Tokyo DisneySea is Disney’s best theme park anywhere in the world. It’s rare for me to make an unqualified statement when calling something the best, but this park is so good that I’m confident in that statement without any sort of hedging my bets. The other day, I encountered a conversation in which Disneyland fans were debating whether Tokyo DisneySea or Disneyland is the best theme park in the world. I’ve had similar conversations in person on a couple other occasions, so I thought it would be a fun topic to discuss.
My take is that Tokyo DisneySea is superior to Disneyland (and every other Disney theme park) when viewed in terms of an objective (or as close to objective as humanly possible) analysis of which is the “better” theme park. I think Disneyland is brought up in the “best theme park in the world” conversation primarily for two reasons: nostalgia and its pioneering status.
In terms of nostalgia, many Disneyland and Walt Disney World fans grew up on those parks, and a big part of their love for the parks is steeped in idealized memories of the past. Heck, I’ve readily admitted that those influenced by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia even includes me! I see nothing wrong with nostalgia and wanting to embrace fond memories of the past (to a degree), but nostalgia has no place in a conversation about “the best.” Nostalgia is judgment-clouding and, more importantly, personal to the individual.
As for its pioneering status in the world of theme parks, that makes Disneyland more historically significant and important than Tokyo DisneySea, but it does not make it better. The fact that Walt Disney actually walked down Main Street USA in Disneyland is a ‘bragging right’ that Disneyland fans will always have over fans of every other theme park, but again, that’s about history not current quality. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that the Apple-1 is better than the MacBook Pro Retina because Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually worked on the former, and it seems odd to me that theme park fans would argue that an entire theme park is better because Walt Disney once was involved in a version of the park that is radically different from what exists there today.
Other reasons crop up concerning attraction count and the number of “classic” attractions as trump cards for Disneyland, but these arguments are usually made by those who haven’t actually been to Tokyo DisneySea, and thus they haven’t realized it’s at least a 2-day park that performs better in the flesh than it does on paper. To me, Tokyo DisneySea is a fully realized conceptual park, closely akin to the original EPCOT Center, but with a more balanced execution.
As for why Tokyo DisneySea is the best Disney theme park in the world? Here are 10 (of many) reasons why…
10. Mysterious Island.
You may think putting this at the top of the article is a way to avoid burying the lede by putting this at #1. Quite the contrary. Almost every Disney fan who yearns for a visit to Tokyo DisneySea cites Mysterious Island as their top reason for wanting to visit. Mysterious Island is every superlative you can imagine it being, but I do not consider it the end-all, be-all of Tokyo DisneySea. In fact, I waiver back and forth on whether it’s my second, third, or fourth favorite land in the park. Mysterious Island lives up to the hype, it’s just that other lands in the park far surpass their relative lack of hype.
9. Hotel MiraCosta is in the Park.
From the ocean wall in Port Discovery to the S.S. Columbia to the monorail that circles the park that you somehow never see when you’re inside the park, Tokyo DisneySea uses a litany of design tricks to great success. By far the greatest of these tricks is its placement of Hotel MiraCosta inside the theme park in an unobtrusive manner. But this isn’t just hidden like Club 33 (used to be). The Hotel MiraCosta is hiding in plain sight, “rubbing guests noses in it” who cannot afford to stay there. That, or it is in plain sight and is enhancing the environment of Mediterranean Harbor as it provides depth and lived-in buildings that would otherwise be false facades. The prominence of Hotel MiraCosta in the design of the park had to have been a big gamble at the design stage in terms of how it would be perceived, but here the gamble paid off in spades, as Hotel MiraCosta is one of the most important and groundbreaking features of Tokyo DisneySea.
8. It Takes Transportation Seriously.
Pretty much every Disney fan knows of Walt Disney’s fondness for trains, and also of how important various means of transportation have been to the kinetic energy of Disneyland. Tokyo DisneySea continues the proud tradition of transportation in Disney theme parks, using everything from Venetian gondolas to the elevated Tokyo DisneySea Electric Railway, which is their version of the PeopleMover, in my opinion. Boats, cars, and other forms of transportation abound, not only serving utilitarian purposes, but also giving the park that ever-important kinetic energy.
7. Great Versions of the Best Attractions.
When I recently did my Top 10 Worldwide Disney Attractions list, only two Tokyo DisneySea attractions made the list. One of those will be discussed below, so here we are only considering Tower of Terror. However, on that list I noted that Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure barely beat out Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull at Tokyo DisneySea. Additionally, Journey to the Center of the Earth was barely edged out by Radiator Springs Racers. Another attraction that everyone but me seems to love, Toy Story Mania, has its best version at Tokyo DisneySea. It may not have classics like Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion, but Tokyo DisneySea does have great versions of several new-classics, plus several original attractions that are not to be missed. Take a look at our overview of every Tokyo DisneySea attraction to get an idea of the full lineup.
6. It Does America Better.
Being that the first three Disney theme parks were all built in America and are rooted to varying degrees in Americana, it’s a bold assertion to claim that a theme park in Japan does America better. But this blog is all about bold assertions. Tokyo DisneySea’s American Waterfront port of call is the largest port in the park, and has a level of detail the US parks seem to reserve for exotic locales, while taking more superficial approaches to areas based on America itself. Don’t get me wrong, I love Main Street USA and the American Adventure, but in the latter, once you get past the amazing American Adventure attraction, there’s not a ton of detail to the pavilion. It’s just a large mansion. Contrast that with the Morocco pavilion. American Waterfront turns the idea of Americana in Disney theme parks on its head, offering an area that’s simultaneously gritty and romanticized, and always loaded with detail. Attractions like Tower of Terror and Big Band Beat are Disney at its best, and there’s even an oceanliner with a lounge themed to Teddy Roosevelt on board. Need I say more?
5. The Counter Service Options are Unreal.
In other parks, there’s a standout counter service option here or there with either great food or cool ambiance, but usually not both. Tokyo DisneySea is the best Disney theme park for counter service food, and for counter service theming. At Casbah Food Court, you can dine in an Arabian open-air bazaar while having excellent curry. At Vulcania, you can eat inside a converted geothermal power station carved out of an active volcano while eating delicious Chinese food. At New York Deli, you can dine inside the shops of various mom and pop proprietors while having a Mile High Sandwich. At Cape Cod Cook-Off, you can eat inside a boathouse while watching a Duffy stage show and eating awful burgers. Okay, that last one was a bad example…but there really are about a half dozen other awesome counter service restaurants in Tokyo DisneySea. And don’t even get me started on the table service or the snacks…
4. Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage
If Tokyo DisneySea gets penalized for not having classics like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, every other park gets penalized for not having new-classic Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage. The fact that this is the only attraction that has its own spot on the list should speak volumes, but in case you want to read more on why Sindbad and Chandu are so great, we’ve already dedicated an entire article to the topic.
3. The Entertainment is Second to None.
Big Band Beat. Mystic Rhythms. Legend of Mythica (for now). A Table is Waiting. Fantasmic. Three Tokyo DisneySea shows made the list of our Top 10 Worldwide Disney Shows and Spectaculars, and plenty more qualify as good or better. The park’s first class shows and streetmosphere are a big reason why it’s a 2+ day park. Shows take up good chunks of the day, and the quality and repeatability of DisneySea’s best shows means you consistently will eat up large portions of your visit by watching entertainment. US guests aren’t as likely to give as much deference to entertainment when evaluating a park, but that’s often because shows in the US parks is dated or are of the “one and done” variety.
2. The Cast Members are Second to None.
I love Disney Cast Members. From Orlando to Anaheim to Hong Kong to Paris (yes, even Paris), Cast Members are a big, essential part of what makes the parks wonderful. With all due respect to any individual Cast Members in the US parks who may be reading this, no group of Cast Members, collectively, hold a candle to the Cast Members at Tokyo Disney Resort. To be sure, there are absolutely amazing Cast Members at every park, and most Cast Members at every park are good-to-great, but almost every single Cast Member we’ve ever encountered at Tokyo Disney Resort is of the ‘absolutely amazing’ variety. From just general politeness to literally walking you to where you need to go when you ask for assistance to perfectly handling crowd control and upkeep, the Cast Members there rock. Now technically, this is an attribute that applies equally to both Tokyo parks, but unless someone is arguing that Tokyo Disneyland is the best theme park in the world, this is a characteristic of Tokyo DisneySea that gives it an advantage over all other challengers.
1. You Never Remember You’re in Tokyo.
For me, the single most important aspect of any Disney theme park is its ability to transport you from where you geographically are to where its creators want you to imagine being. This is the quality that separates a theme park from an amusement park or a random collection of attractions. From the time you walk through Aquasphere Plaza until you leave at the end of the day, you are not in Japan, you are in those various ports of call. As a foreigner, the only reminder that you’re thousands of miles from home is the occasional Cast Member who has trouble with English. Aside from that, it’s just another day on the Lost River Delta with Indiana Jones.
As an adult, it’s not so much that I actually believe that I’ve stepped under the sea when entering King Triton’s Castle, or that I’ve jumped into the pages with Jules Verne. It’s that the park gives me no plausible alternatives for the experience I’m having. There are no cracks in the illusion and there are no failures in the way the experience is presented and executed. In other words, it’s not so much that you believe you’re actually in these places, since in the back of your mind you know you are in a theme park, it’s more that you stop thinking about the outside world and sort of take where you are for granted since it is so detailed and so immersive.
I’ve heard Imagineers describe their goal as creating spaces and attractions that facilitate the suspension of disbelief. Typically, for this to occur, it’s the shared burden of the creator and the audience. The creator has to make something so compelling that there’s a subconscious, psychological desire in the audience to overlook its flaws and enjoy the fantasy without rational thought, and the audience has to embrace that fantasy without giving consideration to the faults. Suspension of disbelief is what happens throughout every inch of Tokyo DisneySea, but it seems like more of the burden has shifted to the creator, and rather than being an audience member passively enjoying a fantasy-story, the guest is an active participant in adventures.
This all may seem like over-analysis of a theme park, but I think this is the linchpin of why Tokyo DisneySea is such a great and compelling theme park. It is very difficult to articulate this other than in the abstract terms above, and without having experienced the park, it may be difficult to fully comprehend. That’s why I drew the comparison to EPCOT Center at the outset. Much of what once made EPCOT Center special has been stripped from the park, but some of these transportive places remain. Again, Morocco is a prime example. I often find that I lose myself in the paths, nooks, and crannies of Morocco, never once contemplating that I’m in a theme park. I suspect many of you have had that same feeling. Relative to the whole of the park, Morocco is a pretty small area. Now, imagine an entire park like Morocco.
Is your mind blown by that? That’s Tokyo DisneySea. The greatest theme park in the world.
If you’re planning a visit to Japan, make sure to check out our Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Planning Guide. It offers comprehensive advice for visiting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, plus general tips for visiting Japan!
Which Disney theme park (of the ones you’ve visited) do you think is #1? Why? Of the parks you haven’t visited, which do you most want to experience? If you have any questions, tips, or thoughts to share, please post them in the comments. We love hearing from readers!