The road to Shanghai Disneyland has been a turbulent one. Former CEO Michael Eisner began evaluating the viability of Shanghai in the 1990s, and got serious with a letter of intent in 2002 before Hong Kong Disneyland even opened. Getting a deal done with the Chinese government was no easy process, and it took his successor, Bob Iger, roughly two decades after the initial idea of entering the mainland to sign a deal to build Shanghai Disneyland, with partner Shendi owning a majority stake in the project. Construction started thereafter in 2011.
Since then, issues have abounded with the Shanghai Disney Resort project. Concerns over how it would fulfill its mission of being “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese” have been raised, and also of what it might symbolize to have such a theme park in mainland China, as well as how park operations can keep the park up to Disney standards given cultural norms. An additional $800 million investment was announced last year that was purportedly for additional attractions–despite no differences appearing on attraction slates that leaked before the $800 million investment announcement and the official slate later released.
Rumblings of other problems, from concerns over brand awareness (an issue dating back to HKDL’s construction) to the health of the Westerners working on-site to talk of rebuilding certain elements due to shoddy construction, have been tied to the project. As a result of these issues or others, the opening date of Shanghai Disneyland was delayed by roughly a year.
Much of this has been rumor and supposition, and probably has in part arisen because the project and construction thereof have been so shrouded in secrecy. Pretty much the only concrete details that have been discussed since early on have concerned the Enchanted Storybook Castle, which is touted as the largest ever. Speculation has run rampant as to the reasons for the secrecy (the most logical explanation to me is to avoid copycat parks from quickly springing up in China), and whether the Chinese partners have attempted to exert unduly control over the Shanghai Disney Resort project, and made for a difficult working relationship as design plans have been argued back and forth.
I don’t know the veracity of any of the rumors regarding the project, and regardless of what’s true and false, I’m sure there’s an interesting story to be told. There likely are such stories when it comes to any project of this magnitude undertaken between an icon of Americana (and capitalism) and the Chinese government and its major businesses.
However, since I really have nothing to go on beyond the nuggets of rumors and the like that I’ve pieced together, that’s another story for another day–told by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Still, I felt it worth including some background to give some context to the real and potential challenges that have faced the development of Shanghai Disney Resort up until this point.
What I do know is that the curtain has been lifted on Shanghai Disneyland, with its lands shown in an incredible level of detail–right down to gift shop signage–at the D23 Expo. It’s almost as if Disney showcased an extraordinary amount of detail as a direct response to silence critics. I’m going to delve into some of the specifics that I find most interesting, but I’d rather offer my analysis on Shanghai Disneyland as we now know it, as opposed to just copying and pasting the descriptions of each land that can easily be found on the official Shanghai Disney Resort website. I’d highly recommend reading that before reading further, as this post assumes basic background covered there.
Up to speed on the lands and attractions coming to Shanghai Disneyland? Good. Let’s get going…
For starters, it’s pretty clear to me that Disney has learned a lot since its foray into Hong Kong. While that park has a certain beauty to it, prior to its recent expansion, there were a lot of uninspired attraction clones, and the overall design largely felt lifted from California.
Now, 99% of the local audience might have never stepped foot in Disneyland, but it’s difficult to wow the worldwide media and create buzz about a park that more or less exists–in far more robust form–elsewhere. Equally as important, for a company steeped in creativity, it was fairly insipid at opening. Imagine if Led Zeppelin had just used the guitar tab from “Whole Lotta Love” for every song thereafter because, hey, go with what works!
Fortunately, Shanghai Disneyland doesn’t use the same tab. Moreso than any other castle park that has been built since the original Disneyland, this park is unique. From the design foregoing a Main Street USA to lands that deviate from the castle park norm to attractions that do not exist elsewhere, Shanghai Disneyland pushes the creative envelope.
Another plus that Shanghai Disneyland has going for it is design lavishness. Not since Disneyland Paris has any castle park appeared so beautifully designed, at least in concept art. How this art translates to reality remains to be seen, but as of right now, my money is on this being the most beautiful or second most beautiful castle park. It might just be the “Stairway to Heaven” to Disneyland’s “Whole Lotta Love.” (Or maybe it’s “Kashmir” and Paris is “Stairway to Heaven”…we probably don’t need all these Led Zeppelin analogies.)
I know many people might point to Enchanted Storybook Castle as evidence of this. I’m not so sure I would, at least right now. This castle is really large, but size should not be conflated with grandiosity. The models in part make it appear almost like a ‘big box’ take on a castle, like the Tower of Terror and Cinderella Castle had a weird love child. Part of me questions whether this was the best design choice, or more about Shendi wanting to be able to tout ‘the largest castle anywhere’, as a statement to project national power akin to the Beijing Olympics. Irrespective of the rationale, I’m willing to withhold judgment on Enchanted Storybook Castle until I see it in person, but even in the case of castles, bigger isn’t always better.
Rather, I find support for the idea that Shanghai Disneyland could be the most beautiful castle park in the fluidity of the design choices in Tomorrowland, in the rockwork throughout Adventure Isle, in the detailed forts and landings in Treasure Cove, in the ornate & colorful look of Mickey Avenue, and so on. Every land is really interesting from a visual perspective, and it’s going to be a joy to photograph so long as China gets those smog vacuums up and running soon. I get the feeling that Shanghai Disneyland might be the park the Imagineers dreamt up without being constricted by the format of Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom.
Using the words “constricted by” and “Walt Disney” in the same sentence probably doesn’t sit well with a lot of Disney fans, and understandably so given the significance of Disneyland. I know many fans have been apprehensive about Shanghai Disneyland because of just how much it deviates from Walt’s original vision in terms of general design, and also in the iconic attractions absent from the park.
I don’t think I have to preface the following statements with gushing over Walt Disney, to avoid sounding irreverent. Of course I’m a fan of the man. However, countless Disney theme parks–a couple of them on par with the original–have been built without his guidance, and to say that a castle park in the style of Disneyland needs X Y or Z because that’s how Walt Disney built his seems creatively stifling. I’ll also spare you some fluffy Walt quote about progress or moving forward, but it seems contrary to the core principles that define Disney. I’d have a hard time criticizing Toy Story Land as lacking ambition and then turning around and saying every castle park needs to follow a set formula.
More important to me than following any specific formula or blueprint for what is required to make a castle park is that the park is imbued with the general tone and evokes the same emotions of a castle park (in other words, such a park is defined by more than just having a castle, but less than having a specific set of lands or attraction roster).
The specifics are wholly immaterial. I like the creative liberties Shanghai Disneyland is taking, rather than it just going back to the same ‘tried and true’ well. Even if it all falls flat on its face, at least they took a chance. To me at least, that’s what The Walt Disney Company is all about, at its best.
Moving on to the specific lands and attractions, one thing I really enjoyed seeing at the Expo is how Disney isn’t just showcasing its hot-in-China intellectual property in Shanghai Disneyland. It made me absolutely giddy to see a favorite of mine, Ludwig Von Drake, has his own shop, and I’m assuming the vast majority of the local audience has no clue who he is. I think it would be hilariously ironic if Sam the Eagle had a gift shop, but perhaps that’s a tad on the nose.
There are several little details present in the art that assuaged some of my fears that this would be a “locals only” park that is not welcoming to foreigners. I still have some concerns, perhaps unfounded, but from English signage to details clearly thrown in for the sake of a global audience, my fears have been lessened. I guess I won’t know for certain until I show up at the turnstiles next April.
I hinted on this above, but there have been concerns that Shanghai Disneyland will have an over-reliance on franchises. Given that the only big attractions that doesn’t somehow incorporate a franchise are Roaring Rapids (hopefully Q’aráq isn’t Shanghai’s Yeti: costs tens of millions of dollars, is only visible for a millisecond, and eventually goes into disco mode) and Soaring Over the Horizon, at first blush, this concerns might appear well-founded.
I think it’s necessary to look past that and actually consider what’s being built. I mean, is anyone who is complaining about franchises honestly up in arms about Tron Lightcycle Power Run? Does Voyage to the Crystal Grotto not look like a (dare I say) enchanting boat ride? Does the concept art for Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure not have you drooling? There are certainly a lot of franchises, but in most cases, it seems like these franchises are being used in a way that benefits the attraction rather than to serve the almighty synergy gods. Personally, I cannot envision the Lightcycle Power Run being better without Tron attached to it.
It also seems like many standard attractions are going the extra mile creatively. Peter Pan’s Flight, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Jetpacks, and Once Upon a Time Adventure all look like advanced iterations of tried and true favorites. Then there are the shows, which we don’t know much about, other random walk-throughs, and the like.
Finally, there are the generic clones or basic attractions: Hunny Pot Spin, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (presumably), Dumbo, Stitch Encounter, and Explorer Canoes. That’s not many attractions that I’d put on the “boring, been there done that” list. I think it’s fair to say there are too few attractions–a complaint that could be levied against every park on opening day following EPCOT Center–but not that the ones on the lineup are in any other way lacking.
There’s only so much you can glean from concept art, and what’s built isn’t always totally faithful to it. More importantly, the enjoyableness of a park isn’t predicated wholly on its lands and attractions (just ask Disneyland Paris). There are still many questions I have about Shanghai Disneyland, and it is doubtlessly too early to judge this castle park. It will be too early on opening day–even if every attraction does manage to open with the park–and it will even be too early to evaluate its “success” a year after the park opens.
With that said, I think now is an appropriate time to say that Shanghai Disneyland is on the right course. A lot of the fears I had about Shanghai Disneyland based on rumors I had read have been vanquished, and I’m now cautiously optimistic. For me, some of the decisions that sounded questionable on paper have at least been partially vindicated by the concept art, videos, and seeing how it all is coming together. It is still way too early to call the park a success, but I don’t think it’s too early to say I’m really excited to see it in person, and my enthusiasm has really increased based upon what I saw at the D23 Expo.
If you are planning a Shanghai Disneyland trip, check out our Disney Parks Vacation Planning Guides! Not because we have one for Shanghai (yet), but because we do for Tokyo and Hong Kong, and it only makes sense to hit at least one of those two if you visit Shanghai Disneyland.
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What’s your take on Shanghai Disneyland? Are you excited, apprehensive, uninterested, etc.? Are you thinking of visiting the park? If you have other ideas, questions, or thoughts, please share in the comments!