A Tour of Hong Kong Disneyland
Published: November 21, 2013 at 3:53 PM
When you're first walking down Main Street, you think, "Wow, the castle's really far away." And when you get to the end of Main Street, you think, "Wow, the castle's really tiny." If WDW vets think the castle in Anaheim is minuscule, they should see this one, which makes the castle that Walt built look like the Burj Khalifa. Plus, there's nothing in it, because it's not very deep either. If I laid down underneath it, my legs would probably stick out. And I didn't ingest anything that said "eat me."
So, instead of going straight through to Fantasyland and getting depressed about this doll house of a castle, let's take the grand circle tour of HKDL and discover the good, the bad and the Mowgli.
When Hong Kong Disneyland first opened, almost half the park was Adventureland, because it took up the entire left side of the park. For a guy whose favorite land as a kid was Adventureland, this should be great… but it's not. That's because most of the things I associate with other Adventurelands aren't here – no Indiana Jones, no Tiki Room and no Pirates. (I haven't been this surly since my trip to Duff Gardens.)
So what is in HKDL's Adventureland? Well, the Jungle River Cruise, which is given in three languages: English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
Three language options mean three different queues
But that's not even the weird part. In a "two birds, one stone" attempt, the Jungle Cruise's river takes the place of the Rivers of America and boats make like the Mark Twain and revolve around an island in the middle. What's in the middle? Not Tom Sawyer Island but Tarzan's Treehouse, although it is reached by bamboo raft, much like Tom and Huck's stomping grounds at other parks.
I tried to give this Adventureland a fair chance, but came to the conclusion that it doesn't quite work. Tarzan's Treehouse is fine if you can walk in, walk around and walk out. It's not quite worth two raft trips, and it's a poor substitute for a free exploration area.
I was further soured on my time in Adventureland by a lackluster trek on the Jungle Cruise. We waited 15 minutes for an English-speaking skipper. During our time at the park, we encountered dozens of cast members who spoke perfectly wonderful English. Wouldn't it be our luck that we'd wait for the one "English-speaking" skipper who couldn't quite deliver what the queue had promised. As soon as she began the tour, all of the English speakers in the boat looked at each other to make sure that we hadn't boarded the wrong one by accident or had our drinks spiked at lunch. But, as the tour continued, you could make out a word now and again. I counted three: gorilla, elephant and bye-bye. When we came to the special effects finale, a Universal-like display of fire, she literally pointed to the rocks and said, "Look … fire" about two seconds before flames were supposed to shoot out of the rocks and surprise us. It figures that the one time it would have been helpful to misunderstand, I heard her perfectly. All of that aside, the river is too open, the ride isn't long enough and this is a poor implementation of the Jungle Cruise, in any language.
Before we leave Adventureland, the place has a few things in its favor. First, it looks great, especially at night with tiki lanterns lighting the pathways and Tarzan's Treehouse lit dramatically across the water. Second, HKDL's performers do an excellent job with Festival of the Lion King, which is presented and sung in English, but features two monkeys that explain certain plot points in Chinese and provide comic relief. There's a multi-level, rotating stage that comes out of the floor, solid acrobatics and wonderful singing. I liked this version, which focuses on re-telling the "Lion King" movie, slightly better than the wonderful version at Disney's Animal Kingdom. But I still miss Pirates.
Past the train tracks, things get much better as we mosey into Grizzly Gulch, part of HKDL's recent three-land expansion. The concept for this exclusive land seems to be a mash-up of Frontierland and Bear Country; Grizzly Gulch is a frontier mining town that's been overrun by those critters. There's plenty of western atmosphere, including ramshackle storefronts, cowboy music and Geyser Gulch, a water play attraction placed on the site of geysers that could have been imported from Yellowstone National Park. Wanted poster puns and photo opportunities abound. It's pretty tiny, but the amount of theming detail might keep you around longer than you'd expect.
If Grizzly Gulch is an updated Frontierland, the land's E-ticket attraction is an updated Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's got an even more cumbersome name: Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. From what I understand, Asians aren't as game for thrill rides as Americans, and Big Grizzly takes that into account. From a coaster standpoint, it's quite tame (although Vekoma did a great job with keeping the track incredibly smooth). It's the ride's storyline that makes it special, including a portion where the uphill chain "breaks" and sends you hurtling backwards into a cave full of dynamite and a couple of curious grizzlies. OK, the part of the ride that follows that scene rises above tame, although to see the hooting and hollering riders exiting at the station, you'd think we'd all survived X2. Thrills are relative, I guess. It's a charming ride, no matter your thrill expectations.
TPI has already devoted tons of coverage to this land and its star attraction, Mystic Manor, which I just wrote about in a feature about trackless rides. To be brief, Mystic Manor is fantastic, Mystic Point, less so. Lord Henry Mystic's house looks beautiful and the black-and-white stone pathway is a cool nod to nearby Macau, but the rest of this "land" includes dull optical illusions and lots of jungle vegetation. It's better that we move on to…
Toy Story Land
Maybe I had really low expectations for this and an unhealthy love of the "Toy Story" universe, but this land was one of my greatest surprises at HKDL. Toy Story Land is like the queue from the Hollywood Studios edition of Toy Story Midway Mania, only amplified and expanded. (If it included a version of Midway Mania, the land would be perfect.) TSL is similar to California Adventure's A Bug's Land, in that guests are shrunken down to the size of the Pixar characters. The idea is that we are in Andy's backyard, where grass blades are the size of bamboo stalks, popsicle sticks are as big as park benches and a giant Woody and Rex are there to greet us.
Toy Story Land features the same attractions as Toy Story Playland at Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (which debuted a year before its Hong Kong sibling). Slinky Dog Spin is a ho-hum spinning ride. I had more fun walking through the giant Lincoln Log house in the queue. Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop strikes a brilliant balance between intense drop towers and thrill-deprived kiddie rides. It's far from terrifying (except for those with a fear of heights), but it's still exciting and it offers a great view of the park.
RC Racer ups the thrills a bit more, as you board RC and zoom up and back on a U-shaped Hot Wheels track. It packed more punch than I expected – but, like Parachute Drop, it finds a solid middle ground between stomach-turning and yawn-inducing.
None of this would be as fun without the exquisite toy theming. Any child of the '50s through the '90s is sure to find giant versions of things they once played with, from the slot car tracks that form the line for RC Racer to K'nex fences that adorn the path to Tinkertoy towers that hold up strands of Christmas lights which illuminate the land after dark. Nicely done.
Walking in from Toy Story Land, Fantasyland looks like most of its other iterations. There's Dumbo, the carousel, the tea cups and storybook houses that surely hold dark ride upon dark ride. Right? Well, no. There are exactly two dark rides in this version of Fantasyland and one of them is It's a Small World, which is set away in its own area. In that way, and with representations of Disney characters such as Woody, Ariel and Mowgli inside, it's kind of like the Disneyland version. But it also features an extensive Asia section complete with a "ferry tale" version of Hong Kong's famous harbor boats and skyline.
In this Fantasyland, there's no Peter Pan, no Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Alice. Only the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. It's no wonder that Pooh is one of the park's three attractions that use Fastpass (the others are Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear). The line was one of the biggest we saw, although it was still only 20 minutes. This Winnie is pretty close to the Orlando edition – complete with the picture of Owl and Mr. Toad.
As with Adventureland, there's an excess of space, which hopefully will be utilized by future attractions. Fantasyland does feature two shows, a highlight for most Asian audiences: Mickey's Philharmagic (identical to its Orlando cousin and in English) and the Golden Mickeys Revue. HKDL has done a nice job with the beautiful Fantasy Gardens area, which features five meet-and-greet opportunities. It sort of reminded me of the character greeting trails at Animal Kingdom. The lines were relatively short for Mickey, Minnie, Pooh and Goofy, but shortest for Donald in a traditional Chinese outfit. Every character we encountered, whether here or elsewhere in the park, was thrilled to engage with anyone, and hammed it up big-time, perhaps a result of the low crowds.
The futuristic space port rounds out the tour. Like other park features, Tomorrowland is small, but does justice to the concept with solid theming and great attractions. Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters mirror the Disneyland versions – the former even featured the Ghost Galaxy layover for the Halloween season (something you can read more about here).
The requisite Tomorrowland spinning ride, called the Orbitron here, features flying saucers that fit two rows of people. The good news is that the extra capacity meant short lines. The bad news (for the folks in the back) is that the up-and-down control is in the front. The land's most unique attraction is Stitch Encounter, which is this park's version of Turtle Talk with Crush. As with the Jungle River Cruise, the theater attraction is presented in three different languages with specific showtimes. Although Stitch didn't relate any scientific facts like Crush does, the show was interactive and amusing. To give you an idea of the level of humor we're talking about, I'd say he had all the kids in stitches.
If you think that's funny, you'd probably also enjoy some of the names we saw engraved on cast members' tags. You may be aware that, upon learning English, many Asians adopt an anglicized nickname. That was certainly the case with some of the cast members we encountered. However, others had names that I can only guess represented their favorite things. A girl named Coffee sold me an ice cream bar, a man named Money operated one of the Toy Story rides, a guy named Ninja cleaned up garbage – and, I assume, took out would-be assassins after dark.
Names aside, we found that most every cast member we met was friendly and helpful – many were positively effusive in their quest to assist. This was a welcome surprise, given some of our experiences in mainland China, where customer service is far from a priority. And there were many wonderful surprises to be found in Hong Kong Disneyland, from its overarching commitment to detail to the dynamic charms of its unique attractions. As the most recent version of Disneyland (for now), it's not yet on the level of its sister parks. But when Hong Kong Disneyland works its brand of magic, it's as good as any kingdom anywhere.