REVIEW: Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park

Exactly three years after the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, I am back in Shanghai to visit the city’s latest mega theme park: Haichang Ocean Park, which opened in November 2018.

Located on the east side of the city – near the sea – and 20min walk (or 10min in a shuttle bus) from the Lingang Avenue subway station (line 16, 1h from the city centre). The walk is actually quite nice, through a landscaped park, which was full of pink flowers on that day of spring. But I don’t think many people walk to the park! I took the shuttle on the way back, too tired from a day at the park.

Seeing how many people were going to the park in the subway, I knew this clear and beautiful Sunday would be a busy day at the park, still benefiting from a big novelty factor. At 9am the park entrance was buzzing with people – mostly groups – getting ready for their “ocean park” experience.

The entrance area is quite standard with ticketing on the side and entrance gates in the middle in two tiers (bag search first then ticket control). I was almost alone at the ticketing counter and only one of the many counters was open. Clearly things have changed a lot in the time between design of the park and opening; Chinese consumers have shifted to mobile in a big way. This is a good thing to know for designers working on parks in China.

Now let me tell you about the layout. The park is divided in two zones separated by a river and linked by two bridges as well as a small cable car. This is one of the few similarities with Hong Kong Ocean Park.

Two signature rides weave through the two zones. Steel Dolphin is a long Intamin coaster flying across one of the bridges and dropping low just in front of the entrance gate, giving a nice high to visitors as they enter the park: visibly very popular among young adults, big queue. Lava Drifting is an extra long river rapid featuring conveyor belts and waterpark-style slides, which I had never seen before. Lots of point-of-views providing a fun and cooling water element to look at from various areas in the park.

Each zone is home to several themed areas (polar, volcano, sandcastle, snow kingdom, etc), each housing a cluster of attractions anchored by marine life.

For example the polar cluster features the arctic hall with polar bears and beluga whales as well as the Polar Adventure 4D theatre, which tells the story of a penguin and his friends traveling from the South Pole to Shanghai Haichang Park. The movie using proven visual tricks such as the big snow slide or the roller coaster ride is overall average and skewed towards young kids.

I thought I would try one of the other multimedia attractions to get a feel for the quality and execution level. I opted for Journey Under the Sea, a 4D motion dark ride with suspension and rotation. The queue was not very long but extremely slow (I realized later they had only 1 of 5 vehicles in operation). Although the animation quality was good, the theming and animatronics were very average. The only novelty factor is the underwater tunnel, which makes sense for an ocean park but unfortunately with poor transition to the rest of the experience. It felt like an afterthought.

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Haichang is probably better at building large walk-through marine life exhibitions. Although far from Disney quality of theming, these exhibitions are well laid-out and seem to meet the needs of a (largely group) Chinese audience with large circulation, lots of small tanks and interactive touch-screens popular with kids. Some of the features such as the underwater tunnel, the gigantic whale shark tank (inspired by S.E.A. in Sentosa) were very popular.

It is clear Haichang wants to target a very wide audience of kids, youth, parents, grand parents and groups. The park is designed as a giant walk-through with some dedicated areas for specific age groups: the two abovementioned signature rides for youth and a kids’ rides area on the other side of the bridge.

Shows are designed to structure an average day at the park and provide value for visitors, taking easily up to 3h of the day. From mini shows and parades (dancers, mascots, jet skis, etc) to scheduled shows in the exhibition areas (feeding sessions, amazing beluga whale underwater show) and signature shows in their massive dedicated theatres: the killer whale show and the dolphin show.

The (controversial) killer whale show, produced by an international team, is about a young boy dreaming his killer whale plush becomes real. The show called « together » features good tricks, including the popular people splashing with the whale’s tale. For the dolphin show, Haichang made the choice of an indoor theatre allowing for higher production value including the popular rain curtain with light projections. Besides, the tricks are fairly standard and the clowns act before the show pretty average too.

Overall it seems to be all about making it big and loud to impress (bold outdoor theming, big shows) but with a lack of immersion (poor indoor theming, poor multimedia rides), which makes all the difference with the amazing Shanghai Disneyland.

Still, I should highlight some interesting novelties such as the extra long river rapid combining waterpark slides and flume ride, and the underwater tunnel inside the 4D motion dark ride.

The park embraces new technologies with face recognition gates and touch-screen food ordering displays like at McDonald’s. But interestingly visitors still prefer to use paper maps!

Lastly, this review of a Chinese theme park would not be complete without mentioning some minor copyright infringements. On your next visit, I invite you to look for look-alike of the following IP’s:

  • Little Mermaid
  • Olaf
  • Penguins of Madagascar
  • Star Wars