[IN THE PICTURE] Shanghai Disneyland

NEDERLANDS // ENGLISH

As a Belgian, I don’t consider China as an easy travel destination. It’s not exactly close to my hometown, visa procedures seem complicated and the language barrier may cause some difficulties. However, China has become a must-do destinations since 2016. In that year, the Walt Disney Company opened its newest theme park in the city of Shanghai. The park boasts world-class rides like TRON Lightcycle Power Run and Battle for the Sunken Treasure, so it’s definitely worth all the hassle. Let’s go to Shanghai Disneyland!

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First things first. Are you considering a trip to this brand-new Disney theme park? Then let’s get to the point by answering some of the most common questions. Is is easy to reach the park? Is it that difficult to obtain a Chinese visa? Is Shanghai Disneyland really as busy as most people say? The answers are yes, yes and yes. The park is conveniently located near Pudong Airport, one of Asia’s main transportation hubs. Most international flights land at Pudong, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get here. From the airport, shuttle buses and the subway could get you to Disneyland, but I recommend taking a taxi. Queues to get a taxi are generally short, they’re cheap and you arrive at the resort within 30 minutes, without having to carry your luggage in a busy subway train.

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Unfortunately, getting a visa may be less easy. Travel companion Hjälmar spent a nerve-racking afternoon at the Chinese embassy to get his visa and it’s quite expensive. However, there’s a way to avoid the struggle. In a specific case, the Chinese government allows residents of some countries to stay within China for a maximum period of 6 days without visa. It’s called a transit visa and it can be obtained while travelling from one country to another via China. In my itinerary, we travelled from Hong Kong (which is considered as a different country) to Amsterdam, with a 5-day stopover holiday in Shanghai. This transit visa is free and it’s not necessary to do anything in advance. Just bring a proof of your confirmed onward flight and you’ll be fine. Please note that these rules may change and it’s only applicable for citizens of certain countries.

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And, most importantly… Is Shanghai Disneyland really as busy as most people say? Yes, it is. There undoubtedly are slower times, but April turns out to be crazy crowded. We’ve seen wait times of over 2 hours for major attractions and Fastpass tickets sell out well before noon. But once again, it’s perfectly possible to avoid the hassle. Just book a room at an on-site hotel and enjoy the perks of being a Disney hotel guest. One of those perks is being able to enter the park one full hour before anyone else. And believe it or not… during those 60 minutes, all of the big rides are operating. Unlimited rides on Pirates of the Caribbean or TRON? Yes please. Experiencing the extremely popular Soaring with a queue of 15 minutes or less? Perfectly possible. In addition, Fastpass reservations may be made as soon as you enter the park. This is once again a huge advantage, because regular visitors can’t make any Fastpass selections until the park’s official opening time. And last but not least: Disney hotel guests may choose one additional Fastpass per person per day. This choice can be made at the hotel reception during check-in.

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So make your choice… Being a Disney hotel guest and having the park for yourself during the early morning or being a regular visitor and spending your morning in these horrible queues. I wouldn’t doubt a second.

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In 2016, we stayed at Shanghai Disneyland Hotel’s Magic Kingdom Club. That was a magical experience, but also an expensive one. This time, we opt for the more budget-friendly Toy Story Hotel. Both the exterior and the interior are rather simple, but it’s a fine hotel. Rooms are spacious, they added some funny decorative touches and beds are surprisingly comfortable. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to enjoy those beds infinitely: we need to get up very early if we want to enjoy that extra hour at Shanghai Disneyland. The park officially opens at 8.30 AM, which means that our private access starts at 7.30 AM. I’m definitely not a morning person, but hey… it’s Shanghai Disneyland we’re talking about.

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By the way… interested in a character photo with Woody and/or Jessie? Queues inside the park are long, but at the Toy Story Hotel they’re literally waiting for us.

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It’s 7.30 AM and our Early Park Entry starts. Most people walk towards Adventure Isle, but we decide to head to Fantasyland at the back of the park. This area is home to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a ride which is known for its ridiculously long queues. You will recognize this family roller coaster if you’re familiar with Walt Disney World. It consists of a curvy coaster part and a stunning dark ride section. It’s fun, but the ride doesn’t excel in any way. The coaster parts are tame and the dark ride is a little too short. Besides, the ride’s location isn’t nearly as awesome as in Orlando. At Magic Kingdom, this Mine Train is the dynamic centerpiece of Fantasyland. This Chinese version, however, is placed in a remote corner of the park. Don’t get me wrong: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a good family attraction and I enjoyed my ride, but it’s not worth the lengthy queues it usually gets.

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Fantasyland is the least attractive area at Shanghai Disneyland. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is in a strange location and the land also features two hideous picnic grounds. I guess these areas will be used for future expansions (the photo below may show the location for an upcoming Zootopia-themed land) but they’re just ugly in their current state. In general, this Chinese version of Fantasyland feels too stretched out. As a result, it lacks the cosy atmosphere you get at similar lands in Disneyland Anaheim or Paris.

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Fantasyland is the place to be for dark rides. It’s strange to notice the absence of It’s a Small World, but 2 other Disney classics are present: The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh and Peter Pan’s Flight. The Winnie ride looks identical to the versions in Hong Kong and the United States. I don’t want to call it bad, but I expected a more elaborately themed dark ride at Disney’s newest theme park. Peter Pan’s Flight, however, got the upgrade it deserved and the result is amazing. Scenes seem more detailed and the ride is longer than its predecessors. Also, Shanghai Disneyland makes clever use of projections to optimize the experience. I never considered Peter Pan’s Flight as a must-do in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris or Tokyo, but my opinion changed here in Shanghai. Stunning family attraction.

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A castle is the most important element of every Magic Kingdom-style Disney park. That isn’t any different here in China. The Enchanted Storybook Castle is huge and it contains a walk through, a meet and greet location with Disney princesses and an upscale restaurant. The walk through is called Once Upon a Time Adventure and it’s just okay. This attraction explains the story of Snow White in 5 different scenes. Although we don’t understand the Chinese narration, it’s visually pleasing. The restaurant makes a good impression as well: Royal Banquet Hall isn’t cheap, but our 3-course menu tastes delicious and we get the chance to meet some Disney characters. My favourite part of the castle, however, is the outdoor stage on the front. Several times a day, Mickey’s Fairytale Fanfare is performed here. This is one of those many Disney shows with princesses in the lead and it includes timeless songs like A Whole New World and Let It Go. This may sound as pure horror to you, but I adore these kinds of feel-good shows.

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There’s another way to discover the Enchanted Storybook Castle, or at least its basement: a ride on Voyage to the Crystal Grotto. This ride was exclusively designed for Shanghai Disneyland, which makes it a must-do. Consider it as a combination of Jungle Cruise and Storybook Land Canal Boats. We board a boat and we then sail past colourful scenes depicting famous Disney movies, while our captain is telling stories in Chinese. The scenes are mostly static, but they feature a large number of fountains. Nothing too extraordinary, but local visitors react in an ecstatic way. ‘Ooh’, ‘Aah’ and ‘Wooow’ are some of the most heard reactions. The fabulous Crystal Grotto at the end of the ride evokes the same amazement for my fellow passengers, but it’s once again underwhelming to me. Am I spoiled or are those Chinese people easily filled with astonishment? I guess the truth lies somewhere halfway.

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A labyrinth is defined as a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way. If I consider this as the only true definition of a labyrinth, Shanghai Disneyland did a terrible job with our next attraction. It’s literally impossible to get lost in the Alice in Wonderland Maze, which can be found right next to the castle. Most visitors don’t seem to care and they just consider this as an ideal photo spot. The place is filled with selfie queens and young couples searching for a perfect VPN-Instagram-picture. And although I don’t like the Tim Burton version of this classic Disney movie, the actual maze definitely looks amazing.

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We’ve got 15 minutes of exclusive park time left. And although we start to feel hungry, it would be a sin to spend this extremely calm period on breakfast. Instead, we prefer a ride on one of Shanghai Disneyland’s most iconic attractions. This ride can be found in Tomorrowland and it’s marked by a futuristic curved canopy. I’m talking about TRON Lightcycle Power Run, one of the most beautiful roller coasters on the planet. Despite the fact that only 200 metres of track are visible from the outside, I could watch it all day long. It’s truly fascinating to stare at those motorcycles passing by at nearly 100 km/h. And because the canopy is filled with fabulous lighting effects, this spectacle becomes even more mesmerizing in the evening.

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Staring at a coaster is great, but riding it is even better. That’s why we quickly enter the queue, which is nearly empty at this time. The most stunning part of the queue can be found above the launch platform, which literally feels as if it’s copied from a computer game. It’s visually perfect and Daft Punk’s incredible soundtrack makes the total experience even better. The station is at least as spectacular and just like in 2016, I’m amazed by the fast dispatches. Motorbike coasters aren’t the most common rides and lots of visitors don’t seem to understand the unusual seating position. TRON’s Cast Members, however, are extremely efficient and they manage to achieve the highest possible capacity. Respect.

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Two minutes later, I’m just as ecstatic as those Chinese families at Voyage to the Crystal Grotto. I don’t need fountains to be amazed; I just need an incredible roller coaster. I don’t want to exaggerate, but TRON Lightcycle Power Run comes very close to coaster perfection. The launch is surprisingly forceful, the music is fantastic and the whole ride is smoother than a brand-new B&M. In addition, the indoor part is filled with cool lighting and clever mirror effects. You may notice that the experience is rather short, but I’m more than happy to compensate this with my 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th ride. Seven rides on TRON… wait, what?! Yes, I’m serious. I can’t tell anything negative about this ride and TRON Lightcycle Power Run just became my favourite Disney roller coaster ever. Team Blue for the win.

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This version of Tomorrowland opened less than 3 years ago. That means that it’s still a world of the future, rather than the old-fashioned hodgepodge you see at the American Disney parks. It looks very modern and those floating pathways add a cool dynamic vibe to the area. This doesn’t mean that every ride at Tomorrowland is awesome, though. Jet Packs (the local alternative to Orbitron) is ugly and queues are long, Star Wars Launch Bay is an uninteresting exhibition and I couldn’t care for the Chinese version of Stitch Encounter. The only remaining attraction which is worth a visit is Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue. This is an interactive dark ride with laser guns, just like the ones at other resorts. However, the Chinese copy got an upgrade: the atmosphere is nicer, targets are better visible and Imagineers integrated some fine projections. I’m not a huge Toy Story fan, but this ride shouldn’t be missed. Luckily, even during these busy days the wait time never exceeded 40 minutes.

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At 8.30, big crowds start to enter the park. All those visitors are starting their day in a stressed way: which Fastpass should we get? And where should we go first? This makes us feel like royalty, because we already discovered a large part of the park without any lines. Anyway… this is the ideal moment to search for a place to get breakfast. We take our seats on a patio, we watch all those running, stressed out people and we enjoy a delicious crepe. Life is good.

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This sweet delicacy brings us to Remy’s Patisserie, one of the many retail outlets at Mickey Avenue. This is Shanghai Disneyland’s reimagined version of Main Street USA. For this park, Imagineers dropped the idea of an old-fashioned, American-style avenue and they opted for a playful approach instead. Facades in Mickey Avenue are based on famous Disney characters and the result is surprisingly beautiful. The area contains lots of detail and jazzy Disney music creates a casual atmosphere. Gardens of Imagination (the enormous garden which can be found between Mickey Avenue and the Enchanted Storybook Castle) is another great place to relax. It’s ideal for watching nighttime shows and it also functions as a quiet green space in the centre of the park. I’ve always loved the classic versions of Main Street USA, but I appreciate this reinvented lay-out just as much.

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When Shanghai Disneyland was inaugurated back in 2016, the park was referred to as Authentically Disney and Distinctly Chinese. After the failed opening of the Hong Kong park, Imagineers sensed that Disneyland shouldn’t be a copy-paste product. Here in Shanghai, they really wanted to adapt the park to local guests. One of the most striking examples is the addition of the Wandering Moon Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant which is part of Gardens of Imagination. We have lunch at this place on our second day and food quality is pretty decent to theme park standards.

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The busiest place at Shanghai Disneyland is without a doubt Adventure Isle. This area can be found on the right-hand side of the hub. It’s home to the most popular rides of the park: Soaring Over The Horizon and Roaring Rapids. The wait time for Soaring climbs to an incredible 165 minutes and a rafting ride may cost 150 minutes of your precious time. Pure madness and I wouldn’t even consider waiting that long for an amusement park attraction. Luckily, thanks to Fastpass, we’re able to reduce these horrible waits to a comfortable 10 minutes in both cases.

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What makes Soaring Over The Horizon that special? Does this ride have anything its American counterparts don’t have? No, certainly not. The setting and the story line differ from the Soarin’-rides at Epcot and California Adventure, but the actual movie and the effects are identical. I understand why this ride is so popular, though. I remember being blown away by my first ride on Soarin’ Over California in 2008, so I guess these Chinese visitors experience a similar feeling today.

However, I’d never enter a 3-hour queue for this ride. Soaring is great, but it has some flaws. The pre-show is vague (even Carrie, who understands the Chinese narration, thinks it’s rather meaningless) and the scenes just don’t fit within Adventure Isle. Besides, the overall experience depends heavily on the seat you’re assigned to. Only the first row of the middle gate is treated to an unforgettable experience. Everyone else should settle with an inferior view, a curved Eiffel Tower and a crooked Taj Mahal. The soundtrack remains brilliant and the Iguazú scene brings back great memories of my recent Argentina trip. But is this the best attraction at Shanghai Disneyland? No, it definitely isn’t.

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We chose beautiful spring days for our visit to Shanghai Disneyland. With temperatures of up to 25°C, a refreshing ride on Roaring Rapids is greatly appreciated. Our hotel Fastpass is redeemed and after a short queue, we may board our raft. I immediately notice that, despite warm weather, not a single local starts this adventure without a raincoat or poncho. That’s why Hjälmar nicknamed this ride Shanghai Disneyland’s money-making machine: the poncho-selling Cast Member in the queue has to work very hard. Just a few (American) families dare to brave the rapids without protection against the water. Hjälmar and Carrie follow those Americans, but I decide to play it safe.

After the ride, I conclude that my fear wasn’t necessary. Roaring Rapids is a wild rafting ride with some serious waves, but few people get soaked. Nevertheless it’s one of the best rapid rivers I’ve ever experienced. Its layout is great, tension is built up in an extraordinary way and we encounter one of the most fantastic animatronics in theme park history. Furthermore, this is one of those few rapid rivers where the lift hill is placed at the start of the ride, exactly where it should be. All these elements create the dazzling E-ticket ride that’s called Roaring Rapids. Please let this be the next addition to Disneyland Paris’ Adventureland… Please please please.

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Both Soaring Over The Horizon and Roaring Rapids were integrated in Roaring Mountain, the focal point of Adventure Isle. This mountain and its waterfall are visible throughout the park and that’s an incredible sight. By using the Camp Discovery Challenge Trails, it’s possible to get an up-close look of Roaring Mountain. This rope course takes us to mysterious caves and waterfalls. It certainly isn’t the most intense rope course in the world, but some adventurous spirit is needed. In my opinion, these Challenge Trails shouldn’t be missed. It’s fun and Shanghai Disneyland is the only Disney park on Earth with such an attraction. Be there early, though. Capacity is limited, so wait times are considerable.

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The right-hand side of the park is undoubtedly the most beautiful part. Adventure Isle is awesome, but the next area isn’t any less impressive. It’s called Treasure Cove and it’s designed as a pirate town. The area is filled with sandy beaches, palm trees, a giant fortress and a big collection of (mostly wrecked) ships. With Treasure Cove, Disney literally shows its middle finger to every other theme park on the planet. Universal, Efteling and all those Middle-East parks make good theming efforts, but they will never equal Disney’s incredible decoration level. So please… don’t ever make the mistake of walking through Treasure Cove without paying attention to the splendour surrounding you.

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Asians adore live entertainment and Shanghai Disneyland has plenty to offer in this particular segment. The resort offers a Broadway-style Beauty and the Beast Musical, an acrobatic Tarzan show and the inevitable Frozen Sing-a-Long. We skip all these stage shows, but we do pay a visit to El Teatro Fandango. This place is home to Eye Of The Storm – Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular. The theatre consists of a pre-show and a main auditorium. The pre-show is very boring and childish, but the main performance is pretty good. The second half of the show is filled with unique special effects and some of the stunts are very spectacular. However, Eye Of The Storm has the same problem as most stunt shows: there’s lots of talking, but the actual stunt sequences are limited. That’s why it could use some fine tuning, but it’s a nice place to spend time if attraction queues are too long.

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That stunt show isn’t perfect, but the nearby attraction is nothing less than phenomenal. I’m talking about Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle For The Sunken Treasure, a totally reimagined version of Walt Disney’s classic attraction. Please try to forget everything you know about Pirates of the Caribbean before entering. Imagineers got rid of the singing pirates, the burning facades and the famous auctioneer. Besides, boats no longer travel past the scenes, but they literally become part of the action. This new approach is due to an innovative ride system, which allows Disney to control the speed and revolve the boats in every possible direction.

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I don’t want to spoil too much and I wouldn’t recommend judging this attraction by watching a YouTube-video. No, this is a ride that should be experienced in real-life. Battle For The Sunken Treasure is brilliant in every possible way. Timing is fantastic, animatronics are extremely realistic and it’s often impossible to tell the difference between real scenes and projections. You won’t detect any unthemed ceilings and the repetitive Yo-Ho song was exchanged for breathtaking onboard-audio. If perfection exists, Pirates of the Caribbean is very close to it. There’s only one downside: the attraction isn’t capable to cope with delays in operation. During one of our rides, we experience a brief stop halfway through the ride. Unfortunately, this standstill literally screwed up every moment after it. Timing is so important in this ride that absolutely nothing may go wrong. But as long as that doesn’t happen, you should prepare for 10 of the most exquisite minutes in dark ride history. Enjoy!

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I’d like to apologize, because I made a huge mistake in this trip report. Most writers would save the best for last. That would mean that I need to conclude my text here, at Treasure Cove. However, there’s still a section of the park waiting to be discovered. And unfortunately, that’s a rather disappointing place called Toy Story Land. In my opinion, this area is just too loud, too simple and too colourful for a Magic Kingdom park. I’m happy that Disney decided to cancel the dreadful-looking Parachute Tower at Shanghai Disneyland, but that’s the only positive thing I’d like to say.

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During the past two paragraphs, we travelled from one of the world’s most immersive dark rides to a cheap, funfair-like area. Shanghai Disneyland is definitely a park with ups and downs and this is once again confirmed during the park’s nighttime spectacular. Ignite The Dream is everything you expect from a modern Disney show. It contains fireworks, video mapping, fountains and some unforgettable songs. The show starts wonderful with some typical Disney magic, but it seems as if Imagineers lost their good taste towards the end. The result is a very boring Frozen scene and an unwanted portion of Star Wars action. What happened to Disney’s unbeatable reputation in nighttime entertainment?

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Ignite The Dream may be somewhat underwhelming and I wouldn’t define it as a must-see. However, I’d like to share a secret with those people who really want to watch the show. There is a Wolfgang Puck restaurant at Disneytown, the entertainment venue just outside of the park. This restaurant has a huge patio which overlooks the Gardens of Imagination. If you opt for a set 4-course menu, you may watch the fireworks from that patio. The menu costs only 218 RMB (less than 29 euros), the food is delicious and the views can’t be beaten. It actually feels like a VIP experience which would cost at least 100 dollars at the American Disney resorts. Fun fact: Wolfgang Puck’s patio offers a better view than Club 33, which is located right next door.

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Toy Story Land and Ignite The Dream are not exceptional, but this doesn’t change my overall opinion: Shanghai Disneyland is an outstanding theme park. It’s actually hard to believe that it opened less than 3 years ago. This is a mature park with enough rides and shows to fill an entire day. I love the park’s experimental layout, the huge themed lands and the rides. Some of those rides even count as the best Disney has ever created. TRON is a monumental roller coaster, Roaring Rapids may be the world’s best rapid river and Imagineers have rewritten dark ride history with Pirates of the Caribbean. Even smaller rides like Peter Pan’s Flight got some exciting touches in Disney’s newest park.

How about the people? Cast Members are very friendly, but how well-behaved are the guests visiting this park? You might have heard crazy stories about arrogant and shameless park visitors, but believe me: these stories aren’t true. In general, people are nice and line cutting isn’t as common as it is at Disneyland Paris. People seem to come here to have a good time, just like we did. And they appreciate the Disney quality, just like we do.

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Shanghai Disneyland isn’t the best Disney theme park on Earth (it’s nearly impossible to beat Tokyo DisneySea), but it’s definitely in the upper half of the list. I’m very excited about the park’s future and I hope to be back soon. It takes a 12 hours’ flight to get here, but it’s worth every minute in a cramped airplane seat. Shanghai Disneyland, you were amazing.

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