Shanghai Disneyland in the Spotlight

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Earlier this month at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, CA, the Walt Disney Imagineering booth shined a light on the newest Disney park in a big way. Set to open in 2016, Shanghai Disneyland will be the 12th Disney park worldwide, the 4th in Asia, and the 1st in Mainland China. Specifics about the park, until recently, were hard to come by. After a high-profile press conference and now the D23 Expo exhibit, it’s become clear that Shanghai Disneyland (??????) will indeed be, as Disney CEO Bob Iger proclaimed it, “both authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

(For more D23 Expo coverage, check out my stories about the Walt Disney Archives’ Disneyland exhibit and the display of John Lasseter’s Pixar-inspired Hawaiian shirts. Also check out this episode of The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, where we chat about the expo and what it was like.)

The Imagineering booth at the expo was just one of many large-scale booths showcasing some incredible content, but it was certainly one of the prettiest. Adorned with paper lanterns and designed to look as if it were constructed in a traditional architectural style, visitors entered the space beneath a massive archway. And were promptly assaulted with a red… a lot of red… in every conceivable hue.

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Listen, I lived in China for several years (part of that time in Shanghai, in fact). There’s not really that much red there. The exhibit’s palette was a bit of overkill, but aside from that, it was simply gorgeous.

Say what you will about Disney parks; I recognize that not everyone is a fan. However, I love them, and I’m very much looking forward to this park — especially since I have a personal connection to the city. I don’t know if Shanghai Disneyland will be an immediate success, but based on the excitement it’s generating on Chinese social media sites, I think it’ll do just fine.

Shanghai Disneyland is showcasing legitimately new and exciting attractions and technology — something we haven’t seen in the U.S. parks for quite some time. This isn’t a boilerplate, cookie-cutter theme park. If you’re a Disney or theme park fan and you’re not excited about this, you might want to check your pulse. (Yes, I recognize that most people will likely never make the journey to Shanghai to experience the park firsthand, but that shouldn’t preclude excitement for what’s coming.)

In short, it really looks like the imagineers have outdone themselves. After it opens, I think Shanghai Disneyland will reset the bar for what we can expect from a Disney park. So don’t be surprised if people start expecting more from the domestic parks, which have mostly remained stuck in status quo for far too many years.

The D23 Expo booth was roughly divided into the park’s six themed lands. Each land was variously represented by signage, concept art, illustrations, scale models of ride vehicles, cast member (i.e., employee) costumes, and statue maquettes.

I’ve included a bunch of photos below, but go here for many more and to take a virtual walkthrough of the exhibit.

mapIn brief, the lands are as follows:

  • Mickey Avenue: The first land park visitors will encounter is essentially a rebranded Main Street, USA. Don’t worry, though, it’ll still be loaded up with sweets, shops, and photo ops. Why the rebrand? Disney didn’t think the concept of “Main Street” (not to mention “USA”) would resonate very much with a Chinese audience. They instead chose to focus on the classic Disney characters. A wise decision, in my opinion.
  • Gardens of Imagination: This is a new “land” located directly in front of the castle (basically a beefed-up version of the area informally known as The Hub at the Magic Kingdom). It features “seven whimsical gardens” visitors can walk through, along with a couple of smaller rides: Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the Fantasia Carousel.
  • Fantasyland: One of two holdovers from previous parks, Fantasyland is home to some of the more familiar rides. Among them, Peter Pan’s Flight, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Winnie the Pooh’s Hunny Pot Spin (a rethemed spinning tea cups), an Alice in Wonderland hedge maze, and Voyage to the Crystal Grotto.
  • Adventure Isle: More than just a thinly disguised Adventureland, “the experience of being in Adventure Isle is active and participatory. Entering the land, guests become de facto members of the League of Adventurers.” The land is dominated by Roaring Mountain (the latest in the long tradition of Disney Parks mountains), and attractions include Camp Discovery (consisting of various fixed-rope challenge trails and obstacle courses), Roaring Rapids, Soarin’ over the Horizon (the revamped ride that will also debut Stateside next year), and Storyhouse Stage (for an as-yet-unannounced theatrical performance).
  • Treasure Cove: The first pirate-themed land in any Disney park, Treasure Cove looks like it’ll have a lot to explore. Pirates of the Caribbean obviously takes center stage here, but other attractions include the Siren’s Revenge (a full-size pirate ship to explore), Shipwreck Shore (a sandy beach area with water play), explorer canoes, and Eye of the Storm–Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular.
  • Tomorrowland: Much of the original buzz about this land focused on the TRON Lightcycle Power Run attraction, which does indeed look stellar. However, as more details emerge, I think the true stars of this corner of the park will be Star Wars Launch Bay and Marvel Universe. Other Tomorrowland attractions include the popular Buzz Lightyear ride and Jet Packs (which appears to be a redesigned Astro Orbiter).

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You may have noticed that a few things seem to be “missing.” Disney has decided to forego some of the most well-known attractions. Therefore, there’s no Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain, or Star Tours. The same criticism was leveled at Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in 2005 without any of these… or a Pirates attraction. (In the years since, Hong Kong has added Mystic Manor, a haunted-mansion type attraction that has blown visitors away.)

Whereas Hong Kong opened without these attractions and very little else (seriously, I was there a few months after it opened… it was pretty desolate), Shanghai seems like it will be bursting at the seams on opening day. I love that they haven’t made Shanghai a carbon copy of the other parks.

The TRON Lightcycle ride looks like it’ll be a worthy substitute for Space Mountain, and I think the other new rides and attractions will overshadow any lingering complaints about the absence of those familiar rides.

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TRON Lightcycle Power Run ride vehicle (maquette)

So, which new attractions look most promising?

The Enchanted Storybook Castle is the park’s centerpiece, and it’s the first castle not to be named for a specific character. Instead, it represents all of the Disney princesses. What makes it impressive, though, is that it will be the tallest, largest, and most interactive castle in any Disney park. At nearly 197 feet tall, it towers over the other castles. (To compare, Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom / Tokyo Disneyland comes in at 189 feet, Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland Paris is 167 feet, and Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland / Hong Kong Disneyland comes in at only 77 feet.)

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Voyage to the Crystal Grotto is a water ride that travels around Fantasyland and then goes beneath the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Along the way, it incorporates scenes from many of the classic films represented in Fantasyland.

TRON Lightcycle Power Run will be a unique coaster experience and one of the fastest rides in any Disney park. The ride vehicles are two-wheeled lightcycles, and the concept animation for the ride sets it up to be the premiere E-ticket attraction in the park.

At first blush, Roaring Rapids might look like just another rapids ride where everyone sits in a circular boat. Then you see concept art, and you realize it’s something else entirely. Boats go through Roaring Mountain and find out how the mountain got its name: Q’aráq, guardian of the water. In other words, a giant lizard/dinosaur behemoth that will literally tower over you. The concept art and maquette below should give you some idea why this ride looks so promising.

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Image courtesy of Disney
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Notice the little person for scale

Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is not just another Pirates ride. The imagineers realized that a majority of Chinese visitors have no history with the original attraction as it exists in Anaheim and Orlando. They know the Pirates franchise primarily from the films. Therefore, the ride has been completely overhauled to focus on Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones. Beyond the theme, though, the attraction features a magnetic ride system, large-scale media projection, and special effect and animatronics invented specifically for this ride. It promises to be a much “bigger” and more immersive experience than the ride we all know and love.

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Image courtesy of D23

What about Star Wars Launch Bay and Marvel Universe? Neither will have a ride, but both areas will immerse visitors into the respected universes, include interactive exhibits and activities, and feature character meet-and-greets. Until Star Wars Land comes to Anaheim and Orlando, let’s all keep an eye on Shanghai, where they’ll undoubtedly be testing some new ideas.

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The D23 Expo exhibit also featured more details about other aspects of the larger resort.

Shanghai Disneyland Hotel is the resort’s signature hotel. Decorated in an Art-Nouveau style and featuring more than 400 rooms, the hotels is just steps from the park, and many of the rooms overlook it.

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Toy Story Hotel is the other hotel on property — a “value” resort themed around the Toy Story films. The hotel’s astonishing 800 rooms are divided into the Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear wings.

Disneytown is basically a renamed Downtown Disney. It’s a shopping, dining, and entertainment district just outside the park. Beyond the shops and restaurants (e.g., the world’s largest World of Disney store), Disneytown features the Walt Disney Grand Theatre, which will be home to the premiere of the Mandarin-language version of The Lion King musical.

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