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Shanghai Disneyland: Uncovering secrets about the new Chinese theme park

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The blurry, fuzzy concept art of a Shanghai Disneyland, filled with fireworks, spotlights and a great big castle, paints a picture short on details and vague on specifics about the planned project in China.

So why all the secrecy on Disney's part? Three reasons:

* To prevent knockoff rides by rival Asian theme parks, which happened before Hong Kong Disneyland's 2005 opening.

* To preserve creative flexibility for Disney's Imagineers during the ongoing "Blue Sky" development phase, when rides, shows and even entire lands appear or disappear.

* To tread lightly with the Chinese government during the upcoming five-year engagement, which follows a delicate two-decade courtship.

Photos: Concept art of Shanghai Disneyland theme park

The basics are clear enough: The $4.4 billion Shanghai Disney resort is expected to open in late 2015 or early 2016 with a $3.7 billion Magic Kingdom-style theme park, two hotels and a Downtown Disney shopping center.

Beyond that, the particulars quickly become hazy.

So let's go over what we know, review what we've seen and ponder the many unknowns:

The Known
The Chinese government wants Shanghai Disneyland to be sharply different from the other five Magic Kingdom theme parks around the globe, with several all-new attractions related to Chinese culture and myth woven into and around classic Disney attractions.

The park's Storybook Castle, the largest and tallest of all Disney's turreted icons, will offer interactive elements,  along with spaces for entertainment, dining and performances. Ascending a winding staircase inside the castle, visitors will meet Disney princesses in the Once Upon a Time adventure. A separate 10-minute boat ride around Fantasyland will depart from inside the castle.

The newest Magic Kingdom will do away with the traditional Main Street USA entrance in favor of an 11-acre park suitable for parades, cultural celebrations and character meet-and-greets.

The theme park will be approached by boats navigating a 100-acre lake that plays up the importance of water to the Chinese and emphasizes the themes of sustainability and nature.

The first phase of the project, which the Chinese government estimates will eventually cost $15 billion upon completion, will occupy just over half of the 1,730-acre property. Shanghai officials say the new resort will one day contain three theme parks. (View photos of the undeveloped Shanghai Disney property.)

Shanghai Disney would be smaller than its Florida counterpart, bigger than Disney's properties in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Anaheim and on par size-wise with the Paris resort.

Upon opening, government officials expect Shanghai Disneyland to attract 7.3 million visitors annually. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger says the new park may offer half-day and evening-only tickets.

The Seen
Over the last two decades, Disney has released several visual representations of the proposed park. As with any evolving project, plans change over time and will no doubt continue to do so during the upcoming development phase.

The newest concept art shows an extra-large castle with a domed cupola, several steeply pitched roofs with widow walks and about a dozen spires, including a bulbous one that recalls Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl television tower. At night, the illuminated castle takes on an ominous look and feel that recalls the Haunted Mansion.

The pagoda-dotted entry park features a cherry-blossom-lined parade route with a Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride on one side and a Fantasyland carousel on the other.

A wider view of the park shows a smudgy, blurry mountain that may remind some of Expedition Everest, Matterhorn Bobsleds or a re-envisioned Pirates of the Caribbean ride dubbed "Splash Pirates."

Concept art, released at a Disney investors' conference in February, shows Mickey Mouse's face in the middle of a hub-like entrance plaza with a skyrocketing fountain nearby. A walkway lined with giant mushrooms or flowers glows along the waterfront.

A Shanghai Disneyland map that emerged in March shows a 200-foot-wide moat surrounding the perimeter of the park, recalling the layout of the Forbidden City. The map also indicates locations for four hotels, including one with a view of the park, although Disney has announced plans for two hotels – one deluxe and one "value."

In July 2010, the Walt Disney Family Museum posted concept art on Twitter showing Shanghai Disneyland with a more traditional Magic Kingdom-style layout:  Adventureland and Frontierland on the left, Tomorrowland on the right, Fantasyland behind the castle and a train track surrounding the perimeter of the park. A version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, sitting on an island in the middle of a lake,  stands out as a key departure from the typical park design.

Back in 2006, Disney's annual report included an illustration for a "concept for a new Disney theme park" that many interpreted as a representation of Shanghai Disneyland. The image showed a central lake surrounded by a mermaid lagoon, an "Indiana Jones"-style temple, a roller coaster and a European village beneath a fairytale castle on a hill, according to Progress City.

The Unknown
For the last several years, insiders with insight into Disney's creative plans have reported on elements reportedly included in the Shanghai park:

* Versions of Disney's well-known Space Mountain and It's a Small World rides, as well as a Tomorrowland-themed land, would be included in the Shanghai park, according to the New York Times.

* The extravagantly designed Adventureland and Frontierland areas of the park will have a lush Tokyo DisneySea look while the rest of the Shanghai park will have an international EPCOT-style feel, according to Blue Sky Disney.

Blue Sky Disney also reports Shanghai Disneyland will include an indoor Tron lightcycle coaster, a dinosaur-themed Lost World River Rapids water ride, a Pirates of the Caribbean stunt show, a Seven Dwarfs mine train coaster and new twists on the classic Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh attractions.

* Characters from newer Disney and Pixar films will populate the park, according to Jim Hill Media: "Woody, Jessie and Bullseye will ride herd on Frontierland while Shanghai Disneyland's Autopia will serve as the centerpiece of a brand-new 'Cars'-themed part of this park. I'm told that Captain Jack Sparrow will stagger around a Pirates-centric version of Adventureland while Rapunzel & her tower will ... well, tower over Fantasyland."

* An exhaustive examination of available Shanghai Disney maps, models and artwork by Theme Park Concepts finds a thatched-roof Lion King restaurant, a Black Pearl pirate ship anchored in Adventureland and a Wonderland-themed labyrinth in Fantasyland.

But as anybody who has followed Disney knows, the "Blue Sky" creative phase is an ever changing process filled with varied and vested interests. As a result, curious bystanders are often left asking the same questions as the knowledgeable decision-makers:

* Will Shanghai Disneyland include classic attractions such as the Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain?

* Will any long-rumored but perpetually-shelved E-Ticket attractions surface in Shanghai?

* Will Marvel characters finally make their Disney theme park debut in Shanghai?

* Will Disney introduce any Chinese mythological stories besides its roster of European fairy tales?

* Will princesses, pixies, pirates and Pixar properties push older Disney characters to the sidelines?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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