Shanghai Disneyland - authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese?

Shanghai Disneyland - authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese?

After we returned from 11 days in Shanghai (four of which were spent in Disneyland), by far the most common question I was asked by family, friends and work colleagues was: what is Shanghai Disneyland like?

What they were really asking was:

  1. Was it worth travelling halfway around the world to visit a Disney park? 
  2. Was it really necessary when you could have gone to Disneyland Paris and back in the 11 hours it took just to fly all the way to Shanghai?
  3. You went on a Disney holiday - again! Aren't you sick of them by now? Aren't they all the same anyway?

My answers (if anyone were rude enough to phrase their question honestly using any of these three alternatives) would be:

  1. Yes
  2. Yes
  3. NO and NOOOOOOO.

I make no secret of the fact that Antony is the Disney fanatic in our household. People don't believe me of course, especially when I tell people that it's not just Antony who has 'unlocked the achievement' (XBox style) of visiting EVERY DISNEY PARK ON THE PLANET. I have too. The hint of pride in my voice kind of gives it away.

Yes, together we have conquered Paris (several times), Florida (twice), California, Hong Kong and Tokyo. And now Shanghai. When he's in a competitive mood, Antony is quick to point out that I've not properly unlocked this achievement because I haven't visited Blizzard Beach in Florida, but I'm hydrophobic so I'm exempt from water parks. I have a doctor's note and everything, honest.

When I roll my eyes and announce to people  "yes, we're off to Disney AGAIN, Antony insists on it" no one really buys it. They have an even harder time buying what I say next: "They're not all the same. They're all really different."

If you've never been to a Disney park, or you've only been to one, this is especially hard to swallow. After all, Disney is synonymous with globalisation. It's the gigantic homogenising corporation you think of after (and maybe before) McDonald's, Starbucks and Apple.

But Disney doesn't rake in the dollars just by copying and pasting their winning formula, secret-sauce like, onto another culture. The early troubles of 'Euro Disney' are a testament to this: it took a rebrand (Disneyland Paris) and lots of small changes to get that park in the black. Foremost amongst them was the decision to lift the prohibition on alcohol in the park. Yes, some bright spark (probably a whole committee of them) thought French people would enjoy spending the entire day with their family without a glass of or two of vin rouge or vin blanc. I'm English and I shudder at the thought.

Without wishing to spend any longer skirting close to being offensively stereotypical, this does then raise the question: how Chinese is Shanghai Disneyland?

For the record, my knowledge of Chinese culture is patchy. I'm a fan boy, not a scholar. My knowledge all stems from half a dozen novels set or written there, a few non-fiction books (largely about the British Empire's dastardly deeds in the country) and a LOT of Chinese movies, from Bruce Lee to Zhang Yimou and everything in between.

Oh, and of course food. I adore Chinese food. If I'm ever faced with a choice about where we go to eat I will always pick Chinese. I love it all: from the westernised approximation of Cantonese cuisine (with it's radioactively bright, MSG-saturated colours) to the more traditional variants (mild Shanghainese, spicy Sichuan, etc) which favour fresh ingredients, delicate flavours and steaming over frying.

Bearing all that in mind, these are my Top 8* Chinese(ish) things about Shanghai Disneyland. They should give you a flavour of being there and show that the execs and Imagineers really meant it when they set their sights on making their latest park authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese.

*the luckiest number in Chinese culture


1. Buns. Lots of Buns.

If you like Chinese steamed pork buns, Shanghai Disneyland is the place for you. You can get them everywhere. Baked goods are slightly rarer, but Remy's Patisserie (named for Ratatouille's leading rat) will sate all your cake-y, pastry desires. My favourite was Mickey's nut bun (far right) which, as well as having a mildly innuendo-laden name (which made me laugh immaturely every time I ordered it) was utterly delicious. I don't think it's very Chinese, but I've never had anything quite like it anywhere else in the world so let's just go with it for now. More traditional items, like the baked pork bun (middle) were delightful too. Definitely on the distinctly Chinese side of things - I'm not sure being stamped with an angry red Mickey head is 'authentically Disney' but... look at the nut bun! It's in the shape of Mickey's head!  That balances things out somewhat I feel.


2. Fireworks

We're on safer ground here. What's more distinctly Chinese than fireworks? I actually loathe fireworks. I think they're overrated and noisy. I've always had this opinion and I probably always will, but these fireworks came the closest to making me a convert than any others I've seen. The display was spectacular in the truest sense. The accompanying music choices helped of course - the perfect mix of classic and recent Disney melodies. But it was the giant geysers of flame which made the largest impact on me - quite literally at times when I started questioning whether I was standing a safe distance away. Hot, hot, hot.


3. Isn't it pretty?

Yes. Yes it is. Shanghai Disneyland is probably the prettiest park of them all (maybe with the exception of Paris in winter). It helped that we went in early spring. Those perfect blossoms! Yes, they're a national symbol of Japan (one of the few things that went the other way in the US-Japan cultural exchange). But when they're this gorgeous, the Chinese would be well within their rights to appropriate them as a symbol of their own.


4. Wandering Moon Restaurant

The. Best. Beef. Noodle. Soup. We. Have. Ever. Eaten. It's actually surprisingly difficult to find American food in Shanghai Disneyland - not that we tried (we eventually stumbled into the only burger restaurant, which is at the back of Tomorrowland, only to march straight back out again). Just by itself, the Wandering Moon shuts down anyone who thinks Disney dining = fatty salty junk food. The fact that most of the other eateries are just as good seals the deal on this being one of the best parks to get a meal that will utterly fill you up but won't make you feel bad about yourself afterwards.


5. Pirates!

We're pretty sure the guy Jack Sparrow-ing it up in this photo was English, but he was the only one. All of the other pirates we encountered were Chinese. And with a whole Pirates of the Caribbean land (Treasure Cove) in Shanghai Disneyland, that's a lot of pirates! Of course the Chinese had pirates - in real life and screen life. The third movie (At World's End) even opens in China with Chow Yun-Fat memorably portraying pirate leader Sao Feng (based on the real life pirate Cheung Po Tsai). In terms of piratical attractions, the 'Battle For The Sunken Treasure' ride was sublime - it was probably my favourite in the park, although TRON (see below) might also have that honour. A largely incomprehensible delight (for those non-Mandarin speakers) was the Pirates stunt show 'Eye of the Storm'. Without the aid of subtitles, we still got the gist. Although we missed out on the verbal gags, anything verbal worked: the guy playing Jack Sparrow emulated Johnny Depp's gestures utterly convincingly. Not hearing any English for 30 minutes was a refreshing change and reminded us that we should probably get around to learning Mandarin sometime in the next decade.



It's a hard film to love is TRON. It fits the bill as a cult favourite but, I will confess, I just find it boring. The sequel was moderately diverting but I struggle to remember much about it. This is the complete opposite to the TRON Lightcycle Power Run which was an experience we were eager to repeat. Again. And again. And ("quick, grab that Fastpass!") again. So what's Chinese about the Troncoaster? Well, er... not much to be honest, but it's not in any of the other parks yet (it's scheduled for Florida by 2021). Perhaps the one thing that was culturally different was the reaction of our fellow park patrons to the photo above when it appeared on the screens at the end of one of our many rides. We had been on the receiving ends of literally thousands of stares by the end of our first day at Shanghai Disneyland. Part of this could be put down to us being foreigners (very much a minority) with interestingly coloured hair (that's both of us now Antony has gone sort-of-blonde too). Most of it was due to us holding hands the entire time. Outwards expressions of same sex love were non-existent - aside from ours. But we both refuse to hide who we are and, when straight couples are holding hands, so do we. It turns out it wasn't homophobia driving the stares (mostly) but curiosity. This was proven when the photo of our lip-locking TRON ride drew an impressively-large crowd of onlookers, all literally pushing each other out of the way to photograph their own versions using their cameraphones. Who knows? We might even be Weibo (Chinese Facebook) stars by now!


7. Star W... where is everyone?

Star Wars hasn't caught on in China the same way it has in most other parts of the world. That meant we got photos with all the characters, including Darth Vader and Kylo Ren without having to queue. At all. No seriously. We almost felt bad for the people inside these costumes... by which I mean, respectively, Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo. Star Wars is real right?


8. Breakfast congee

Of course, I had to finish with some more food. Except this was food not at the ends but at the start of our days. The Toy Story Hotel (note the themed plates) served American and Continental breakfast, but why would you bother when you can have pork buns, noodle soup, fried greens and congee? If you're wondering what the latter of these is (clearly you're not well-versed in Wong Kar-Wei movies, where they eat it ALL THE TIME) is a kind of gruel, which tastes far better than than the English, Oliver Twist-y word sounds I can assure you.