Buckle up, nerds! This post is gonna be a doozy.
If you’re a Disney nerd, odds are that you’ve at least thought about visiting the international parks at some point. As of this writing, there are 12 Disney parks worldwide, and only half of them are located in the United States.
Each provides a unique experience with a wealth of rides, attractions, shows, and cultural influences packed in. The internet is filled with information and opinions about all of them, and there’s certainly no shortage of Disney sites willing to overwhelm you with the minutiae of every Disney park.
The purpose of THIS post, though, is to give a detailed comparison between the two Chinese parks–Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disney Resort. How do they compare? How are they different? If you can only visit one, which should it be?
Listen, I’m going to just get this out of the way right now. If you’re traveling to China for ANY amount of time, Disney should really not be a priority. Especially if it’s your first visit to the country. I get that diehard Disney geeks will plan a trip to China specifically to visit the parks, and that’s fine. But this post isn’t for them. They won’t choose between the parks; they’ll visit both.
If you’re investing the time, energy, and expense of traveling around the globe to visit one of the most amazing countries in the world, then, by all means, you should visit the country. Experience the culture, eat the food, meet the people. Get out of the major cities and off the beaten track. Experience China.
I’ll say it again: Disney shouldn’t be a priority.
But let’s assume you’ve been to China before or are there for an extended trip. Or maybe you’ll have little ones in tow and would like to plan a fun day for them. Fair enough. Read on.
A quick introduction might be in order here. I lived in Mainland China for several years, got married there, have traveled virtually the entire country, and am raising bilingual mixed-heritage kids. This summer, we took the kids back for a six-week trip to visit the grandparents and backpack around the country.
We built a couple days into our schedule to hit both Disney parks. My wife and I had been to Hong Kong Disneyland years ago, mere months after it opened in 2005, but it’s grown a LOT since then. Shanghai Disney Resort just opened last year (it’s currently celebrating its 1st anniversary), and I’ve been eager to visit ever since.
We had the time, energy, funds, and interest to visit both. But what if you don’t? Which should you plan to visit if you want to do Disney during your trip to China?
I’m so glad you asked…
A standard one-day adult ticket to Hong Kong Disneyland will set you back HK$589 (~USD $75). In Shanghai, the price will depend on the time of year you visit. We paid CNY 499 (~USD $76) during the summer, but the website is now quoting a price of CNY 370 (~USD $56) for the fall.
As is standard with Disney tickets, two-day tickets are a better value, so if you want more days in the park, that’s a better plan. Discounted children’s tickets are calculated a bit differently. It’s based on age in Hong Kong (3-11) and height in Shanghai (1.0-1.4m).
So yeah, both parks are significantly cheaper than their U.S. counterparts. If you’re thinking in U.S. dollars, then it certainly looks like a pretty good bargain.
Both official websites also make it very easy to purchase tickets online. Take the confirmation email and QR code to the entrance, and they’ll print out paper tickets for you at the turnstiles. Easy breezy.
Winner: Shanghai (because it has off-peak pricing)
Here, it’s the biggest versus the smallest. Hong Kong’s Sleeping Beauty Castle is an exact replica of the original in Disneyland. It tops out at 77 feet, but it’s set against a stunning backdrop of the lush, tropical green mountains of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. It’s gorgeous.
Shanghai’s Enchanted Storybook Castle (the first Disney castle not to be named after Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty) is a behemoth. It tops out at an incredible 197 feet and is just massive. It’s far more impressive than any of the other castles, and I couldn’t stop commenting on just how BIG it is.
Shanghai might take the prize in this category, based on sheer scale, but both are fantastic. The view up Main Street in Hong Kong with the mountains behind the castle is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
I get it. This might be most people’s biggest sticking point when planning a trip to an overseas Disney park. So how far will English get you in the Chinese parks?
In Shanghai, we found cast members’ English skills to be not entirely consistent. Some were able to communicate basic information, some had memorized standard phrases, some didn’t know much at all. Nevertheless, if you’ve been to China before or have traveled anywhere else in the country, people are incredibly friendly, and if you know even just a few words or phrases in Mandarin, it’ll go a long way.
Interestingly, though, I should mention that we got a MUCH better response from most cast members when we spoke English to them. My wife, a native Chinese speaker, was treated with far more respect if she spoke English. But this is more a discussion for the Cast Members category (below).
Hong Kong, as a former British colony, has a much longer history of speaking English. It’s more ingrained in the culture than it is in Mainland China. The park is also trilingual–all cast members are practically fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Announcements and some shows (notably the Star Wars Jedi Training) are conducted in all three, which is incredible.
Winner: Hong Kong (if you’re planning to rely on English)
How easy is it to get there? Both parks are serviced by the city subway, so both are incredibly easy to get to via public transportation.
In Shanghai, the eastern end of Line 11 is the Disney Resort. The park entrance is a short walk from the subway station, and a single-journey ticket from the city center will run you about USD $1. Kids shorter than 1.2 meters ride for free.
In Hong Kong, the Tung Chung line makes the trip out to Lantau Island. Change trains at Sunny Bay for the Disneyland Resort spur line, which takes you right to the park entrance. A single-journey ticket from Hong Kong Island (Central) will set you back about USD $4. Kids’ tickets (regardless of age or height) are half-price.
The Disneyland spur line also has Mickey-shaped windows, Mickey-shaped hand holders, and bronze statues of various Disney characters inside the train. It’s a great welcome to the park before you even get there.
Signs and announcements on both systems are all in Chinese and English, and they’re very easy to navigate.
However! During the summer, Shanghai Disneyland was open until 10 pm, and the last train back to the city left at 10:20. If, like me, you like to stay in the park until close (when lines are shortest) or like to do your shopping at the end of the day, then you’ll have to find another way back to the city. This, obviously, will create difficulties since the park is a considerable distance from the city center, and taxi drivers will try to charge you exorbitant rates. (We took the equivalent of Uber back to the city and paid about USD $10. Don’t pay much more than that.)
The window in Hong Kong between park close and last train was more than two hours, so this was less of a problem there.
Winner: Hong Kong
At more than 960 acres, Shanghai Disney is gigantic. By comparison, Disneyland is a mere 85 acres and the Magic Kingdom is 107 acres. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which was previously the largest park (and much of which is off-limits to guests and reserved for animals) is just over 400 acres. New York City’s Central Park is 842 acres.
So yeah, it’s unbelievably big. Like, really REALLY big. Walking from one end to the other takes a lot of time.
But does size = quality? The park is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong. But for its size, Shanghai just doesn’t have that many attractions. That means rides are spread out by a LOT, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. It’s an absolutely enormous park, but parts of it just feel empty–of things to see and do, not of people.
Just walking around the park is exhausting. And that doesn’t even factor in the crowds and weather, which will likely compound your exhaustion. This might be a good example of too much of a good thing. It just feels too big.
At 68 acres, Hong Kong Disneyland feels downright puny by comparison. But it packs in the attractions, and the park feels very manageable. It’s a pleasure to walk around, attractions are reasonable distances from one another, and you can make the journey from one end of the park to the other without it feeling like a marathon.
Winner: Hong Kong
Out of all these categories, this is one of two that shows the stark contrast between the two parks most noticeably.
If you’ve done any research into Shanghai Disneyland, you’ve no doubt found a fair bit of criticism lobbed at the guests. Bloggers, podcasters, and “theme park fanatics” whose first exposure to China and Chinese culture was through Disneyland have unfortunately had a field day exposing their own ignorance, racism, and xenophobia.
A simple online search will result in lots of people who traveled all the way to China only to discover that it’s, in fact, a different country with a different culture and different social norms. People have been far too willing to badmouth Chinese guests as being rude, pushy, disgusting people who are “uncivilized” and have no regard for common decency.
As someone who lived in Mainland China for several years and has had FAR more experiences in the country than the average American, let me implore you to not believe the fear mongering.
Is a day at Shanghai Disneyland different from a day in the Magic Kingdom? Of course. Will you get frustrated during the day at unforeseen events and behaviors? Probably. The important thing is that you go with an open mind and prepare yourself.
The biggest differences you’ll notice are those with respect to personal space. Many attraction queues involve a lot of pushing, cutting, and dealing with people who creep up into your personal space.
It’s important to remember that none of this is done maliciously. Patiently waiting in a single-file queue is a learned behavior, and it’s not one that was historically ingrained in Chinese culture. I should mention that it has gotten MUCH better over the past 10 years, and I was impressed with the number of patient queues I witnessed in China this summer.
Still, it might be culture shock for many Americans. A day at Shanghai Disneyland will test your patience, I’m not going to lie. And with more than 100,000 guests inside the park, it’s going to be crowded.
The park only just celebrated its first anniversary, so it’s still very much a new and exciting destination. And with relatively few attractions, the lines are going to be long. The Tron Lightcycle Run, for example, had a 2-4 hour wait all day. Roaring Rapids and Soarin’ Over the Horizon were both 2+ hours all day. Even Jet Packs, which is a 30-second spinner ride, was a reliable 60-minute wait.
In short, it’ll be a long, frustrating day spent mostly in lines.
By comparison, Hong Kong Disneyland is 12 years old and not nearly the “hot spot” that the Shanghai park is. The crowds are just lighter all around. Based on our experience and checking wait times on the official app pretty consistently during July and August, lines maxed out at about 40 minutes (for Iron Man Experience and the relatively new attractions in Toy Story Land). Many attractions were walk-ons or had only 5-10 minute waits.
On top of that, crowd behavior and social etiquette are more in line with what American tourists probably expect. From that perspective, a day at Hong Kong is much more pleasant than a day at Shanghai.
Winner: Hong Kong
This is where I get into the weeds, so hang on tight.
I’m assuming, if you’re making the trip all the way to China and planning a stop at Disney, that you’ve been to at least one of the U.S. parks. I doubt Hong Kong or Shanghai will be most Americans’ first-ever Disney park.
That being said, you should really prioritize the unique attractions each park has to offer (next category). But I get it–sometimes you just want a little bit of familiarity. Or maybe you have a favorite attraction you want to ride again. Both parks have you covered.
I’m also defining “attractions” as rides. Shows are covered elsewhere, and I don’t count “walkthrough” exhibits to be true attractions.
Winner: Shanghai (Hong Kong has more familiar rides that are clones or near-clones of those found in the U.S. parks, but the enhancements to Peter Pan’s Flight and Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue put Shanghai over the edge here.)
These are the rides that should be top of your list. All of these are (at the time of writing) only found in their respective parks (except for the three Toy Story Land rides in Hong Kong, which are also found in Walt Disney Studios in Paris).
Winner: Hong Kong (Despite Tron and Pirates, Hong Kong still comes out on top with its three headliners.)
Only three attractions in Hong Kong have FastPass access. Three of the park’s best attractions don’t even offer the service.
Seven attractions in Shanghai have FastPass, but curiously absent from the list is the popular Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure. So be prepared to wait for that one.
The option of FastPass tickets doesn’t guarantee you access, however. With more than 100,000 people in Shanghai Disneyland on a “slow” day, the tickets run out pretty quickly. Every single FastPass kiosk in the park was shut down by noon on the day we were there. If you didn’t have a FastPass ticket in hand by noon, then your only option was to wait in the standby lines, which were 2-3 hours (all day) for the popular attractions.
Scalpers quickly became a problem for the park, so Shanghai recently rolled out VIP FastPass access for a princely sum. Cough up CNY 700 (about USD $100) and you can get one FastPass ticket for all seven attractions. (Single tickets are also available for a cheaper price.) Even if your wallet can afford this (on top of everything else), you still need to act quickly. VIP tickets will still sell out by mid-afternoon.
Winner: Neither, really. They both fail spectacularly.
Each park has a variety of original shows and performances, if that’s your thing.
In Hong Kong, the two main shows are Festival of the Lion King and Mickey and the Wondrous Book. The former is nearly identical to the impressive show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The show is all in English, but they’ve added two monkey/trickster characters to translate what’s happening into Cantonese. The latter is a half-hour stage show that includes musical numbers from a variety of Disney characters.
Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple is also held several times throughout the day. The show is pretty much the same as the version at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The primary difference is that it’s conducted in three different languages. The Jedi trainers and Star Wars characters (Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, and Seventh Sister) alternate among Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. My daughter was on stage (along with kids from all over the world) and had no problem following along.
In Shanghai, there are three main shows. Tarzan: Call of the Jungle is a stage show that tells the story of Tarzan through a Cirque du Soleil lens. It’s an impressive show with lots of acrobatics and almost no dialogue. Eye of the Storm: Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular is a stunt show set in the Pirates of the Caribbean world. And Frozen: A Singalong Celebration is exactly what it sounds like.
Shanghai Disneyland also made waves by setting up a Mandarin version of The Lion King musical next to the park. The show is in residence in Disneytown, which is a shopping and dining area just outside the park gates, and has a performance every evening. Tickets cost extra and are on par with Broadway prices.
Winner: Tie (It really depends on your tastes.)
This might be a controversial position, but I’m of the opinion that one parade is pretty much the same as any other. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. You may feel differently, but I find that daytime parades are virtual clones of one another.
Shanghai has an afternoon parade called Mickey’s Storybook Express–during the summer, it runs twice daily–and Hong Kong has an afternoon parade called Flights of Fantasy. Will you see different characters and floats? Sure. In the end, though, they’re the same basic thing, and neither one is remarkably different or better than the other.
There are some parades, however, that are remarkably different. And one of those that merits recognition is the nighttime parade. The Main Street Electrical Parade is a classic Disney event that was recently “reinvented” and upgraded as the Paint the Night parade. Hong Kong plays host to the Paint the Night “nighttime spectacular” on summer evenings, which gives Hong Kong the edge here.
Winner: Hong Kong (but only if Paint the Night is running; otherwise, it’s a tie)
I feel the same way with fireworks shows as I do with parades. I know they’re a staple of Disney trips, but they all feel exactly the same to me. Disney likes to rename their evening fireworks performances every now and then, but really, if you’re in a park with a castle, the shows are all kind of the same. If that’s Disney blasphemy, I’m sorry. If you ask me, fireworks time is the best time to ride popular attractions, since the lines are generally shorter.
However, all that being said, if you’re a fan of Disney fireworks shows, you know that they’ve all become a spectacle with video projections that wrap the castle with images. For that reason, the Shanghai show is more impressive since the castle is just so much bigger. So that might give it an edge in this category.
Keep in mind, though, that you’re also battling a much larger crowd. Which means you’ll need to spend more time staking out a decent viewing spot, or you’ll be farther away without much of a view. And battling thousands of people with little sense of personal space. So that kind of negates any benefit the show might have.
All of the staple characters are available for photo ops at both parks. Core Mickey and friends characters, princesses, and Marvel, Star Wars, and Toy Story characters appear throughout the day. “Rare” characters are not as commonly sighted as they are in the U.S. parks, so you’re unlikely to find any special characters here.
There are a few unique characters, though. In Shanghai, Mickey is wearing a traditional Chinese outfit (but the line is reliably long all day), and in Hong Kong, Mickey and Minnie are wearing Old West outfits in Geyser Gulch.
Wi-Fi is available for free in both parks and is generally reliable, but there were still connectivity issues in both places. I noticed a lot of dead zones, particularly in line for various attractions. I wouldn’t say one was better or worse than the other.
But. You have to remember that when you’re in Shanghai, you’re behind the Great Chinese Firewall. You’ll need a VPN service on your phone if you want to connect to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Without a VPN, you simply won’t be able to connect to these services or use these apps. (I used Astrill VPN the entire time I was in China and had no problems.)
Hong Kong is not behind the firewall, so this isn’t an issue there.
Winner: Hong Kong
Both parks have mobile apps, which are just as user-friendly and accurate as the apps for the Florida and California resorts (if you’ve used those). The apps are obviously dependent on the parks’ spotty Wi-Fi (since you won’t be using data while there), but the wait times were accurate and the maps helpful.
One bonus the Shanghai app has over Hong Kong is that it tells you the return time for FastPass distribution. In other words, if you’re interested in getting a FastPass for a particular ride, then the app can tell you what time the FastPasses are currently printing (or if they’ve all been distributed for the day). That’s helpful and could potentially save you a lot of walking.
Winner: Shanghai (by a slim margin)
We didn’t stay at any of them, so I can’t really speak with much authority here. Shanghai has two hotels, and Hong Kong has three. All look amazing, and I’ve seen great reviews online from people who don’t mind spending hundreds of dollars a night to stay there.
Hong Kong is home to the brand-new Explorers Lodge, which looks incredible, so it might edge out Shanghai in this category, based on that alone.
Winner: Hong Kong (but really more of a tie)
This is the big one. This is where Shanghai loses all the bonus points it earned in other categories. Put simply, the cast members at Shanghai Disney Resort are terrible. I’ve been to 9 of the 12 Disney parks, and if I were to rank them all, Shanghai would place dead last. And most of the reason why is the cast members.
Cast members are a HUGE part of Disney’s magic. In all of the other parks, they add so much genuine joy to the experience. They are the secret ingredient in Disney’s special sauce.
Our experience in Shanghai was incredibly unpleasant not because of the large crowds, long lines, or cultural differences (which we were prepared for) but because the management and cast members were such an overwhelming disappointment (which was a total surprise).
Let me put it this way, I’ve seen more helpful, happy, and informed employees at Six Flags. And if you’ve ever been to a Disney park, you know how damning that statement is meant to be. From the moment we arrived, we encountered nothing but surly, disgruntled, unfriendly, uninformed, and completely apathetic cast members at every turn.
We were yelled at. We were lied to. We were ridiculed. We were told conflicting information by people who were literally standing next to each other.
Cast members didn’t even attempt to uphold the basic standards that their colleagues at 11 other Disney parks do so well. Here’s a perfect example. Take a look at the images below. See the empty queue on the left? That’s SUPPOSED to be the queue for the Once Upon a Time Adventure. Instead, people formed their own misshapen “lines” (which were really just mobs), and almost no one knew what was happening.
You can see one crowd of people on the far end of that empty queue. The picture on the right is a second crowd on the near end. Ostensibly, both were “lines” of people trying to get into the attraction. I sat and watched this for a while, and not a single cast member attempted to fix the situation.
The best part? It turns out the attraction was actually CLOSED, and no one in line knew. There were no signs or cast members informing people that it was closed. Instead, hundreds of people were left standing in unofficial, unwieldy lines that led to a locked door.
I MIGHT be able to forgive all of this if the park management didn’t completely fall down on the job of keeping the park even remotely clean and presentable. The park is gorgeous, but by mid-afternoon, it’s a trash heap. This is not metaphorical. There’s literally trash everywhere. And there’s only a minimal attempt to clean any of it up.
Drop a water bottle on the ground in Disneyland, and there’s a cast member there within seconds to clean it up. Disney parks have a reputation for being spotless, and it’s completely justified. It’s one of the things that’s so great about the parks. They’re an escape from reality.
In Shanghai, though, trash piles up everywhere. This is the queue for Tron Lightcycle Run toward the end of the day. Most attraction queues and walkways around the park looked the same. Just mountains of trash everywhere.
It’s hard to believe Shanghai Disneyland is a Disney park. There’s no magic or pixie dust. It’s an unpleasant experience–in a distressing number of ways–that will turn off many guests. Let me put it this way: it’s the only theme park from which my kids have asked to leave in the middle of the afternoon. (We stuck it out, but they do not have good memories of the park.)
I expect more from Disney, and it’s just so disappointing the company allows this disgrace to continue. But then again, with 100,000+ Chinese guests in the park every day–most of whom have no such expectations from Disney–they might not see a reason to change.
Cast members in Hong Kong were a breath of fresh air in comparison and felt like they’d actually gone through the Disney training. They were happy, welcoming, informed, and helpful. In short, they were precisely what we’ve come to expect from Disney.
Winner: Hong Kong
If you simply MUST do Disney while in China and you only have time for one, it should be Hong Kong Disneyland. No contest. You’ll have the patented magical experience and end the day smiling.
Even if you have time for both, I might still recommend skipping Shanghai Disneyland. If you’re a glutton for punishment or a die-hard Disney fanatic trying to visit all of the parks, then do your homework and go prepared. If not, enjoy the amazing city of Shanghai and save yourself a lot of money and headaches.
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