Natsu Matsuri is Tokyo Disneyland’s take on a traditional Japanese summer festival, and continues the “East Meets West” vibe of Tanabata Days with another celebration combining traditional elements of Japanese culture with Disney. Unlike Tanabata Days, Natsu Matsuri is a far less serious culturally, and is mostly high energy, guest-soaking entertainment. This post features some of my photos and thoughts, along with tips for Natsu Matsuri for those of you visiting Tokyo Disneyland in the summer months.
Running for most of the months of July and August, I would say that Natsu Matsuri is mostly a pretext to soak guests during the incredibly hot and humid summer months to keep them cool. Having Tokyo Disneyland decorated as if for a traditional Japanese-style summer festival, complete with lanterns and other decor, just makes sense…and is awesome.
Calling the event a pretext may sound harsh, but it should hardly be construed as a knock on Natsu Matsuri. It’s an absolute hoot. Natsu Matsuri just doesn’t have the same solemn vibe as Tanabata Days, which added an air of authenticity to Tanabata Days that I really appreciated. Had I not experienced both, I probably would not have thought anything of Natsu Matsuri’s lighthearted, over-the-top charm.
So why is Natsu Matsuri so fun? Let’s take a look…
There are two castle shows held for Natsu Matsuri, with the first being Ondo-Ko-Don. This show is aimed at kids, and features two original “ondo” (a Japanese-style dance). There’s one ondo for Mickey and one for Donald, and it’s basically just a case of Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, Donald, and Chip & Dale hyping up the crowd by jumping around, dancing, and beating on drums in a relatively short show.
While it is definitely aimed at kids, there’s something intoxicating about those drums, and it’s a cute little show that doesn’t feel overtly juvenile, but perhaps that’s just because I don’t understand Japanese, so I couldn’t really judge the script.
For me, it worked fine because it just amounts to a quick show with catchy music, cool costumes, and not too much in the way of getting the crowd soaked. If you want be able to get photos of the characters in traditional Japanese attire without sacrificing your camera, this is a good option.
The main draw, however, is Garyo Gunbu. Even the name for this show is awesome. It sounds like the name of the mysterious character, whose nefarious motives are ultimately exposed, in a Dashiell Hammett novel.
This Garyo Gunbu show is far less complex. At its core, it is a dance off between two rival groups that results in the audience being soaked. Think Newsies if you armed the characters to the teeth with Super Soakers.
The premise here is actually that two rival dance teams, Donald’s “Miyabi Kenran – San!” and Mickey’s “Ryobu Shippu – Sho!” are competing with one another by performing in a high-energy dance off.
Each team is a different color (red and blue) and on floats that move around the parade route pumping up the crowd. Guests cheer on their favorite team while the teams spray one another with water, and water sprays out from the floats.
Huh? Maybe you’re thinking, “I’ll bet he misunderstood the plot or something got lost in translation, because that makes no sense.” I’m pretty sure I got the plot right, and it just makes no sense. The dance-off part makes sense, but that’s not really the “point” of the show. I’m pretty sure the whole thing is just an excuse to totally soak the audience with spray guns and water cannons.
And you know what? The results are awesome. This show taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes Disney entertainment can just be ridiculous, no holds barred fun. I stopped trying to discern what was going on or make sense of this all pretty early on, as I was having such a blast getting sprayed down, watching the characters in water gun fights, and listening to that enchanting music. At the time, this was the most nonsensical Disney show I had ever seen, and I loved every minute of it. (I say “at the time” because I subsequently watched “Minnie’s Tropical Splash,” which really took things to the next level.)
I watched this twice, and the first time I camped out 30 minutes for a spot in the Hub facing Cinderella Castle because I was unable to get a lottery ticket for a seat. Camping out like this is unnecessary unless you want a good view of the main show in front of the Castle. Once the show started, I found myself wandering through the Hub. The floats circle the parade route, so I was drawn in whichever direction the action was happening. This results in an inferior view for the main show directly in front of the Castle, but it’s more fun to go where the party is, so to speak.
The second time I won the lottery, and got a seat in front of Cinderella Castle. This was a far better view of the main show, but a far inferior experience. I think this show–and moreso Minnie’s Tropical Splash–work so well despite being utterly ridiculous because of the audience buy-in. When you’re in an area where everyone is just sitting down, the energy level takes a serious hit. It’s a better view, but at its best, this is not a passive show.
If you are using this as a planning guide, note that if you are standing in the Hub or sitting in front of Cinderella Castle, you will get wet. Very wet. I was wearing my rainsuit and had a poncho on my camera, and I still got wet. Keeping the front of my lens dry was nearly impossible. It’s not a matter of a light mist hitting you: the characters are literally spraying the audience with hoses and shooting water cannons into the crowd. If you don’t properly cover phones, cameras, and backpacks, you could end up with some soaked and/or ruined stuff. Definitely follow our Tips for Beating the Summer Heat and Humidity post’s tips for what to wear if you’re heading to this event.
Now for a tangential little anecdote I found interesting, but probably isn’t. I once had a conversation with a knowledgeable individual at Tokyo Disneyland. They explained to me that guests are unlikely to get very wet on Splash Mountain because, when the attraction was proposed for Japan, it was assumed that the Japanese did not like to get wet. Being wet deviates from a neat, orderly appearance valued in the culture (there’s a Japanese phrase for this that I don’t recall; it translates to, ironically, a “wet mouse”).
However, after visiting a popular new water park (sorry, no clue which one), the entertainment team at Tokyo Disneyland determined that maybe Japanese youth do enjoy getting wet, and it would be worth testing water entertainment at Tokyo Disneyland. Thus, the water-centric summer celebrations at Tokyo Disney Resort were born, and have since proven to be smash hits with guests. (Note: I cannot speak to the veracity of this story, but I found it to be interesting, and it seems plausible, so I thought I’d share.)
I would further speculate that these summer events have evolved over time because it’s unlikely that you go from the light misting guests receive on Splash Mountain directly to Mickey and Friends straight up hosing down an audience in front of Cinderella Castle. It seems like one of those things where you push the envelope a little further each year, until one year you find yourself with Goofy and Max drenching one another and the audience as they battle it out with hoses, as water cannons attached to giant floats sporadically shoot out into the crowd.
In addition to the two shows, there are also decorations in World Bazaar and the Hub. These areas are decorated in the style of a traditional Japanese festival, with blue and red motifs based on the two teams: “Miyabi Kenran – San!” and “Ryobu Shippu – Sho!”
The decorations include Japanese lanterns, banners, parasols, and photo locations featuring the Disney characters. While these decorations aren’t as extensive as major holidays like Halloween, Christmas, and Easter, they do give the front of the park the feel of a Japanese summer festival stylized with a Disney twist. Certainly cool for photos, especially if you’re a tourist who wants something that simultaneously says “Japan” and “Disney.”
Beyond this, as is the case for every special event at Tokyo Disneyland, there’s merchandise and special menu items for Natsu Matsuri. There’s really not a ton to say about the menus, but the merchandise is interesting. The cynic in me wonders if this is the reason Tokyo Disneyland has so many special events. I know that Disney special merchandise sells well no matter where it is, but it seems like everyone at Tokyo Disneyland buys something…or 5 things. Merchandise sales alone might fund these special events!
The merchandise for Natsu Matsuri is nothing short of brilliant. I don’t mean because of the designs, I mean because they have designed events that soak guests…and then sell a variety of merchandise to keep guests dry! In addition to the dry bags, waterproof phone cases, ponchos, towels, and other assorted merchandise that negates the wetness of the shows, there’s actually a really cool line of regular merchandise for Natsu Matsuri. TDR Explorer has a post covering what’s available. I’m not normally huge on Tokyo’s merchandise, but I liked several things here and actually bought a shirt.
Overall, Natsu Matsuri is a great event to help guests deal with the summer heat. Garyo Gunbu is a really fun show if you fully embrace it, and the decorations at the front of the park are beautiful, and will make for some great photos. As a photographer, that’s really the highlight of the event for me, but I think it will be a big deal even for Westerners who aren’t photographers. With those Japanese lanterns out there, it’s really easy to get an iconic photo of Tokyo Disneyland that clearly wasn’t taken in Florida. Natsu Matsuri definitely isn’t on the same scale as other seasonal celebrations, and I certainly wouldn’t plan my first trip around it (mostly because that means coming during rainy/humid season) but it’s very well done for what it is.
If you’re thinking of visiting Japan for the first time and are overwhelmed with planning, definitely check out our Tokyo Disney Resort Planning Guide. It covers much more than the parks, from getting there to WiFi to currency and much, much more. To save money on a visit to Japan, read our Tokyo Disney on a Budget article. For more photos and an idea of what we did day-by-day during our first visit, read our Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Report.
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Does Natsu Matsuri look interesting to you? Have you visited Tokyo Disneyland during the summer? Have you been to a traditional Japanese summer festival? Does this remind you of one? If you have any other comments or questions, post them below and I’ll try to answer!