15 Odd Things I Witnessed At Shanghai Disneyland’s Opening
Last week, I boarded a 13-hour flight to China in order to witness Shanghai Disneyland officially open its gates, and boy, was it quite the experience. The park, which is massive and beautiful, contains new attractions and never-before-seen entertainment, but also some eccentricities that were surprising to an American parkgoer such as myself.
Sure, the stateside parks have weird characteristics, too—if you’ve planned a meal 180 days in advance or if you've seen a kid eat ice cream for breakfast, you’re a Disney World vet—but discovering Shanghai’s peculiarities during the Grand Opening celebration was just as fun as the real-life journey through the movie Tron.
Come relive the most significant difference between rides here and ones back home, the souvenir nobody wanted, and the secret surprise inside Shanghai Disneyland’s fanciest hotel.
Souvenir Pepsi Cans
Though Grand Opening merchandise was flying off the shelves, one thing remained untouched: souvenir Pepsi cans. The collectable blue-and-gold sodas housed inside ceremonial boxes weren’t being snatched up as quickly as other Shanghai exclusives, likely because each was going for more than $7 a pop.
All signs around the park are bilingual, which allowed us to catch one very odd requirement. The regular warnings, like keeping children under supervision and minimum height requirements were there, but at the end was an unexpected one: “You should be sober and in good health to ride.” In fact, every ride sign at Shanghai Disneyland enforces sobriety even though alcohol is not sold in the park. Yet, at Disney World, where attractions are adjacent to bars, it’s never mentioned at all. Strange, right?
No Smoking Signs
Smoking sections are a serious deal at the American parks—they’re in designated areas, tucked out of sight, and even on the decline. But in China, they’re completely out in the open, as are warnings for where you cannot light up. In fact, no smoking signs are inside nearly every individual bathroom stall across the property.
Traditional Chinese Toilets
Speaking of bathrooms, when CEO Bob Iger coined the phrase “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese” to describe Shanghai Disneyland, I didn't immediately think the bathroom facilities would follow suit as well. Yet each park bathroom is filled with stalls that hide squat toilets behind their doors, as is customary in China. (They’re simply a hole in the ground.) Don’t panic like I did and break into an unfinished family bathroom—there is always at least one American-style toilet at the very end of the row.
A Bonafide Chinese Celebrity
Though I wasn’t able to understand any of the world premiere of the all-Mandarin production of The Lion King, I did get a kick out of watching the audience. While looking across the sea of people prior to show beginning, I spotted Yao Ming bobbing high above the rest of the guests. Sure, you’ve seen him standing, but have you ever seen Yao Ming sitting down? It’s everything.
A Pharrell Soundtrack
There were plenty of renditions of classic Disney tunes being piped through the park and its surrounding areas, but for some inexplicable reason, Pharrell’s feel-good anthem “Happy” was also on loop. The Tomorrowland DJ spun it for every Disney corporate member in attendance and the Disneyland Band tooted it on horns from memory while Mickey danced along. The oddest part? The song is from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, a movie franchise widely considered to be Disney’s stiffest animation competition.
A Ride Certificate
I was prepared to throw elbows to be on the very first Pirates of the Caribbean boat leaving the attraction’s dock, but I didn’t know I’d be rewarded for it. After exiting upon the ride’s end, I was handed a Grand Opening certificate for being the first on-board, which I had no idea existed. Granted, the first thousand or so guests received one, but I’ll happily take an achievement certificate when it doubles as a free souvenir!
Staff at Shanghai Disneyland wear bilingual name tags with both their Chinese and English names, and somehow, I encountered more than one female whose name translated to “Carly.” My name! I’ve never seen anyone with my name at the American parks, and here, multiple staffers were twinning with me. Now I’m dying to find out what the Chinese equivalent is...
A Dose of Reality
If you’re expecting the outskirts of the Shanghai property to be green and landscaped like Walt Disney World is, think again. Smog and air pollution are such an issue in Shanghai that 150 nearby factories were closed prior to park opening to help clear the skies, and there’s still a lot of nearby work being done from within eyeshot—and earshot—of Disney buildings. The surrounding area will eventually become its own tourism district, but for now, you can hear the whirring from local factories and businesses busy at work from outside Toy Story Hotel.
I can’t overstate how unbelievable it is that everything in this park is so new. The paint jobs on every ride vehicle are so vibrant you’ll think you’re caffeine high. Hunny Pot Spin, Shanghai’s version of Mad Tea Party, is so fresh that it’s nearly impossible for one person to spin the wheel. And, weirdest of all, that deep, dank smell that water rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain have stateside? Here, it’s nowhere to be found. So new, so great!
Seriously Authentic Food
All of the food at the parks is unbelievably good and actually authentic, with every single thing I ate outdoing the next. There are some hot dogs here and Mickey pretzels there, but breakfast dumplings, prawn skewers, Peking duck pizzas and melt-in-your-mouth unagi are all available within the Disney bubble. In fact, 90 percent of the food in the parks is Asian (with most of that being Chinese), so the park doubles as a walking tour of worldly culinary tastes.
One of the highlights of Walt Disney World vacations is using the incredible resort pools, which often have slides and glorious themes. Shanghai is instead all about water play zones. Two are at on-site hotels and there's a larger-scale one within the park, which is why I was blown away to discover the small indoor pool at Shanghai Disneyland Hotel was so over-the-top ornate with gorgeous tile murals and an intricately painted ceiling.
Being in the park before its official opening with a limited crowd meant some insane Disney celebrity spottings. I ate dinner mere seats away from George Lucas, I nearly rode the same Tron Lightcycle Power Run vehicle as Bob Iger, and probably would have made a fool out of myself if I got any closer than that. Within our intimate pre-opening group, it actually felt like they were regular park guests and not responsible for running the world and developing our most beloved characters into world-renowned real-life experiences.
If you thought people at Disneyland packed a lot of sack lunches, well, they’ve got nothing on the Chinese. Non-sealed food isn’t allowed into Disneyland, but the area surrounding Disneytown is busy in the afternoons with couples and families enjoying pre-packed meals, leftover vegetables, and bags of curious fruits. But hey, when it’s nice outside and Disney provides a lovely public park and the magic of Mickey is in the air, how could you not?
Looking across the massive crowd gathered for the Grand Opening ribbon cutting and realizing we were all grown adults, here on a professional assignment, wearing golden-eared Mickey hats, was pretty dang memorable. You simply can’t fight that Disney magic!