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Shanghai Disneyland may be the best mousetrap on Earth

Chicago Tribune

There was never anything Mickey Mouse about the price tag: $5.5 billion. And, sure enough, Shanghai Disney Resort is not a small world, after all.

Indeed, it is colossal.

It's also at long last ready to strut its stuff. June 16 marks the official grand opening of what Walt Disney Co. CEO and Chairman Bob Iger calls "the most technologically advanced Disney park yet."

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Prepping for its premiere, this high-profile entry into the global theme-park industry underwent a full month of previews by invitation only — one of which this observer was lucky enough to grab.

The break-in period allowed some 10,000 brand-new cast members (read: staff) the chance to work out the kinks and fine-tune everything from the boarding process to their phonetic English pronunciation of "Have a magical day."

Typical of a Disney property, the first looks drew near-capacity crowds, equal doses of superlatives and speculation, and, much to the chagrin of the Mouse House, dozens of amateur videos posted to YouTube. But what word of mouth and GoPro captures can't convey is the sheer spectacle of the in-person experience.

At 963 acres — more than six times the footprint of California's original 1955 Disneyland — Shanghai is about triple the size of its closest cousin, 11-year-old Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. Its Magic Kingdom-style theme park, Shanghai Disneyland, is made up of half a dozen themed lands clustered around the Enchanted Storybook Castle, the biggest palace in the Disney portfolio.

Compared with the other parks in the Disney universe of Orlando, Fla. (which opened in 1971), Tokyo (1983) and Paris (1992), Shanghai is also the most expansive and richly detailed when it comes to showcasing its attractions.

Here, totally reimagined from its 49-year-old antecedent in Anaheim, Calif., Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure comprises its own entire land, Treasure Cove. The pirate-themed shops and restaurant — not to mention the jaw-dropping main attraction (more on that later) — all revolve around the movie series starring Johnny Depp. (One quick spoiler: The audio-animatronic Depp, as Capt. Jack Sparrow, first appears as a skeleton.)

The nearly 200-foot-tall Enchanted Storybook Castle is home to all of the Disney princesses. Within resides numerous attractions, including Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, a gentle boat ride that ladles out classic character scenes amid dancing waters; the Once Upon a Time Adventure, featuring interactive participation with Snow White; and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the service station where young girls are transformed into young princesses.

"We are taking everything we've learned from our six decades of exceeding expectations ... to create a truly magical place that is both authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese," Iger said last year, when closely held plans were finally unveiled for the resort, which is 43 percent owned by Disney. The remainder belongs to China's state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group.

Iger has called this new addition to the Burbank, Calif.-based company its most promising opportunity since the Chicago-born Walt Disney himself bought land in central Florida in the 1960s.

As such, some traditionalists may come away surprised: Absent from Shanghai are a train around the circumference, Haunted Mansion hobgoblins and Small World cherubs. Similarly MIA are waterlogged Jungle Cruise elephants (unless you count the fountain of the Dumbo attraction, which itself has been repositioned to the forecourt of the castle), along with Space, Splash and Big Thunder mountains.

Nor should one expect a Main Street gateway to the park; Walt Disney's personal slice of 1890s Americana has been swapped out for Mickey Avenue, a charming take on a 1920s-style Toontown.

Not that every element of parks past has been given the old heave-ho. Peter Pan's Flight and Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue have upped their game with noticeable technological enhancements, while a streamlined Tomorrowland glistens with the added advantage of actually looking futuristic, devoid of the techno-punk flourishes found in its American counterparts.

Besides providing a home port for the heroes of Marvel Comics and Star Wars, the two-tiered Tomorrowland is defined by its neon-lit anchor attraction, TRON Lightcycle Power Run. The roller coaster whizzes by under a winged canopy, allowing ground-level visitors to judge for themselves whether their hearts could take the high-speed cycle journey.

Shanghai's Adventureland is called Adventure Isle. Its towering peak, which shelters the Roaring Rapids water attraction, was still under scaffolding during my preview, although by night it was lit up in a majestic magenta.

Meanwhile, under, around and through a lengthy Indiana Jones-style cave spiraled the line for Soarin' Over the Horizon (to be called Soarin' Around the World when it all-but-simultaneously opens in Anaheim and Orlando), the 2.0 version of the wildly popular hang-glider travelogue. Landmarks around the globe provide the attraction's new theme — citing them would only ruin the thrill — with the added surprise of dramatic aerodynamic dips that caused many in the preview audience to scream.

Even so, little could compare with the loud gasps that met the masterful Pirates. Whether or not an optical illusion, the action-packed sea battle appeared to be in 3-D (without the need for special glasses) and the vessels life-sized. The villain Davy Jones, on the other hand, is supersized, and pretty darned scary.

Hands down, however, the most affectionate response greeted Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy, who hold court inside the castle's Royal Banquet Hall, at a $30-per-adult prix fixe dinner. (Reserve early.) Elsewhere, menus span east and west, from dim sum breakfasts to corn dogs and caramel corn snacks, to Asian BBQ ribs and vegetarian dishes.

In terms of park admission, Shanghai's is less than those stateside: around $76 during the half-month grand-opening period (the first day has been sold out for months), after which standard adult entry will go to $57.

In addition to a Disneytown shopping district and a 123-acre recreational area with a large lake dubbed Wishing Star Park, there are two hotels on the property: the swank Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, where rooms start at around $250 a night, and the ultra kid-friendly Toy Story Hotel, starting at $130 a night.

The resort is about a 20-minute taxi ride from Shanghai's Pudong International Airport. The fare is about $20 — the same as the 50-minute subway ride.

As for the ultimate question, is Shanghai Disneyland worth the 15-hour flight from Chicago?

Paging Aladdin: Is your carpet available?

Stephen M. Silverman is a freelance writer and author of "The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America."

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