Do Disney outposts in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong hold allure for U.S. visitors?

Walt Disney Co. has planted its biggest flag with the opening of a third resort destination in Asia.

The Shanghai Disney Resort, which opened in June, cost at least $5.5 billion and sprawls across almost 1,000 acres of former farmland. It joins a two-park Tokyo resort (owned and operated by Japan-based Oriental Land Co. with a license from Disney) and a Hong Kong resort that debuted in 2005.

At their openings, both California Adventure in Anaheim, which opened in 2001 and Hong Kong Disneyland were met with criticism — that the parks were smaller, with too few original attractions, and that they were done on the cheap. 

Disney couldn’t afford the same reaction in Shanghai, so it upped the ante. The resort encompasses two hotels, a lake, a mall akin to Downtown Disney and even a theater where “The Lion King” is performed nightly in Mandarin.

Shanghai Disneyland itself is huge, much bigger than any of Disney’s other castle-themed parks.  The castle alone is large enough to house a restaurant, a salon, a stage show, a walk-through attraction and a boat ride.

Disney also set out to embrace local culture, heritage and cuisine rather than place an exclusively American stamp on Chinese soil. But familiar icons also are present, such as Disney music, character parades and partners such as Wolfgang Puck and Lego.

“Authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese,” Robert Iger, chairman and chief executive of Walt Disney Co., called the resort.

But are the Asian parks something American visitors should set their sights on?

What does a Californian encounter here?  For those of us who don’t speak Japanese or Mandarin, are language obstacles difficult?  Are there cultural hurdles?  How do the costs compare with, say, a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.?

Most important — for those of us who grew up with Disneyland in our backyard — how much overlap is there at these parks with what’s just down the road in Anaheim?

With airfare bargains from LAX to Tokyo, Hong Kong and (especially) Shanghai increasingly common, in September I took advantage of a last-minute air deal to find out.

Shanghai

At Shanghai Disneyland, the most technologically advanced Disney theme park in the world, attractions dazzled, shows amused and mimed interactions with fellow visitors cheered my soul.

And then there was the roller coaster that inspired a moment of panic: I forgot to latch my seat belt.

In fact, there are no seat belts for the E-ticket thriller Tron Lightcycle Power Run. 

Instead, the blue lightcycle I sat atop had a brace that hugged my back, easing me forward into a racing position. Before I knew it the train of lightcycles was vaulting off its launch pad, up a hill at 60 mph and into an elegant arc around the crowd below. 

The ride then coiled inside a darkened building where competing yellow lightcycles appeared to speed toward us, before crashing. 

From the front row, crouched forward, and with no one to block my view, the effect was particularly disorienting.  It wasn’t until climbing off two minutes later that I could reconcile how the seat’s design kept me safely cocooned, sans seat belt.

It was my first adventure at Shanghai Disneyland and I exited with knees trembling.

If “Tron” the movie and its sequel never quite lived up to their promise, leave it to the Mouse House to resurrect a dated relic and convert it into a ride that will be too aggressive for some visitors and catnip to others.

Plant me firmly in that second camp.

Tron the ride is one of several attractions at Shanghai Disneyland found at no other Disney theme park.  And several other attractions we know and love from the parks in Anaheim and Orlando, Fla., are gussied up with new technology. Such durable classics as Peter Pan and Grizzly River Run (renamed Roaring Rapids here) have been enhanced. 

What die-hard who grew up with Disneyland nearby wouldn’t be a bit jealous?

As I rode the Metro in from Pudong, on Shanghai’s east bank, where spanking-new skyscrapers kiss the clouds, the journey evolved from one jammed with commuters to another where kids beamed and tugged at parents’ sleeves. 

Mouse ears haven’t sprouted much in China, but as we neared the promised land, Shanghai’s pushier persona seemed to dissolve in front of my eyes.

The Chinese enter the park wide-eyed, gleeful — much as I did when I first visited the Anaheim park as a 7- or 8-year-old.  

They arrive at the security checkpoint with wheeled suitcases stuffed with picnic fixings (pre-packaged items only, says Disney). They arrive in groups of 20 or 30 wearing identical T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the province they are visiting from on a package tour.

Hubei!

Anhui!

Inner Mongolia!

At the revamped version of Soaring, they swing their legs and squeal over the sweep of visuals, cheering when the camera lands at the Great Wall.  At the “Frozen” stage show they sing along at the top of their lungs in a jam-packed theater.

Us and them?  Of course.  I’m a stranger in a strange Disney land.  And I love being the outsider. 

Shanghai Disneyland is a theme park for the “Lonely Planet” crowd — a traipse through the familiar with a dose of the exotic.

Main Street U.S.A., which probably has no corollary in China, has evolved into Mickey Avenue. The park has the familiar hub-and-spoke system of Disneyland, with a castle — a huge castle — planted at the center, where I turn left to find myself in Tomorrowland and the gorgeous amoeba-like structure that houses Tron and pulses seductively.

To the right is Adventure Isle, and just beyond lies the pirate-themed Treasure Cove. But don’t look for a monorail to ride. In China, where high-speed trains speed along thousands of miles of elevated tracks, Disney’s monorail would be sadly anachronistic.

Yes, it’s a different day at the park.

Ahead of my trip I had heard about cultural differences that might make the visit less than pleasant. News reports from the park’s opening called out guests for littering, line-cutting and worse. 

I saw none of that. No-smoking rules were observed, selfie sticks were tucked away, spitting was tamed and — considering the take-no-prisoners etiquette I’ve witnessed on Shanghai’s Metro —line jumping was nonexistent. 

But no one mentioned an invasion of mobile devices. I was seated in the back row of a Pirates of the Caribbean boat, where more than half of my fellow stowaways held glowing cameras, hoping to bring home a glimpse of Jack Sparrow’s world.

Good luck. The ride is an eye-popper that defies a camera’s grasp. The quest for treasure journeys from a sunken graveyard of ships to a full-blown sea battle that makes the original Disneyland attraction look dinky. 

After four trips through, I still don’t think I took in all the details even after requesting the front row, where cellphone cameras were less likely to distract.

Pirates is said to be the last attraction Walt Disney personally oversaw in Anaheim, but the company’s founder would be gobsmacked by the sophisticated effects and technology at work here. 

That said, I’m not sure what Uncle Walt would have thought of his characters speaking Mandarin.

I count the number of phrases I can manhandle in Mandarin on one hand. Without a grasp of the language, was I hampered in my enjoyment of the park? 

Not at all. Most signs and all menus are in Mandarin and English. Safety announcements are provided in both languages. Still, dialogue on most rides and shows is not translated. But this does not prove to be a major obstacle.

Most employees — er, cast members — try their best to respond to my nosy operational questions, usually with a blush and an apology. If they have trouble communicating, they grab another cast member to help fill in the blanks. 

The few misunderstandings I had were all minor, and more often than not resulted in amusing exchanges.

A bigger concern I had was crowding. Consider: 330 million people live within a three-hour drive of Shanghai. By comparison, the population of Southern California — the main feeder market for the Anaheim parks — is 23 million. 

On the Monday and Tuesday I visited in September, the park was quite busy but crowds were well dispersed throughout the lands. 

I didn’t much experience the logjam of sweaty bodies one often encounters in Anaheim, mainly because the Shanghai park is much larger, with wide walkways rather than choked passageways.

But that isn’t to say there weren’t a lot of people.  And crowd management appeared to be a bit of a work in progress. Thankfully, the Mouse House incorporated the Fastpass system for Shanghai, with one notable deviation: Rather than a Fastpass machine at each ride, there’s a distribution center for each land, covering a total of seven attractions.

On both days I visited, the main gates were open ahead of the posted opening time of 9 a.m.  On the second morning, when I arrived at the Fastpass distribution point for Adventure Isle at 9:03, the first available time slot for Soaring was 6:55 p.m. Fastpass distribution had ended for Roaring Rapids only a few minutes after the park opened; the standby line was 120 minutes.

I then headed to the Fantasyland Fastpass dispensary and found a line of people hundreds deep. Advertised wait times were often off substantially. Fortunately, actual waits were usually much shorter. 

If navigating the waits was sometimes frustrating, over the course of two days I did take in almost all of the attractions and shows, most of them twice. (Tip: Use the single-rider line where available.) 

But what I came away with from Shanghai Disneyland was not a completed checklist of rides and shows, but a cascade of unusual cultural interactions.

At one point, I found myself on the ground, scrunched into a faux rock corner, angling to snag an unposed photo of guests in front of the enormous castle. A group of eight Chinese wearing identical T-shirts (“Chando!”) took note and tried to figure out what it was I saw as being photo-worthy.

A young man in the group, in stilted English, asked what I was doing. Taking a photo, I explained. 

He smiled, nodded and retreated to discuss this with his friends. A few moments later, he came back and mimed a request to take a photo of me.

Sure, I replied. He squatted next to me and snapped a selfie.

Then, one by one, the remaining seven sidled up to me on the ground as they each handed off their phones to one another. I felt a bit like a celebrity — a character wearing the Caucasian costume for the day. 

The encounter, lasting less than five minutes, left me smiling for hours.

So is Shanghai Disneyland worth making a trip to China?  For Disney fans, absolutely. Just leave your checklist at home and arrive with a mind open to a beguiling cultural experience.

And always ask for the front row.

Flights, visas, hotels and more if you go to Disney Shanghai »

Hong Kong

As I was standing in line for Pirates of the Caribbean at Shanghai Disneyland, I met a Disney fan from Guangzhou, the mainland Chinese city about 75 miles from Hong Kong. 

Wilson was dazzled by the Shanghai park. But when I told him I would soon be headed to Hong Kong Disneyland, his smile turned dismissive.

“It’s so small,” he said and shrugged. “Not much to do.”

As I soon discovered, Wilson was right on one count: Hong Kong Disneyland is small.  At just 68 acres, it is at least 20% smaller than Disneyland in Anaheim.  It has fewer attractions, fewer shows and fewer parades.

It also has fewer attendees, drawing barely a third of the visitors that go to the Anaheim park (estimate by Themed Entertainment Assn. June 2016 report). And therein lies the first element of the appeal of Hong Kong Disneyland.

On a weekday visit in early November, my first attraction was Space Mountain. Though the ride has a Fastpass option I walked in at 11:25 a.m. and found just a handful of people in the queue.  Six hours later, there were more cast members running the ride than there were people in line or boarding.

Clearly, not your daddy’s Disneyland.

In fact, the longest lines I saw all day were 30 minutes for Winnie the Pooh (the park’s only other Fastpass) and Dumbo. I waited 15 minutes for a slow-loading Toy Soldier Parachute Drop, and every other line was 10 minutes or less. 

It’s not this uncrowded every day, but Hong Kong Disneyland is the theme park experience, de-stressed — the ideal size for families with young kids.

I didn’t ask Wilson, but it’s likely he visited the Hong Kong park before 2013, when an 18-month series of expansions was completed, adding three new lands to the park and half-a-dozen rides. Two of these rides became instant classics in the Disney pantheon. 

At first glance, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars looks like a copy of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  But there’s more here — a mischievous grizzly bear and a steam engine that breaks down at an inopportune moment are two of the surprises that gave me hearty laughs both times I rode the rails.

Next door, Mystic Manor would appear to be a Haunted Mansion clone. But the trackless ride system, a real story line and truly special effects combine for a fresh adventure, and one not  duplicated at any other Disney park.  It’s immersive, magical and moves swiftly with a vigorous Danny Elfman music score.

I arrived a few weeks too early to see another one-of-a-kind attraction — the Iron Man Experience, which is to open Jan. 11. It will be the first Marvel-themed ride at any Disney park, and the company calls it a “multi-sensory immersive motion experience.”  Next time.

Kids will love that It’s a Small World here incorporates Peter Pan, the Little Mermaid and other Disney characters into the international settings. Sharp-eared guests will pick up the songs “A Whole New World” and “Bare Necessities” subtly woven into the Small World theme.

I did have a couple of complaints about Hong Kong Disneyland. The queues for attractions have nowhere near the imagination or detail of Disney’s best — they’re perfunctory.  Admittedly, lines are short so this might seem silly.  But think of how some of the best Disney adventures, such as Space Mountain, build anticipation through the queuing process.

Oops, make that Hyperspace Mountain, which brings me to my second quibble. 

In Hong Kong, the attraction had a recent makeover to add a “Star Wars” theme. The new effects projected onto Space Mountain’s dome look amateurish—as though fan boys were given a truckload of ancient projection equipment, no budget and let loose.

Flights, visas, hotels and more if you go to Disney Hong Kong »

Tokyo

No such complaint can be leveled at Space Mountain or the other attractions at Tokyo Disneyland.  In fact, this park seemed to be such a careful duplication of Orlando’s Magic Kingdom that I often felt a sense of déjà vu—with Japanese subtitles. Plus, it’s incredibly clean, impeccably managed and the cast members are upbeat.

The Tokyo Disney Resort is neither owned nor managed by Disney.  When it was first approached with the concept for a Tokyo theme park, Disney reportedly had no interest in developing one outside the U.S., but the company agreed to license its characters and theme park concepts to Oriental Land Co.

Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 and was such a roaring success that Disney began crafting plans for a Disneyland in Paris.

Today, the Tokyo resort includes four Disney-branded hotels, six on-site partner hotels, a shopping mall, a Monorail system and a second theme park, Tokyo DisneySea, which opened in 2001.

It’s at DisneySea that the Imagineers — Disney’s creative team — were inspired to assemble what might be their most vivid and visionary concept, an amusement park themed around a “sea” that weaves through seven distinct ports. 

There’s Mediterranean Harbor, replete with gondolas and an ersatz Ponte Vecchio. The American Waterfront is anchored by a steamship, with an elevated electric trolley clanking overhead like Chicago’s “L” trains and a theater with a terrific big band song-and-dance review.  The park’s centerpiece is Mysterious Island, with a volcano taking the place of a castle.

Inside Mt. Prometheus, the Jules Verne setting is fleshed out, with a 20,000 Leagues attraction that uncovers a bizarre undersea world (and no relation to the Submarine Voyage of old) and a counter-service restaurant in a cave outfitted as a geothermal station. The steampunk accents are beautifully detailed, especially at DisneySea’s marquee attraction, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

We enter the ride through a rumbling, hissing lava tube, boarding a “terravator” that descends into the Earth to meet strange creatures until we are eventually spit out on a river of magma.  Combination dark ride and roller coaster — it’s a rush.

A few attractions at DisneySea are familiar. There’s a Tower of Terror (missing the “Twilight Zone” theme), an Indiana Jones attraction and the park’s most popular ride, Toy Story Mania, where waits of 2 1/2 hours were the norm during my visit. 

Otherwise, DisneySea will feel fresh to any theme park aficionado. It’s a great add-on to a Tokyo vacation, and maybe reason for the journey itself.

Die-hard fans will also want to visit Tokyo Disneyland, but in truth, there’s so much that is drawn from the Anaheim and Orlando parks that I don’t find it warrants a special trip.  And, as the third-busiest theme park in the world (according to Themed Entertainment Assn.), the crowds—especially on weekends—can be monstrous. 

Still, there are curiosities that are worth a mention, such as the fact that World Bazaar (it’s Main Street, more or less) is covered to protect guests from heat and rain. The cheesy jokes in Country Bear Jamboree are told in Japanese.(They’re still funny.)

One attraction, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, is almost worth the price of admission. It’s not a copy of other Pooh rides, but a delightful jaunt through the Hundred Acre Wood, and the park’s one don’t-miss for fans.

I had a good time at Tokyo Disneyland, but at the end of the day I was itching to get back to DisneySea next door.  You will be too.

Flights, visas, hotels and more if you go to Disney Tokyo »

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