The phone rang at 6 a.m. It was Buzz Lightyear telling us to wake up and save the galaxy.
The call, from an animated character, was the day’s first reminder that my family and I were staying at the Toy Story Hotel, at the new Shanghai Disney Resort. After lifting our eyelids, extra heavy with jet lag, we saw other signs. The walls of our room were painted with clouds. The carpet was decorated with Saturns and sheriff stars. In the courtyard, a statue of Woody, the cowboy-doll hero of the “Toy Story” movies, towered over the vegetation. Sketches of Woody’s friends adorned the shower curtain.
The minibar was filled with nothing.
As we set down a corridor whose end we could barely see, we felt like toddlers lurching toward their destinations. At last we reached the elevator. Woody’s voice hooted, “First floor,” in English and Mandarin.
What were we doing in this three-dimensional cartoon, where the lobby columns were imperfectly aligned building blocks that seemed to have been stacked by giant babies? Where the reception desk was constructed with marbles the size of grapefruit?
My husband, Ernest, and I were rewarding our 10-year-old daughter, Shan, for her stamina and good humor. In the past four days, she had endured a 14-hour plane ride from New York to Shanghai and the embarrassment of watching her parents use clumsy hand gestures to communicate with the locals.
And then there was the emotional strain of visiting the country of her birth. It had been nine years since we adopted Shan from China at the age of 14 months. This was our first return trip, and Shanghai was the air lock we were passing though after leaving the mother ship of the West. Soon we would travel to a small city in Jiangxi Province to visit the orphanage where our daughter spent her first year. We would go to the Jinggang Mountains, where Mao Zedong retreated in the 1920s and organized the Red Army. Eventually, there would be Sichuan Province, hot pots and pandas.
Before this, Shan had occasionally asked us to take her to Disneyland, and we had always turned her down flat. I thought of Disney theme parks as unnaturally clean and cheerful places. To Ernest, who was raised as a somewhat observant Jew, Disneyland was like Christmas — something other people enjoyed.
But Disneyland in Shanghai? That would be different. The park, with its familiar characters, would reintroduce Shan by comfortable degrees to China. And Ernest and I would find it worth the price of a day’s admission to the theme park (about $230 for the three of us) to see Mickey and company translated by a country that had long resisted Disneyfication.
Disneyland Shanghai had been open less than a month when we showed up on a Saturday in July last year. After dropping our bags at the Toy Story Hotel, a low, blue-glass building surrounded by asphalt and crew-cut grass that reminded Ernest of a tech company campus in Silicon Valley, we boarded a bus to the park.
Our fellow passengers, all of whom appeared Asian, included hip young couples (Ray-Bans, porkpie hats), parents bookending single children and a few families with more than one offspring. Could they be Chinese? The country’s one-child policy, begun in the 1970s, had been recently rescinded. As it relaxed, some Chinese couples were allowed to have two children, and here they apparently were. Had Shan noticed them? After all of our conversations about the desperate conditions that forced Chinese parents to give up their babies, was she confused? Aggrieved? She has a face made for seven-card stud. It was impossible to read her thoughts.
At the park entrance, we found maple trees and a Starbucks. Thick strands of fountain water waved like boiling pasta, and the air was steaming hot. It took a long time to be admitted. Guards were searching through bags and confiscating contraband food. Visitors had to patronize the park’s restaurants or starve. We stood around with an adult tour group wearing orange baseball caps and a little boy with Bermuda shorts and a fauxhawk, playing with his mother’s cellphone. A striking number of people wore black-and-white horizontally striped shirts.
The crowd looked back at us with equal intensity, curious about our Chinese daughter and her pasty companions. On our first morning in Shanghai, a woman approached Shan on the street, while I was a few yards away, buying breakfast at a dumpling stand. She rattled off questions in her own language, gesturing toward me. Was I Shan’s mother? Her minder? Her abductor? My daughter, who speaks only English, wasn’t sure what she was saying, but ever since had been hanging a foot or two behind Ernest and me, close enough to keep us in sight but far enough (or so she hoped) to deflect attention.
Past the park’s entry gate, the Mad King Ludwig spires of the Enchanted Storybook Castle soared in the distance, and speakers burbled music from “The Nutcracker.” Shan admired the shops on Mickey Avenue (a renamed Main Street U.S.A.), which in the tradition of Disneyland retail seemed to draw equal inspiration from the Ponte Vecchio and Keebler Elf country. She had yet to learn that the entrances opened onto a single interconnected mall selling Disney merchandise. (When she did, she would not be disappointed.)
A fairy tale schloss. A Potemkin village shopping strip. Elevator Tchaikovsky. It felt like Disneyland as usual, but Shanghai Disneyland broke from the template in crucial ways. We had learned from newspaper reports that there would be no It’s a Small World ride smacking of cultural imperialism. No Space Mountain invoking our interstellar dreams. But there would be Chinese zodiac gardens, each featuring one of a dozen Disney creatures like Thumper (Year of the Rabbit), and a teahouse called the Wandering Moon.
Other attractions were related to some of the Walt Disney Company’s acquisitions, including Marvel Comics and the “Star Wars” franchise.
Officials quoted in the newspapers we read explained that the demographic disruptions of the one-child policy meant that the average visitor’s age would be older than it would be at other Disney parks. From what we saw, Shanghai Disneyland catered in no special way to grown-ups apart from a sign that advised us to seek out “cast members” — the term for Disney park employees — for assistance in finding a place to smoke. Another sign noted that wheelchairs could be found near the area where strollers were rented out.
Moving deeper into the park, we discovered that the wide boulevards were much less crowded than the streets of Shanghai. This must mean we could leap into any activity and cover vast tracts of the six themed sections, we thought. We were wrong. The posted wait time for the Become Iron Man entertainment at Marvel Universe, where we could virtually try on Iron Man suits, was 50 minutes. Boarding the spidery Jet Packs ride at Tomorrowland would take 75 minutes; riding the Tron Lightcycle Power Run roller coaster, 90 minutes.
Ernest and I offered to take turns standing in line. We were not being entirely selfless. Marvel Universe, a black, wart-shaped pavilion where boys were running around shrieking, “Wow,” was air-conditioned. But Shan’s nature is to scan from the periphery before committing to any adventure. So we wandered.
Soon we hustled to the side of Mickey Avenue to watch a gorgeous parade pass by. An all-female band wearing caps drooping long red feathers stood on the back of a dragon float. The women hammered kettledrums and struck a gong suspended from a pagoda. Flames burst from the pagoda’s top. “Mulan,” Shan explained.
At the Camp Discovery attraction at Adventure Isle, a 13-year-old Chinese boy wearing aviator sunglasses introduced himself as Rivers and asked to practice his English with us.
“How old are you?” he asked my husband.
We enjoyed reading people’s shirts. “Clothes Are Genderless” announced a small boy’s white tee. (Mao would have approved; Walt Disney, probably not.) Other T-shirts said “Moschino,” “Miu-Miu” and “1-800-I-Love-You.” A man in his 20s in hot tangerine Nikes wore a shirt that said “Born to Try.” A woman in her 20s wore one that said “Everything Better.”
Disneyland’s propensity for turning dark, anxious European fairy tales into shiny, bulbous entertainments had long struck me as odd. With China in the picture, it was positively surreal. At Pinocchio Village Kitchen, the décor was wipe-down Tyrolean, and the menu included pork ramen and seafood lasagna. The walls were illustrated with vignettes from Disney’s 1940 “Pinocchio,” a scrubbed version of the 1883 saga by the Italian writer Carlo Collodi, who clearly saw the worst in young boys. Not merely mischievous, the original Pinocchio murders the talking cricket that tries to give him wise advice and later abuses his ghost.
Shan ordered pizza with fresh tomatoes, basil and balsamic vinegar (85 yuan, about $12.50, with a Pepsi). The dumplings I bought on the street in Shanghai, by contrast, cost 3 yuan (44 cents). We paid a cashier, who wore lederhosen and a straw hat, and took our food to an outdoor patio hung with Chinese lanterns. A Chinese instrumental version of “Let It Go” from “Frozen” played on the sound system. A boy next to us ate cut-up pizza with chopsticks.
When we returned late that afternoon to the Toy Story Hotel, we found children gathered around a lobby television watching old Mickey Mouse cartoons with no volume. Cast members were twisting balloons into animals and flowers and handing them out. Shan asked for a rose. After noting the park’s bells and whistles, we expected the hotel to be more technologically impressive, with video games and animatronic characters.
We forgot about the nostalgia of “Toy Story.” Set in a postwar American suburb, the movies reveal an ache for the past and not just through the grumblings of old-fashioned playthings that compete for the attention of Andy, their growing boy-owner. The longing is baked into the midcentury décor. With its International-style architecture, Charles and Ray Eames-ish plywood seats and Eero Saarinen-sort-of mushroom-shaped tables, the hotel immersed us in the idea of “Toy Story” — a lost suburban golden age — as effectively as if we were handed virtual-reality headsets.
The oversize playroom theme, evoking the toys’ point of view in the films, represented another kind of golden age: childhood. But here the hotel broke with its model. Youth through the lens of Pixar, which Disney bought in 2006, is no picnic. The joke of “Toy Story” is that Woody and his buddies only pretend to be inanimate when people are around. They are secretly alive, which means that just like real humans experiencing real development, they are hurtling toward death, painfully picking up lessons in maturity along the way. In the movies, the toys are roughed up by mean children and threatened with incineration, whereas the hotel, being a service business that charges upward of $125 a night, offered nothing but comfort and love.
A crowd of cast members cheered us simply for entering the restaurant.
There, Chinese kites shaped like Buzz Lightyear and Slinky Dog hung from the ceiling; Chinese ideograms identified the different kinds of pastry. But everywhere the language of Disney superseded all others. The carrots floating in Shan’s bowl of chicken noodle soup were circles with mouse ears. The movies on tap in our room were all produced or released by you-know-who.
Shan and I curled up with “The Incredibles” (Pixar, 2004). In this animated story of a depressed family of superheroes who are forbidden to use their powers, we again saw midcentury styles. The movie’s flashy cars and swooping furniture were throwbacks to an age of power, not impotence. They referred to the time of Superman, James Bond and tight nuclear families like the Cleavers, which were all part of the pastiche.
We were strangers lodging in a strange American fantasyland wrapped in the enigma of Asia, watching a family of misfits come to grips with their oddities and unite in triumph at the end. We laughed like hyenas and fell asleep.