Hong Kong Disneyland
Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Our visit to Hong Kong Disneyland would be no different. Like Paris and Tokyo, there are a lifetime of sights and experiences to be exposed to in such a remarkable city. Etching out a day or two (or three) for Disney may seem odd to some, but to us, it’s as much about immersing ourselves in the local culture as it is about escaping it. Seeing how these worlds and the world of Disney interact is fascinating, and if you’ve been able to compare the US parks in person, you’ve seen how the differences may be subtle, but they say a lot about how they parks have come to be.
Hong Kong Disneyland is the newest Magic Kingdom, by some 13 years, and as such we knew it wasn’t going to be what we were used to. But that’s ok; if we wanted what we were used to, we wouldn’t have needed to leave our time zone. Instead we wanted to fill in the final gap. We wanted to uncover the newest incarnation and interpretation of Walt Disney’s dream, and gain a deeper perspective on how the company he left behind does business. All it would take is a couple plane tickets.
Actually, it look a lot more than that. I will spare you the details, suffice it to say that we were taking a rather grand vacation. Hong Kong was just the first stop, and after a few days in the gateway to Southeast Asia, we would continue on. The bulk of our trip would be spent in Thailand, 10 days with a few stops in one of the most dynamic countries on the world. Like I said, we try to see more than just Disney.
It would be 16 days including travel across the Pacific, and after months of planning, weeks of anticipation, and days of packing, we were headed to SFO and ready to fly out via Singapore Airlines (on an A380 - a highlight of the trip in its own right). We arrived in decent shape and great spirits, and with an almost startling suddenness, our vacation was underway. The day of arrival was all about acclimation and orientation, and we spent it hitting the most notable of tourist sights. Day two would be spent visiting another spot popular with tourists.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Thursday, February 7th, 2013
Weather: Mostly cloudy, humid, 70
Without even 30 minutes passing since leaving our hotel, we'd made the change to the Disneyland Resort Line, and were through the hillside into to Disney complex. The rugged island provides an amazing natural berm as the entire resort is hidden from view from civilization, and vice versa. It takes several minutes to travel through a darkened tunnel leading from the island’s main highway and rail thoroughfare before pulling into the Hong Kong Disneyland MTR station. And while the resort lacks a monorail, the trains themselves are resplendent with Disneyfied touches - including Mickey-shaped hand rings, character statues, and portraits of Uncle Walt enjoying him some train travel.
Pre-opening was pretty routine, security guards came out for the bag check done immediately in front of the turnstiles, ticket takers manned their posts, and that lucky family with the requisite cute kid was chosen to fake open the park. As 9:30am approached, it was pretty clear that, based on the activity, we would be getting into the park early. Indeed just before half past, the honorees lined up in front of the iconic Main Street station (a dead-ringer for the US parks, Mickey planter and all) and Mickey and Minnie were driven out to the entrance area to lead the countdown. The only indication that we were anywhere but Anaheim was the considerably smaller entrance plaza, and the traditional Chinese clothing our favorite rodents were sporting, in celebration of the New Year.
What is left is the folllowing: Buzz, Space, Autopia in Tomorrowland, Small World, Winnie the Pooh, PhilharMagic, Tea Cups, Carousel, and Dumbo in Fantasyland, Jungle Cruise and Tarzan's Treehouse in Adventureland. The new Grizzly Gulch (no Frontierland) is home to the park's signature ride, Big Grizzly Mountain, an upgrade over most Thunder Mountains. Toy Story Land is a recent improvement as well, and it has a spinning ride, a parachute tower, and an RC Racer half-pipe coaster. Add in two shows, The Golden Mickeys and Festival of the Lion King, and that makes 17 true attractions. I'm pretty sure Disneyland has almost 40. Not to mention a second gate.
Knowing it was a fraction of the park, we were ok spending a fraction of the time we usually allot, but we'd still want to be smart to get in everything we wanted. I wasn't expecting massive crowds given the February weekday, but the Chinese New Year holiday was fast approaching, and who isn't willing to play a little hooky to go to Disneyland? Still, as 9:30am came, I was pleased that the crowd behind us wasn't all that imposing.
We were right into the park, feeling a bit strange that we wouldn't be hopping, and under the train tracks onto Main Street. I was glad to see the traditional introduction to the park. Not that Disneyland Paris' looming hotel isn't stunning - I could give a pass on Tokyo's enclosed echo-fest - but it definitely felt comforting to be in a setting I have such fond memories of. Nevermind that I first made those memories some 9,000 miles away.
There is a Fastpass system, but it's even more limited than you might expect. Only Space, Buzz, and Pooh were our options, and you can guess which one I was most interested in. I assumed Fantasyland would be crazy here too, but there was no fear of missing out on Pooh's passes. I wanted to ride it, for sure, but not nearly as many times as Space.
So there wasn't much need to sort out strategy beyond that, and we were quickly up to the rope strewn across the top of Main Street. We probably would have been just fine taking our time and checking out the sights instead of bothering with being at the front of the rope drop, but like Florida, the entirety of the street was retail, with none of Disneyland's diversions. Either way, we'd be back.
I would be headed right, into Tomorrowland for those Fastpasses, and Megan would go left, through Adventureland into Grizzly Gulch. I'd meet her on the way, and we'd kick off the visit with the park's signature attraction, and the newest addition to Disney's famed mountain range. We soon made it to 10am, and the barrier was dropped right on time.
Like Tokyo, "no running" suggestions are willfully ignored, and no one official seems to care. I gave it my version of a sprint to Space Mountain, mostly ahead of the crowd, and had no trouble accessing our first Fastpasses of the day. It would be a shot all but across to the park to the other mountain, and I found Megan along the way, just shy of the railroad underpass to the park's newest land.
When the park was built, a mere eight years ago, all except for Small World fit snugly inside the railroad circuit. Since then, a much-needed expansion has taken to the left side of the park. Toy Story Land opened in 2009, as the stand-in for Toontown more so less, and is connected to the park above the Jungle Cruise at the 11 o'clock position. Grizzly Gulch connects at the other side of the water, and the 9 o'clock spot. Coming later this year, Mystic Point will connect the two, and provide a full circuit around the back. Something for Disneyland to consider, no?
There are a couple surprise moments, so forgive the spoilers, or jump ahead five paragraphs to avoid them. First, the queue is terrific. Nothing interactive, but a lot of detail in several elaborate scenes, at least on par with Everest or even Journey to the Center of the Earth at DisneySea. We'd have no choice but to whisk through it for now, but we appreciated the effort even if we didn't yet have time to soak it in.
There is a nice, spacious station, even a separate unloading area akin to Everest. The trains seemed all but identical, minus any front or rear locomotive. We were soon at the front of the line, and assigned a row in short order, though I did notice things weren't quite as efficient at was we usually see at Disney parks.
The train makes a familiar dive out of the station and into a darkened tunnel to catch the first lift. At its crest, we see a rather convincing animatronic bear comically using the track switcher as a scratching post, and this is our first indication that hijinx are likely to ensue. We "mistakenly" head down the wrong mine shaft, and the coaster starts out with a modestly brisk run through the canyons and under the area's pathways.
The first act ends at a lift, and in case you didn't catch it when you entered the area, here's where things get turned around. Shy of this second peak, the train struggles, stops, and with the loud whip of simulated cable snap, the train is sent sprawling backwards. The course now continues, taken in reverse, and may be a bit disorienting if still shy of intense.
Past some convincing geysers and bubbling springs, the train comes to a smooth stop inside a cavern, and here we see some more bears, this time clearly mishandling some dynamite. The plunger is pressed and with a literal flash and bang, the train is launched forward into the ride's finale. It's a suitable rush; a nice Disney level of excitement, and there are even some hints of airtime and good Gs as this coaster amps is up where your average Thunder Mountain (i.e., all but Paris) seemingly limps back into the station. Here you come to a stop with some speed, after a nice helix even, and enjoy the final scene. Turns out the bears survived the explosion just as we have, and even have come out ahead by scoring some fish.
All told, the ride is a gem. Again the Disney trifecta of theme, detail, and excitement are hit, and it earns high marks. Granted, it's way tame compared to you average Six Flags thrill ride, but we all know that's not what Disney is remotely after. To its intended audience, it's seemingly a perfect attraction, and we walked away more than pleased with what the present day's Imagineers had created.
The big difference is that the course is actually more like the Rivers of the America itself, and not its usual hidden waterway. This is obvious when watercraft have to give way as rafts shuttle to and from Tarzan's Island. What is wide here at the mouth soon narrows to what we expect here once we leave civilzation behind.
Don't expect a lot of hilarity here, (at least not intentional) as what we could understand seemed to the usual spiel minus the shtick. I'm not sure if bad jokes don't translate, or if our skipper was sticking to a boring script, but the only moment we found humorous was when the skipper remarked in her expectedly heavy accent "Ooh, soo scary!" It's the usual scenes of elephants, hippos, and natives, though no piranhas and no back side of water. The omission of the latter is almost made up for with a unique fire and water scene. Rather impressive, it's worth the ride for that alone.
I met Megan across the courtyard back at PhilharMagic. It's still a novelty since we don't have this in Anaheim, though visits to Tokyo Disneyland and Disney World 17 and 13 months ago respectively, that has waned a bit. We had to wait a few minutes for the next show, and when the doors opened, we got our first bitter taste of how crowds act here.
I fully understand that the American concept of personal space doesn't apply almost anywhere else on Earth, but the unmitigated pushing and shoving experienced here was a sudden and even scary surprise. It's easy to joke about feeling like livestock when visiting any amusement park - but the chaos we endured was a rude cultural awakening. I mean it with no humor whatsoever that it was instantly clear to me how fatal stampedes are indeed possible, something previously unfathomable to me.
I don't think the madness soured us entirely, though a blurry opening sequence and getting poked in the back up the head by the person behind me didn't exactly turn things around. Once the 3D show hit its stride, it was easy enough to get whisked away into the Disney mainstays, and that was surely welcomed. I think some of my excitement for PhilharMagic has faded, though I expect we'll give it a token visit when in Orlando or Tokyo next. Needless to say, we exited a good bit more wary of the crowd than when we entered.
Our target was RC Racer, which I consider the anchor of the area. The other rides may be pleasant diversions, but the twin vertical towers of the Intamin half-pipe coaster really draw you in. We made a beeline for the queue, and were glad to find the wait still inside the station. It was just or two cycles before we were on, and we didn't mind the few minutes we had to take in the cleverly decorated queue, and to watch a group of monks take a ride before us. It was one of a few small reminders that we were on a different side of the planet.
There's not much mystery to this attraction, and no real story, but a few swings back and forth and you're fine without it. It's a far cry from the immersion offered by Grizzly Mountain, and it's something of a well-decorated off-the_shelf attraction, but the ride action is nice, and you're really in a nice setting, so it's easy to enjoy.
Entirely ambivalent about the secondary attractions here, we decided to pass, eager to see the rest of the park. All that really remained was Tomorrowland, so we opted to forgo the surely nice view from the Toy Soldier Parachute Drop and the spinning on Slinky Dog Spin, and aimed for our first trip into space.
It required us to cross pretty much the full width of the park, but as you can imagine, it's not all that daunting of a task here. The hard part, as usual, is getting through the unavoidable bottlenecks in Fantasyland, though there is an easy connecter from there into the top of Tomorrowland provided by the parade thoroughfare. We ended up taking one of the cut-throughs by the side of the castle, and on the right side is a pretty familiar scene. Just like in Anaheim, you’ll find a wishing well, and Snow White’s Grotto.
Space Mountain is just past Stitch Encounter (think Turtle Talk or Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, not the Stitch experience in Orlando.) and we were able to bypass a reasonable 30 minute standby wait. We weren't seeing crowds of epic proportions (especially compared to our Thanksgiving Disneyland visit), but it was still nice to stay ahead what we were facing.
Aside from that, the ride experience has been almost entirely cloned from Anaheim - which is great news considering that is arguably the most enjoyable of the versions. The same train configuration, the same multi-lift sequence, and even the same beloved Michael Giacchino on-ride score all create some major deja vu. Much like Tokyo, it's very familiar yet slightly askew, and the only thing that reminded us that we weren't in Orange County was a more noticeable on-ride themeing treatment.
Completely dark it most certainly was not, and what provided enough light to decently make out a fair amount of the track structure all around you were rather prominent visual elements. It was still a far cry from the visibility on the Rock-N-Roller Coasters, but about on par with what Paris does, seen thankfully minus the jostling. The highlight is probably a nicely lit tunnel during the sole extended drop toward the end of the ride, and the spiraling finale and startling camera strobe are all that we love from the Anaheim version. Perhaps something markedly different might be more interesting, but there was no trouble enjoying what this installation offered.
Our Winnie the Pooh window opened, so we'd be headed there soon, but that meant, more pressingly that we were in the market for some more Fastpasses. As modest as our interest in (this or any) Buzz Lightyear was, it was contingent entirely on a short wait. Seeing another another 30 wait, we got ourselves some Fastpasses (thus having hit all the park offered) and scouted out a place for lunch.
Such a spot was nearby in Tomorrowland, at the Comet Cafe. I went with the Three Treasures, which was chicken, pork, and a salted egg over noodles and broth. Megan had the braised beef yellow curry. Both were great - on par with what we had tried outside the park in Hong Kong proper, and while a bit marked up from in town, still half the price of what we'd pay for two full entreés at a US park.
Still, it's a nice enough dark ride, and we were again more than glad to skip a decent standby line, and we merged and were into the station in a few moments. From there, the ride had to stand in for Peter Pan, Alice, Snow White, Mr. Toad, and all the other classic dark rides. It didn't quite measure up, but what was worth the quick visit.
It was a long way to wind down to catch the end of the line, and there we found a wait of a few minutes that shuffled along. Once setting sail, there was the expected cavalcade of countries, each area with a sign indication it, interestingly. Everything else was exactly the same, including the theme, even with the subtly implemented (in my eyes) Disney characters. The final room did have a nice scene dedicated to Hong Kong, a bit funny considering how small the region is, but telling in how it remains a separate entity from China in many ways.
Perhaps a bit overeager to continue to max out our Fastpass options, we bypassed Tea Cups and caught up with the tail end of the parade as it headed towards the center of the park. We were happy to split off from the trailing crowd as we struggle to get into Tomorrowland as swarms of spectators seemed content to mill about aimlessly despite the conclusion. I ducked into Space Mountain for another round there, and we headed to the opposite end to visit Buzz Lightyear.
Via Fastpass, we joined the queue just shy of the Buzz animatronic debriefing room, actually got to see it for a change, and were quickly onboard thanks to the park's only omnimover ride system. As with Pooh and Small World, the experience was wholly indistinguishable from what he have in California, though that doesn't seem to explain how Megan got a 200,000 point bonus right from the start. Needless to say, it was not a deficit I could surmount.
A steep decent from Victoria Peak the day before had Megan a bit worse for wear, so we headed into the hub for a quick visit to First Aid. There she was able to get some bandages to soothe her feet, and we thought it nice to take a mid-day stroll down Main Street. Instead of hopping to California Adventure (or Epcot, or DisneySea, or Walt Disney Studios), we were looking to give the railroad a ride. Along the we we were still headed upstream as the park was still filling up. We wouldn't be expecting nearly as quiet of an evening.
Past the shops and windows, and a street-side musician (sadly, the park also lacks the Dapper Dans) we were up the stairs at the Main Station excited for our grand circle tour. We would not get it, as just shy of the queue was a sign saying only one-way stops to the opposite station were allowed. It wasn't clear if this was how it always operated, or it if was an issue of crowds and increasing throughput (or both), but we'd only be touring half the perimeter.
We had a few minutes wait for the next train, and even then it was a close call. Requiring one way trips might help with capacity, but the side facing cars do not - compounded by people leaving large gaps between their groups. The only thing that got us on this train was me throwing myself through the gate as the attendant was closing it, and then having him reopen it for Megan who got stuck behind me. We had no trouble finding seats.
This side of the park seemed more interesting anyway, with nice views of Adventureland. Grizzly Gulch and Toy Story land were obscured entirely thanks to the inward facing configuration, so that what a bit of a disappointment. We pulled into the Fantasyland station, and after slogging through an inappropriately narrow exit path, headed for the Tea Cups to make up for our earlier miss.
This slow loader doesn't churn through the crowds, so it was about 15 minutes before we got to the front. It was nice to see operators counting out groups, so there was a teacup waiting for us even though we were among the last to catch the cycle. The setting isn't as whimsical as Disneyland's thanks to the covering, but dizzy is dizzy, and this ride more than provides for that.
Having been going straight through since lunch, we took a load off back over in Tomorrowland, next to the busy water play area. It wasn't exactly hot, but you know how kids get around water. We had some drinks (American Coca-Cola) and rested through the last few minutes before we were able to get Fastpasses, and we got them next door at Space Mountains before using our previous ones. The standby and single rider's looked prime for skipping. It was like taking a trip to Anaheim for a trip into space.
Having made relatively easy work of the major rides with almost half the day left, we could now shift our attention to the pair of live stage shows. Despite having seen the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom a few times over, we were more interested in it (of the two) because of its elaborate staging. The Golden Mickeys were unique, but weren't going to offer anything as dramatic. Consulting the show schedule, we saw we'd easily be able to take in both.
There was an hour until the next Lion King showing, and while we figured most people heed the "arrive 30 minutes prior" direction, we didn't need to go crazy. Visiting Adventureland for the first time since the morning, we could see that they weren't even letting folks in yet, as expected, and we continued along the way to Grizzly Gulch. With no Fastpasses there, we were subject to whatever the standby and single rider waits were, but we weren’t expecting anything too terrible.
It was a bit of a surprise to see posted 40 and 30 minute waits for standby and singles, but it was certainly nothing to complain about. Not having Fastpass redemption really helps the standby line, though we wanted to leave as much extra time to wait for Lion King, so we went for the Singles line, and had a straight shot into the station.
The ride was a continuous photo shoot for sure, though I did put the camera down for the grand finale. The launch has a kick and the closing spins are not the best time to be holding a much loved SLR all exposed. It's still scenic, but it's preferable to put the camera down and hold on to something sturdy.
Exiting the ride, we saw we couldn't have timed it better. With 45 minutes until our show, we took our time leaving the area, and moseyed back into Adventureland. There were saw a solid stream of people funneling into the waiting area, and squeezed in through the non-active Fastpass entrance.
Once through, we saw were were luckily in the first section, and instead of staying on our feet to be towards the front of the pack, we found a railing prime for sitting in the middle of the space. Without a single warning all day to not sit on the hand rails, we knew it was a smart call to get off our feet.
With some time until our show, we had a quick snack with the food we brought in (yay shrimp chips), and enjoyed the scenery and the diversity of the other guests. We didn't stick out quite as much as we had at Tokyo Disneyland, but we still were the minority here, and that's always an interesting change of pace for us.
Looking around I could see we were in the Lion section, and for a moment I was concerned that each holding area would be used for each section of the seating. That would mean we'd have worse seats because we were at the back of our section, and new arrivals might luck out if they were in the front of theirs.
As I said, the show is similar to the Animal Kingdom version in terms of the floats, the costumes, and the skill of the acts. All that really differs is that the performance here more closely follows the plot of the movie, as sort of a staged reenactment. It's still a good bit shy of the Broadway version (which we finally got to see a few months back), but the classic characters, music and artistry of the dancers and acrobats are at least as impressive as any park performance you'll encounter, and the slightest edge over the Animal Kingdom version.
The exit was the usual craziness, though we were ahead of the pack thanks our seats near an aisle. More because of proximity, we thought it a fine time to take those rafts to the treehouse across the way. It just took waiting for the second shuttle, and we were aboard, with a good portion of the exiting show now in the queue behind us.
That required a trip back to the far side Fantasyland, and there we found the well decorated holding area for The Golden Mickeys. Almost like the queue and station for the monorail outside the Magic Kingdom in Florida, it seemed a bit much for the show. But given the large number of people if held and the length of time they would spend there, is was nice to be in pleasant Victorian surroundings.
We got our spot just about 30 minutes beforehand, and we were still among the first third into the theater, again ten minutes before showtime. There was little trouble getting decent seats, just off the left aisle in the center orchestra section, and just like with Lion King, things ended up pretty packed after us. Soon, the show we knew almost nothing about was underway.
The premise is that Mickey and the cavalcade of Disney stars are reveling in their annual awards show, and our host, Bebe, is something of a red carpet reporter. The first few numbers are for the category of Best Hero, and the nominees (and songs) are done by Quasimodo, Tarzan, and Mulan. That last one made sense considering its local subject matter, but it was a little confusing why a couple other third tier acts made the cut.
Things got a little weird when the rest of the show was spent by Mickey and Co. trying to convince our host to shirk her journalistic responsibilities, and they all took a trip Under the Sea and on a Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride. Despite the odd storyline and the often unintentionally hilarious banter, the spectacle itself was perfectly enjoyable; a lot of upbeat music and dancing, good costumes, and plenty of action in the aisles. Can't say it was quite as cohesive as the Lion King, but it was definitely worth the effort, if only because it’s one of very experiences entirely unique to Hong Kong Disneyland.
With just under an hour left, we considered a quick snack on the way to our final destination. The flavored popcorn cart, a nice reminder of the Tokyo parks, we had been eyeing all day was now closed, so we continued onto Grizzly Gulch and found a counter service spot with some good fried snacks. It would hold us over for dinner later on, but there were still a few minutes left of precious park time, and we'd be finishing up right where we started, on Grizzly Mountain.
Just shy of official closing, we had time to swing around for one last ride. It was even quieter than our first ride of the day, and we were able to walk on to the last car. There we really got to enjoy a bit more of the intensity of this familiar yet unique experience. At the end of our day, it was really the only thing we felt like the park had that we truly wish we had stateside, though keep in mind we already have so much there.
At right about 8pm, we headed towards the hub for the fireworks. It sure is nice not to have to take time from riding the rides for something like this, and we could enjoy them knowing we'd gone from wall to wall. We snapped a few pictures on the way (Adventureland is always my favorite land after dark) and joined the spectators in an only partially tree-blocked spot just as the show began.
It was about on par with the Disney World version, minus the saccharine Wishes theme. There were lots of oohs and aahs as the usual music blared around us. It's always nice to have the fireworks as the capstone, and it was fitting that they were enjoyable, but nothing wildly unique - not that we really expected them to be.
The delay resulted in a walkable Main Street, but the shops were still abuzz. We wormed our way through a few of them, glad to see they were all connected, and scouted out some items in the Emporium. Unlike Tokyo, there was plenty of resort-specific options to choose from, though it was still a bit challenging to find something not too ostentatious. Sure, we wanted people at Disneyland to know we had been to the Hong Kong park, but we wanted them to think we were still fashionable.
Back under the train bridge, and we paused for some nighttime views of the Mickey floral and the train station, and soon were out headed back to the metro. The fountain halfway there was impressive in its lighting treatment, and it would be our last proper Disney vista before we headed past the “Thank You For Visiting” sign and into the station.
Thankfully it was quite passable, and we smartly had quick access with the return tickets we had purchased on arrival. (Quick tip: The Hong Kong metro system doesn't offer round-trips. It's one ways, day passes, or multi-use Octopus cards). A train arrived as we descended the escalator, and we were quickly transferred back to the main Lantau line in final Disney splendor. Less than half an hour after leaving the park, we were in our hotel room.
As for Hong Kong Disneyland, it seems a bit unfair to say the park doesn't offer enough to have it stand up to the other resorts. There is no denying it's limited size and scope, but as any park ages and expands, it begins to stand on its own. Let's not forget, one of Disneyland's earliest attractions were mule rides, and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando had no mountains, and no Pirates for its first few years.
Time is not certain to make any park great, but look at how Animal Kingdom and California Adventure have grown from the runts of the litter. We can't expect every park to premier at the level of DisneySea, and at least it's nice to see evidence that a resort is headed in the right direction. That is most certainly the case here. Our only regret is that we arrived just months shy of another land, and another surefire headliner in Mystic Manor, but it's easy to be happy about the improvements.
Even so, it would be silly to say that Hong Kong Disneyland is a destination resort. If you are going to get on a plane and cross the Pacific for a remarkable Disney experience, there is no question you should head to Tokyo. (Seriously, go to Tokyo Disneyland as soon as you can.) But I have little doubt that after three decades (and likely a second gate), this place will have come into its own as well, and we will certainly be headed back - and not just to keep our streak going. Besides, we're going to have to go to Shanghai first.