“The happiest place on earth” became a lot less carefree this week after a single visitor tested positive for coronavirus, triggering a sudden lockdown of Shanghai Disneyland that left more than 30,000 visitors barred from exiting the park on Sunday until they could show a negative test result.
But what was a nightmare for some frustrated guests has been touted in China as a humane, orderly and targeted form of emergency COVID-19 response that Beijing hopes other regions relying on more heavy-handed measures can emulate in the lead-up to the fast-approaching Winter Olympics.
It’s a convenient coup for Disneyland, which reopened on Wednesday after two days of closures to ensure that its premises were disinfected and staff fully tested.
Online, there’s little content focused on the disconcerting sight of healthcare workers in full-body white PPE marching into the park on Sunday like a phalanx of billowy stormtroopers while police cordoned off park exits.
Instead, the resort’s resplendent Halloween fireworks display during the subsequent mass testing process has become the center of attention, spun by a government narrative into a potent symbol of hope, China’s strong collective response to the pandemic and the triumphant efficiency of Shanghai’s governance.
The result is PR gold for Disney that money can’t exactly buy. On social media, posts now abound from users lauding that evening in the park as “the most romantic COVID-19 test experience in China” and “a scene that should be included in the annals of Disney history.”
The sight of the fireworks in the night sky above and frontline workers diligently testing below was a sign of how “the pandemic has become normalized and the handling of it has become standardized,” said Zhang Wenhong, known as “China’s Dr. Fauci.”
“Thank you for today’s inextinguishable fireworks, which allowed us to see mankind’s calm collectedness and confidence in the future even in the face of disaster,” he wrote on Weibo. “All the tourists can now sleep peacefully; my countless colleagues will continue our work.”
Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily further iconized the moment with Weibo posts featuring heart-laden hashtags and setting video footage of the proceedings to sentimental acoustic guitar.
“Fireworks bloomed in the cold night sky. Medical staff and police entered the park bravely and conducted intensive, orderly nucleic acid testing. Netizens said: our eyes are hot with tears; thanks to all those [frontline workers] who are helping to carry us forward,” one post read, bearing the tags “#As Disney fireworks bloomed, they bravely fought the pandemic” (390 million views) and “#Nucleic Acid Testing Under Disney Fireworks Show” (150 million views).
Another post featured a cartoon of Mickey Mouse obediently waiting his turn for a nucleic acid test, telling the healthcare worker that no, he hasn’t been abroad lately — an image of a law-abiding Mickey as one of Shanghai’s own.
Coming from the People’s Daily, the two missives spread further than a campaign Disney itself could have created, retweeted by powerful government bodies like the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission as well as local officialdom in places as far flung as Gansu, Anhui and Yunnan provinces.
Groups like the All-China Youth Federation and Communist Youth Leagues from across the country jumped onto the political bandwagon, getting Disney’s target millennial and Gen Z demographic to fete the park’s pyrotechnics as a metaphor for “the unquenchable light of the frontline workers.”
Fairy Tales and Cruel Reality
Shanghai Disneyland shut down in late January of 2020 due to the pandemic and reopened at 30% visitor capacity in May of that year. Shanghai city itself has never gone into full lockdown mode.
This two-day shutdown is its first since its re-opening, and comes as China is scrambling to contain its worst COVID-19 outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019. Around 500 cases have been found in 19 of China’s 31 provinces and regions.
As Beijing pushes a strict “zero-COVID” approach, localities have employed increasingly harsh prevention measures, such as shutting down all travel or commerce in a city just because of a single case, causing a measure of backlash.
But at Disney, Shanghai envisioned a COVID-19 response in which people could try to enjoy themselves a bit rather than merely “paying the price or being the tool used to achieve prevention objectives,” read an op-ed for Sohu News.
The poetry of any Halloween night symbolism should translate to profits. Now that Chinese authorities have staked so much on praising the Disneyland case as a mass testing response model, it would be a loss of faith to see the park shut down again soon.
“After completing my nucleic acid that night, I felt at peace seeing how fairy tales and cruel reality intertwine. The fireworks were really beautiful, but the on-site workers and the cooperating tourists were even more so,” wrote one park attendee of his Halloween experience on Weibo. “That’s life, isn’t it: there are hardships in times of happiness and happiness in times of hardships. The fireworks continue to bloom — let us be optimistic.”