Shanghai Disneyland

22nd April 2019

Day three of our trip was supposed to feature Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park and a few city parks, but we were forced to change our itinerary on the fly due to poor weather. We knew from research and from local contacts that the only park in range of our hotel that would operate its coasters in rain was Shanghai Disneyland, and going there seemed like the best option despite the fact that one of its three coasters was closed for routine maintenance. The park was busy throughout our day despite the conditions, with hour-long queues for all of the major attractions; it seems likely that many of those present were hoping (in vain) that the precipitation would result in shorter wait times.

Castle

All visitors to Shanghai Disneyland are entitled to make a limited number of free ride reservations each day using a mobile app, and this works reasonably well; the only significant embuggerance for the foreign enthusiast is the requirement to scan a physical ticket and enter the park before any reservations can be made, even when you've purchased online in advance. Readers should be aware that it is necessary to show a passport or local ID to gain admission, and these details are stored along with a digital photograph surreptitiously taken at the entrance turnstiles; it seems likely that this policy dates from when the park was overrun by scalpers back in 2017.

The park also offers paid Fast Passes for those who want to maximise their day. Individual ride tickets can be purchased as needed for 80 RMB (~€10.35) apiece, and a number of higher-priced bundles are available for those with money to burn, topping out with the Disney Premier Access 8 Set that provides one ticket for each of the major rides for 440 RMB (~€56.95). This facility is a boon to those with time constraints, and I took advantage of it at two points during the day even though it felt almost unethical to do so; why should I, as a westerner with disposable income, be able to walk right past a few hundred Chinese people who have been queuing for hours?

I think that the reason that paid Fast Passes work in Shanghai Disneyland is that the vast majority of those visiting the park are locals with limited spare cash, ensuring that the system can only be used by the elite few. One can only imagine the brouhaha that would arise if The Mouse were to try a similar implementation in Florida, where people think nothing of paying large sums to gain even a perceived advantage over those around them. (Walt Disney World currently offers VIP Tours that start at $425 per hour, not including park admission, and this is a price that people are apparently willing to pay; it wouldn't surprise me at all if the figure increases steadily over the next few years.)

Our morning began in the Tomorrowland section of the park, where we made a beeline for TRON Lightcycle Power Run (#2605), a highly themed Vekoma Motorbike Coaster that I'd argue to be the coming of age for the genre. It is the first ride of its type where the special rolling stock doesn't feel like an awkward gimmick; instead, it is very much part of the story that the Imagineers sought to tell. At the same time two of the seven trains have a standard sit down car in place of the regular back row to accommodate those without the flexibility to fit on one of the bikes. I didn't get the chance to try these, but would like to; perhaps that's something else for the powers that be to monetize.

Tron

As ever at a Disney park the hardware has been tuned for capacity and throughput. Today the trains were dispatching roughly once every thirty-six seconds from the dual loading station, some fifteen times faster than the accepted norm for major coasters in China. This incredible throughput is achieved without mandatory lockers, though a large bank of these is available for those who want them; instead, most guests deposit their larger bags on a trolley which a cast member wheels to the separate unload station. Small items can be kept without problems; each bike has a glove box with enough room for glasses, a wallet, and a phone. Another nice design feature is the illuminated bike wheels, which smoothly transition from dark blue to light blue as the restraints are closed and locked.

An onboard soundtrack begins to play as the train rolls out of the station and onto a launch track. The acceleration when it comes is smooth, pushing riders into a series of wide sweeping turns covered by a canopy, as pictured above. A block brake trims just a little speed as the bikes race into the indoor section, which comprises around thirty seconds of high speed coasting around assorted theme elements from the 2010 movie. Towards the end a video screen shows orange bikes exploding into a powerful fireball just as the train hits the brake run. The experience is top notch; the only slight criticism I'd have is the recurring one for recent Disney coasters, namely length: the ride takes just sixty seconds from launch to brakes, which compares poorly with masterpieces like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain.

The star attraction in the park is Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, an incredibly immersive dark ride. Those familiar with the American Disney parks may be tempted to gloss over this description, but I'd discourage that; the Shanghai ride is a completely different animal that is by some margin the most impressive example of the genre I've experienced in my travels. The journey begins in an understated fashion with a gentle float past a restaurant. A stone archway leads into the first few scenes which feature static displays of skeletal pirates eating dinner and captives behind bars. The prow of a ghostly ship prefixes the first really stunning moment, as an animatronic Jack Sparrow materialises from a skeleton. Even after watching POV footage in slow motion I'm at a loss as to how this effect was achieved; as Arthur C. Clarke put it, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

The next scene shows water flowing from a great height, and there is a slight sensation of descent as the boat turns to face an enormous screen showing the deep sea with sunken ships, fish, and the obligatory Kraken. The boat then moves underneath a physical shipwreck with a further large screen behind it where the creature can be seen swimming into the distance. Assorted sea debris lines the route on both sides, and a pair of mermaids on the left sing a haunting song. The next few scenes feature an impressive quantity of treasure. Maccus materialises from behind a pile of gold, and though I couldn't translate his speech it's a fair bet that it's something about Davy Jones, who guests encounter moments later in animatronic form at the console of a pipe organ.

Davy Jones

Soon afterwards the boat arrives at another screen where ghostly ships can be seen rising off the ocean floor and breaking on to the surface with a splash, made more realistic by a water spray effect. This leads to the climax of the experience, as two physical ships fire cannons at each other while guests float between them. A screen in front shows a pitched battle, and one has to look quite closely to see where real water ends and projected water begins; it takes very little imagination for the whole thing to feel like reality. The boat floats sideways into the middle of one of the ships, where a sword fight is underway between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow. The fuse on a cannon is lit, culminating in a fireball and dry ice smoke effects that are synchronised perfectly with a backwards drop and airtime hill. My description scarcely does the ride justice, and though videos will never replace the real thing there is a respectably sharp POV available here.

We disembarked and headed for a lunch stop at the first restaurant that we could find. We wound up with mystery meat on a stick accompanied by Mickey-shaped cinnamon donuts that were definitely not geared at those watching their calorie intake. The signage inside had no English, and the staff had scarcely more, but the individual choices were on display, allowing orders to be placed by animated gesticulation.

While waiting to be served I took the opportunity to buy myself a Fast Pass ticket for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (#2606). Bruno and Anita had ridden it on a previous visit to China, and understandably had little interest in waiting seventy-five minutes to experience it again. The coaster is a family-friendly design from Vekoma with cars that can rock from side to side, and a near clone of an earlier installation in Florida. There were some very minor theming differences on this model, with the most obvious being a missing animatronic scene on the brake run that was presumably cut for budgetary reasons. My comments from the first version hold; the experience was enjoyable but very much in the family friendly category, and as such not something that I'd bother waiting for more than once.

We met up again for a second ride on Pirates that was every bit as good as the first had been. It was tempting to go for a third, but we decided that our priority was to see more of the park. My companions headed for the Challenge Trails at Camp Discovery, while I joined the queue for Peter Pan's Flight. The Chinese version of J. M. Barrie's adventure has a number of upgrades over the versions in other countries, including higher capacity vehicles, additional scenes, and animated projections, but despite the changes the old-school nature of the experience has been preserved; it feels very much like a renovated attraction from the fifties rather than something constructed in the last few years.

Davy Jones

The other absolute must-do on my list today was Soaring over the Horizon, a local variant of the flying theatre design introduced to the world at Disney California Adventure in February 2001. The wait time was posted at two hours, giving me all the excuse I needed to invest in a second paid Fast Pass. The pre-show included about thirty seconds of safety information that was subtitled in English, and another five minutes of patter that wasn't; I can only assume it was unimportant. Sadly the ride failed to live up to my expectations; the projections suffered from severe fisheye that was obvious throughout, but particularly ridiculous as the Eiffel Tower bent ninety degrees. The footage featured also featured the Matterhorn, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Neuschwanstein Castle, the Pyramids, and Iguazu Falls.

We regrouped back in Tomorrowland, where we used free Fast Passes to ride Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, a target shooting dark ride with an omni mover base. The ride is the latest generation of a design that at one stage existed in all six castle parks, though the version in Hong Kong has since been rethemed into Ant-Man and The Wasp: Nano Battle. The quality of the scenery in this installation was considerably better than that elsewhere, and there were also projections embedded into the backdrops that added further to the experience. The targets were small screens with coloured lightning bolts that animated and changed colour when hit, and these were far more satisfying than the usual coloured LEDs.

We had one more free Fast Pass, which we used for a lap on TRON Lightcycle Power Run. The queue was sufficiently short after disembarking that we decided that we'd have just one more, bringing the total for the day to three. With that done we headed for the exit, the airport, and a flight to Nanchang.