guests can easily and quickly return to the central hub. That’s not quite so easy here, as paths meander in ways that struck me as unexpected. Even in Tomorrowland, which is largely a wide open courtyard, navigation can be a challenge, as swooping (elevated) paths don’t necessarily take you where you’d expect.
While layout is a pretty core element of the park, a lot of this will change over time as new paths cut through current expansion pads (please add such a path in the expanse of nothingness immediately behind Crystal Grotto). I’m optimistic that even this is something that can be remedied over time as the park matures. Part of me hopes that there’s an explanation that makes my concerns a non-starter. Perhaps something I don’t understand–like Feng Shui–that would make all of this a lot easier to swallow.
Prior to visiting, I was concerned about kinetics. With no railroad, monorail, or boat transportation (save for canoes) there was distinct possibility that the park would lack life. These concerns were misplaced, as a number of water features, a couple of spinners, flowing streams, the canoes around Adventure Isle and Treasure Cove, and even the Tron coaster all provided enough kinetic engagement to give a sense of life and kinetic energy to the park.
The one exception to this, oddly enough, is Fantasyland. This area has Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Hunny Pot Spin, and Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, so that might come as a surprise. However, every single one of these attractions is isolated from the rest of the land. This is almost infuriating with Crystal Grotto, which is mostly visible only from a little pathway immediately behind the castle. Want a view of the boats passing with the castle in the distance? Good luck with that–where that should be you can instead view a snack stand, a large fence (concealing either backstage facilities or hiding Crystal Grotto show scenes, maybe?), or large trees lining a picnic area.
These issues blunt my excitement about Shanghai Disneyland a bit, especially since some of them are pretty obvious to someone with no design sense at all. Aside from this, I don’t have any major qualms with Shanghai Disneyland. I’m still very high on Shanghai Disneyland. Perhaps it’s because I went in with low expectations based on reading years of pre-emptive criticism, but I felt the park opened relatively complete, and with a solid core upon which to build for the future.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the attractions, but I was really pleased with the opening day slate. I went in thinking that this park would have a better slate than recent others, but would still be lacking. It exceeded my expectations, and I’d consider it a full day park right from the get-go, which is more than can be said for everything to open since Euro Disney. (OLC-funded Tokyo DisneySea aside.)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is the unequivocal high water mark, and rivals Mystic Manor for the crown of best modern feat of Imagineering. Every theme park operator should be sending creatives to Shanghai, because this is how you integrate screens and physical sets. There simply are not enough superlatives for the experience. Soaring Over the Horizon, TRON Lightcycle Power Run, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue (among others) are all strong.
On the other hand, Roaring Rapids has one impressive moment, but otherwise was a letdown (but it appears to still be a work in progress). Voyage to the Crystal Grotto was the ride about which I was most excited, and it also didn’t quite deliver. It’s great to see the Explorer Canoes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear at some point given the bewilderment of guests over the expectation that they help paddle.
The moving rides are balanced nicely by a good slate of entertainment, particularly the pirate stunt show, fireworks, and atmospheric shows. Beyond that, there are spaces to explore and walk-through attractions that are more than just filler. In my opinion, the sleeper hit of the entire park is Camp Discovery, which contains branching trails to explore, and a rope course that can be so challenging I’m surprised it even exists in a Disney park in light of the fact that Disneyland has safety rails on top of rails. (My bet is that some sections of this will be retooled within 6 months with netting and rails added, and other portions closed–it’s the only time I’ve ever been a bit scared in a Disney park.)
Another concern I had going in that I found to be misplaced was that Shanghai Disneyland would be “Iger’s Properties Kingdom,” with a bunch of franchises interrupting the thematic cadence of the park. My main concerns here revolved around TRON Lightcycle Power Run, Alice in Wonderland Maze, and the whole of Treasure Cove. With the exception of the Alice Maze, my concerns about I.P. Kingdom were unfounded.
The success of these attractions and areas is not dependent upon their underlying IP. Each of these can stand perfectly fine on its own merit, much like Splash Mountain. (I hope the same can be said for Pandora: World of Avatar when it opens at Animal Kingdom.) Other uses of current IP–like Star Wars Launch Bay and Marvel Universe–aren’t as concerning; these are clearly intended to be temporary ways to soak up crowds until Shanghai Disneyland’s first expansion.
Dining is another area at which Shanghai Disneyland excels. At first blush, the dining scene may seem disappointing, since it’s virtually all counter service restaurants (the only table service restaurant is in the castle, and it was our only underwhelming meal of the trip). We had meal after meal that was on par with mid-tier table service restaurants at Walt Disney World, and all were very fairly priced. The cuisine was diverse and high quality.
My favorite was the grilled squid I had at Barbossa’s Bounty; it cost about $12 and I had a view overlooking Pirates of the Caribbean–a comparable meal in quality and location at Blue Bayou in Disneyland would’ve exceeded $50. About the only mediocre option was Stargazer Grill, but you really can’t fault it too much for that given the intergalactic regulation requiring all Tomorrowland eateries to be uninspired.
Merchandise is also incredibly strong at Shanghai Disneyland. I don’t put too much weight into this, as that’s something that will change over time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see much of the ride specific stuff disappear, but for now, there’s a lot of it. Q’araq, in particular, has a lot of merchandise, but Roaring Rapids is far from the only attraction represented. There’s really something for everyone in terms of merchandise right now–from character fans (Zodiac Duffy) to parks fans.
In terms of future growth, Shanghai Disney Resort was masterplanned very well, much in the same style as Hong Kong Disneyland. Rather than overbuilding hotels, which could become an albatross around the neck of the resort (a la Euro Disney), the Shanghai park opens with a modest two hotels, each with a distinct style that will cater to a different demographic. The resort is walkable, with plenty of room for future expansion.
Hopefully, the plans have already been set for what that first expansion will include, and Disney and Shendi will set these plans in motion as soon as the park demonstrates that the demand is there. I think this is something that will be borne out quickly; with 330 million ‘income qualified’ potential guests within 3 hours of Shanghai Disneyland (I suspect that estimate is significantly over-inflated), plus a growing interest in western pop culture, I think things bode well for Shanghai Disneyland. For all the #ThanksShanghai jokes about how this park has been detrimental to the stateside ones (it’s a convenient scapegoat), I fully expect that–barring a collapse of the world economy–this park will be a huge commercial success.
Overall, I would consider it mostly successful from a critical vantage, too. I spoke with a lot of fans who were attending from the United States, and praise for the park was near unanimous. None would go as far as Marty Sklar who called this Disney’s best park ever (perhaps he forgot about Tokyo DisneySea…and about a half dozen other parks?), but I would slot it as the #7 worldwide park. Those layout issues are enough to knock it down a spot or two, but considering that this is an opening day park, I don’t think #7 is too shabby. I know that’s not as exciting as a controversial, polarized best/worst hot take, but middle of the pack is pretty respectable. There’s a lot of potential here, and with future growth that better maximizes space and creates a greater sense of scale and intimacy, I could see this being one of the best parks in the world.
At the outset of this, I indicated I’d proffer some quick, early impressions from Shanghai Disneyland’s grand opening. I’ve now spent several late nights and early mornings trying to get this finished after/before more park time (apologies if there are some incoherent spots…that’s the lack of sleep), and I’ve already eclipsed 5,000 words. So much for “quick” impressions. I have so much more to say about Shanghai Disneyland, but it’s time to cut my loses and just get this posted.
I’ll have tons more on Shanghai Disneyland once we get home, including a trip report, planning guide, restaurant reviews, etc. For now, follow along on social media for live updates from Hong Kong Disneyland tomorrow (or later tonight your time): @tom_bricker on Instagram (my wife will be posting as @sarahbricker) and @tom_bricker on Twitter.
Do you have any interest in visiting Shanghai Disneyland? Which attractions or lands look most appealing to you? Any thoughts if you made the trek out for the grand opening? If you have anything else to add, or questions you’d like answered about the park, please post in the comments!