I know what you’re thinking: what took so long for an Inside Job at Shanghai Disneyland
? And I have to admit, I was a bit surprised not to get the call to China’s Magic Kingdom a little earlier. As a bald, cynical 30-something I surely fit the bill for any number of Prince Charming-like characters. Still, with the park’s first birthday on the horizon, get the call I do. And when Disney tell me the job they have in mind involves entering the inner sanctum of the Enchanted Storybook Castle, I get myself suited and booted and prepare for a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth: the end of Line 11.
Accessing Shanghai Disneyland’s ‘back stage’ area is a lot like going through border control. I show a baoan my passport and forms are filled out and signed, before I’m given a temporary pass into a zone that is usually strictly off limits to civilians. The first building we enter is where Disney’s ‘cast members’ (as they call the army of staff who interact with guests inside the resort) prepare to enter the park proper. There are break rooms, a Disney University offering a range of training programmes, and a giant costume warehouse that looks like the final bit of Ikea stores, but with rows upon rows of fairytale outfits instead of flatpack furniture.
I pass a pirate fiddling with his belt buckle and am led into the park through a gate tucked behind Adventure Isle’s waterfall. For starters, they’ve arranged for me to join the team taking photos of guests with Duffy the Bear. It seems an odd place to begin for a Prince Charming-in-waiting, but I suppose I have to trust in the narrative they’ve prepared for me. Or is that just West World? Wait, is Duffy the Bear plotting to have all the other characters rise up so he can bust out of Disneyland?
The answer seems to be a fairly definitive no on that score. Mostly Duffy just wants to hug and wave and high-five with the queue of kids and parents excitedly lining up to have their photos taken with him before they exit through the gift shop.
All that affection is understandably exhausting, so the characters generally do half hour slots before having a break. But when Duffy takes his leave, there’s exciting news: Minnie is out posing for the cameras, and after that Donald and Daisy Duck will be ready for their close-ups just across Mickey Avenue.
Snapping away while the resort guests interact with their favourite Disney characters may seem like a straightforward task, but it’s really not. The people behind the cameras – all of whom hold a photography qualification – have to capture the moments of genuine joy unfolding in front of them, ensure they’re taking quality, wall-mountable shots and talk to the guests (‘a bit closer’, ‘smile’, ‘do you want to give her a hug?’) all at the same time. Add in the constant stream of people who want their photo opportunity plus the need to move them through quickly without making them feel harried, and it’s actually a surprisingly intense job.
It’s a whirlwind of activity that I never really get the hang of, particularly as I constantly worry that the photos I’m taking are sub-standard. The photo quality I blame on my use of an unfamiliar camera (what’s that saying about workers and their tools?); the stress I blame on my brother.
You see, when I was little I went to Disneyland in California and my big brother took photos of me with all the main Disney characters around the park. Amazingly, no matter how many times he wound the film on (yes, we’re talking pre-digital cameras) he didn’t seem to run out of photos. The reason, of course, was because there was no film in the camera – he’d forgotten to load it. I may have cried when we found out.
These days, the chances of a child experiencing such trauma are slim. One of the other roles of the photographers in the park is to scan a special PhotoPass card, which enables guests to download at their leisure the professional photos taken of them throughout the day – with characters and on rides. They can then order prints or simply share on WeChat for that all-important ‘I went to Disneyland today while you were stuck at work’ Moment.
Once I'm done capturing actual moments, we head to the castle and I’m shown the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls are given special Disney-themed princess pampering and head-to-toe styling. Oddly, I’m not offered a princess makeover, but just across the corridor I am told I’ll get to meet Sleeping Beauty.
I assume this is my Prince Charming moment, but a photo op with a Disney princess is all part of the experience at the Royal Banquet Hall restaurant. And not only is Sleeping Beauty wide awake, but it turns out the role that Disney actually have in mind for me here is that of waiter.
I’m shadowing Sherry Wang, who’s been working in the 250-person capacity Royal Banquet Hall for just over six months following her graduation from a hospitality college in Jiangsu. She shows me how to present guests with their a la carte menus and take orders, and points out that children here are always referred to as ‘Little Princess’ or ‘Little Prince’, rather than ‘xiao pengyou’. Sherry then remains table-side while I help ferry dishes such as Prince Charming’s Chocolate Trio out from the surprisingly small kitchen.
The servers are all friendly and professional, as you’d expect. There’s no slapping down of dishes like at many a Shanghai hole-in-the-wall, and any request from the diners is met with a smile. In fact, everything here is met with a smile. When one ‘Little Prince’ starts wailing in protest at being told it’s time to leave by his mother, I look around for someone to roll my eyes at, but nobody’s smile falters. My fellow waitstaff remain unshakeably perky throughout.
Every few minutes, there’s a cartoonishly regal trumpet blast over the speakers and Mickey, Minnie, Donald or Daisy enter in ‘royal’ dress to hug and pose for photos with the diners. They also lead everyone in a little dance. I try to hide my deep-rooted cynicism and general lack of coordination and follow the hand movements as best I can. I feel stupid but Sherry gives me a thumbs up, a big grin and tells me I’m doing great.
I wonder if all the happy happy, smiley smiley stuff means waitstaff just want to lie down in a dark room and listen to some death metal when their shifts end, but Sherry sincerely seems to love it. ‘I get to work with Mickey and Minnie,’ she beams as if no further explanation is needed.
And despite my own misgivings about the incessant cutesiness, Sherry is far from the only member of staff to feel this way. I see so many genuine smiling faces that when someone says to me as I’m leaving that they hope I had a ‘magical day’, I don’t really think it an odd phrase. In fact, through a smile I unthinkingly blurt back a ‘yes’.