Two years ago I visited the original Disneyland theme park in Anaheim California with my wife Mengxi and our two daughters Hannah and Sarah. This year on Christmas Day, we visited the new Disneyland theme park in our hometown of Shanghai. These two visits gave us the chance to compare and contrast the oldest and newest Disneylands. Here are some observations.
The original Disneyland theme park in Anaheim felt quite small to us. At first, my daughters and my wife were disenchanted with the small size. It just didn’t seem that spectacular to them. The castle is a bit of a disappointment for folks young and old imagining something grander. By contrast, the new Disneyland in the Pudong district of Shanghai is simply ginormous. The castle is stunningly HUGE. It dominates the entire park. Getting from one part of the park to another is a major trek (not to mention getting from the bus stop to the entrance, since one has to park quite a distance and take a bus to the park). We arrived at the park around 1 pm and only had a half-day in Shanghai Disneyland, yet we clocked in at 15 kilometers of walking or 18,000 steps. That is a huge amount of strolling!
I recall that our overall impression was that the food in the original Disneyland theme park was not very good. Typical greasy American fare. By contrast, we had a large and wonderful meal at the Shanghai theme park. We indulged in a feast of meats, with a big Aussie steak and coils of German sausage covered with two types of gravy. There were taters in the shape of Mickey Mouse ears, magic green beans, and corn on the cob.
We also partook of a fine mutton noodle soup (probably not something you’d find in the US version) that could have been flown in from Mongolia. Diners in the main dining hall can select from a range of spaces with different ambiances. We chose a booth at Tony’s, an Italian style dining hall. Then again, the choice is made for you: you just have to walk around and wait for a table to open up. The bill added up to a whopping 800 RMB for four people (200 RMB per person or around 35 USD). But it was worth the expense! On the other hand, I could do without the Mickey Mouse-themed cups with feet, which they use to serve the hot cocoa. After my younger daughter Hannah accidentally spilled cocoa all over me, I unfortunately lost my temper, but when Sarah did the same thing (fortunately, all over the table and not her mother) I blamed the cups and not my daughters. No more cups with feet please!!!
Third, lines and crowds.
The two go together. When we visited the Disney theme park in Anaheim, there wasn’t a very big crowd. Maybe it’s passé. Then again, it’s America. There just aren’t that many people there. Some of the lines were long, but I don’t remember waiting more than an hour. We rode the Abominable Snowman ride, which I recall fondly from childhood visits. We also did Space Mountain, twice! And we had plenty of time for other rides and attractions, large and small. By contrast, I think you can anticipate what I’m going to say about Shanghai’s Disneyland. The crowds were simply unbelievable. It felt at times like being in the middle of the subway station at People’s Square (Shanghai’s equivalent to Grand Central Station) at the height of rush hour. When they lit up the Christmas tree at dusk, you couldn’t get anywhere near the thing. On the other hand, the line for the Pirates of Caribbean ride—one of the best rides in the park—only took us an hour to get through. Then again, when we finally visited the Tron ride in Tomorrowland later that evening, a man was holding a sign at the end of the line saying 180 minutes. That was too much time to wait in the wintry cold for just one ride, no matter how spectacular it might have been. Oh well, there will be a next time for sure!
It might be nostalgia, but I gotta say that I still love the rides in the original Disneyland. As I mentioned above, we rode the Space Mountain ride twice. The first time, my older daughter Sarah got too spooked by the leadup and refused to go on the ride. But after her younger sister went on it and loved it, she had to go too, and so I went twice! We also did the Indiana Jones ride, which was a fun bit of nostalgia for anybody who grew up with the Jones series as I did. And I even bought an Indiana Jones hat in the gift shop afterwards (but unfortunately I later lost it in a Shanghai nightclub, which seems to be the final resting place for all my hats). But, I must say that the new Pirates ride in Shanghai kicks the old one’s butt all the way to Davey Jones’s locker! The only caveat was that the folks in front of us on our boat were videoing the entire ride with their iPhones held high above their heads, which I found totally disturbing and obnoxious. But I won’t blame this sort of behavior on any particular nationality of people—this seems to be the plague of 21st century tech and I’m sure it happens elsewhere around the world.
Here, I have to say that the original Disneyland in California still has that old magic. It might be pure nostalgia talking here—after all, my first visit to the original Disneyland was when I was around 3 years old, and my second was at 10, when I recall my stepdad bought me a glowing skull and a pirate’s gun, which supplied me and my mates with years of fun afterwards. But aside from childhood memories, I have to say that the original Disneyland still has more of the human touch.
One of my favorite aspects of it is the singers and performers all around the park. In the Main Street area near the entrance, there was a group of Dixieland musicians, whom I recorded performing an old jazz tune. Later we saw a group performing old folk songs, pirate-style.
When I pointed out the lack of such live entertainment in the Shanghai park to my wife, she replied that it’s probably because in LA they can draw on a much bigger talent pool. Well, I’m not totally convinced of that—Shanghai has some great musical talents too, but maybe she has a point there. Still, it may be that we just missed these sorts of performances in the Shanghai theme park. We did see the parade in late afternoon, and we agreed it wasn’t nearly as spectacular or ‘magical’ as the one in the original park in Anaheim. On the other hand, Hannah really loved the Alice in Wonderland maze in the Shanghai Disneyland and you could nicely feel the magic there for an inquisitive 8 year old.
Six, exiting and afterwards.
After an entire day of visiting the original park in Anaheim, we all felt pretty content, though as mentioned my daughters were a bit underwhelmed by the experience. Upon exiting the theme park, we had dinner at a themed restaurant outside the park featuring an outstanding jazz pianist and singer, which I’d submit would not be found outside the Shanghai theme park.
By contrast, I have to admit that after just a half-day of walking around the Shanghai theme park, I was totally exhausted, not to mention cold. We did visit one of the big shops near the entrance, which of course was totally mobbed with people who looked like they were on a major spending frenzy (it was Christmas Day after all). In contrast to recent reports about Chinese people rejecting Christmas, we also saw hundreds of people taking photos in front of giant candy cakes and fake Christmas packages. We left the park around 8 pm and drove back into the city. Upon reaching our neighborhood in the middle of Shanghai’s old quarters and turning onto Huaihai Road, as we drove down the road with its plane trees all lit up with lights like Christmas trees, my wife remarked that she was glad to be back in ‘civilization.’ I realized at that moment that this part of Shanghai, all gussied up for Christmas, full of magical surprises, old European-style villages, cafes, restaurants, jazz clubs, and other live performances, is the REAL Disneyland.