WiC reports from Disney’s debut day

People visit Shanghai Disney Resort after the opening ceremony in Shanghai,

Dumbo, or the Little Flying Elephant, as he is known in Chinese

When Johnny Depp was working out how to play the rum-swigging Captain Jack Sparrow, he borrowed some of the mannerisms and verbal tics of the Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards.

And now at Disney’s latest Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Shanghai, visitors can see a near-perfect robot version of Sparrow deliver all his lines – in Chinese.

The attraction is one of the major draws of Shanghai’s new Disneyland, which opened last week with six zones or “lands” spread across 963 acres.

WiC was there for the opening day. Our verdict: overall, the park is well laid-out, beautifully-crafted and, unlike Hong Kong Disney when it was launched, properly landscaped (2.4 million plants, according to a Disney press release).

Other reactions to the park last Thursday seem to have been positive too, despite constant drizzle and one heavy downpour on debut day.

“The quality is very high,” said one early visitor. “It’s all so romantic,” said another, glimpsing the Enchanted Castle – the largest that Disney has ever built – for the first time.

Despite predictions of overcrowding and long waiting times, everything went fairly smoothly on the first day. Perhaps that’s because visitors started to arrive at 3.45am – eight hours before the gates were swung open. Park officials checked tickets and screened bags, putting the early arrivals into a priority-access waiting area. A band played, and Disney characters mingled with the expectant ticketholders.

When the gates finally opened at noon, the visitors streamed in, high-fiving the Disney employees who had lined up to greet them.

In total it took two hours to get everyone who had arrived before midday into the park. After that entry lines were only about 10 minutes long.

Disney declined to give exact numbers of visitors but said that “tens of thousands” had turned up on the first day. Analysts have estimated the park can take more than 60,000 people a day and that it will average 40,000 visitors on a daily basis (for more on these projections, see our Talking Point in WiC329).

Waits for many rides were minimal, although WiC discovered that queue times for the bigger attractions nudged towards two hours at one point.

Messages on social media on the second day suggested that the park was busier and that waits were longer.

“Almost three hours to get on the Roaring Rapids ride and it wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be,” complained one visitor.

Queues weren’t the only gripe. Another concern was that prices were high, with a single steamed pork bun costing Rmb25 ($3.80) – more than even upmarket Beijing and Shanghai restaurants charge, and more than five times the cost of a similar snack at a street stall.

A simple gaifan or covered rice meal – the staple for workers and students across China – costs Rmb80, or about four times more than a standard restaurant.

To avoid these additional expenses some families brought their own meals – a practice Disney has not discouraged, even providing picnic parks.

“If we bought all our food inside the park today we would have spent about a thousand yuan each,” said Xiao Zhigang, part of a six-person picnic group that WiC met.

Aside from the food there are plenty of other opportunities for visitors to spend. There are more than 7,000 products for sale in the park and across the wider resort, varying from Mickey Mouse ears costing Rmb150 to oil paintings costing almost Rmb200,000.

There are also two hotels at the park – the cheaper, more colourful Toy Story Hotel which costs about Rmb800 a night, and the more salubrious Shanghai Disneyland hotel which is about Rmb1,600 per night.

Then there are the Rmb3,000 spa-and-dress-up sessions for young girls and women who want to be transformed into Disney princesses, complete with frock, hair-do and tiara.

And for those with deeper pockets (and good connections) there is even rumoured to be a Club33 – a members-only establishment which costs $12,000 a year. One of the perks is that is the only place in the park that serves alcohol.

It was to this mysterious venue that Disney senior staff and Communist Party officials were rumoured to retreat after the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday morning.

Politburo member Wang Yang was in attendance – he read a letter of congratulation from Chinese President Xi Jinping. American leader Barack Obama also sent a letter of support, which was read out by Disney CEO Bob Iger. “This resort captures the promise of our bilateral relationship,” it said.

Xi’s missive said that he was a “strong supporter” of the venture, and that he hoped the park would “enhance mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples of China and the United States”.

Some netizens took umbrage at such senior endorsements – and particularly the fact that a special Disney gala concert got aired by state broadcaster CCTV the night before the opening.

“Why don’t domestic parks get this level of coverage?” asked one irritated viewer on weibo.

Another wondered whether the boosting of the Disney venture was really “in keeping with traditional Chinese values”.

But overall the coverage was positive, with the newspapers singling out the high level of service at Disney for special praise.

“No matter whether the person is a cleaner, a waitress or a performer, they all wear a sincere smile,” Jinan Daily applauded.

“Domestic theme parks should learn from the quality of Disney’s service. Everyone is happy, like they are celebrating a festival every day,” the Guangming Daily agreed.

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