The Happiest Place in Shanghai

Well, sort of.

If standing in line—a lot of lines—makes you happy, then a visit to the two-year-old Shanghai Disney park will be an unbeatable experience. In eight hours at the park on a Monday earlier this month, I spent roughly two-thirds of my time in one line or another and read an entire novel on my Kindle. I had anticipated crowds—this is China, after all—but was still a bit shocked at how little I was able to do because of the incredible wait times at all the rides.

If you’re surprised that the park was so crowded on a Monday in November, you should know that this was no typical Monday: due to the China International Import Expo taking place in Shanghai that week, the government closed schools and offices on Monday and Tuesday (the time was made up on weekends), freeing up lots of kids and their parents for a weekday trip to Shanghai Disney. I didn’t learn this until Sunday evening, and while I could have changed my plans, Monday’s weather forecast looked like the best of the days I’d be there (and indeed, it was), so I foolishly told myself that surely the park wouldn’t be that crowded.

Yeah. It was that crowded.

I realized what I was in for as soon as I walked from the Shanghai Disney subway station to the plaza in front of the park entrance, where dozens of security guards were herding everyone into three cattle chutes. This was the pre-security-queue queue: I waited here for about 20 minutes, and every five minutes or so the guards would open the gate at the front of one cattle chute to release a few dozen people, who then headed to one of two lines for security. Fortunately, the day was overcast, breezy, and about 70 degrees; I couldn’t imagine waiting on the plaza in full sun.

I reached the front of my cattle chute and was freed to get into the queue for security. This was the line to beat all lines: a series of four-foot-tall stanchions snaked around the plaza, corralling hundreds and hundreds of people into a procession that moved forward at a snail’s pace. I eyed the mass of people in front of me, opened my book again, and settled in.


For decades, foreign visitors to China have lamented the anarchy of lines, where assertiveness and sharp elbows serve you better than patience and politeness. Overall, I found the line culture at Shanghai Disney remarkably calm, given the stakes (who really wants to wait in line for over an hour?). Yes, there were a few pushy people who tried to find a gap ahead and jump the queue, but the “cast members” (park employees) were pretty vigilant and quick to reprimand them.

As I shuffled forward in the security line, I wondered if it would have been any better had I arrived before 9am, when the park opened. That had been my original intent—jet lag had me awake by 4am—but I’d taken my time with breakfast and getting ready, paused to read a few things on the internet, and not even left the apartment where I was staying until after 9. Two long subway rides had eaten up even more time, so it was 10:30 when I’d entered the cattle-chute line. As noon approached, I crept toward the security gate.

I finally reached the front and a guard directed me to a metal detector and table staffed by two more guards ready to check my handbag. Thoroughly check. For anyone thinking of smuggling in a loved one’s ashes to scatter at Shanghai Disney—don’t. I’m 99.9 percent certain the guards would find and confiscate them.

I spent a few minutes in a much shorter line to buy my entrance ticket and learned that they really, really want you to buy your tickets through the Shanghai Disney app, but I hadn’t done so and couldn’t connect to the park wifi for some reason, so was grudgingly permitted to conduct my transaction with an actual human being. I also learned that they expect you to have your passport when buying a ticket, but will accept a Michigan driver’s license in a pinch. After another 10-minute wait to have my ticket scanned at the entrance gate, I was finally—at 12:40, more than two hours after I’d first arrived—inside the park.


And hungry, so my first task was to find food. I walked down Mickey Avenue, the Shanghai version of Main Street, USA, which was still decked out for Halloween with bright orange pumpkins and clusters of golden leaves festooning every façade. I spotted a couple of restaurants, but having burned up so much time already I decided I wanted something I could eat on the go; I was starting to realize just how little I would be able to do with the remainder of the day. I headed toward Fantasyland and bought an ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse for lunch.

This is probably where I should mention that I have relatively little Disney experience. I’ve only been to Disneyland in California, twice—the first time for my 28th birthday, the second a year or two later—so if you’re looking for a detailed evaluation of Shanghai Disney compared to other parks, you should consult another site (I found this one helpful). Even as a relative novice, though, I could tell that Shanghai Disney is small, with only a handful of rides in each section of the park. Having so few rides means that there’s a lot of demand for each of them, and that means … lines. Really. Long. Lines. (And yes, there is FastPass, but they had all been distributed for the day long before I made it through the park gates.)

Every attraction has a sign at the entrance stating the current wait time, and throughout the day I found all of them spot-on. The wait for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train never dipped below 90 minutes, so I crossed that one off my list. The Alice in Wonderland Maze had a wait time of only 5 minutes, but I decided that was so absurdly low compared to everything else that it surely had to be a dud attraction. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh offered a wait time of 40 minutes, which I determined was exactly the amount of patience I possess. I made my way to the Hundred Acre Wood.


Waiting 40 minutes for a 2-minute ride that turned out to be exactly the same one I’d been on in California—except in Chinese—was, in retrospect, the one truly bad decision I made all day. It just wasn’t worth it. I did much better when I exited the ride and walked right into a short-ish line of people waiting to meet the bear himself. (No, he’s not banned in China.)

One big difference between the California and Shanghai parks, I think (again, not a Disney expert speaking here) is that in Shanghai you can only meet the characters at designated places. They don’t walk around the park for spontaneous encounters; when a cast member announced that Pooh needed a short “hunny break” and would be right back, a number of employees surrounded the bear Secret Service-style to escort him away. I assume this is because with the Shanghai crowds having the characters roam freely and stop for photos would result in chaos, so the only way to handle character interactions is to have everyone line up. (Some research online tells me that my memory of characters walking around the California park is correct, but Disney World in Florida limits character meet-and-greets to fixed locations, as Shanghai does.)

Given the long line of people—very few of them children!—waiting to meet Winnie the Pooh, I was surprised to observe the amount of time he devoted to each. When I finally reached the front of the queue, I handed my phone to the cast member taking photos and Pooh greeted me with a hug, then wordlessly directed me to join him in several different Instagram-quality poses before sending me off with a wave. I checked the photos the staffer had taken and saw that she had snapped nearly a dozen shots. There was much less of an assembly-line feel than what I remember of character encounters in California, and I walked away pleased with the “wait time:experience satisfaction” ratio of meeting Pooh.


After one more line in the Hundred Acre Wood (for Pooh’s Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the famous spinning teacups ride), I took a break to walk around a bit and eat a Mickey-shaped pretzel. (I’m pretty sure you could go an entire day at Shanghai Disney and only eat items made in the shape of mouse ears.) I took a closer look at the castle, which is the largest among all Disney parks and is an original design, not a replica from one of the princess movies. I walked through Toy Story Land and Tomorrowland, where the main attraction is the TRON Lightcycle Power Run, perhaps the most popular ride in the entire park for those whose stomachs don’t drop just reading about it. I people-watched and noted that while there were plenty of parents and grandparents with small children, an even larger percentage of the park-goers seemed to be young couples in their late teens and early twenties, many of them wearing matching outfits, or at least matching Minnie Mouse ears (way more popular than plain Mickey ones, for whatever reason).

Shanghai Disney, though part of a global brand, seems largely geared toward serving the domestic audience. There were a few other foreigners, but very few; throughout the day, cast members hesitantly greeted me in English, then quickly switched into Mandarin when they heard me speak it. Fumbling with cash for my food and souvenirs, I looked lame compared to everyone else as they held up their phones to be scanned for mobile payment, which I hadn’t bothered to figure out on this short China trip. In a series of mosaics in the Gardens of Imagination, Disney characters are assigned to each of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and people lined up to take selfies with the mural for their birth year. (Upon seeing that my Year of the Dog garnered Pluto as its representative, I skipped the photo. Pluto? What about the 101 Dalmatians? Lady and the Tramp? I don’t get Pluto.)

Dusk started to fall before 5pm and as the park’s lights began to blink on I decided I had enough patience for a few more lines. Somewhat randomly, I jumped in the queue for the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, with a posted 40-minute wait time (during which I finished my book and started scanning my Kindle library for a second). Despite having no prior knowledge of the ride, I lucked into going on it at just the right time: the voyage is a boat trip past several large dioramas of scenes from Disney movies—Beauty and the Beast dancing, Aladdin and the Genie imagining riches, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice casting spells—augmented with music, fountains, and lights. A few Disney blogs I checked out later were very down on this attraction, but I noticed that the authors had all ridden it during the daytime; I think the experience at night, when the fountains and lights can really shine, is vastly superior. At nearly 10 minutes, by my watch, it’s also remarkably long for a Disney park ride, so I felt like I had really gotten something for my wait in line.


That feeling did not carry over to my next choice of attraction, a walk through the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Although the line was comparatively short (20 minutes), the focus of the attraction—an episodic retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—didn’t really capture my attention. I could feel my enthusiasm flagging and began to reconsider my intent to stay until the day’s grand finale, a fireworks spectacular scheduled for 8:30pm, though I had read that it’s best to secure a seat an hour and a half in advance. It was a little after 6pm, and as I considered the prospect of killing an hour and then spending 90 dreary, increasingly chilly minutes just waiting around, I realized that my decision was an easy one: it was time to go.

I exited via Disneytown, a shopping and dining district featuring a mix of restaurants—everything from international names like The Cheesecake Factory and Wolfgang Puck to local brands like Bread Talk and Lost Heaven. I stopped in at Bread Talk to pick up some filled buns that I ate as I walked back to the subway, pausing to take a photo of the massive inflatable Donald Duck floating on the lake that sits at the center of the resort.


During my metro ride home, I asked myself if my day at Shanghai Disney had been worth it. In a very rigid, yuan-and-fen calculation of ticket price (US$60) versus engagement, I would say the answer is no. I was a little stunned to do the math later and determine that of the eight hours I was on the Shanghai Disney grounds, I spent at least five standing in lines. Some of that time spent waiting could have been reduced, surely, if I had been able to go on a different day, if I’d known to get there before opening, and if I had been able to take advantage of the FastPass system. But I also think that waiting in line is simply a fact of life at Shanghai Disney on most days, as the park’s current supply of attractions cannot satisfy popular demand.

Still, it’s Disney. Even on an overcast November Monday, there was something delightful about it, as I heard familiar songs from my favorite movies, noticed the tiny details in decor that add just a little something extra, and debated how many mouse-ear-shaped items one human should eat in a day (in retrospect, I wish I had tried the Mickey pizza). Would I have had as much fun spending the day at the new Shanghai History Museum? No, no I would not, as I learned later in the week (that story to come). Checking out the park was something I wanted to do on this trip and I’m glad I was able to make it happen.

So while I am not a Disney park expert, here are my tips for Shanghai Disney: don’t go on a local holiday. Do your research, get there early, and have a flexible plan for the day. Expect lines. And above all, bring a book—or two.


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