Please enjoy some thoughts on Shanghai Disneyland from theme park designers who were able to visit during “Trial Operations” of the newest Disney park. Several attractions were not operating at the time (Roaring Rapids) and some were only operating sporadically (Voyage to the Crystal Grotto). And while this is not a traditional photo report or review, we think you’ll find this early look at Shanghai Disneyland interesting. It also gives a very good sense of how to set your expectations for this fledgling Disney park. By nature, these folks are going to be a bit more critical of the experience than the average guest. It’s their job to create magic spaces and they view all themed experiences through a different lens.  EDITOR NOTE: We’ve added a few videos to augment this article to help you form your own opinions.

If you look at pictures of Walt’s Disneyland taken from its first year of operation, it’s almost jarring to see how barren much of it looks. It really wasn’t until 1959, when the Matterhorn, the Subs, and the Monorail opened, that Walt’s original theme park started looking like the Disneyland we know today.  That’s how Shanghai Disneyland feels – incomplete and missing important things.

“I just want it to look like nothing else in the world… and it should be surrounded by a train.” That’s one of Walt’s earliest proclamations about his vision for what would become Disneyland in California. And every Disneyland or Magic Kingdom built since features a train. Except Shanghai Disneyland.

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The not a train station entry to Shanghai Disneyland.

They went to the trouble to design and build a structure that looks a little like a train station, so the visual cue is there. They did manage to build a train at Disney’s other Chinese park, Hong Kong Disneyland. But why is it missing here? Perhaps the exploitation of Chinese immigrants during construction of America’s transcontinental railroad is still a culturally sensitive issue? Was it expense? Or was it simply too American for this distinctly Chinese park?

Whatever the reason, the lack of any kind of transportation system around this vast park is confounding. Perhaps there are expansion plans that include a monorail. I hope so.

My colleague wasn’t as kind. His exact words:

The main beef I have with Shanghai Disney is that there are no public conveyances. No train, no monorail, no people mover, no trolley, no bus, no fire engine, no steamboat, not even a rickshaw. Not just for convenience to move you around this gigantic park but for atmosphere. It’s missing the visual and audio weenies that are distinctively Disney- The train chugging and huffing, the bell clanging, the whistle of the steamboat, the motors of the Jungle Cruise, the clopping of the horses, the monorail horn – the optimism you feel seeing the monorail glide by. Walt would say… Where is my G%D [email protected]%M TRAIN!!!

Also gone is any kind of berm. Looking out from Tomorrowland at a wide and clear view of Disney Town (this resort’s Downtown Disney) is a visual problem.

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This is Tomorrowland, where you can very clearly see the shopping district outside of the park. Welcome to “Tomorrow,” where visual intrusion is of no concern.

 

It is indeed vast, but quite barren in several areas, most notably in Tomorrowland. There’s no question these holes will be filled over time, but for a resort that is supposed to have cost $5.5 billion — or more — it’s fairly stunning that some of this park looks so incomplete. Will 14 rides be enough to satisfy guests? The tiny Hong Kong Disneyland failed to catch fire with the Chinese and it offers more than Shanghai. Will a larger park with fewer attractions somehow translate better? There are many great theme parks in China, with more on the way. Disney has capable competitors who know the Chinese market well. It’s not a certainty that this park will excel once the initial curiosity dies down.

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This is the map from the Shanghai Disneyland website. Even with their embellishments, the park looks empty with vast stretches between attractions. There’s a lot left to fill in here.

It should be noted that there are several shows with gargantuan theaters. They will swallow up thousands of guests at a time. We did not see any of them, either because they were not operating, or because we had no interest whatsoever (Frozen: A Sing-Along Celebration, we are so over that, but hopefully the Chinese won’t be).

I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the square one. Every park has an entry, and this one is a bit different.

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There’s that fake train station on the hill. It’s a concept so important that they felt they need to build it. . . but they didn’t build the actual train.

Mickey Avenue is an odd duck. This is the first act of the park, your portal of entry. Short and wide, it just doesn’t have the cozy charm of the traditional “Main Street” entries of the other Magic Kingdom parks. It feels more “mall” than “street.” Expectations for enormous crowds dictated this design, no doubt, but the sense of a grand reveal at the end of the boulevard is completely gone.

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This is the view that in other Magic Kingdom parks would be Town Square looking down Main Street. You’ll see that the Mickey Ave. view is quite different. From here it all looks pretty cute.

 

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The storefronts are an interesting mix of Main Street, Fantasyland and ToonTown styles.
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That’s the Carthay Circle on the far right.

 

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After a very short walk you reach the end of Mickey Ave. Look how far away you still are from the castle. This gives you your first sense of just how huge and spread out the park is.
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And here’s the reverse of that shot looking back down the VERY short Mickey Ave. It’s about half the length of Disneyland California’s Main Street, but much wider. No curbs here.

 

The “hub and spoke” layout is gone, too. The “Gardens of Imagination” (in front of the castle) function as a sort of hub, but if there is a clear path directly through the center of the park, we did not find it. This added to the impression that there was a lot of walking to do between opposite sides of the park. And the two rides in this area, the carousel and the Dumbo attraction, both aimed squarely at young children, are quite far apart from each other. Yes, Dumbo and the Carousel are in FRONT of the castle. That’s a huge departure from the idea of keeping Fantasyland attractions behind the castle.

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The front of the castle has been designed for performances and the forecourt area to hold thousands of guests.

 

The Enchanted Storybook Castle, promoted as the largest Disneyland castle ever built, feels shorter than it is due to its wide base. “Delicate” and “regal” would not be words any of us would use to describe it. It’s a mishmash of architectural styles which works from some angles, but not from others.

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The forced perspective which make Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris castles feel huge aren’t at work here. Quite the opposite. This enormous castle feels somewhat squat and inelegant when viewed up close. My colleague thought it looked more like a Haunted Mansion than a storybook castle.

 

It is curious that “it’s a small world,” another ride found at every other Disneyland or Magic Kingdom, was not included in Shanghai’s Fantasyland. Hong Kong didn’t open with its own “…world,” but they added one three years later. We’ll see if history repeats itself here.

Anyone who has ridden the Winnie the Pooh attractions at the original Disneyland and at Tokyo Disneyland will be very sorry to hear that Shanghai got the much less expensive and much less impressive Anaheim version. That’s a head-scratcher.

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Look, Pooh has seams. This is the sort of thing you don’t expect from Disney.
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Fantasyland looks nice enough, but lacks the amazing detail of Disneyland California or Disneyland Paris.

 

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Crystal Grotto is the big new attraction of Fantasyland. Unfortunately it was closed when we were there. However, we are hearing very disappointing reviews of slow pacing, single-motion figures and simple water effects. Still, with so few attractions in the park, this one should command long waits.

 

Here’s a ride-through of Crystal Grotto from Theme Park University:

One real bright spot in this Fantasyland is Peter Pan’s Flight. The new suspended coaster ride system is terrific and the bonus opening moment is a nice surprise. The ride feels zippier and, like many other attractions in this park, uses digital projections to enhance the story telling.

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The Peter Pan building at night.

And here’s a great video showing off Peter Pan (from Alain Littaye). This is the one attraction that feels most like classic Disneyland:

Real Disney magic CAN be found in this park. “Soaring Over The Horizon” is as crowd-pleasing as the original “Soarin.’” The queue and pre-show seemed a little undercooked, but that did not detract from the main event at all.

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And if Disney admitted that at least a fifth of that $5.5 billion investment had been spent on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure,” I would almost believe it. This unique attraction is a near-flawless marriage of media, practical sets, animatronics, and a groundbreaking ride system. The entire “Treasure Cove” land — unique to Shanghai Disneyland — is a stand-out, beautifully art directed and realized.

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Treasure Cove (Pirate land) is built to a Tokyo Disney Sea level of detail. This is pure Disney magic.
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This ride is a triumph. Nearly worth the cost of admission into the park.
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The Pirates vehicles look like boats but are full motion vehicles.

 

And here’s a full ride-through from Theme Park University. Thar be spoilers ahead:

 

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Wanted posters in the queue. Jack is both “Wanted” and “Tolerated”.
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The detail throughout the area is fantastic. It feels a bit like New Fantasyland in Orlando.
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It’s the Snackin’ Kraken. Wonder how these puns translate for the Chinese.

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Nearby in adventure Isle, is the Roaring Rapids ride. It’s Grizzly River Rapids-ish with a big scary monster.

For pure fun and exhilaration, though, the Tron Lightcycle Power Run is the unbeatable hit of the park. The architecture is stunning and the entire experience, from the Daft Punk score to the dazzling ride vehicles, is a thrilling masterpiece. It’s too bad that the Tron franchise is most likely dead, because that means Shanghai’s Tron will likely remain one of a kind and not make its way to the states. Do you want this ride folks? Speak up!

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Here’s a great video we found online after we got back – SPOILER ALERT (but how many of you are actually going to fly all the way to China anyway . . . right?!):

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The Jet Packs are like the Astro Orbiter in other parks, but you sit in seats with your legs dangling.

 

The new Jet Pack attraction is a bit of a missed opportunity. This would have been so cool in a dome with digital projections, or way up high on a building so you can enjoy the fear of height. But here, you just spin around looking at the shopping mall outside the park. Disneyland in California learned the hard way that moving a Rocket Jet type attraction from a lofty location to a lower one is anticlimactic. Why they would repeat that mistake here is perplexing.

 

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The TRON Power Cycle ride building, on the other hand, is the very height of futuristic design. Raised walkways, undulating roof top, unique materials. It’s everything you expect from Disney and more.

There’s also a Buzz Lightyear attraction here which uses some digital projection effects. You see a lot of projections in this park.

Here’s the list of opening day attractions (rides in bold):

Mickey Avenue

  • Minnie Mouse and Friends meet and greet

Gardens of Imagination

  • Dumbo the Flying Elephant
  • Fantasia Carousel
  • Meet Mickey
  • Marvel Super Heroes Meet and Greet

Fantasyland

  • Enchanted Storybook Castle
  • Voyage to the Crystal Grotto
  • Peter Pan’s Flight
  • Alice in Wonderland Maze
  • For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration
  • Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  • Hunny Pot Spin  (It’s essentially the Teacup ride in the other Disney parks)
  • Disney Princesses Meet and Greet

Treasure Cove

  • Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure
  • Siren’s Revenge (interactive playground)
  • Explorer Canoes (like Disneyland’s Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes)
  • El Teatro Fandango stunt show
  • Captain Jack Sparrow Meet and Greet

Adventure Isle

  • Roaring Rapids
  • Soaring Over the Horizon
  • Camp Discovery
  • Tarzan: Call of the Jungle (stage show)
  • Jungle character Meet and Greet (Baloo, King Louie, Rafiki, Timon, etc.)

Tomorrowland

  • Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue
  • Jet Packs
  • Star Wars Launch Bay
  • Stitch Encounter
  • TRON Lightcycle Power Run

What’s remarkable in this list is what’s missing that you’d expect or want to see in a “Disneyland” park. Where’s Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, Small World, Star Tours. And those are just the E-Ticket type rides. It’s the little things that fill in all the dead space that are really missing here. A bunch of smaller rides and attractions would have gone a long way. Especially family friendly dark rides.

At the end of the Day, Shanghai Disneyland is an ambitious effort that doesn’t feel quite ready for prime time. Worse, Shanghai Disneyland threatens to steal thunder from the under-performing Hong Kong Disneyland, which is losing money. The timing of the opening of Shanghai Disneyland couldn’t be worse.

A tremendous amount of time and money have gone into this park. The bones are all there for a great park in the future, but that seems distant at the moment. It’s clear that this resort is designed to scale. One day, this could be the WDW of Asia. But, at the moment, this park has a long climb to be a major tourist destination. We are looking forward to returning in a couple of years to see how Disney fills in the blanks.

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What are your thoughts on Shanghai Disneyland? What attractions would you like to see rushed into production? Would you travel all the way to China for this park?  Would you wait for more to be built? And what about those two blockbuster attractions? There’s so much to discuss, we look forward to hearing from you!