“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” ~Walt Disney
The band jams on as the sold-out show rings most fans to their feet. The live performance is captivating, and the electric excitement crackles through the crowd while all await the stars’ appearance.
He appears! And the crowd goes wild. And then she appears, against the surging backdrop of energetic applause. But it is when they start to dance together, when he sweeps her off her feet swing-style, but especially when he pauses slightly to give her a love peck on the check that the females in attendance coo, giggle and scream like only school-girls-in-love would.
So who offers such star appeal and at what venue in our Far East Fling? Is it a modern-day rock couple, like Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, or perhaps Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed, or even Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson?
Not even close. What I am talking about is TRUE star-power in Japan. And that can mean only one thing: Mickey and Minnie Mouse!
Although Mickey-san and his wo-mouse Minnie, along with their eclectic ensemble of Disney characters, entertain the masses in Japan in many of the same ways they do in the California and Florida Disney parks, it is a wholly different experience. Yes, there are fans of the mice in the states, but they are not openly FAN-atical like so many more are here in Japan.
When Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) was built in 1983 it was much smaller than its counterparts in States. But with the construction in 2001 of the adjacent DisneySea, TDL added more than 100 acres and became better known as the Tokyo Disneyland Resort (TDR). The resort rivals that of any theme park anywhere in the world, being composed of Disneyland, DisneySea, three themed hotels and six partner hotels. Circling the complex is the Disney Resort Line monorail, which most disappointingly, is neither free nor included in your park admission. Buying a multi-day pass for the ride, however, is very economical.
So what’s so different about the Japanese fans of Disney? Well, for most obvious starters, their appearance. Simply put, people dress for the occasion. Matching outfits, between female friends visiting the park as small giggly gangs, or as a dating couple where effeminate clothing is simply not a worry, so whole families dressed to the nines in full mouse regalia, you see it all! Girls actually do their hair up into mouse ears; the hats, the popcorn carriers, the purses, umbrellas, and trinkets – they are all displayed proudly and in your face!
TDL, as expected, is a theme park based on the films produced by Walt Disney, and was the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. Modeled after the parks almost any American would be familiar with, Tokyo Disneyland is made up of seven themed lands and features seasonal decorations and parades. In essence, it is essentially just a facsimile of the parks in the US.
BUT, the parade experience is different. The Japanese love a show, and from all indications, at TDR they love a parade where water is involved. Not just floats and fireworks over the parks’ lagoons, but I mean actually being sprayed down with water. The Japanese go gaga over a costumed character aiming a water-spewing nozzle at them, and claim their spots on the tour routes literally hours ahead of parade time. Covering themselves in plastic and using umbrellas as shields, it seems as if they are being baptized by the holy spirits of Disney. It seems to verge on a rite of passage….
So what’s special about Tokyo Disneyland? Over the years (and after almost going under in the late 1908s), Tokyo Disneyland has grown into the second most popular amusement park in the world, second only to Florida’s Magic Kingdom (DisneySea on its own is the 5th). It has also become the centerpiece of Japan’s truly fantastical Disney resort that, many claim (and I agree), has surpassed its American forbears. Spotlessly clean, impeccably run, and now featuring many attractions unique to Tokyo, TDR is a wonderful place to enjoy a fascinating fusion of American and Japanese culture, all through the combining lens of Walt Disney. And the Mouse.
Hey Japan, the ones who are screaming, jumping up and down, and waving emphatically at Mickey and his crazy cast of characters, you do realize they are just people in costumes, right? I’m really not sure they do. It’s not the kids here that engage in the fantasy with wild abandon; rather, it is the middle-aged women that so desperately need that Disney character to wave back. I believe, from the emotional meltdown that happens in response, that clearly being acknowledged by Mikey or Minnie (but any of the lessor Disney royalty seems to work in a pinch) is on most Japanese’s bucket lists. Surprisingly to me, Tokyo Disney visitors are overwhelmingly Japanese (over 97% are from Japan), unlike all the other Disney properties that rely heavily on foreign tourists. This audience is diverse, but a good chunk is twenty-something females, many of whom are infatuated with Disney characters and American culture. It is truly a unique Japanese experience.
Tokyo Disneyland is divided into six themed areas: AdventureLand, WesternLand, Critter Country, FantasyLand, TomorrowLand and Toontown. These themed areas are not much different from the other ones found in the rest of the Disneylands.
Right next door, however, DisneySea opened in 2001 and is the only Disney-associated theme park outside the United States not to use the “Magic Kingdom” design. DisneySea realized many of the concept designs that Walt Disney Imagineering had developed for a possible Long Beach, California theme park, back when Long Beach and Anaheim were competing for Disney’s second theme park after the original in Orlando. Inspired by the myths and legends of the sea, DisneySea is made up of seven themed “ports of call:” Mediterranean Harbor, Mystery Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. Each port offers different nautical themes and nautically-themed rides.
While suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to specifically appeal to adolescents and grown-ups, much like Islands of Adventure is to Universal Studios. DisneySea is an elaborately crafted, beautiful theme park offering a number of excitingly unique rides and attractions. In this sense, it’s a must-see for any theme park enthusiast. The park offers a much wider selection of table service restaurants than Tokyo Disneyland, and even serves alcoholic beverages, unavailable at the neighboring Disneyland.
One of the funniest things we concluded during our visit is that, for the staff working the concessions throughout the parks, if you’re not selling something, you’d better be waving. It’s so true! When you visit the parks, keep this in mind. It’s so automatic and so ubiquitous, that at times I came to believe that these staff members were actually Disney’s latest incarnation of animatronics. It’s as if there is pain of death for any cast member caught not waving and smiling eagerly if not directly involved in a sale. Jody and I would walk around the parks and point them out, one after another: “if you’re not selling, you’d better be waving” the park wardens bark out as the metaphorical whip cracks for effect.
Because of the Japanese infatuation with the union of Disney and American cultures, don’t be surprised by the massive lines for Duffy’s meet & greet (Duffy is a stuffed-bear character that flopped in the US), or limits on how much of his merchandise you can purchase! When we were there on 1 September, one of the main-street stores was opening with Disney’s Halloween line of merchandise; the line for that store was literally hours long…. In fact, meet & greet locations for characters are often swarmed, often by fans dressed as their favorite characters. This was one of the more disappointing aspects of our visit: due to the line, I didn’t get a chance to meet, in person, Ariel!
The resort also includes a huge commercial complex called “Ikspiari.” It features more than a hundred shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as Cinema Ikspiari, a 16-screen movie theater. Divided into nine themed zones, shoppers can find anything from high fashion, to household goods and travel services. Two of the zones specialize in food, featuring various restaurants and a food court, while numerous cafes and bars are found scattered all around the mall. We had a fabulous dinner here, and I highly recommend the venue for a good, away-from-the-parks sit-down meal where you can help recharge your weary feet without discharging your already shrinking wallet.
If you have only one day at the parks, I suggest you skip DisneyLand and detour straight to DisneySea. A one-of-a-kind attraction found only in Japan, it’s sure to delight all your senses, no matter your age. Besides, DisneyLand is Disneyland, albeit a rather good copy of the parks back home. Take my advice: with limited time or monies, expend both FIRST at DisneySea.
Setting some of the really neat rides aside (like Journey to the Center of the Earth and Sinbad’s Storybook Adventures), as well as the shows, the rather good and affordable food and everything else Disney, what really impresses is the park’s attention to detail. This park offers a transportive sense of place, and combined with the infectious attitudes of other guests and Cast Members, it’s a hype that is delivered upon. The whole of Tokyo DisneySea is so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is already pretty impressive on their own. The Inca temple in the Lost River Delta, the lighthouse at the American waterfront, the Gondola rides in the Mediterranean harbor, the back streets of Venice, the double-decker carousel in the Arabian Coast, Ariel’s underwater playground in the Mermaid lagoon; there simply is a level of craftsmanship displayed that truly impresses.
If you are planning a trip to Japan’s Kingdom of Magic, think about buying an “After 6″ or “Starlight” Passport. The Starlight Passport cost 4,900 yen for Adults, 4,300 yen for Juniors, and 3,400 yen for Children (11 and under). It is valid after 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and National holidays. The After 6 Passport has a flat fee of 3,300 yen, and is valid only after 6pm, Monday – Friday. These tickets can be bought online or at the park on the day of your visit. If you don’t necessarily want to spend all day in the park fighting what can be truly massive crowds and lengthy lines, try one of these evening passes. In Japan, hours for family life often are reminiscent of the 1950s back in the states. In other words, as the families (most with kids and/or elders) start to depart in late afternoon, the parks become much less crowded, and lines to even the premier attractions are drastically reduced.
There are a few things I think TDR could do to improve what is already a world-class themed-operation and resort.
Fast Pass Caste. The good news is that the Fast-Pass in Japan is free, but the bad news is that if you don’t have one for a ride, be prepared for a loooooonnnnnngggggg wait. In other words, the Disney “Cast Members” cast aside the lowly standby riders, to allow Fast-Passers to go directly on the ride. It’s fairly annoying to see ratios of (seriously) like 100 to 1. And you can only have one fast-pass ticket out at a time. So there is some “strategery” involved here on how to maximize your chances at hitting the most rides in a day. Seriously Japan, find more of a middle ground. HINT: if a rider as a single-rider line, THAT is the way to go! They are rare in TDR, but some rides do have one….
Incorporate Japanese Anime and/or Manga. A rather obvious conclusion and listed first for good reason. The parks are in Japan, and despite the rich history of Japanese comics, anime animation and the manga movement, they are wholly absent from every aspect of the resort. Why not a themed area with Manga or Anime?
Park Pass Limitations. In Tokyo Disneyland, a 1 or 2 day pass does not allow park hoping; rather, the desired park must be designated when the pass is purchased. Worse yet, the designated days must be consecutive. Even though we bought a 2-park, 3-day pass, we still were limited to visiting only ONE park a day for the first two (consecutive) days, and then we could “hop” to our hearts’ content the final, third day. This really limits flexibility that many families want and need, especially the ones with younger children.
Charging for the DisneyLine Monorail. This is just plain surprising. Is it part of the resort or not? It’s Disney-themed and rings only the Disney Resorts. At no other DisneyLands is there a separate fee for this convenient service. And, note that the monorail systems at our parks in the states are much larger systems! Disney, do everyone a favor and just build in this cost to parking fees, or with the park pass, or in hotel fees, or heck, spread the cost of operation across all these revenue streams! Everything else costs, and costs plenty; the monorail should be “free.”
In any case, the parks are totally terrific, and should be visited with anyone spending a length of time in Japan. The price-point is no worse than the parks in the states, and with a package deal, I do believe it may actually be more economical! And to think, that it was all started with a simple Mouse…. Thank you Walt Disney, for realizing this astounding dream.