Ultimate guide to visiting Tokyo Disneyland, Disney Sea

Photos by Erica Earl
Photos by Erica Earl

Ultimate guide to visiting Tokyo Disneyland, Disney Sea

by Erica Earl
Stripes Okinawa

As someone who spent part of my childhood living close to Disney World, the theme park juggernaut manages to both still mystify and disenchant me. As adults, we know the characters are just pretty twenty-somethings in cosplay, that the castle is a concrete façade, and that Disney parks are more of a hallmark to corporate machines than a magical destination.

But still, despite all the traveling the military has allowed me, a trip to Disney reaches a part of childhood glee left in me that strikes differently than going anywhere else. Maybe it is Disney’s multi-billion-dollar dedication to theming and park beautification, but despite my cynicism, I still delight at a Disney weekend, especially in Japan.

I remember one summer being holed up with my dad at The Golden Link, a budget motel near Florida’s Disney World, while he was working in Orlando. I could faintly see Disney’s Magic Kingdom’s fireworks in the distance, tantalizing and enticing and just out of reach while we went to Old Town, a free-entry amusement park featuring mock Western saloons, old-time carnival rides and a car show.

We used to go to Disney together as a family in the early 90s until we got priced out of being able to afford it, and once I started having “adult money” of my own, I started making regular Disney trips every time I visited friends and family in Florida. It’s since been my mission to experience every Disney park, and currently, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea take the leads as my favorites.

Here’s why and how to make the most of a trip there.

It’s Disney, but it’s not actually Disney

Tokyo Disneyland is unique in that is under different ownership than the other parks. It is owned by the Oriental Land Company and licenses it’s theming from the Walt Disney Company. Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea are the only parks not owned by Disney.  The parks are located in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture and are easily accessible from Tokyo by navigating to Maihama Station.

Tokyo Disneyland gets special merchandise not available worldwide, like Mickey and Minnie plushies wearing traditional yukata, seasonal items such as sakura and hydrangea-themed merchandise and a collaboration with the Japanese fashion brand Punyus.

Pandemic-era emptiness

Everyone knows the worst part about a Disney vacation are the crowds and long lines, but with the lack of overseas tourists in Japan since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, this has been greatly mitigated lately, especially if you go on a weekday. If you are toying with the idea of a Disney trip, I would highly recommend going now, before Japan experiences an influx in tourism. When I went with a friend in mid-June, the lines were averaging only 10-20 minutes per ride, even on the most popular attractions, and we were able to capture photographs that make it look like we were the only ones in the park.

The downside to this is I am now completely spoiled for when parks do get crowded again, or for when I go back to an American Disney park, but it’s a good problem to have.

Tokyo Disneyland has not experienced this surge yet, so there is still time to experience a low-capacity day, making the parks so much more enjoyable to crowd-phobes like myself.

Tickets are cheaper than America’s parks

The process for buying tickets is easier now since the park capacity has expanded since re-opening in 2020, but it can still be a little tricky as they are still limiting ticket sales.  Because American credit cards lack the 3D authentication required to purchase tickets directly from Disney’s website, the easiest way is to get tickets is from a convenience store kiosk or via a Disney hotel.

I like to stay overnight, so I have never purchased the tickets from a kiosk, but I have bought tickets to other events from one and it is simple and user-friendly. They are located inside 7-11s, Family Marts and Lawsons stores and have prompts in English.

In my opinion, staying at a Disney property hotel adds an extra element to the vacation. I like the anticipation that builds up arriving the night before knowing I will be getting up to go to the parks the next morning. It also makes it better to already be right by the park before it opens and not have to get up super early to journey there. Disney hotels guarantee tickets for guests even when sold out online, so it takes away that stress as well. The hotels have free shuttles to the parks.

Hotels include the Celebration, the lowest price option located about a 15-minute shuttle ride to Disneyland; the Ambassador, which is connected to Ikspiari; Tokyo Disneyland Resort, located right across from the park entrance; and Miracosta, the most expensive of the hotels, located inside DisneySea.

There is also a new Tokyo Disney Resort Toy Story Hotel, which I have not experienced yet but hope to on my next visit.

I’m also a fan of the neon-colored, plastic, and phony, yet special, giddiness that comes with spending an evening at Ikspiari, Japan’s version of Downtown Disney, before going to the parks the next morning. There are oddly specific things about Disney from childhood through now that I enjoy that are hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been, such as indoors done up to look like outdoors or the smells of fake mist and theme park water. In its fakeness, it is its own unique experience.

I usually love staying in ryokans and truly being fully immersed in Japan, but I’ll admit it, sometimes I get a little homesick for America, and Disney hotels and Ikspiari help cure that a little with Western restaurant chains like Outback, Red Lobster and Rainforest Café and childhood favorite pop culture. Yes, it’s basic. But in being basic, it is also enjoyable.

While still significantly more affordable than a Disney vacation in America, a Tokyo Disneyland trip is still not cheap when considering hotels and meals. Hotels range from $150-$500 per night depending on the property. Admission to Tokyo Disneyland is $62 for a single day ticket at either park. Unlike America, Tokyo Disneyland has a discounted ticket bracket for children ages 12-17 that costs around $50. Children under 12 can get in for just $37 and children under the ages 3 and under can go for free. Starting June 27-Aug. 31, tickets for children ages 4-11 will be half-price at just around $20. For comparison, a single-day, one-park ticket for ages 10 and up at Florida’s Disney World is $100.  The discounted tickets must be reserved through the Tokyo Disney Resort’s reservation system either online using a Japanese credit card or via a hotel, but if you already purchased a ticket full price, you can retroactively get the discount. This process is a little confusing, so I would recommend calling.

Note that if purchasing from a kiosk, there is sometimes a small processing fee. To ensure securing a ticket, it is best to plan at least one month in advance. The website says that you still need to plan two months in advance to get a ticket, but this is not completely accurate as I was able to book a Disney hotel less than one month ahead with ease. As a general rule of thumb, the larger the group you plan on traveling with, the further I would plan ahead.

Making game plan a bare necessity

Let’s be real, Disney is pleasure spiked with pain because as fun as it can be, it always has potential to be a slightly hellish ordeal, and not having a plan for the day makes it more difficult.

Disney now sells premiere passes that allow you to bypass the line for around $20 per attraction, but we didn’t do that. If you go on a weekday before foreign tourism completely reopens, it is entirely possible to ride everything and see all the parades without it.  

Download the Tokyo Disneyland app to see show and parade times, attraction wait times, make reservations, and see updates. I would recommend paying the extra $30 for early admission tickets available to Disney hotel guests. These tickets allow you in the park one hour before opening. That extra hour ended up being valuable to me and my friend for us to see everything on our list.

Some of the shows require a reservation which can be made on the app upon entry into the park. My favorite show, the Philharmagic, does not require a reservation. It is a 3D show featuring a medley of classic Disney tunes in Japanese, and it is glorious.

On weekends when the park is busier, popular rides may require a return time via the standby pass option on the app, so make sure to look online ahead of time to see which attractions require a standby pass and reserve it as soon as you get inside the park. The standby passes are free, but limited in number, so you don’t want to miss out. We went on a Monday and Tuesday and none of the rides required standby passes.

I suggest bee-lining it to the back of the park first and doing all the top “must-do” rides for you personally in reverse order toward the front, as most people naturally do attractions in the order they pass by them from the entrance. After that, go to the shows and a park restaurant that you reserved on your app (more on that later), and finally tap back to the still fun but less significant to you rides before finding a spot to view the nighttime fireworks.

Instead of lining up early for the parades, we caught them as they went by while moving through our park agenda and were still able to dance along for a bit and get good photos, but little ones may want to watch the whole thing from a closer vantage point. I confess I am a childless millennial Disney-goer and therefore not an expert on accounting for small kids when planning my day. No matter your age, I would recommend getting a glimpse of at least one parade as the energy is infectious and there are special ones this year for DisneySea’s 20th anniversary.

Meet and greets are also back, and yes, my 30-year-old-self did in fact run to see Alice and Captain Hook when I saw them in the park. The app shows you times and map locations for character sightings, but it does not always say what character it will be, so it’s a fun little surprise. Characters may also turn up around the park in areas that are not indicated as meet-and-greet sections on the map. 

In Japan, Mickey and Minnie have longer lines than face characters do, which I found interesting.

If possible, I would recommend a three-day trip, allowing one day for getting there and leisurely exploring Ikspiari, one day for Disneyland, and one day for DisneySea. Disneyland has more attractions than DisneySea and that familiarity of timeless classics, while DisneySea only exists in Japan and has more thrilling rides.

My favorite attractions

Disney doesn’t have the thrill rides of places like the overrated Fuji-Q Highlands, but it does have a good mix of mild to somewhat wild rides with excessively detailed theming that separates itself from other theme parks.

My favorites are based on my love of the movie or theme the ride is based on, the fun of the ride itself, and exclusivity to Japan.

Disneyland

Enchanted Tales of Beauty and the Beast: Opened in 2020 as what seemed to be Disney’s personal pandemic project while we were baking banana bread, this ride is incredible and only available at Tokyo Disneyland.  It is built inside Beast’s castle in a land in the park themed after the provincial town that tires Belle. Guests ride in dancing teacups and travel through the movie’s iconic scenes and musical numbers. Perhaps the most amazing part is there is no track, and the teacup vehicles seem to effortlessly glide. This is an example of how smoothly rides can operate, and how uncanny animatronics can be, in the 2020s.

Haunted Mansion: I’m such a fan of this attraction that I have paintings from the ride in my home and a coffee table book explaining its history. It’s unique in that it varies at each Disney park around the world. Disneyland Paris is home to my favorite version, but the one in Tokyo is also a must-do for me.

Snow White’s Adventures: This is on the list purely for the nostalgia factor. The Florida version was mellowed out to have less frightening imagery before closing altogether for a new minecart themed ride, but Tokyo Disneyland still has the original version that mostly focuses on the Evil Queen’s witchy ways.

 Disneyland also has classics like Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight.

DisneySea

Journey to the Center of the Earth: Another attraction only in Japan, this ride is a steampunk adventure themed after the Jules Verne classic. Located inside a volcano that is one of the park’s centerpiece landmarks, this ride starts as a tour past an ethereal universe at the Earth’s core before turning into a thrill ride.

Tower of Terror: The Florida one remains my favorite as it still has Twilight Zone theming, which I hope it does forever, but the Japan version has a fun, haunted tiki storyline that is blatant in its message about the historic habits of stolen ancient artifacts and taking them home for display. A freefall ride, it also has the highest thrill factor out of both parks. 

Toy Story Mania: This ride is a surprisingly fast and spinning 3D journey through a toybox. Guests play virtual midway-style carnival games on the ride and compete for the highest score.

  Other notable attractions at DisneySea include the bumpy and thrilling Indiana Jones ride and Soarin’, a popular flight simulator ride.

Remaining family-friendly, nothing at Disney gets too intense, so both small children and the easily queasy can enjoy almost every ride at both parks.

Best Tokyo Disney food

My draw to Disney parks is in this order: rides, food, shows, Instagram pictures. In my opinion, a day at the parks is not complete without eating your way through it. Here are my must-get food and drink items:

Little Green Men Dumplings: Alternatively known as “alien mochi” the adorable three-eyed creatures from Toy Story have their own sweet treat, a gummy mochi dumpling filled with a pudding-like center. An order comes with one strawberry, one vanilla and one chocolate-filled dumpling.

Popcorn: Popcorn at Tokyo Disneyland offers so much more than just salt and butter. Each section of both parks has its unique popcorn flavor, including curry, soy sauce, orange peel and matcha and white chocolate. Each stall also sells a unique souvenir bucket to refill throughout the park.

Potato churros: Churros are a classic Disney treat at any of its parks, but only Japan offers sweet potato ones and the crispy savory option, essentially a massive French fry.

Specialty cocktails: Just like Disney Pixar movies throw in innuendo one liners for the adults, some of the specialty restaurants at Tokyo Disneyland offer themed alcoholic cocktails. The best drinks include a Campari and lychee drink on board the S.S. Columbia at DisneySea and the sparkling champagne cocktail at the Blue Bayou. You can also grab a glass of house red or white wine at the Venice-themed section of Disney Sea.

Blue Bayou: A sit-down restaurant with a set course meal inspired by New Orleans. This dining spot is special because it is located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, allowing diners to watch the boats pass by. Note that there are no vegetarian options at this restaurant other than bread and a side of vegetables. To ensure a seat, book a priority seating spot via the app once you purchase your park tickets.

Specialty drinks at Toon Town: Each year, the café in Toon Town debuts a new, brightly colored fruity drink. This year, it’s a blue minty concoction with jellies. There are other jelly drinks throughout the park, but the Toon Town one tends to be the most unique.

Sea Salt Ice Cream Monaka: This treat is both tasty and photogenic. Two light pink, seashell shaped wafers sandwich salty vanilla ice cream and strawberry jam.

Photo spots

As mentioned, a draw of a Disney trip is capturing memories In photos. Other than the obvious in front of the castle picture, here are my favorite spots to grab a photo without waiting on crowds to clear.

The side of Beast’s castle, by the waterfall. It’s a perfect photo spot that for some reason no one stops at.

The back side and side walkways of Cinderella’s castle. It’s just as pretty and way less crowded than the front.

The Toy Station storefront in the World Bazaar near Tomorrowland. A cute pastel storefront that isn’t a hallmark landmark at the park so most people don’t think to take a photo there.

Mermaid Lagoon at DisneySea. Go early in the day to get a good photo as this is the Cinderella’s castle of DisneySea.

Inside the teacups. Either on the ride itself or the model ones at the Celebration hotel.

The side of the entrance to the Arabian Coast section at DisneySea. Most people don’t see it and it looks like you took a quick trip to Morocco.

The Forest Theater in the Beauty and the Beast section. It’s tucked in the back, so a lot of people miss this enchanted photo opportunity.

In front of It’s a Small World. It’s a large building so there’s usually always space to slide in and grab a photo against the colorful backdrop.

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