“My concentration was broken by Donald Duck, who was blowing me a kiss from the back of a moving train car. A short university-aged girl wearing a Donald Duck shirt and hat chased after him with a camera, shouting the duck’s first name.”
Have you ever read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again? If you haven’t, don’t worry, I’m about to complete the analogy. In the essay, Wallace outlines his voyage on a week-long luxury Caribbean cruise. He rails against the whole experience, completely nonplussed by the artificial dreamscape and his fellow passengers who seem to be genuinely enjoying it.
This piece is pretty much going to be that.
On June 16, I went to Shanghai Disneyland for its one-year anniversary celebration. The park had surpassed expectations, bringing in 11 million visitors in its first year, an occasion that called for a surprise “magical celebration moment,” according to a press release. I don’t know much about Disney’s parks, so I brought along a Disney park superfan – we’ll call him Stewart – to offer scale and perspective. We boarded Line 11 and got ready for the long haul.
Walking from the Disney Resort station to the park, Stewart began to appear uneasy.
“This is really different from all the other Disneys,” he said, foreshadowing a recurring theme.
There was something strange about the long walkway from the subway to the park, speckled with new arrivals. Disney-friendly sounds echoed from some unknown source into the open stretch of solid gray sky overhead. No clouds, just gray.
We walked straight past the pre-park hubbub (confused patrons, ticket scalpers, line cutters), entered through metal detectors and bag check (thorough, as expected – no chance to sneak booze past these guys) and into the park itself. The first thing I noticed was the world-building happening around us. Walking into the Disney Square was like crossing the threshold into an alternate reality. On the outside, you have the sound of human squawking through megaphones; on the inside, it’s all replaced by the quirky, upbeat tunes you might find Mickey Mouse whistling on a stroll through the park. “This is pretty dope,” I said to Stewart.
“It’s really different from all the other Disneys,” he replied.
Stewart was a veteran, and so we did the correct thing, which was to head directly from the entrance gates to the badass Tron ride and get ourselves a FastPass. We grabbed ours at around 11:00 am, reserving two spots for the ride at 4:00-5:00 pm. If we’d been much later, we probably wouldn’t have been able to ride Tron, as the normal wait time without FastPasses is three hours. Can you imagine gearing up for an intensive nine-hour day at Disneyland, and then spending one third of that day in line for a 90-second ride? Neither can we. And thus, another theme of the day reared its head – the sheer, insurmountable, immovable number of people here. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but there are a lot of people in China. As it turns out, there are a lot of people at Shanghai Disneyland, too. To move anywhere means to traverse a sea of people – this goes for lines, for attractions, for food, as well as just going from one part of the massive park to another.
After reserving our spot, we left the area to find a way to kill time. At the shortest line we could find, we waited, unmoving, for 25 minutes before we decided to cut our losses and eat. Following the map to a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed cafeteria, we were presented with a selection of rubbery-looking meat dishes, each for around 100 RMB (roughly $15). $15 actually isn’t crazy, but it’s enough for four days’ worth of Chinese food, so we weren’t thrilled. We looked around at the more savvy Chinese park-goers, reaching into bags and pulling out foods they’d brought from home, biting into sweet rice crackers and looking at us with glee. We stormed away, and set out on a beeline for the restaurants on the park’s outer periphery. Stewart pointed out that this was really different from all the other Disneys.
His chief criticism was the level of magic in the park, which he considered low. He would point at things – a sign, a sidewalk, a food stand – and say that it wasn’t the way Disney was supposed to be. Disney, he told me, was supposed to be a fantasy escape completely removed from the real world, meticulously crafted down to the smallest detail to imbue a sense of wonder. Stewart felt that Shanghai Disneyland did not achieve that, and looking around me at the generic theme park topography, swarms of people going nowhere and dearth of rideable rides, I was inclined to agree. Disney is an immense, multibillion dollar enterprise, but I was still surprised to find myself calling the park commercial. The experience was not unlike a trip to the DMV, moving from line to line through a bland landscape, trying to check off the all the boxes. My concentration was broken by Donald Duck, who was blowing me a kiss from the back of a moving train car. A short university-aged girl wearing a Donald Duck shirt and hat chased after him with a camera, shouting the duck’s first name.
On the way to food, I suddenly became aware there had been zero indicators that it was the park’s one-year anniversary celebration. The first sign that the celebration was, in fact, happening, came when we asked the restaurant attendants about the 88 RMB Disney Meal Plan, which we were told was not available because of the one-year anniversary celebration.
Stopping to tinker with the Disney app, we were ambushed by a smiling attendant named Joshua in a whimsical straw hat. Can I help you with anything? he asked us from behind his toothy grin, which seemed to be permanently etched into his face. He showed us how to use the app to check for other FastPasses (all gone), and we thanked him. Goodbye, thank you! Have a magical day! he waved to us as we walked away. He paused, searching for the words, and then added Happy one-year anniversary! before disappearing back into the inner workings of Disneyland. Indicator number two.
At this point, we were already exhausted. We’d been in the park for several hours, and had not accomplished much. It was 3:32 and we’d only ridden one ride (Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is admittedly awesome), done zero activities, and eaten nothing. We finally got to the exit gates, and I tapped the security lady on the shoulder.
Hi, is it all right for us to leave and come back in? I asked her.
Yes, go out and come in is ok. Just bring ticket, she said.
This is really different from the other Disneys, offered Stewart.
Outside the park, we ate at Wolfgang Puck. We still spent 100 RMB on food, but at least it wasn’t a rubber pork chop. Then we went to the Chinese restaurant next door and ordered four large bottles of beer, which we drank without much conversation. I felt as though I’d endured three days in the span of this afternoon. Stewart looked kind of broken, the starlight of Disney having vanished from his eyes. We glanced at our phones and saw our turn to ride Tron had come. We took deep breaths and waded back into the park.
I’ll condense the next couple hours into a few sentences. We rode Tron, and it was badass.
Could’ve been longer. We tried to wait in line for a few other rides, but two out of three times the dramatic mechanical doors opened to reveal a modest theater room with an interactive video presentation, at which point we would walk away. We took pictures with an impressive Mandarin-speaking Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. We floated ambiently for as long as we could, then gave up and went to go find seats for the magical surprise.
One and a half hours before the surprise, the lawn in front of the castle was already completely spilling over with people. Attendants blew whistles and flapped their arms helplessly to signal that there was no more room. Cramming ourselves into a concrete crevice, we awaited the spectacle.
Our outstanding view from the crevice
Finally, after the sun had set, music began to play and Disney CEO Bob Iger stepped out onto the stage to thunderous applause. Through an interpreter, and a sound system that could only have been designed in the early 1980s, he prepared to address the crowd, and kick off a magical celebration the likes of which they’d never seen. The following is a paraphrased account of his speech:
“Dear Shanghai. I look out on this crowd, and see so many magical faces. They come here to share magic, and to create moments together that will last a lifetime. That’s what Disney is all about. And one year ago, Disney brought the magic of moments to Shanghai, sharing incredible, unforgettable experiences with anyone who still believes in magic. These moments are unforgettable, and it makes me so happy to see all of you here today, sharing moments that you’ll never forget. Enjoy the magic.”
And with that, fireworks launched into the sky, and continued for a succinct minute and forty-five seconds. People clapped at the finale, staring up into a forest of elevated selfie sticks. Floating lanterns attached to drones were lifted into the air to represent good fortune. A Disney employee came out and spoke into the microphone.
“Thank you everybody! There will be a ten-minute break before we begin our Nighttime Spectacular show.”
And that was the third and final indicator of the park’s one-year anniversary. Stewart told me the Nighttime Spectacular show was the same show they did every day at Disneyland. A passing employee confirmed that it was the normal show, with no one-year twists or surprise guests. I felt like I’d just taken part in history’s least magical moment.
But all around me, others felt differently. There really were some magical faces. Tiny kids with their parents, youngsters on dates holding hands, smiling exhausted grandmas. Everybody was truly happy, and come to think of it, had been since the start of the day. The overall feeling from the park’s guests was one of content relaxation. They’d been through the same park experience we had, but here they were positively beaming with happiness. I frowned at the sight of it.
Is the park a success? By many measures, yes. As we made our way to the exit, the captivated crowd of happy families continued to ooh and ahh at the projection display, worn out from a special day at Disneyland with the people they love. Eleven million visitors made the pilgrimage in the park’s first year, and Shanghai Disneyland can only get bigger from here.
I wish nothing but continued growth and success for Shanghai Disneyland. It will just have to grow and succeed without me. On the train home, I felt drained. But Bob Iger had been right about one thing: it wouldn’t be easy for me to forget those moments. I handed a half-empty bottle of water to a barely-conscious Stewart. He drank the rest and slumped down into his seat, closing his eyes.
“That was really different from all the other Disneys,” he mumbled, before drifting into the happiest sleep on earth.