“One of the most unusual Disney theme parks on Earth”
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 destination since 2016. In that year, the Walt Disney Company opened its newest theme park near 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.
THE PLANNING PHASE
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 it 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’ll arrive at the resort within 30 minutes, without having to carry your luggage in a busy subway train.
Unfortunately, getting a visa may be less easy. My travel companion 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. The Chinese government allows residents of some countries to stay in 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. Note that these rules may change and it’s only applicable for citizens of certain countries.
BEAT THE CROWDS
And, most importantly… Is Shanghai Disneyland really as busy as most people say? Yes, it is. There undoubtedly are slower times, but April turned out to be crazy crowded. We’ve seen wait times of over two 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, as 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.
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 opted 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.
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 recognise 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, the Mine Train is the dynamic centerpiece of Fantasyland. The 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.
The coaster highlight at Shanghai Disneyland is obviously 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.
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. And the ride itself? Well… 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. 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.
Shanghai’s version of Tomorrowland opened less than 3 years ago. This means that it’s still a world of the future, rather than the old-fashioned hodgepodge you encounter at the American Disney parks. It looks very modern and those floating pathways add a cool dynamic vibe to the area. TRON is the icon of Tomorrowland, but Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue isn’t bad either. This is an interactive dark ride with laser guns, just like the ones at other resorts. The Chinese copy got an upgrade, though. The atmosphere is nicer and the Imagineers integrated some fine projections. I’m not a huge Toy Story fan, but this ride shouldn’t be missed. Astro Blasters 2.0.
Fantasyland is usually the place to be for dark rides. It’s strange to notice the absence of It’s a Small World, but two 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 optimise 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.
Peter Pan’s Flight is awesome, but it’s not the best dark ride at Shanghai Disneyland. This honour is reserved for 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. 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.
ENCHANTED STORYBOOK CASTLE
A castle is the most striking 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 five different scenes. Although we don’t understand the Chinese narration, it’s visually pleasing.
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. Especially the Crystal Grotto at the end of the ride evokes amazement for my fellow passengers, but it’s rather underwhelming to me. Am I spoiled or are those Chinese people easily filled with astonishment? I guess the truth lies somewhere halfway.
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 Enchanted Storybook 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 Instagram photo. And although I don’t like the Tim Burton version of this classic Disney movie, the actual maze definitely looks amazing.
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.
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.
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 certainly 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.
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.
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.
Then I actually prefer Mickey’s Fairytale Fanfare, which is performed on the castle stage. 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. By the way: Shanghai Disneyland has the longest parade route and the largest castle viewing area of any Disney theme park in the world. This makes it convenient to watch Mickey’s Storybook Express and a nighttime show called Ignite The Dream, but both performances are rather mediocre. It wouldn’t hurt to skip these performances, in my opinion.
WORTH A VISIT?
Ignite The Dream was 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.
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.
Photo Gallery 2016 & 2019
TOY STORY HOTEL
SHANGHAI DISNEYLAND HOTEL
GARDENS OF IMAGINATION
TOY STORY LAND
Is TRON the best Disney roller coaster on Earth? Do you like Shanghai Disneyland’s modernised park layout? And tell me… how awesome is Battle for the Sunken Treasure?! Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page.