One of my favorite parts of being a theme park blogger is taking virtual vacations around the world while sitting at my desk.
Over the last week, I've spent a lot of time virtually traveling to China via online videos of the "soft opening" of Shanghai Disneyland. Disney has begun allowing select visitors to test out the rides, shows and attractions so the employees can prepare for the initial rush of tourists when the new Chinese park officially opens on June 16.
My first impressions of Shanghai Disneyland? It's big, impressive and ready for opening day.
A couple of the rides — Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure and Tron Lightcycle Power Run — are jaw-droppingly beautiful and could set new standards for theme park attractions. A few other rides — Peter Pan's Flight and Soaring Over the Horizon — offer new twists on old favorites.
Obviously nothing beats a first-hand experience and online videos can never do justice to the real thing. Like many theme park fans, I hope to make it to the new park soon. But until then, let's take a virtual tour of Shanghai Disneyland through the eyes of the first visitors to the park.
Spoiler alert: What follows is a detailed description of Shanghai Disneyland and many of the marquee attractions. Consider yourself forewarned.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure
The new Pirates of the Caribbean is certainly the most anticipated and buzzed about ride at Shanghai Disneyland. Unlike previous versions of the attraction, the Shanghai dark ride combines three-dimensional sets and audio-animatronic figures with digital imagery.
The backstory is also different, based almost entirely on the movie series with a few nods to the original 1967 Disneyland ride.
The impressive animatronic figures include a octopus-faced Davy Jones playing an organ with his left crustacean claw and right tentacled hand. A shimmering skeleton standing at a ship's wheel appears to transform into a Jack Sparrow animatronic figure.
The most jaw-dropping moments on the new Pirates ride come courtesy of a series of massive video screens. Midway through the ride a bubble effect creates the illusion of diving under water where riders encounter sunken ships and a giant sea creature on a screen so big you can't see the edges of the frame. The riders resurface again along with a group of sunken ships that battle at close range on a big screen as the ride vehicle passes between two life-size ships.
The effects are stunning even via online video displayed on a computer screen. The real thing should be spectacular.
Tron Lightcycle Power Run
The Tron coaster basically serves as Shanghai Disneyland's version of Space Mountain.
The motorcycle-style trains look phenomenal with their glowing wheels, particularly in the indoor blue-hued launch area designed to look like the circuits inside a computer. The eye candy is so spectacular you can't look away from the futuristic scene.
As the ride heads outside under a curving canopy you realize just how fast the train is going — particularly for a Disney coaster. At 62 mph, Tron is probably the fastest Disney coaster to date.
Heading back inside again, the train zips over glowing hexagon patterns, through illuminated arches and past blinking directional arrows before racing a virtual rival cycle that crashes with a dramatic orange splat.
Soaring Over the Horizon
The familiar Soarin' hang-glider simulator ride gets an all-new movie along with properly spelled name that translates easier for the Chinese audience.
The film also gets a modified score and an international itinerary, replacing the California-centric travelogue of the existing attractions.
The new scenes include an Arctic ocean with a leaping whale, the Sydney Opera House, Germany's Neuschwanstein castle (the inspiration for Disneyland's castle), a herd of African elephants, the Great Wall of China, Egyptian pyramids, India's Taj Majal, hot air balloons in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, outrigger boats off Fiji, Brazil's Iguazu waterfalls and France's Eiffel Tower.
Shown on a domed screen, the movie concludes with nighttime fireworks over Shanghai's skyline. Scent effects include grass over Africa, an ocean breeze over Fiji and roses over India.
The Soarin' rides in Florida's Epcot and Disney's California Adventure will get the upgrades on June 17, a day after the attraction officially opens in China. The U.S. versions will be called Soarin' Around the World.
I suspect the U.S. films will conclude with fireworks over their respective Disney castles. And the Shanghai version may do the same someday soon. The Shanghai skyline scene was likely a necessary storytelling placeholder while the Chinese park was under construction.
Enchanted Storybook Castle
Shanghai Disneyland is home to the largest Disney castle ever — and that's evident from nearly any spot in the park.
The castle is so big that it includes a boat ride (Voyage to the Crystal Grotto), walk-through attraction (Once Upon a Time), restaurant (Royal Banquet Hall), salon (Bippity Boppity Boutique), outdoor stage (for the "Golden Fairytale Fanfare" show) and a character meet-and-greet area.
The Voyage to the Crystal Grotto basically super-sizes Disneyland's Storybook Land Canal Boats with larger scenes and the addition of Jungle Cruise-style boats. The gentle boat ride passes scenes based on "Aladdin," "Tangled," "Mulan" and "The Little Mermaid" with animatronic figures and spouting fountains. A curious scene with colorful psychedelic spinning sculptures seems like a placeholder for an upcoming Disney princess movie. The ride begins and ends indoors underneath the castle where images of Disney characters are projected on the walls of the Crystal Grotto.
The Once Upon a Time walk-through attraction takes place inside the castle at the top of eight flights of stairs. A series of digitally enhanced dioramas tell the story of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." In one scene, visitors gather around a smoking cauldron as the Evil Queen summons digital bugs, snakes and rats. Inside the dwarfs' kitchen, three-dimensional animated animals interact with stacks of dishes sitting in a cupboard.
Mickey's Storybook Express
The daytime parade starts and ends strangely but features a series of beautiful floats and strong dance routines in the middle of the 15-minute procession.
The train-themed parade begins with a steam engine and a host of mismatched characters with not enough to do. At one point, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale along with about half a dozen other characters do the can-can.
A "Finding Nemo" float included a troupe of quirky jellyfish and seagull dancers. The highlight of the parade was a 15-foot-tall puppeted Marshmallow snow monster that followed the "Frozen" float.
The Chinese park chose to highlight some rarely seen characters in the parade. Ulf the mime pub thug joined the performers behind the "Tangled" float, and Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear was part of the "Toy Story" float procession. The finale caboose float featured a grab bag of odd characters that included Stitch, Captain Hook, Mr. Incredible and Oui Oui Marie from "The Aristocats."
Alice in Wonderland Maze
Tucked up against the side of the castle, the hedge maze is reminiscent of a similar labyrinth at Disneyland Paris.
Visitors enter the park-like attraction by choosing from one of three doors. At the center of the maze, a long dinner table is covered with interactive tea pots and tea cups as the scent of cupcakes wafts through the air. Nearby, a dog growls from behind a heavy timber door chained with a padlock.
Peter Pan's Flight
The updated version of the classic dark ride tells the familiar Peter Pan story with a few new flourishes — mostly delivered via video screens big and small.
The Shanghai version of the ride utilizes an overhead coaster track that allows the ride vehicle to speed up, slow down and swivel.
Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue
The updated version of the dark ride adds big and small video screens to the shoot-em-up attraction. Buzz shows up in several digital scenes firing at targets and confounding a Zurg robot.
While the video coverage of Shanghai Disneyland is extensive, there is still much we haven't seen yet inside the Chinese park. At the same time, some of the video footage reveals fairly run-of-the-mill Disney rides that are less dazzling than the marquee attractions.
In Fantasyland, the Hunny Pot Spin is basically a honey-dripping version of the Mad Tea Party tea cups, and the nearby Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh dark ride and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are clones of Disney World attractions.
Tomorrowland looks like a massive space with wide swaths of cement. The Jet Packs seem as boring as the Rocket Jets that inspired them. We have yet to see Star Wars Launch Bay or Stitch Encounter, which are expected to be doppelgangers of existing Disney attractions.
Two lands - Adventure Isle and Treasure Cove — remain largely unexplored via online video. Hopefully in the coming weeks we will get virtual tours of the Roaring Rapids water ride, Camp Discovery rope course, "Tarzan: Call of the Jungle" show, Shipwreck Shore water play area and "Eye of the Storm: Captain Jack's Stunt Spectacular" show.
Likewise, the grand entrance promenade has yet to show up in many online videos. In a few video snippets, the Gardens of Imagination look like a series of cement pathways separated by box hedges surrounding unplanted flower beds (which will likely bloom with color as we get closer to opening day). The Fantasia carousel looks fairly standard issue in one brief video clip. Equally unexplored is Mickey's Avenue entry promenade and the Disneytown shopping mall.
The 90-minute video below takes viewers on an extensive tour of the new park.