Look and Feel, Test and Adjust: Disney in Shanghai

The Walt Disney Company is deep in construction of its twelfth theme park right now.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is working with China to create an amazing new destination for the Chinese people that is somewhat different from the other theme park that opened more than a decade ago in Hong Kong (the Mouse’s first foray into the Hidden Kingdom). Having operated in the country for almost twelve years, the company has built up a great accumulation of knowledge regarding the cultural differences between what was built in the first park, and what will be present in the new one.

The multibillion dollar project, financed by both the American company and the Chinese government with Chinese businesses, will be a truly spectacular destination for fans the world over. One of the great things about Disney parks is the unique experience found in each one. Like any siblings they all share similarities, but also have their own personalities. The version of a Magic Kingdom style theme park currently underway at the Pudong district in the outskirts of Shanghai will be a contrasting vision to the smaller Hong Kong Disneyland that entertains guests at Penny’s Bay on Lantau Island.

Indeed, the Shanghai Disneyland Resort will be a much larger undertaking than the company has made in decades. It will be an attempt by the entertainment company to cement its status and footprint in the fast growing Asian market. And for company chairman Bob Iger, the park and resort will be the cherry on his tenure with the company. Iger will be leaving his job around the time the park opens (Iger leaves in 2016 and the park will tentatively open late 2015/early 2016). It won’t be the first park he’s worked on, but it will be the first and only one under his care and direction from beginning to end. Many a Disney fan is curious to see what results from Imagineers under Iger’s orders.

Well, here is a rough idea of what one can expect when the second gate in China opens:

There’s no Main Street U.S.A. in the new park. While the American, French, and Japanese guests seem to recognize the nostalgic representation of small town early American Missouri as an inviting entry into western culture, it does nothing for the Chinese. Guests that entered Hong Kong Disneyland had no attachment to the stylized shops and stores, so what you’ll find in Shanghai will be a departure from the model started in 1955. In place Main Street is Mickey Avenue, a more eclectic menu of shops that have a borrowed sense of permanence. This leads towards a 11 acre “Garden of Imagination,” featuring the Garden of 12 Friends, modeled after the Chinese Zodiac with Disney characters. This area will create a feel of moving across a more natural area surrounding the really, really big icon of the park, Story Book Castle. Again, a change since all previous castles have been named after princesses (Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland have Sleeping Beauty Castle; Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland have Cinderella Castle; Disneyland Paris contains Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant). There will be shops and restaurants along the way, but no walk into the past of Americana.

Adventureland will be somewhat divided into two separate lands. The first is Pirate Cove, which will be based on an altered version of what was proposed as an expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland a few years ago (Jay Rasulo nixed the planned pirate-themed area, which would have cost a staggering 800 million dollars). It is essentially a Pirate Land featuring huge skull rocks and seaside villages with live entertainment in a large cove/bay (which will allow for some amazing day and night time shows) embodying the feel of a Caribbean port circa the late 1600s. It will also feature the most altered Pirates of the Caribbean attraction ever built. The look and feel of “Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure” will borrow far more heavily from the films than any of the other four Pirates rides.

The other area will be known as Adventure Isles, featuring the lush tropical forest one expects when imaging Asia or African safari expeditions. This land will hold a large rafting attraction similar to the Grizzly River Run ride in Disney California Adventure, only with more detail and an elaborately more ornate mountain (should budgets hold up—they’ve gone wildly over budget in the design phase). The “Lost World Roaring Rapids” attraction has had its name halved to just “Roaring Rapids.” Perhaps this was in response to the reduction of animatronic dinosaurs that were to appear along the journey? Not quite sure, but there were at least six or seven in early blue sky presentations, only to be whittled down to two or three. The primary nemesis in this adventure is a behemoth known as a “Crocasaurus” which will prove quite frightening if the animatronics match the concept artwork. Overall, these two areas are where I would be spending the majority of my time, since Adventureland and New Orleans Square are where I can be found in the original Disneyland.

Toy Story Playland (which makes guests feel as though they’ve been shrunk to the size of a toy and experience their world) is basically a recreation of the mini-lands found in Hong Kong Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios Paris, with the exception of the Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop. This was deemed to be too American, and with the tensions between the two countries a decision was made to not include it. The good news is that should attendance reach expected levels, one of the first plans for an expansion includes a Toy Story Midway Mania attraction in the area to make up for the missing green army men.

Tomorrowland has traditionally been the hardest land to keep contemporary, as it is the most difficult to not come off as dated; the future of the ’50s looks pretty bad by the ’80s, and that version looks pretty out of place in the 21st century. The only one to successfully pull off this was Paris, which eliminated the “Tomorrow” and simply called theirs Discoveryland. It features a steampunk perceived future derived from a past that defies being dated. While Hong Kong’s Tomorrowland is a variation on the Anaheim version, the Shanghai version will be a hybrid of beauty and industrial form present in both the California and Florida versions of the park. But this one won’t have one of the iconic attractions everyone is used to when entering a Tomorrowland: no Space Mountain. Instead an attraction based on Tron: Legacy will be housed inside a building that looks more like a Frank Gehry design than the traditional space spires Disney fans are used to. Inside, Tron Light Cycles Power Run will allow guests to enter the Grid and experience what it’s like to fight for the Users. Literally. Shanghai’s Tomorrowland will likely be the last of this design. After the purchase of Lucasfilm for the purpose of acquiring the Star Wars franchise, it’s likely that any future version of Tomorrowland will draw heavily on that universe. Not that the Imagineers are complaining; there are plenty of “Far, Far Away” ideas to fill Tomorrowland when the next Magic Kingdom-style park is planned.

The entire Shanghai park will provide an overall Disney experience while also granting a unique theme park experience unlike other. An overriding element guests will notice is the intricate way that water features throughout the park. A moat surrounds the entire resort, and a manmade lake crests its waters outside the entrance to Disney Town (the Shanghai version of Downtown Disney). Inside the Gardens of Imagination there are several fountains, pools, and ponds that lead toward the castle, which has its own moat. The Roaring Rapids are beautiful with waterfalls and stunning water views, and Pirate Cove is an aquatic island paradise. This was all designed to complement the role that water plays in the culture of the Chinese. No other park (with the exception of the stunningly, awesome Tokyo DisneySEA) offers such reverence to this life sustaining liquid as does Shanghai.

As we get closer to the opening of the park more details will be revealed, and the beauty and extravagant work that the imagineers designed will be on display. The only limits are the money that it took to achieve it. The guys at WDI literally designed more than they could possibly fit into this theme park for the budget they were given. Some of the plans will fall by the wayside as everything dreamed doesn’t mean everything built. But that just leaves room for more things in future of Shanghai Disneyland and other Disney Parks.

And before you know it, there will be another one being planned…


Honor Hunter is a writer focusing on the entertainment business of film, TV, games and pop culture all around. The Mouse is his specialty, but not exclusively, as he posts about news, rumors and opinion of the world we all love to know.

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