Friday, April 28, 2017

Shanghai Disneyland: Don't Make These Mistakes on Your Visit

Our family just returned from our first visit to Shanghai Disneyland!  We are big Disney fans, and visiting this one means that my husband and I have now visited every Disney park in the world -  4 in Orlando, 2 in Anaheim, 2 in Paris, 2 in Tokyo, 1 in Hong Kong, and now this one in Shanghai!  We read blogs and listened to podcasts to prepare, but we still made mistakes and learned things when we were there.  

So if you're planning a trip to Shanghai or if you just want to know what we learned, read on!

Mistake #1: Arriving at the official opening time.  When we checked into the Toy Story Hotel on Monday, it was late afternoon.  We only had two days of park tickets, so we knew we didn't want to burn one on a half day.  We asked the cast member at the check-in desk what time the park was scheduled to open the next day and were told that the park would open at 8:30.  We had read online that they actually open 30 minutes earlier than that, and we were so glad we got there early.  We were in the security line beside the fountain by 7:51, and the line was already beyond the metal crowd-control gates when we got in line.
We certainly weren't the only people lining up at 7:55!

The hardest part of this was that people were constantly trying to push past us in line.  Josh, the kids, and I ended up standing side by side, four across with our hands or elbows on the crowd-control gates to try to keep people behind us.  (This was a recurring problem throughout our entire trip.)  At about 8:00 the gates opened, and we were allowed to go through the metal detectors two at a time while our bags were inspected.

After we got through security, we chose the far left line at the next set of gates.  Many of the people in line at the first set of gates apparently did not have tickets yet, so the lines at the next set of gates wasn't quite as long.  These gates were the ones that opened at 8:30, but if we had arrived at the security gates at 8:30, I feel certain that at least the beginning of our day would have been significantly different.

Which brings me to
Mistake #2:  Going straight to the Adventure Isle FastPass line. For some reason, Soarin' is enormously popular in Shanghai.  Don't get me wrong, I like Soarin' a lot, and the Shanghai-specific ending of the one here is really cool.  But people here appear to be insanely crazy about this ride.  

Unlike other parks in the world, each land in Shanghai has only one place to get all the FastPasses offered for that land.  There are multiple FastPass machines but only one line per land.  For example, Soarin' and an attraction called Roarin' Rapids that is similar to Animal Kingdom's Kali River Rapids both have FastPasses in Adventure Isle, so you can get FastPasses for either ride at the same kiosks.  At park opening, everyone runs as fast as they can to get into the FastPass line for Adventure Isle instead of just going straight to the attractions themselves!!!!!!  I do not understand it.

Both days we walked right past the already-insanely-long FastPass line and straight to Soarin'.  We had less than a 10-minute wait both days.  When we came out, though, the FastPass line was even longer.  Both days we were there, all the FastPasses for Soarin' were gone for the day by 10:00, and the standby wait time for the rest of the day was 180 minutes.  So don't make the mistake of waiting for a FastPass!

If the weather is warm during your visit, I would go straight to Soarin' one day and then straight to Roarin' Rapids the next.  We were there in March, so it was still very chilly in the morning and we didn't want to get wet that early.  So we did Soarin' first on both days and grabbed Roarin' Rapids FastPasses before they ran out for the day by 11:00.
We're happy because we had no wait getting on to Soarin'!

Mistake #3:  Expecting characters to sign autographs.  Though I never got a straight answer about why this is, none of the characters in Shanghai Disneyland sign autographs.  You can, of course, meet them and get pictures with them, but even the English-speaking face characters such as Belle and Captain America (who are clearly American or perhaps Canadian) don't sign autographs.  Go figure.
Even random rebel pilot guy who spoke English and was clearly capable of writing his name didn't sign autographs.

Mistake #4:  Wasting a FastPass on the Buzz attraction.  For some reason, this is not a terribly popular ride in Shanghai even though I think it's really fun.  In fact, I think this was my favorite Buzz in the whole world.  Your blaster has a laser so that it's much easier to aim, and we all scored higher than we typically do on other Buzz rides in other parks.  We were able to practically walk on all three times we rode it, so there's not really a reason to "waste" a FastPass on it.  Use your FastPasses for TRON instead.
You probably won't need a FastPass for this ride!

Mistake #5:  Thinking that this park can't possibly be as big as people say it is.  People, trust me on this.  This park is massive.  Walking from, say, Soarin' in Adventure Isle to TRON in Tomorrowland at a relatively fast clip still takes a good 15 minutes.  I know bloggers and podcasters who refuse to criss-cross the Magic Kingdom in Orlando because they feel that it's exhausting.  These people would probably just sit down and give up at this park.  If you go, you are going to have to walk.  A lot.  Imagine if you wanted to go from Norway in EPCOT to France six times a day.  It's bigger than that.  Additionally, it doesn't really have the circular layout of EPCOT's World Showcase or the spoke-and-wheel layout of the Magic Kingdom.  It's much more irregular and therefore it's not easy to navigate between lands.  Prepare yourself.

And once you've prepared, get yourself to Shanghai.  And so what if you make a couple of mistakes?  It's totally worth it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Things to Love About Shanghai Disneyland

#1.  TRON.  Seriously, people.  This ride alone is reason enough to go to Shanghai Disneyland.  It is unlike any roller coaster I've ever done before in that you are on a motorcycle-type thing.  It's kind of reminiscent of Space Mountain on a motorcycle in that it is indoors (mostly) and in the dark, but the way you ride on the cycle takes the concept to the next level. Knox was really worried about falling off, but Disney Imagineers have outdone themselves with the ingenious way you are strapped in.  I'm still not sure exactly how they made us feel like we were really riding a motorcycle in that bent-over-the-handlebars kind of crouch that seriously fast bikers do without also making you feel like you could fly off at any moment, but they did.  The restraint comes down comfortably over your back as you pull your handlebars into position, and the backs of your knees are held in place as well.  You feel completely secure while your lightcycle speeds through twists and turns.  You don't need to know the story of the movie TRON to enjoy the ride, but we watched both the 1982 version of the movie and the 2010 sequel to get some context before we left home.  Knox loved both of them, and seeing the movies in advance made him willing to overcome his fear and get on the ride the first time.  Ride it as many times as you can.

Outside the attraction, Kinley and Knox hop on lightcycles for a picture.  You can kind of see the restraint on their backs and the way their legs are secured.  It may appear uncomfortable, but it really isn't.

#2.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure.  You think you know Pirates, don't you?  You've done it at Walt Disney World, and maybe you've even done the Disneyland version.  But, I'm telling you, this ride is like nothing you've ever experienced in a ride of any type before.  (If you're interested in blueprints, patents, and construction secrets, head over to this cool post from Coaster101to learn specifics about how Disney does it.)  Both times we rode it, we were in the front of the boat, and if there had been flies inside, several would have no-doubt flown into my open mouth thanks to the jaw-dropping effects.  Again, the Inagineers have outdone themselves.  From the way you really feel like your boat is sinking to the bottom of the sea to the swashbuckling battle between Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones to the backwards drop that makes the Norway-turned-Frozen ride in EPCOT seem boring, you are completely immersed in the experience.  The boats move in multiple directions, the projection screens are MASSIVE, and the soundtrack left us bum-bum-ba-da-dum-bum-ba-da-dum-bum-ba-da-dum-buming for the rest of the day.

The entrance to to attraction looks even more ominous at night!

#3.  Camp Discovery. This isn't your grandmother's Tom Sawyer Island.  When I initially read about this attraction, I had planned to skip it.  It just sounded like a glorified version of the attraction at Walt Disney World that we usually choose not to do. So I'm so glad that I heard a podcast and read a blog post from TDRexplorer that sang the praises of this attraction and changed my mind!  This is basically a ropes course where you are strapped into a harness attached to a track above you.  The obstacles always have three options - easy, medium, and challenging, and you don't have to choose the same level at each obstacle.  You can do challenging at one, easy at another, and medium at the next.  And some of the challenging ones were REALLY challenging for me.  Climbing the slippery rocks around the waterfall was tough, and when on the last obstacle I saw Josh struggling, I opted for the medium option.  But it's fun and unlike anything at any other Disney park, and that's something to love!

Maneuvering around that waterfall isn't easy but it's fun!  You aren't allowed to take anything with you - not even phones - so a picture after the adventure is all we got.

 #4.  The Castle.  It isn't just that it's the biggest castle Disney has ever built in a park.  It isn't just that it's the only Disney park castle that celebrates all of the princesses.  It isn't just that there is both a walk-through attraction and part of a ride inside.  It isn't just the massive Royal Banquet Hall where you can enjoy a delicious meal with characters.  It's all of that plus the fact it looks the size and scale of the castles of your dreams.  Rather than using forced perspective as they did with the other Disney castles to make the structures look bigger than they actually are, this one is genuinely regal-looking.  And the pink color palette is the stuff dreams are made of.  

Family picture in front of Disney's largest castle

#5.  The Royal Banquet Hall.  I know, I know.  You don't have to go to Shanghai to eat dinner in a Disney castle.  But here's what's awesome about this dining experience.  You don't have to stress out and get online to book reservations 180 days in advance in order to be able to eat there.  In fact, we waited until about 10 days before we left to use Skype to call Shanghai and make our reservation.  We did have to pay in advance, but not having to know exactly where you want to eat during your vacation 6 months in advance is awesome.  We got pictures with Mickey, Daisy, and Donald dressed as royalty, and the food was delicious, too.      

Prince Mickey visited out table during dinner and posed for photos with the kids in the Royal Banquet Hall.

#6.  The Specialty Drinks.  Inside the park, many of the restaurants have their own specialty drink, and we tried as many as we could!  They're all non-alcoholic, and they were universally delicious.  In Pinocchio Village Kitchen we tried we tried Pinocchio's Monstro Slush which is matcha and pineapple coconut flavored with little Mickey-shaped jelly ball thingys floating in it.   (I realize this may not sound yummy, but it is.)  At the Tangled Tree Tavern we loved the berry, pineapple, and coconut flavored Rapunzel's Refresher.  At Barbossa's Bounty, we had to miss the Barbossa's Black Pearl Brew because they were out of it, but that brings me to my next thing to love.
Rapunzel's Refresher was a yummy treat!

#7.  Quick Service Dining Inside Pirates of the Caribbean.  Again, this is not the only park in the world where you can watch the boats of Pirates drift by as you dine, but the difference is that this is a quick-service place rather than a table-service place so you don't need reservations as you do at Blue Bayou, the restaurant inside Pirates at Disneyland, or Blue Lagoon inside Pirates at Disneyland Paris.  We shared the massive Pirate's Feast which was enough roasted meat and side dishes for all of us with plenty to spare, and snagging a table near the water for a better view of the boats passing by was easy.
Our table was right beside the water, so the background you see is actually part of the ride.  You can also see our ginormous platter of food.

#8.  The Minnie Mouse Ice Cream Bar. You may be thinking that an ice cream bar is a dumb thing to include on this list since you can get those at every Disney park.  But we've never had one before that's shaped like Minnie with raspberry ice cream and covered with white chocolate all on a stick, making it the perfect park snack.

#9.  Eye of the Storm: Captain Jack's Stunt Show. Be warned.  This live show is all in Mandarin with no subtitles on screens, so you're not going to be able to understand the dialogue.  But you will definitely get the gist of the story, and you will see some of the most amazing stage stunts I've ever seen in the process.  The show starts as the audience is standing in what appears to be the lobby, but it continues inside the theater where the audience takes a seat.  Captain Jack flies over the heads of the audience on a rope, and there is actually a fight that takes place in midair.  Like, the actors are floating on air thanks to giant wind blowers that are holding them aloft. It's unlike anything I've ever seen.  Don't miss it.
Captain Jack is about to hang for his crimes.

#10. The Price.  There's no doubt about it.  Park tickets are cheaper in Shanghai than they are in the US.  A two-day adult pass (with the current exchange rate of US$1 to 6.88 Yuan) is only US$97 while a two-day pass for anyone under 55 inches tall is just US$74.  To put that in perspective, a one-day Magic Kingdom adult ticket at Walt Disney World is US$113.96 while a child's one-day ticket is US$107.57.  You can do two days at the park getting to experience attractions that are only available in Shanghai for less than the cost of one day in the Magic Kingdom.  Sure, you've flown halfway around the world, but remember that our original tickets to Shanghai were cheaper than tickets to Orlando would have been.

So there you have it.  My top 10 things to love about Shanghai Disneyland.  I'd love to hear your opinions if you've been, so feel free to leave me a comment!  My next post will be about 5 mistakes you shouldn't make during your visit!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Day One in Shanghai

The lights of the Shanghai skyline from The Bund only are lit from 6:00-10:00 nightly.

Our Hainan Airlines flight from Seattle to Shanghai landed at Pudong Airport on Monday, March 27 at about 3:00 in the afternoon.  We deplaned on the tarmac, were bused to the terminal, and made our way to immigration with all our required paperwork.  We had read ahead of time that we would need to have proof that we'd only be in Shanghai for 144 hours, so I was prepared with gobs of email printouts all clipped together in neat little stacks that made me appear to be an organized person.

We knew we would need copies of our hotel reservations with all four of our names on the reservation to prove that all four of us were, in fact, staying in the hotel and not skipping off to the Chinese countryside to do who knows what.  Since hotel reservations are usually just in one name - the name of the person holding the credit card - we had to make a special Skype call to Shanghai the week before we left to ask the Toy Story Hotel to change the reservation and email the new one to us.

I also had copies of our tickets from Shanghai to Hong Kong with seat assignments. For some reason, just having the tickets isn't enough; you have to show the seat assignments.  Finally, I had gotten a Chinese student at Purdue to type out the address of the Toy Story Hotel in Mandarin for us so that we could show a non-English-speaking taxi driver where to take us.

We followed the signs to immigration and easily found the line for people planning to use the 24 or 144 hour visa exemption option.  The line for this option was fairly short - maybe only eight people were in front of us - while the regular line for visitors to China wound through rows and rows of what we like to call cattle gates.  I was initially excited about this since it seemed that we would have to spend far less time in line.

Boy, was I wrong.  We ended up waiting in that line for an hour and twenty minutes!  To pass the time, we chatted with some lovely Aussies who were about to board the Queen Mary 2 for a cruise. We commiserated about the slow-moving line, the immigration officers who apparently took a break every 10 minutes or so, and the people in front of us in line who didn't have their paperwork in order.  When it was our turn, every paper we had was inspected by two different officers ad then scanned into a computer.  Our photos were taken, and we were finally allowed to enter China!

On our initial itinerary, before the great all-nighter, we were to arrive in Shanghai on Monday at about 10:45 pm.  It is such a good thing that we changed plans.  I can't imagine having to stand there until well after midnight.

Once we were through, we collected our bags and changed money.  A taxi driver approached us, and while my plan was to go to the official metered taxi stand upon arrival, apparently I hadn't communicated this to Josh.  So when the guy approached him and offered a price of 500 Yuan to take us to Disneyland instead of the "usual rate" of 650, Josh started negotiating.  He ended up paying 450, or about $63.  That was more than I had read it was supposed to cost, and taxi drivers who don't use the meter annoy me, so I was maybe a little bit cranky as we followed the guy to the waiting minivan.   But it turned out that the minivan was the right size for all of our luggage (we travel often but we don't travel light), and the driver - who ended up being a completely different guy from the one who approached us in the airport - seemed to know where he was going once I showed him the piece of paper I'd brought with the hotel name and address in Mandarin.

About thirty minutes later, we could see the beautiful castle rising in the distance!  We had arrived!
The sign at the entrance to the resort

We pulled into the Toy Story Hotel (we had to show our reservations to the guard at the end of the hotel driveway), and oohed and aahed over the theming of the hotel.  The front entrance resembled an overturned toy box, and the uniforms on the staff were really cute versions of Woody's costume.

We love the way that Disney picks a theme and goes all out!
We made our way to the front desk which had giant blown-glass marbles encased in it.  They were all different and reminded me of Venetian glass.

Josh checks in at the Toy Story Hotel.  Notice the cool giant marbles!
Each marble was unique and highlights the attention to detail that is typical of Disney's theming.
Interesting tidbit: In Chinese, the word for the number 4 sounds almost exactly like the word for death.  Therefore, 4 is an unlucky number and most hotels don't have a fourth floor.
After checking in, we headed to our room on the 6th floor.  The wallpaper was the same cloud pattern that you see in Andy's room in the movie, and the nightstand was a giant Rubik's cube.  
I loved the Rubik's cube nightstand!
We spent some time unpacking and then headed out to catch the bus to Disneytown, the shopping and dining area just outside the park.  We only had tickets to the park for two days (they actually don't sell packages with more than two days' worth of tickets), and we didn't want to waste a ticket just for the evening.

At Disneytown, we explored the ENORMOUS World of Disney store where Kinley decided to have a custom phone case made for her new-to-her phone.  
It took about 20 minutes to have a phone case made, and it cost 115 Yuan or about US$ 15.

We previewed the other merch, and then made a loop around the rest of Disneytown, including a cute little sweet shop called Spoonful of Sugar, a reference to the song from Mary Poppins. 
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We ended our tour at the Lego store.  Knox is a huge fan, and we all enjoyed seeing the Disney-themed giant Lego creations.  Since Disney now owns Star Wars and Marvel, it wasn't all dwarfs and princesses.
The Marvel characters made of Lego bricks and suspended from the ceiling were cool.
Naturally, there was a large Mulan display since she's the only Chinese Disney heroine.
Lego Snow White is surrounded by Lego Thumper and other forest friends.
From there, we walked to the Metro station to go into downtown.  The skyline at night is supposed to be beautifully lit, and this was the only night we'd be able to see it.  It took us a while to figure out the ticket machines since we didn't have small bills, but we eventually figured it out were on our way.  We had to wind our way through a station that was under construction and change trains once, but the station where we ended up was right beside the Hard Rock Cafe Shanghai.
The ride into Shanghai took a good 40 minutes.
Josh is a big Hard Rock fan and tries to visit every one he can.  I think he's been to forty-something of them, so we decided to pop in for dinner before heading to view the skyline.  The great thing about HRCs is that the menu is dependable and the servers' level of English is usually pretty good no matter where you are in the world.  Plus they have free refills which isn't the norm in the rest of the world.

Obligatory family picture under the Hard Rock Shanghai sign
Knox ordered what he almost always orders at a Hard Rock - the hot dog and chocolate milk.  The server looked confused, so we asked if they had chocolate milk.  He said he would check, and disappeared for a few minutes.  Upon return, he announced that indeed there was chocolate milk listed in their computer system and that he would ask the kitchen to make it.  (Evidently, no one ever actually orders it, but it's part of the standardized HRC menu.)  He came out a few minutes later with a mug of hot, white milk for Knox.  Poor Knox looked helplessly at us and then took the mug with  a weak smile.  How could he not when the server looked so proud of himself? In the past we've encountered several places in the world where chocolate milk is unheard of, so, bless his heart, Knox drank it all like a champ.
Displaying IMG_5323.JPG
Knox with his hot dog and warm, white milk

Feeling refreshed and full, we headed out to walk to The Bund, a riverfront walkway with a beautiful view of the city's lights.  It was about 9:35, and unfortunately for us, the lights only stay on from 6:00-10:00 nightly in order to conserve energy.  We hoofed it from the Hard Rock dragging poor Knox by the arm, darting between bicyclists, and dodging other tourists who apparently were unaware of and unfazed by our race against the clock.  We anxiously waited at crosswalks and even took to walking in the relatively-empty street to try to get to our destination before the witching hour.

At 9:55, we could see the lights of Shanghai ahead of us.  I considered stopping to snap a quick picture and decided I'd gamble on getting closer before the stroke of 10:00.  At 9:58, we realized that a major thoroughfare lay between us and the riverside walkway.  And, of course, the walk sign was red.  We weren't going to make it.   So I took out my phone and snapped the picture below as we waited for the walk sign to give us the green light to cross.

The light changed, and as we were halfway across the street, the chime of a clock ominously struck 10:00.  One by one, the lights of the Oriental Pearl (the tower below with the three glowing orbs) began to flicker and fade.  By the time we reached the other side, they were gone.
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The Bund, the Oriental Pearl, and the light that kept us from making it across by 10:00

  We walked along the walk anyway, enjoying the lights that remained aglow and taking pictures just like hordes of other tourists.  The Citi building was still lit, so we got a picture of its famous "I Heart S H" before deciding to head back to the hotel.

We retraced our steps to the  Metro station and hopped on the train.  We had to change trains to get back to Disney, so we found ourselves hoofing it again (this time I was the pokey one) to try to make the last train of the night.  We hurried through the corridors of the station and finally descended the escalator to the platform as we saw the doors close and the last train of the night begin to pull away.   We were still 40 kilometers from our hotel.

We took a moment to moan about our situation and then rode the escalator back up to street level.  We exited the station hoping to find a bank of taxis waiting for poor unfortunate souls just like us.  No such luck.  So we walked to the curb to try to hail the next passing cab.  As one approached, we gestured wildly while wondering, "How does one even hail a cab in China?  Should I bow politely?  Is arm-waving considered rude here?  Who knows?"   And then I remembered that I hadn't brought the piece of paper with the hotel address and name in Mandarin.  What were the odds that this random cab driver in Shanghai at 11:00 at night would speak English??

The cab slowed down and pulled over, looking at us and our blonde children curiously.  But his curiosity evidently wasn't enough to make him decide to drive us because as soon as we started jabbering excitedly in English, he waved his hand in annoyance and drove off.

You'd think that a city the size of Shanghai would have gobs of cabs circling the train stations at night, waiting to pick up commuters who missed the last train.  But you'd be wrong.  We stood there for what was probably just 10 more minutes but seemed like forever until another cabby pulled over and agreed to take us.  And, saints be praised, he even turned on the meter.  Bless him.  Though by this point I was willing to pay whatever he wanted to get back to Disney,

In the end, the 40 kilometer drive only cost us about US$45, a steal considering our desperation.  We made it back to our hotel safely, and collapsed into bed, anxious to get some sleep before our first day in the park.

In my next post, I'll tell you ten things to love about Shanghai Disney!                        

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It Was Cheap, And It Was Chinese: Our Experience Flying Hainan Airlines

When we booked our Spring Break trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland Parks, we chose Hainan Airlines almost entirely because of price.  We had read online reviews of China Southern Airlines that were less than favorable, but the ones of Hainan were pretty good.  We were willing to take a chance in order to be able to afford an exotic Spring Break, but would the flight be pleasant in addition to being affordable?  Would there be any movies in English?  Would the English movies be ones I wanted to see?  How would the food be?  Would the flight attendants be able to speak and understand English? 

We needn’t have worried.  As soon as we boarded, Hainan set themselves apart with the most entertaining safety video since Delta's safety video with the Finger-wagging flight attendant.  I have never seen bikini-clad actresses in a safety video before, but I counted no fewer than seven of them in this one.  I was both stunned and completely entranced with the absurdity of it.

The movie and TV selections exceeded my expectations.  I watched a British movie called The Bank Job  and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine with Cate Blanchett.  I started The Hurt Locker but quickly decided that my already-frazzled nerves couldn't handle the suspense and then watched something else that was apparently entertaining but was also forgettable.  Josh watched a season of Elementary, and the kids watched family-friendly options.

Upon boarding we were given an amenity kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, headphones, and an eye mask along with a menu of food options.  Each of the two meals served had both Asian and western options, and we all found things that we were actually looking forward to eating.
Knox's child's meal included pasta and some yummy junk food.

My meal of teriyaki beef was fine, not delicious but also not tasteless.

Note: We always ask for a child’s meal for Knox when we fly internationally because they serve the special request meals first.  He’s a super slow eater anyway, so getting his food early helps him have more time to sleep after meal service.  But if you want to get your meal early on pretty much any airline, even adults can call or get online a few days ahead to make special meal requests.  Airlines differ in their offerings, but most offer vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and allergy-free options.  Of course, you don't have to prove that you're a vegetarian or anything, so you can request a vegetarian meal with the sole purpose of getting your food earlier than everybody else.  

There are also some really unusual special request meal options on some airlines.  One is called Jain.  It’s kind of vegan plus no root vegetables, with the idea that you don’t eat anything that kills the plant when you eat it.  Pulling a root would kill the plant, so no carrots, potatoes, onions, etc.  Anyway, you can ask for that on some airlines, though why you’d ever want to subject yourself to that is beyond me. Other unusual options are carb-free, low-sodium, diabetic, Muslim (no pork and all meats are Halal), Kosher, Asian vegetarian, or Hindu vegetarian (which actually sounds spicy and kind of delicious).

Speaking of food, Hainan put out snacks in the galley in the back of the plane that guests could go and grab whenever they got hungry (or bored).  There were sandwiches, Oreos, chips, pretzels, coffee, a selection of teas, and soft drinks.   Can you imagine an American carrier doing this in economy class?  They don't even always give you the full can of Coke, so I doubt they'd put out a buffet of free snacks for passengers to graze on for 13 hours.
Josh helps himself to some snacks during the flight.

The crew replenished the snack baskets frequently during the flight.

The thing that impressed me most happened repeatedly on both the flight to Shanghai and the flight home.  Recently, I have begun drinking warm water as my drink of choice.  It's calorie-free and keeps my hands warm as I hold the cup.  Each time drink service came by, I asked for warm water.  The flight attendants on both flights remembered my request for hours and brought me cups of warm water without my reminding them.  As far as I could tell, they never wrote down my seat number or anything, but they still remembered.

Overall the staff was kind and helpful (though it bewildered them when I was taking pictures of the snacks in the galley), and their English was what I'd call good enough.  It wasn't fluent by any stretch, but it was good enough.  My biggest critique is that the English announcements were difficult to understand.  It was almost as if they chose the flight attendant with the most seniority to make the announcements instead of the flight attendant with the best English pronunciation.

The verdict?  I would definitely fly Hainan again, and their service far exceeds what you'd expect for such an affordable price.  Here how I'd break it down.

Service A
Price A
English B-
Food B+
Entertainment A
Aircraft A+
Leg Room in Economy B+
Safety Video A+
Flight Attendants' Uniforms A- (I can't help it.  I'm a sucker for a well-accessorized flight attendant uniform.  I'm sure they're terribly impractical and uncomfortable, but I've found that the quality of an airline's service is directly proportional to the style and impracticality of the flight attendants' uniforms.)

Thirteen hours after leaving Seattle, we arrived in Shanghai, more well-rested than we expected to be (thanks to those empty seats on our flight that I mentioned in my last post) and ready to face the immigration officers that were the last hurdle in our visa exemption plan.  And it was a good thing we were rested up because immigration in Shanghai was not a cakewalk.  My next post will tell that story plus fill you in on the Toy Story Hotel!
Here's a little Toy Story Hotel Preview!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Chicago to Shanghai via Seattle

After frantically changing our travel plans hours before our trip was to begin, we quickly packed and hopped in the car headed to O'Hare a day earlier than we'd planned.  Once we were within an hour of the airport, I decided to look online for a place to park our car for eight days.  And lo and behold, we found we had made yet another travel mistake.  Evidently, unlike the airports in Indy, parking at O'Hare takes more than an hour's preplanning.

As I Googled "long-term parking O'Hare," I quickly realized that spaces are limited and fill up quickly.  In fact the only parking space (I don't mean parking lot; I really mean parking space) available anywhere near O'Hare for the eight days we'd be gone was $160 at a place called WallyPark.  I don't know if O'Hare parking is always like this or if it was because it was Spring Break, but the only other option started at $430 and wasn't close to the airport.  I had to use a website called SpotHero to reserve the one available space which was also a new experience for me.  Lesson learned.  Book your O'Hare long-term parking days in advance.

We got to the airport with some time to spare and noticed a cool looking eatery on our way to the gate.  When I read the name on the sign, I realized that this was an airport location of a Chicago restaurant I had pinned on "My Chicago 'Must Go' List" pinboard on Pinterest!  It was called The Publican, and we had just enough time to pop in for a snack.

We ordered pork rinds, French fries with a delicious aioli, and toasted bread with some sort of spread.  Though not as good as the Purple Pig, it was a nice way to start our week of vacation eating.


From there it was on to Seattle via American Airlines.  Josh and I had used frequent flyer miles for our two tickets, but we had paid for the kids'.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I don't love domestic airline carriers (because they don't pamper you or treat you very well) and that I love domestic flights even less.  Give me a 13-hour flight on an Asian carrier over a 2-hour flight on an American one any day and twice on Sunday.  But, fortunately, I was exhausted, so the flight to Seattle went by quickly as I slept.

Here was my impression of Seattle from my one-night stay.  I've never seen as much athleisure wear on people in my whole life.  The entire airport was populated with people of all ages who must all possess frequent buyer cards at The North Face, Columbia Sportswear, and REI. I mean, seriously.  Whether the people were 4 or 94, they must have thought that their trip to the airport was going to require some serious trekking and mountain climbing in unpredictable weather.  I tried not to stare, but, you know, I was tired.  And I kept thinking, "My friends Patrick and Heather Ward would love it here."

We found the hotel shuttle and made our way to the Marriott for the night.  The next morning, we shuttled to the airport and went to the Hainan Airlines counter to check in.  It's a really good thing that we changed our tickets, because no fewer than three different agents went over our itinerary with a fine-toothed comb to be sure it met the criteria for the 144 hour visa exemption.  After watching a lengthy discussion in a language we don't speak that included the use of a calculator (to calculate the hours we'd be in Shanghai and make sure then number was less than 144?) and the consultation of a supervisor, we got the nod of approval.  We were good to go!

As we boarded, we began to realize that this flight wasn’t going to be anywhere close to full.  As it turned out, the 787 Dreamliner was less than half full, meaning that Kinley was assigned a middle row of three seats all to herself!  Josh, Knox, and I were to her right in a row together, but I later moved to another empty row to stretch out and sleep.  There were MANY empty rows, so several other passengers had the same idea. 

I think the last time I was on an international flight that was this empty was a 1993 British Airways flight from Harare, Zimbabwe, to London.  Airlines today, especially American ones, oversell flights, so a string of empty seats is rare.  And international flights with multiple rows of empty seats are like unicorns in my experience.  Ok, maybe not unicorns.  But at least a giant panda in the wild.

(See what I did there?  Pandas are Chinese.  And we were on a Chinese airline on our way to China.  Yeah, I get kind of proud of myself sometimes.  Clearly, I'm still jet-lagged.   Cut me some slack.)

I’ll admit that I was a little bit worried about flying a Chinese airline.  Would there be any movies in English?  Would the English movies be ones I wanted to see?  How would the food be?  Would the flight attendants be able to speak and understand English?  To find out the answers to those questions, you'll have to read my next post!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Traveling Shoes Are Sheepskin-lined Flats

Alternative titles for this post that I considered:
Our Bargain Spring Break Is No Longer A Bargain
Always Read the Fine Print
Even Travel Bloggers Make Travel Mistakes Sometimes
Well, Maybe We Should Have Gone to Florida After All

My choice of shoes for this trip
I confess.  I couldn’t bring myself to travel in heels for this trip.  I was just too tired.  What was supposed to have been a relaxing weekend preparing for our Spring Break trip to China ended up being a stressful and mostly-sleepless 37 hours for Josh and me, so I decided to don my UGG zebra-striped sheepskin flats.  The good news is that we didn’t have to cancel.  The bad news is that our trip ended up being a more expensive option than it would have been to fly to Florida and take a Caribbean cruise (which was our original plan before we booked this trip.) 

What happened?  Well, even though we had read on several travel blogs that we could use the visa exemption plan to avoid the time and expense of getting real Chinese visas, Josh had a funny feeling about the whole thing.  On Friday night before our trip was to begin on Sunday, he did some more digging on the internet, and at 1:00 am on Saturday we realized that our flight plan DID NOT qualify for the 144 hour visa exemption plan in Shanghai.  Since we don't have Chinese visas (and at this point, even if we had been willing to shell out the extra $560 to buy them the consulate was closed for the weekend), qualifying for the visa exemption was the only way we could enter China.

At first, we toyed with the idea of sticking with our plan and hoping for the best, but then we realized we’d have to hope for no fewer than three different checkpoint agents to bend the rules and let us through.  That didn’t seem likely.  So at 1:00 am, Josh used Skype to call Shanghai immigration.  He managed to get an English-speaking officer who confirmed his suspicion that because our flight stopped in Beijing to change planes before going on to Shanghai, we did not qualify.  Evidently, you only qualify if your first stop in China is Shanghai, even if all you’re doing in another Chinese city is changing planes.  So at that point, we had a choice to make.  Did we cut our losses and cancel everything or did we try to change our flight to go straight to Shanghai?  

Josh uses Skype to call Shanghai.
Josh was leaning toward forgetting the whole thing and staying home, but our park tickets and hotel stays at both Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland were prepaid.  I was in favor of at least attempting to change our flight, and then Josh remembered an email we had gotten from Hainan Airlines a couple of weeks earlier.  The airline had slightly changed our flight times (by a mere 10 minutes), and the email said that because of the inconvenience we could ask for a full refund.  That would take care of the cost of the plane tickets, but we’d still be out the Disney tickets, hotel stays, and the cost of a prepaid character dinner in the Shanghai Disneyland castle.

Before we gave up, I suggested that Josh call the airline and convince the airline to change our flight instead, by kind of implying that the time change was a major inconvenience for us.  We wouldn’t outright lie, but we would try to use the situation to our own advantage. 

At this point, you need to know that my husband is kind of an airline/air travel/airport nerd.  He completely geeks out over learning which airports are hubs for which airlines, which kinds of planes each airline flies, which routes are owned by which airlines, and other geeky stuff like that.  When he’s bored in meetings, he makes lists of things like “Types of Aircraft I’ve Flown” and “Airports I’ve Flown Through” to keep himself awake.  The lists are lengthy.  It makes him a useful travel companion.

So it didn’t surprise me that he had already found a Hainan flight that went directly from the US to Shanghai with no stops.  It left from Seattle on Sunday at noon, but the only cheap(ish) one-way flight to Seattle from Chicago (where our return flight would deposit us) left on Saturday at 5:50 pm.  Factoring in a three hour drive to the airport plus parking plus allowing time before the flight, we’d have to back up our plans by almost a full day to make that happen.  But it was better than cancelling altogether.

At about 1:15 am Saturday, Josh called Hainan and got an English-speaking agent who told us that he would look into the possibility of changing the flight without additional charges and let us know.  We were like, “Let us know?  What does that mean?  If we’re going to change our flights altogether, that means we’ll need to leave for Chicago in 11 hours.  We’re not even packed because we weren’t planning to leave until Sunday!  We have to know ASAP.”  He told us he would “expedite the request” and call us back soon.  It was 1:30 am.  We decided to try to sleep.

At 3:08 am we were jolted awake by the ringing phone.  Unfortunately, Hainan could not honor our request to change the ticket.  Sticking with our original itinerary (which, of course, wouldn’t get us through Chinese immigration) or cancelling were the only things they could offer us.

But then Josh had a brainstorm.  What if we took the cancellation and refund offer and then just rebooked a brand new ticket from Seattle to Shanghai to Hong Kong to Chicago?  The tickets were clearly available for the same cheap price on the Hainan website, and we’d only be out the extra cost of a ticket for each of us to Seattle.  And, it turned out that Josh and I each had enough frequent flier miles to cover our tickets meaning we’d only have to pay for the kids’ one way tickets to Seattle.   

We told the agent our new plan, and she got to work while we waited on hold.  For two solid hours.  You read that right.  Two hours.  I’ll spare you all of the details because our problems weren’t solved yet.

At about 5:00 am, we were ready to purchase our new tickets over the phone with the agent.  Josh gave our credit card number, and then the agent said, “Wait.  This is an American credit card?  There is a 48 hour waiting period if you book with anything except a Chinese credit card.”

“What?  But we don’t have a Chinese credit card.”

“Well, I can hold these tickets for you until 11:00 am if you can appear at the Hainan counter and pay in person.”

“Where is the nearest Hainan counter?”


“But that’s 4000 kilometers away from us!  It’s not possible!”

“I’m very sorry.  Let me try to get approval for the American credit card.  I will need to put you on hold.”

So there we sat. On hold.  For another hour. Josh took a little nap, and I started packing in case things ended up working out.  The agent would periodically check in with us to make sure we were still waiting and to tell us that she was pushing the payment department to accept our card. 

Josh takes a nap while on hold with Hainan Airlines.  You can see that the clock reads 5:53 am.
When the agent finally came back with an answer, she told us that there was nothing she could do about the credit card issue to buy a new ticket.  But she had convinced the payment department to take our card if we only changed the tickets rather than cancelling and rebooking.  The plus side was that this would allow us to take our trip.  The down side was that the change fees plus the one-way tickets to Seattle more than doubled the original price of the tickets.

Josh and I sleepily stared at each other. What should we do?  Was it really worth it if the trip was no longer a cheap price? Would we regret cancelling more than we’d regret spending the extra money?  After several minutes of flip-flopping back and forth, we decided to bite the bullet.  At 6:38 am, we hung up the phone with our new reservations.  We had been on the phone for three and a half hours and had slept only from 1:30-3:08.

We calculated how long we needed to pack, shower, drive, and park, and decided we could afford one more hour of sleep.  But there was no way I was going to be traveling in high heels after this sleepless night.  Sheepskin-lined flats would have to do, blog or no blog.  You'll forgive me for that, right?