Mysterious Island: Masterpiece of Imagineering
Few people have inspired the Imagineers as much as Jules Verne. With attractions, restaurants, and entire lands at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo DisneySea, the famed French author’s intellectual property has been used in the parks more than anything not now belonging to Disney.
Chief among these is Mysterious Island, which is arguably the pinnacle of themed design not just at Tokyo Disney Resort, but in the entire world. We’ve referenced it countless times on the blog, drawing favorable comparisons between it and new lands in the U.S. parks like Pandora World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
While “intellectual property” is now a pejorative term among some Disney fans, that’s precisely what Mysterious Island is–a modern IP land that paved the way for a variety of successors around the globe at Disney and Universal theme parks in the nearly two decades since its debut. In this post, we’ll share Mysterious Island photos and commentary, discussing why it’s still the gold standard for such a land…
For starters, some quick background. Mysterious Island is Jules Verne’s second Disney theme park land, with the first being Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris. Other various incarnations of Tomorrowland feature components that are overtly inspired by Verne, but not to the exclusion of other ideas and concepts.
Outside of Tokyo DisneySea, several attractions are either inspired by the works of Jules Verne or feature him as a character. These include Space Mountain: De la Terre Á la Lune (Disneyland Paris), Timekeeper (Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland), Horizons (EPCOT Center), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom).
When looking at Mysterious Island on paper, it’s not that impressive. It has two rides, a couple of counter service restaurants, and a gift shop. In this sense, it’s also the modern predecessor to Cars Land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Pandora, etc.
However, viewing Mysterious Island on paper does a huge disservice to Mysterious Island, because–like those other lands–it’s so much more.
Everywhere you look, Mysterious Island oozes detail, and you really feel as if you’re in the midst of a harbor that serves as a base camp for explorations.
Because the big picture is so jaw-dropping, it’s easy to overlook the little things that the Imagineers so deftly nailed with Mysterious Island.
There’s also the even bigger picture in terms of themes and motifs, which can get lost in the entertainment and beauty of Mysterious Island.
Mysterious Island perfectly showcases humanity’s attempt to conquer nature, harnessing and harvesting resources, and some of the fun…and folly of that.
Mysterious Island examines the fine line between exploration and exploitation. Some components reveal the simple beauties and discoveries that can be made during research; others lay bar the consequences of pilfering nature.
Unlike something like Pandora, which is more overt about its message, this is mostly subtext in Mysterious Island. It’s apparent if you’re analyzing the port, but no one is going to step off the thrill ride featuring an encounter with a Lava Monster thinking, “that was fun but preachy.” Mysterious Island is not that obvious about its intentions.
Approaching the port of Mysterious Island, the first thing you see is Mount Prometheus, the wienie of Tokyo DisneySea. Think of this active volcano as the park’s version of Cinderella Castle. Just as that icon can be seen from virtually anywhere in Tokyo Disneyland, so too can Mount Prometheus in Tokyo DisneySea.
Moreover, just as Cinderella Castle the whole park’s icon but still most closely associated with Fantasyland, same goes for Mount Prometheus and Mysterious Island. Although here the nexus between Mysterious Island and the park’s icon is even stronger; it’s an instrumental backdrop to the other ports of call, but substantively essential to Mysterious Island.
From its brilliant use of space to its authentic rock-work that nails the the little details–right down to geographically-accurate lava flow viscosity, Mount Prometheus is an impressive feat and sight to behold.
A full article could be written on the brilliance of Mount Prometheus alone.
The same could be said for each of the attractions, its gift shops, drinking fountains, restrooms, merchandise carts, and more. (Not kidding, the merchandise cart between Mysterious Island and Mermaid Lagoon is seriously brilliant.)
We’re going to focus here on the bigger picture, and circle back later for posts with more detail about the specific attractions and other offerings. (Full disclosure: I was missing Tokyo DisneySea this weekend and got carried away, “accidentally” editing over 200 Mysterious Island photos for this post. I cannot use all of them in one post, so follow-ups are pretty much necessary.)
The detail, design, and layout all set the appropriate mood as you leave the other ports and enter Mysterious Island.
Even the background music, which in the main walkways is little more than eerie notes and whistling wind, and lighting work to make Mysterious Island feel like a real place just off the edge of civilization.
As the central port of call in Tokyo DisneySea, Mysterious Island directly connects to three of the park’s other areas (Mediterranean Harbor, Mermaid Lagoon, and Port Discovery).
Each entrance is equally brilliant and impressive, with a reveal reminiscent of going through the rock arch from Pacific Wharf to Cars Land.
Since Mysterious Island is set within a caldera enveloped by Mount Prometheus and structurally reinforced by the crew exploring it, every entrance is an opportunity for a rock-work reveal.
From my perspective, the best of these is entering from Mermaid Lagoon as it entails the best view, passing under a bridge for the port’s flagship attraction, and beautiful natural details. However, almost every visitor will enter for the first time via Mediterranean Harbor.
Within this central area, known as Vulcania Caldera, are two attractions (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth), two restaurants (Vulcania and Nautilus Galley), a gift shop (Nautilus Gifts), and a glorious snack stand (Refreshment Station).
Now let’s try to gain a bearing on the layout of Mysterious Island, entering from Mediterranean Harbor…
To the immediate right of the port’s entrance is the FastPass distribution area for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This area is directly above load for the attraction, which you can see in the image above.
This is easily the best FastPass distribution spot in the world, and it is frequently closed due to FastPass not being needed for the attraction. That’s downright criminal given the beauty of this corridor.
Across from that, the spiral staircase that is one of the port’s most identifiable features leads down to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
At the top of this spiral area, you’ll see Captain Nemo’s own personal mini-sub, the Neptune, hanging from a crane.
Wait times for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are frequently under 15 minutes on weekdays, which is why FastPass is often unnecessary.
Unfortunately, for this same reason, so too is the extended queue for the ride. This contains the Captain’s Study, Control Station, and Dive Hatch areas. While cool, this queue cannot touch Journey to the Center of the Earth’s (silver lining?).
The ride vehicles for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are identical to the Neptune hanging above. These mini-subs seat up to six adults at three different windows, each having a different view into the attraction.
Thus begins the dark ride, as the subs plunge “underwater” taking guests through iconic scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, including the ship graveyard, lost city of Atlantis, and into a climactic encounter with a giant squid.
Throughout the ride, Captain Nemo is communicating to you in Japanese. This is probably the biggest instance of a language barrier at Tokyo Disney Resort, but as with Tower of Terror, it’s very easy to ascertain exactly what’s happening based upon the visuals. You just don’t know some of the story specifics and precise dialogue.
In other words, the language barrier is no barrier at all when it comes to enjoying Tokyo Disney Resort.
Upon disembarking from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ll be directly across from Vulcania, the port of call’s buffeteria-style restaurant.)
This restaurant originally served as a geothermal station carved out of the volcano by Captain Nemo. It has since been converted into a mess hall that serves the island’s crew.
Sticking with restaurants, from Vulcania you can see the Nautilus on the other side of the caldera. The submarine looks identical to the Harper Goff design that appeared in Magic Kingdom through the 1990s, and is permanently docked.
The Nautilus dock marks the seating area for Nautilus Galley, the counter-service restaurant (it’s really more an elaborate snack stand) that is home to the iconic gyoza dog.
This snack is so popular that it was actually relocated down here from the Refreshment Station at the edge of of Mysterious Island. While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that’s because lengthy lines for the gyoza dog were impeding crowd-flow.
Either way, the gyoza dog is fantastic–a must eat item at Tokyo DisneySea. But I digress…
Doubling back to the Mediterranean Harbor entrance and instead turning left instead of right (and staying inside Mount Prometheus), we’d approach Journey to the Center of the Earth.
This is the port’s flagship attraction, and one of the most popular at Tokyo Disney Resort.
The queue for Journey to the Center of the Earth is incredible. It takes you through caverns strewn with office desks and lab materials where Captain Nemo and his crew have been studying their excavations.
Then, guests take a terravator deep “down” beneath the surface of the earth.
There’s more queue once you get to the load area, with several monitoring stations. You get the impression that you’re about to go on a dangerous expedition deeper down where the crew has previously been.
Everything is makeshift but in a very substantial in a ‘spare no expense’ sort of way. Like what John Hammond would’ve built if he were obsessed with geology instead of dinosaurs.
The ride vehicles are known as Subterranean Vehicles, powered by steam with plow-like attachments on the front.
Technology-wise, the ride system is similar to that used in Test Track at Epcot, Radiator Springs Racers at DCA, and the defunct Rocket Rods at Disneyland.
The attraction takes you through several different areas deeper and deeper below the earth, Crystal Caverns to a Mushroom Forest inhabited by creatures that look a tad like Skippy from Alien Encounter, and more.
The first three-quarters of the attraction are sublime, and exactly what I was hoping for from Na’vi River Journey.
Things become more tense, and you suddenly are face to face with the screeching Lava Monster, who also looks a bit like the captured creature from Alien Encounter…and is even more pissed off.
You are near him for a few seconds, and he is spectacular. Your Subterranean Vehicle then shoots up a short section of track and the ride is over.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is often lauded as the best Disney attraction in the world.
It is awesome, no doubt, but I disagree. Admittedly, I was a bit letdown after my first ride. I was expecting this to be the end-all, be-all of Disney rides, and…it’s not. I’ve come to love over time with subsequent ride-throughs (it’s immensely re-rideable), and it’s now my #2 ride in Tokyo DisneySea, but still probably not in my top 10 worldwide. That’s probably another topic for another day–even if it’s outside my top 10, Journey to the Center of the Earth is deserving of its own post.
One thing that’s really impressive about Mysterious Island that doesn’t receive enough attention is its brilliant use of space.
This port is surrounded on every side by Tokyo DisneySea’s other ports of call. It does not have gigantic show buildings hidden backstage. Instead, it uses a multi-level approach to make clever economy of space. This is presumably no easy task when building on reclaimed land.
This is one way Mysterious Island dramatically differs from both Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora – World of Avatar.
Both of those are sprawling spaces, which also have large backstage areas for show-buildings. The argument could be made that they have a bit too much wasted space, not taking full advantage of their acreage. (A critique that’s more true of Galaxy’s Edge, and might’ve been done deliberately for crowd-control purposes.)
By contrast, every square foot of Mysterious Island is utilized brilliantly.
Everywhere rich visuals or details that reinforce more about the story or the port’s theme and motifs. It’s truly remarkable and there’s a reason it resonates so well with guests despite being devoid of characters (well…mostly).
Suffice to say, when it comes to Mysterious Island, the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Even with photos, it may not be as impressive “on paper” as it is in reality.
When exploring the multi-sensory and fully-dimensional version of Mysterious Island in person, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.
All things considered, Mysterious Island is the objectively-best port of call at Tokyo DisneySea. In fact, it’s up there as one of Disney’s best themed lands in the entire world. New Orleans Square at Disneyland is probably its closest competition in that regard, but Mysterious Island edges out most of its newer intellectual property-based counterparts.
From the marquee attractions to the clever use of space and spare no expense details–even the food is delicious. Mysterious Island is a masterpiece of Imagineering, and while other lands have iterated upon the idea and some individual attractions have surpassed it, Mysterious Island is still the gold standard.
Not that it ultimately matters, but Mysterious Island is still not my personal favorite port at Tokyo DisneySea. Even with all of that effusive praise, I’m not even sure Mysterious Island is even my second-favorite. It’s definitely at least my fourth-favorite in the park (and in my top 10 worldwide), which says less about this perfect port and more about the uncontroverted brilliance and roster depth of Tokyo DisneySea, the best theme park in the world.
Planning a trip to Tokyo Disney Resort? For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Tokyo Disneyland & DisneySea Trip Planning Guide! For more specifics, our TDR Hotel Rankings & Reviews page covers accommodations. Our Restaurant Reviews detail where to dine & snack. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money post. Our What to Pack for Disney post takes a unique look at clever items to take. Venturing elsewhere in Japan? Consult our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan and City Guide to Tokyo, Japan.
Have you experienced Mysterious Island in person? Where would it rank for you in terms of Disney’s lands? Do either Journey to the Center of the Earth or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea make your top 10? Do you think this port is more than the sum of its parts? Anything else you love/hate about it? Think it’s not a masterpiece and is actually overrated? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Thank you so much for such a great post! It looks so beautiful there. Do you think Mysterious Island would be as successful in DisneyWorld or Disneyland as it is in DisneySea? I wonder if people in the U.S. would be as receptive to a land that isn’t themed to something as blockbuster as Star Wars or feature Mickey and the gang. Mysterious Island looks magical, and like such a great immersive Disney experience. I’m not sure if the U.S. will get anything that’s not tied to big budget movies and characters anymore. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course Star Wars turned out great, it’s just too bad we may not see this type of land anymore. I hope to get to DisneySea one day!
It truly is the best park in the world. I have, as of yet, seen Shanghai, but I found each and every land at TDS more detailed than any other park. I found even the static displays had unbelievable detail and story to their presentation. I spent most of a day just looking through the Galleon Ship and the fortress as one of the most interesting exploration displays for kids as well as adults. I spent hours playing with my 3 year old son and investigating some of the neatest puzzles on display. I would go back again in an instant.
Mysterious Island looks amazing and all I can say is I wish it was being built in Florida.
Jules Verne is a favorite of mine. Any possibilities ??
This land truly is a masterpiece of themed environments. It’s especially nifty how everything fits together…and how imagineers convince you that you’re going deep in the earth when you’re actually going up in an elevator. One challenge I’ve considered is how Disney could expand the land without spending an enormous amount to tear down a portion of the caldera or impacting multiple attractions/restaurants/facilities. In the end, I kinda hope they leave the land untouched for another couple decades in case someone attempts to add a more popular IP into the space.
Also my Disney lands list (not intentionally, but likely subconsciously influenced by the one Tom commented):
1. Galaxy’s Edge (excellent rides + rich details + expansive area)
2. Asia (good/great attractions + nostalgia + a visual and explorable treat night and day)
3. American Waterfront (great theme + Good/great attractions and dining + very large area to explore)
4. Arabian Coast (best ride at TDS + really neat themed areas + Chandu + chandu + chandu)
5. Mediterranean Harbor (so many environments to explore + many memories walking around here)
6. Mysterious Island (good/great rides + v impressive environment)
7. Pandora (an excellent ride + really neat environment + drums)
8. Main St USA in Paris (explorable arcades + castle views + just a really richly themed version of the land)
9. Discoveryland (overall great attraction roster + the under rated Star Tours + really neat visuals)
10. World Showcase (I cant really say this as one land or 11 different lands, but I love wandering here so I gets some kind of a spot.)
-Critter Country in Tokyo (such a cool environment + strong, though limited contents)
-Frontierland in Paris (great themed environment, but unfortunately my visits were blessed with a drained lake, many walls, and a mine train in refurbishment.)
-Fantasyland in Paris (whimsical and detailed + many attractions)
-Discovery Island (many spots to explore with spectacular views)
*all rankings subject to change should my mind decide to feel slightly different at a given moment due to any circumstance
That’s a great list! I probably wouldn’t count World Showcase as a single land, but then again, each pavilion as a land also doesn’t seem fair.
As for Mysterious Island, I can’t see it ever changing. Very heavy on the physical props, which makes a future IP injection unlikely.
Oh, and the audience has called it guys. Mysterious Masks are WAY more interesting than Mysterious Island. Just churn out a few more face covering articles, they’re worth 15 of these (based on the current comment ratio) 😉
…and this was required 15 times the effort of that post.
However, it’s also well over 15 times more enjoyable for me to write content like this, so still a net-positive.
Please keep writing articles like these as they are much more interesting than ones that cause your readers to incessantly complain about wearing masks! Just WOW.
I can’t disagree with your headline – I still recall the feeling of awe when I first saw it. But a bit of me has occasionally wondered whether Mysterious Island is getting extra credit for novelty and subverting theme park expectations.
How many other lands are there with no background music? How many where the exits from the land – the pathways out – are not readily apparent? And certainly in Disney parks, how many lands are there which don’t feel manicured and idealised? (much of Animal Kingdom of course, but that is the exception that proves the rule… and the reason so many people dislike(d?) that park!).
I’m more playing devil’s advocate – as I said, my initial reaction speaks volumes – but having spent a lot more time at DisneySea I wouldn’t put Mysterious Island in my top 4(?) lands. In fairness it is up against some seriously heavy competition – and an argument can be made for any land as being the best (except Mermaid Lagoon and Port Discovery – even though I truly love the latter!), but it’s notable that more traditional lands shine through for me.
I’d argue that the entire layout of Tokyo DisneySea is fairly confusing and convoluted. It’s arguable whether this is bad design, a result of being forced to work with limited space, or an intentional choice to encourage exploration and discovery.
As for Mysterious Island being more gritty and less idealized, I think there’s a time and place for that approach. Real world environments that could be romanticized or exoticized maybe should skew towards the former. However, I don’t see much glamorizing of a volcano and caldera. Building tension on top of that leans into the environment in a way that’s sensible, IMO.
Thank you for the great photography of this beautiful land – it reminded me this is my favorite place of all the Disney properties i have been to as well.
Just one curiosity . . . while admitting i was there in 2001 just before the official opening and i don’t speak Japanese . . . isn’t the Lava Monster guarding *her* eggs?
“…isn’t the Lava Monster guarding *her* eggs?”
Oh wow, now I need to look back through my photos for Lava Monster eggs!
I’ve never been to Tokyo but based your photos plus YouTube ride videos, I would love to see Mysterious Island. I enjoy the 20K League and Journey to Center of Earth movies as well and Jules Verne’s cameos in Horizons and Timekeeper. Its too bad Tony Baxter’s Discovery Bay concept for Disneyland never made it to Disneyland because it think it would’ve similar to Mysterious Island.
So what’s your #1 ride at Tokyo DisneySea???
And thanks for this post, it’s nice to daydream about one day being able to travel again (the Tokyo parks and Japan as a whole are definitely a bucket list trip for me I’m hoping to do sometime in the next 5-10 years).
“So what’s your #1 ride at Tokyo DisneySea???”
That’s another post for another day…likely during quarantine while I’m bored out of my mind. 🙂
Also worth mentioning: the incredible sound design when circling the main footpath around Mysterious Island, without the single use of atmospheric music. These beautiful pictures sure do make miss my favourite DisneySea port of call….
I must admit that I too was a tiny bit disappointed by the short ride duration of Journey. But after several visits and re-rides, I also think the short duration kind of ‘makes’ it the powerful experience it still is, almost 20 years after opening. Yes, scenes go by fast, but it would’ve been worse if an action packed ride contained ‘dragging’ parts….
I realize that I am hoping for a pipe dream, but is it possible at all that the new land purchased around Reedy Lake in Florida could eventually be used to build Tokyo Disneysea?? May be silly to hope, but i can dream!!
It would have been fun had they turned WDW Discovery Island into a Myst-like venue. Themed or not, there are just so many rollercoaster rides you can open before Disney parks become mundane, overpriced amusement parks with costumed people. A bit of the cerebral never hurt anyone.
It would’ve been interesting to see how well Disney could’ve pulled it off, and how cerebral it actually would’ve been. Given what we actually saw built with DisneyQuest, I think the idea of a Myst Island might’ve been better than the fruition of it.
By and large, Tokyo DisneySea nails that balance. It explores deeper themes, offers more sophisticated options (like Big Band Beat, a Broadway style revue paying tribute to 1930s jazz), and has a strong basis in American and European history while still offering tons of fun and lighthearted experiences, too.
Alright, I’ll bite: what three ports would you place above Mysterious Island?
Thanks for the great article!
I think Mysterious Island is probably the best, if I’m being objective. However, my personal favorites would be:
1. American Waterfront
2. Arabian Coast
3. Mysterious Island or Mediterranean Harbor
Whether Mediterranean Harbor edges out Mysterious Island comes down to what’s “included” in the land (do we count Hotel MiraCosta or Aquasphere Plaza?).
I have never been to Disney other than the USA. For some reason it reminded me more of the computer game myst. Maybe because I was obsessed with it. Didn’t see a lot of Jules but it looked beautiful. It did make me wonder how nice it would be to try other parks, I read Hong Kong is the best.
Hong Kong is definitely least crowded, and also has a ton of charm (plus two top tier attractions), but I don’t think many people would rank it #1. Still a great park!
I envy your ability to go to all the Disney parks. You are really blessed to be able to do it. It must be amazing to compare them all and experience the different attractions. If someone said you could only do 1 from here on….which would it be?
Japan, without hesitation.
You’ve made me think that I’m going to have to save for a trip to Japan.
I’m curious if you don’t mind my asking what is it that you do that allows you to travel so much?
I agree that DisneySea is the very best theme park in the world. And I only visited during a one day bus trip from Tokyo while my husband was working. It was so easy to travel there and tour by myself, language barrier was not a problem, Japanese visitors and CM in the park were courteous and helpful (I was one of the only non Japanese in the park as it was Halloween!) I really want to go back and stay at the Mira Costa too. Oh, and it was REALLY clean!