A Note: This website is open to all and is as inclusive as I can make it. Having said that, I am an American Expat living in China and I am writing these posts from that perspective AND primarily for a WESTERN audience. Please note, I am NOT trying to offend anyone or throw shade on the wonderful culture and people of China. I am attempting to point out real cultural differences and what one might see as a traveler in China. Being prepared to adapt quickly is sometimes the best way to ensure an amazing experience.
It took us ninety minutes just to get in the park…
Sophia (age 11), Olivia (age 8) and I (age: getting old) left the apartment at 7:15am in hopes of making it to the gates as they opened at 8am. We arrived at 8:19, a little later than planned but still super early (by any measure) and I thought we’d be good.
The lines were insane. And these were just to get though the security gates; we still had to then get through the ticket turnstiles before entering The Magic Kingdom.
I hate crowds, prefer to spend time alone and just generally don’t like to be hassled by other humans. I can sometimes be a grumpy traveler, but since I know it’s good for me, I consistently push myself to embrace the uncomfortable and yield to the unknown.
But this wasn’t the unknown. This wasn’t some cosmic mystery or a shamanic ritual; this was Disneyland. A known entity. A fixture of my childhood. What could I learn from subjecting myself to thousands of people, not to mention the indigestion caused by one too many Churros?
Shanghai Disneyland is home to some of the most amazing rides I’ve ever been on. The technology utilized to bring recognizable, but totally new experiences to the masses was breathtaking.
My favorite ride of all time is Pirates of the Caribbean. Ever since I was a young boy, I have been enthralled with the detail employed to bring this world to life. It captured a spirit of adventure that I had never known or seen before. It opened up a historical world of wonder for me and inspired me to ask my parents endless questions about the details of living a life of crime on the high sea.
It also did something nearly magical–I say magic because I have not other way to explain it–but after the fact, while laying in bed at the Disneyland Hotel as a child, I somehow “remembered” more about the ride than had actually taken place. Sure, this was just my imagination running wild, but even now, as a grown man, my remembrances of this ride are much larger than the reality. That’s some great storytelling.
The new version of this ride in Shanghai doesn’t capture the story as well (or maybe it does, who knows? All the animatronic puppets and characters speak Mandarin…) but the technological feats are stunning. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but let me just say, it’s a fully immersive experience. At times, I found myself unconsciously holding my breath the illusion of being underwater was so realistic.
The Tron rollercoaster is exceptional.
And again, so well designed that I felt one with the Lightcycle I was supposedly racing and forgot that I was actually strapped into a track along side ten other people.
One thing about this ride is that it takes a little bit of athleticism to fit into the “chair”. It’s not your typical rollercoaster seat… It’s more akin to jumping on a Ninja crotch-rocket; bent forward, gripping the handlebars, with the “cycle” between your legs. It’s nowhere near comfortable, but when you accelerate, seemingly shot from a canon, you’ll be thankful for the ergonomics.
“Soaring Over The Horizon” is another world class experience, a virtual hang-gliding adventure over the world’s greatest monuments and natural wonders. Not only are there stunning images projected on an IMAX dome, but fans to simulate wind and puffs of choreographed scent is sprayed into the air to heighten the already 4K experience. When you soar over a forest, you can smell the cypress oil. It’s virtual reality with only a few bits of the “real” missing! It is not to be missed, though the wait was three hours…
Which brings me to “the bad”…
Look, it’s China, there are a shit ton of people here and most of them decided to go to Disneyland the same day I did… What’re you gonna do?
I’d be lying if I said once I saw the lines I wasn’t tempted to turn tail and head back toward the metro… I even concocted a cover story about a chemical spill that forced the park to close so my kids wouldn’t blame me for backing out. But the parental guilt swelled within me and we ventured forth, into the throng of people.
Crowds are not new to Disneyland or any other theme park–I’m not telling you something new here. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t dive into the details a bit so you can understand the differences the exist here.
Personal space in China is simply not a thing, and if it is, I haven’t been able to figure out the rules. On the metro in the morning, it is perfectly normal to see grown men pushing little old ladies out of the way or a little old lady lowering a shoulder to push a grown man aside for the last seat. Thankfully, I am taller than the average person in China, so I can usually rise above the crowd when in tight places. Other people are not so lucky… I have been on metro trains so packed, people’s faces were literally buried into the hair of the person in front of them.
There is also a phenomena I refer to as the “Hope It All Goes To Plan Shuffle”. This is a catch all phrase for the manner in which the average Chinese walk, run and drive. There is no looking over your shoulder to see who might be behind you. There is no “look both ways” before crossing the street. There is no concept of “yield”. People, scooters, cars and trucks simply do what they want and assume the others behind them will adjust. The burden of safety, politeness or propriety is not taken on by the instigator of the motion, no, no, no… It’s fully up to the surrounding individuals to adapt, halt, swerve or dodge. (This is obviously a gross generalization, but as I’ve lived here almost three years, I stand by this observation, even though I realize it couldn’t possibly apply to all Chinese citizens).
This is something to get use to if you’re from the US, where the expectation of wide open spaces is so prevalent it may actually be part of our DNA now. China has been so overpopulated for so long, it just isn’t practical to check your surroundings to judge every possible outcome of your motion or trajectory. There are too many people in your “rear-view mirror”–it’s simply too much for one person to compute.
It’s actually rather genius and incredibly efficient. See, if the responsibility for reaction is spread to the group, the masses, the flock, each individual can adjust in relation to the next closest person or vehicle and it all works out. As it turns out, this approach is exactly how migratory birds operate.
Each individual bird isn’t necessarily flapping away with the entire master plan of the destination in their head. They are basically just following the bird next to them and adjusting to stay in formation in relation to that bird. And the entire flock doesn’t look to the lead bird for guidance. They just watch the bird next to them who is watching the bird next to them who is watching the bird next to them who is (hopefully) watching the lead bird.
But I digress…
Just know if you come to China and go to Disneyland and expect to walk like an American, entitled to a personal bubble of ten feet in every direction, you will be miserable. Expect to be touched, bumped, cut-off, tripped, jostled and have your heels stepped upon. As someone who has lived here for awhile now, you’d think I would be fully adapted to this by now.
There are times when it is liberating (Don’t wanna go all the way to the cross-walk? No problem! Just dart into the street and the traffic will adjust around you!) but I must admit, at Disneyland, when I was supposed to be having the time of my life, constantly having my achilles tendon raked or my toes mashed got old.
So, you’ve been warned. Shanghai Disney is beyond crowded and no one follows the rules of the road.
Before I launch into this part, I want to say up front that what I’m about to share is 100% my fault. I didn’t read the directions in the app close enough (and didn’t have a measuring tape handy even if I did) so… it’s completely and utterly my fault for buying the wrong ticket.
Thinking my 11 year old daughter was still a child and thus, needed a child’s ticket was my oversight. Should’ve realized that the definition of “childhood” at Disneyland isn’t decided by age, but by height. Who knew?! I mean, Disney didn’t get to the top of the entertainment heap, able to buy properties like Marvel and Star Wars for billions, by allowing 11 year old girls to enter their park as a child. Hell no! That’s an adult! See how tall she is?
I tried flipping the script on the line attendant by asking her is she was able to enter with a child’s ticket as she was incredibly short.
“No.” She said and she laughed. Dumb American…
“So what you’re saying is, age does matter when determining ticketing?” I said.
“She’s too tall. Need adult ticket.” She repeated, trying to shoo me from the line we’d just waited an hour in.
At this point I felt my sanity sliding down my back and onto the pavement… I was two minutes from full Hulk.
“I get that, what I’m asking is if I bring a tiny adult to this gate, well below the measuring bar you have here, will they be allowed in which a child’s ticket?”
“No. Too old.”
To her credit, Sophia, the newly christened adult, pulled me away toward the Customer Service window before I melted down and threw a tantrum. Maybe she is an adult?
Anyhow, I get to the Customer Service window to upgrade her child ticket and am asked by the beyond pleasant and professional attendant that I need to pay 90 yuan… or $14 USD…
They made us get out of line, wait another half hour, get back in line (though an expedited one for the other parents with freakishly tall children) all for $14 USD. And it’s not like I brought Shaquille O’neil with me and stuffed him into a Princess Dress; my daughter is slightly tall for her age. Like… SLIGHTLY. Her head barely grazed the limit stick at the gate and she was automatically deemed too tall and thus, a full adult in Disneyland’s eyes.
Bob Iger. CEO of Disney. If you are reading this… Don’t make a sweaty, frustrated father who has waited in line for nearly two hours just to GET INTO YOUR PARK pay $14 more because his daughter is a couple of centimeters taller than the stupid stick at the gate. Don’t do it. Empower your employees to do the right thing. Or, raise the price of the adult ticket by $14 and then make all the tickets the same price. One ticket no matter your height, weight, age, whatever, I’ll pay more. Just don’t F*@K with me. It’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth and trust me, the money flies out of my pocket just fine as we venture around the park. You’ll get your’s homie… Chill.
No matter the ugly entry episode, we had an amazing day and while crowded and crazy, it still mostly felt like Disneyland. I say mostly, because nothing can replace the original in Anaheim. It’s not just the California sun, the density of rides or the newer California Adventure park… It’s the aching nostalgia. It drips off every square inch of that place. I grew up there. Worked hard to afford the tickets every couple of years, performing manual labor as a child to scrap together some spending money while in the park. It means something to me.
Shanghai Disneyland, while certainly a great representation of the brand, doesn’t hold up in my eyes. And it’s not their fault. The people who work there, imagined, designed and built the thing did great work. Don’t misunderstand me.
But nothing will replace the feeling of that humidity and slight tang of chlorine on the air as you descend into the original Pirates of the Caribbean… To me, it’s the smell of suburban adventure.
And it will forever have a piece of my heart.