During the May vacation in 2013, my ex-girlfriend and I decided to get out of Nanjing and see what Sichuan province had to offer. While the main reasons for our trip were to visit Jiuzhaigou National Park and play with some pandas, I was also just a tad excited about the opportunity to check out a Chinese theme park.
The Happy Valley chain of theme parks has parks in major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen – so I had high hopes that the Chengdu edition would be a fun day out for us.
I was, sadly, rather mistaken.
About Happy Valley
Starting with Shenzhen Happy Valley in 2002, the Happy Valley franchise of theme parks now boasts parks in Shanghai, Chengdu, Beijing, Wuhan, and Tianjin. The Chengdu edition that I visited was the third of these parks and, as it was built in only 2009, is quite new and modern in many regards.
China’s theme park obsession reflects its obsession with many aspects of western culture and, as such, Happy Valley comes across as a rather shallow imitation of the American theme parks it aspires to be. It’s all bright colours and loud music without any of the attention to detail or invention that makes US theme parks such a joy to attend.
In many respects, Happy Valley reminded me of Korea’s Everland, but where that park has had time to grow and become something a tad memorable, Happy Valley felt like a paint-by-numbers theme park.
Like the American theme parks it aspires to, Happy Valley has themed areas such as Dream of Mediterranean, Magic Castle, Happy Light Year, Sunny Harbour, Flying Island, and Great Szechwan. Of particular note is this last one, that does have a distinctly ancient Chinese feel that sets it apart from the gardens and bright colours of the rest of the park. Happy Light Year has a carnival atmosphere that is quite endearing as well.
Tickets are a very competitive 130RMB (a shade over $20 US). The park is not difficult to get to via cab, but parking is a nightmare to obtain, so don’t be surprised if your taxi drops you off at the end of the block and expects you to walk.
Getting a taxi home is a complete bitch. We had an hour wait before one would stop for us and we were able to get into it before a Chinese family shoved us aside.
Happy Valley Chengdu boasts just four roller coasters, and I was able to ride three of them. The fourth appeared to be closed while I was at the park.
Weirdly, the park’s two best thrill rides (Dragon in Clouds and Fly Over Mediterranean) are literally right next to one another. Conveniently, this is right by the entrance, although lines were crazy long. It was amusing to watch the Chinese patrons periodically doing stretches in the queues, urged on by pre-recorded audio!
These roller coasters are:
- Dragon in Clouds: A fairly unremarkable but enjoyable steel rollercoaster.
- Dragon in Snowfield: A very cool looking, Sichuan themed mine train rollercoaster. Closed on the day of my visit.
- Fly Over Mediterranean: The best roller coaster in the park – an Intamin Mega-Lite. Fast, plenty of sharp turns, and just all around fun.
- Mad Rats: A wild mouse style coaster for kids.
In addition to these rather slim pickings, there are also traditional thrill rides such as a giant drop style ride and a gyro swing on a raised platform that gives a surprisingly terrifying view of the park. In truth, this last ride was my favourite in the park.
Thrill Factor: 5.5/10
Happy Valley markets itself as a family park, and it’s in this area that it manages to do a more than passable job. There are countless rides and attractions targeted at those with less of an appetite for thrills at the park. As their website is in Chinese, I can’t track down a list of names, so I’ll just highlight a few that stood out.
- Standard carnival rides such as ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls etc.
- A rapids ride with obligatory wetness.
- Big splash flume log ride. Guests can pay extra to shoot riders with water cannons!
- A bizarre indoor shooting ride (North Pole Adventure) in which you fight Santa Claus.
- An obvious Kung Fu Panda knock-off 4D ride.
- A pair of haunted house style rides.
- The centre island, Flying Island, has an only mildly depressing zoo from an animal mistreatment perspective. It also boasts a rotating tower ride that provides great views of the park.
There are also plenty of sideshow alley style games to play and other such nonsense. There’s also an attached water park (Caribbean Bay) that was closed when I visited, but looks to be modestly sized.
While wandering the park, we also spotted what amounted to a stunt basketball and skate show. It was a pleasant reprieve from walking around, and the crowd interaction element was fun as well.
Family Factor: 6.5/10
I’m finding this one harder and harder to rate as a solo traveler. I’m not a kid, nor do I travel with kids, so I rarely pay much attention to the kids’ sections of these parks.
Magic Castle is Happy Valley’s answer to a kids section, and from glancing at their website it looks to have the required over-abundance of colour, knock-off cartoon characters, and tame rides to keep kids occupied.
Kid Factor: 6/10
Asian theme parks tend to lack the soul that I’ve found in parks in the United States and Australia. This might be due to the lack of a real theme park culture in the country, or it might have a lot to do with the fact many of the parks are quite new and therefore haven’t had time to develop a real feel of their own.
Despite having themed zones, only the Great Sichuan area made any real effort to stand out from the rest of the park with its pagodas, walls etc. There’s an over-arcing aviation theme near the park’s roller coasters, and Flying Island does have a rather nice garden area.
The atmosphere is hindered somewhat by sharing a park with the Chinese. While Sichuan residents tend to be less bored with tourists as locals in Beijing or Shanghai (and hence shoving is replaced with requests for photos), there’s still a general lack of familiarity with things like queuing protocol or general manners when it comes to getting around people.
All told, it’s a very clean and well laid out park, but it doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.
Atmosphere Rating: 5.5/10
My visit to Happy Valley Chengdu was the first time I ever left a theme park starving. The selection of food at the park, with the exception of the ever-present McDonalds, was pretty grim. Lots of the restaurants purporting to sell Chinese foods were either closed or, more frustratingly, would basically tell you their entire menus were off limits save for one or two items.
We did find some passably good (although very spicy) street food and snow cones to tide us over, but were basically in a terrible mood from about lunch time until we left the park in search of something that wouldn’t make us shit firewater.
Food Rating: 4/10
The Flying Over Mediterranean coaster wins this by a country mile, with none of the park’s other rides really coming close. It’s far from the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on, and isn’t even the best I’ve ridden in China, but it was a blast.
Special mention also to the park’s Gyro Swing. By putting it on a raised platform, you get a stellar view of the park and the longer than usual ride time somewhat made up for the near two hour queue.
In something of a first for my theme park reviews, I’d actually go so far as to say that Happy Valley Chengdu is not worth the visit. Between the ever present crowds, the abysmal selection of food, the relatively low number of big ticket rides, and the fact it just felt like a pale imitation of a theme park – it was just an overall unpleasant experience.
I’m a guy who can enjoy most anything, but I left the park in a worse mood than I arrived at it.
If you’ve got a day to kill in Chengdu and have already done the obligatory stuff like seeing the pandas and visiting the reclining Buddha, it might be worth a day trip.