Tokyo's version of Disneyland Resort is exotic but familiar

Disney characters greet tourists at Tokyo Disneyland. (Ma Ping/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
Disney characters greet tourists at Tokyo Disneyland. (Ma Ping/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Tokyo's version of Disneyland Resort is exotic but familiar

by: Christopher Smith | .
The Orange County Register | .
published: October 19, 2015

OK, Disneyland hard-cores — and you know who you are — read up.

 All attention is turned halfway around the world to next spring when Shanghai Disney Resort, aka Disneyland of the future, is set to open.

 Until then, though, Tokyo is another exotic Disney offering that few Americans know about and even fewer have seen.

 But with a strong dollar near the top of recent-year highs vs. the yen, Tokyo Disney Resort offers a largely unheralded deal that could just be the top perk Disneyland mavens might ever encounter.

 As in Anaheim, Tokyo Disney Resort has two adjacent parks. Its Disneyland opened in 1983. But the place became ground zero for Disney geeks worldwide in 2001 when Tokyo DisneySea finally opened, about 20 years after being first conceptualized as a water-themed park for Long Beach.

 From the volcano centerpiece to lands that exist nowhere else, with rides that aren’t seen anywhere else — and waterways funded by the nearby ocean bay that help inspire ingenious spins on new and familiar attractions — Tokyo DisneySea pays out on Aladdin and Jasmine’s promise: “a whole new world.”

I wouldn’t have expected to make this jaunt. Over the years, I have been to the Anaheim parks at least 30 times. While that makes me feel fortunate, I realize true Disney fanatics are right in seeing me as having zilch (Main) street cred. However, our nephew Josh is the family expert on all things Disney. He worked at both Anaheim parks for three years. Now a premium season pass holder, he guesses he had been to Disneyland more than 30 times this year alone by spring break.

 The family expert’s obsession with every Disney announcement and blog rumor meant that earlier this year, when he mentioned that Japan had the most interesting Disney park in the world, my wife and I listened, started saving up and last month found ourselves with him in eastern Tokyo.

The great thing about the trip turned out to be not just discovering new rides and attractions — and while these parks are foreign, they are still familiar, a Disney feel at every step — but observing the cultural similarities and differences.

 An example: subway trains roll up near the parks, allowing packs of teens and 20-somethings, mostly girls, to congregate en masse for a day’s outing. Aggressively accessorizing their Disney-fied outfits, hair and makeup to mirror one another in outrageous detail is a definite thing, and it was amusing to experience gaggles of three, four and sometimes more girls sporting looks coordinated down to the buttons.
 Perhaps it all sounds like something for you.

 Here are eight highlights from both parks, with occasional commentary from the family expert, to give you a better sense of the possibilities.

The best Disney deal?

 It was the family expert, naturally, who lasered in on a Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea offer that was crazy brilliant. For a flat fee of 21,600 yen — based on the current strong dollar, about $180 — a party of up to six people gets a three-hour premium guided tour at either park. This tour — and here’s the payoff — includes Fastpasses onto the park’s eight premium attractions.

 These speedy entries are a huge advantage, given the formidability of lines in the Japanese parks, which make any waiting you have ever done in California seem minuscule (the opening months of Toy Story Mania in Tokyo DisneySea saw waits of up to eight hours!). So the opportunity to game wait times that average 60-90 minutes down to 15 minutes or less is significant.

 An added tour bonus is either a preferred standing area at a parade later in the day or preferred seats at a show in one of the theaters. Plus, with a wink, there were instances of “Disney magic” worked by tour guides who obligingly helped shortcut food stand waits as well as other touches, like ferreting out hidden Mickeys. At the conclusion of each tour, each member of the party got a spiffy collector’s pin.

No advance reservation is available for these tours, merely a quick walk from the entry gate to the Guest Services office — first come, first served — to sign up. Each park has a couple of English-speaking guides, but a Japanese-speaking guide would work, too. (From the guides we met, that would lead to three hours of smiling, pointing and applying the universal language of enthusiasm to overcomes any barriers.)

 To put the value here into perspective, by comparison, in Anaheim, the closest equivalent is the Disneyland VIP tour, which includes unlimited Fastpasses. This costs parties of up to 10 people $310-$355 per hour, for a minimum tour of six hours, making the cheapest cost $1,860, not counting tips. (FYI, there is no tipping in Japan ... leaving bills on the table after a meal invariably causes a worried server to chase after you for forgetting your money.)

Here is the rationalizing clincher: The difference in cost between doing this in Tokyo as opposed to Anaheim would underwrite a prebooked economy round-trip flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Tokyo and cover park hopper admission costs into the Tokyo Disney Resort parks for three days.

Groundbreaking ride

Pooh’s Hunny Hunt might sound like a so-what eye-roller, but the mobs racing through the Disneyland gates at the opening to line up or score Fastpasses have it right. It’s not only a 4-minute delight, but a significant groundbreaker using technology that hasn’t been replicated in any American Disney park.

 The family expert: “Instead of being on a fixed track, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt was the first ride created by Disney to use a trackless system. This employs an array of sensors on the ground and a local positioning system that gives the ride vehicles a free range of motion.

“The ride follows Pooh’s journey via balloon on a blustery day in search of honey, and the technology allows the carriages to change course in some of the rooms, giving you different vantage points, so if you take it more than once, the ride feels different.”

Estimated to cost more than $100 million when it opened back in 2000, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is the first of only four trackless rides found in a Disney park. A second one, next door in DisneySea, is Aquatopia. Installed in 2001, it’s an outdoor ride where hovercraft-like vehicles on small wheels squirt around in dipsy-doodle patterns, including 360-degree rotations, over a course of ever-circulating water.

 While the water is actually only 2 inches deep, its constant movement creates the illusion that the cars are careening through a deeper pool. Not a lot happens, but it’s very addictive, one of those rides you immediately want to get back on the moment you stop doing it.

 Disney’s other two trackless rides are Mystic Manor, which arrived in Hong Kong Disneyland in 2013 and, most recently, Ratatouille in Disneyland Paris, which opened in 2014.

Good, clean fun

 In Disneyland’s Critter Country, next to Rackety’s Raccoon Saloon, is perhaps the most high-concept, nontech feature in any Disney park: a hand-washing attraction. Wedding a national fetish for cleanliness that makes Tokyo itself different from any other major city I have been to, the draw is the little device that dispenses soap in Mickey Mouse-shaped puffs!

 Manned by a full-time attendant skilled at producing the perfect sudsy Mickey, it has a sign that says “Clean Hands, Happy Faces!” The obliging attendant has towels for drying off.

 The family expert: “There is no advertising for this, but it had fun word of mouth online. While a couple bathrooms in various parks around the world have Mickey soap dispensers, there is no other outdoor attraction like this.”

Fast-food wrinkles

 A day of dining on the go in Disneyland revealed the following:

  — Plenty of fish options, even though this was supposedly the dry land park. At one stand, there were three kinds of seafood pizzas with no meat or chicken choice.

  — As elsewhere in Japan, sodas and other beverages are never filled to the brim, better to avoid spillage.

  — Turkey legs here are decidedly less Henry VIII-size than at home, reflective of either more common sense or smaller appetites.

  — There were some cultural missteps – a hot dog in a flour tortilla with grated mozzarella fell even flatter than it sounds – but the fried spring rolls stuffed with pizza toppings in Toon Town were addictive!

  — A stellar version of the Disney-fication of food is the mouse-eared Mickey bread sandwiches at the Tomorrowland Terrace. The pineapple, avocado and meat patty was nicely dressed and made for a fun picture. The family expert: “The closest you can get to mouse-eared Mickey bread in Anaheim is the sourdough loaf made at the Boudin Bakery and sold at the Pacific Wharf Cafe at Disney California Adventure.”

 — No. 1 food obsession: In the Tokyo DisneySea complex is a single food item sold at an anonymous refreshment station in the Mysterious Island-themed land where longer lines often exceed those for the nearby 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth rides. The source of the food mania is a steamed white gyoza, a soft-textured flour and bean-paste bun with a mildly spiced pork and onion meat filling. Bite by bite, this was comfort food to the nth degree, the exterior cunningly shaped to resemble the Nautilus submarine anchored nearby at the 20,000 Leagues ride.

 Even on a rainy day, nobody standing in line looked remotely resentful at the wait time to eat this.

Twists on the familiar

 Familiar attractions from the California parks feel transformed in both the parks here, as next-generation technology and a larger footprint reinvigorate rides you might have tired of at home.

 It’s a Small World, for instance, has largely the same dolls, boats and mind-numbingly repetitive tune, but instead of the tighter spaces in Anaheim, this is set in vast, brightly decorated halls. It all feels cheerier and inviting rather than a predictable slog.

 Toy Story Mania is the same shooting game as in California Adventure, but the lines leading into the attraction wind through two oversize buildings that act as Andy’s playroom and bedroom, with elements in each blown up so there are colorful, fancifully oversized toys and a massive bed.

 If you are going to have to wait to get onto this ride, you want to do so in Tokyo.

 Indiana Jones probably seemed the most 2.0 in a good way. While the DisneySea attraction is called Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull – the ride precedes the 2008 Steven Spielberg film of a similar name and has nothing do with the plot of that so-so movie – instead, it is basically the same ride we know in Anaheim.
 The family expert: “Who knew that Indiana Jones speaks Japanese? But since he travels the world, it is very possible.”

But it is the nuances in the 2001 version in Tokyo vs. the 1995 ride in Anaheim that jump out at you. The cars that herk and jerk along the track in California are so much smoother in Japan, so while a rider experiences the same twists and turns, it’s not a bumpy trip.

 The family expert: “The small design touches make the ride feel more refined and supportive of the ride’s narrative. And there are touches we don’t have here, including a tornado visual effect next to the rickety bridge you cross, and right after the huge snake that is poised to strike, a blast of fiery-looking smoke that races toward the car and which you drive through.”

The pirate king

 If you are a fan of Anaheim’s Pirates of the Caribbean, this could be your dream vacation. For whatever reason, piratical pursuits apparently don’t appeal to a Japanese sensibility and there are virtually no lines for the ride. On a busy day in the park, fewer than 25 people were waiting to get on, and many of the boats had empty rows.

 A reason might be that the first third of the otherwise familiar ride is bleaker, more somber than what we are used to. With a shorter, single drop, the early parts of the boat trip begin in a more claustrophobic run of early scenes, with the preponderance of skeletons guarding their treasure having an almost cautionary quality regarding the downsides of plundering. It could be just me, but the song seemed more plaintive, too.

 Things click back to normal once Jack Sparrow shows up, but after Jack and his parrot revel in the swag they’ve collected, boom, no boat ride back up to the ground level, just step off the boat, up a short escalator and you can get back into the short line for another ride.

 The animatronics

 The technology in even the most basic of the children’s rides often feels so much more developed in the Tokyo parks. An example is DisneySea’s Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage, which was revamped in 2007. The story is basic — the central character, along with his pet tiger Chandu, searches distant places and finds treasure – but the scenes, with vibrant lighting and coloring, have developed qualities that exceed their counterparts locally.

 Sinbad, for instance, is not particularly cartoony here: no girlfriend to protect or woo, and his countenance is serious, not smiling in every situation. And the cinematic score backing the ride, an Alan Menken ballad “Compass of Your Heart,” is aspirational and purposeful even as it plays in a mix of Japanese and English.

 The family expert: “The range of motion in the 3-foot characters in Sinbad is far beyond what you get in early-generation rides. There is a large blue whale at one point in the ride whose moves in the water include flippers and his tail. In the final scene, when there are firework images displayed on the walls behind all the assembled characters; they seem to react in character as the firework displays burst.”

Where to stay

In addition to Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, there are about a dozen resort hotels in Tokyo Bay near the parks where most visitors stay. They are connected by free shuttle buses to a nearby monorail transit center that runs 6 a.m.-midnight daily, transferring visitors to the parks. Among the properties: Sheraton Grande Bay Hotel: overseas reservations, 81-47-355-5555; Hilton Tokyo Bay: overseas reservations, 81-47-355-5000; InterContinental Tokyo Bay: overseas reservations, 81-35-404-2222.