Tokyo Disney Resort, consisting of Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, hotels and some other stuff, is the holy grail for most Disney theme park fans–it occupied the top slot on our bucket list for a few years beating out surely incredible experiences like meeting Christopher Walken and taking a chimpanzee surfing. We’ve been trying to visit Tokyo Disney Resort for a couple of years, but the logistics hadn’t completely worked out (which is why we visited Disneyland Paris first) until this spring, just after the start of “The Happiness Year” (Tokyo Disney Resort’s 30th Anniversary).
Despite these obstacles, I had been keeping the Tokyo trip on my radar, regularly reading Tokyo Disney Resort blogs, and following Tokyo locals on social media. I even regularly priced hotels and had an instant email alert set-up for airfare to Tokyo. Basically, for the last two years, I’ve been perpetually planning this trip.
I’ve been doing this because I am a believer that “someday never comes.” I think the sentiment that “I’ll do that…someday” is an easy way to destine a goal to fail. I don’t want to end up with a long list of things I am going to do “someday” when I’m 70 years old because I never made the plans to actually do the things I wanted to do, but instead just hoped they would happen eventually. I think that without making concrete steps to make something happen, that thing will generally not happen. Obviously, there are other obstacles like money and time, but a big roadblock to accomplishing things is often mentality.
If you’ve said “someday” when thinking about Tokyo Disney Resort in the past, I’d encourage you to go make it happen now. A trip to Tokyo is not that much more expensive for a childless couple or an individual than a vacation to Walt Disney World. Airfare is more expensive , but nice hotel accommodations and park tickets are cheaper, which comes close to offsetting the difference. That is, for those traveling without kids; since airfare is per person and most hotels aren’t, the more plane tickets you add to the trip, the more comparatively expensive a trip to Tokyo becomes. However, there’s an awesome trick for visiting Tokyo Disney Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa all for the price of a single plane ticket to Asia. We call this our Disney Grand Circle Tour of the Pacific Rim, and describe how you can do it here.
You will not be disappointed by Tokyo Disney Resort unless you hate awesome things. Not only will Tokyo Disney Resort blow you away, but Japan will, as well. It is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited. If you don’t already, I suspect this report will make you want to visit Tokyo Disney Resort. Photos don’t do the place justice, but they do convey some of its beauty and quality. If this report ends up “costing” you a trip across the Pacific…don’t say I didn’t warn you!
If you are reading this because you’re planning a trip, I do think the report itself will be valuable, but I also plan on writing a series of trip planning articles about Tokyo Disney Resort. Expect numerous “breakout articles” that devote more attention to each individual attraction, restaurant, etc. You can find these articles under the Tokyo Disney Resort tag on the blog. In my planning, I found that there was very little English information available about Tokyo Disney Resort, and much of what was available was outdated. In some ways this was good, as it prevented us from over-planning and made it easy to avoid “spoilers.”
Planning for this trip really started getting serious about a year before the trip. While having dinner with our friends Kate and Henry, we turned to a popular topic of conversation: Tokyo. We set a rough date of Spring 2013 for the trip, and since it was looking increasingly unlikely that Sarah and I would be going to Tokyo for Christmas 2012 at that point, I figured there was a fairly good shot of the trip happening in the spring.
From Christmas on, we had regular Google+ Hangouts with Henry and Kate, trying to plan all of the particulars of visiting Tokyo Disney Resort and Japan. More specifically, Henry and I discussed the details of Tokyo Disney Resort while Sarah and Kate planned for the rest of Japan. If it weren’t for Sarah and Kate, I think Henry and I would have seen about as much of Japan as is between the airport and Tokyo Disney Resort.
That seems like enough of a preface to this report. I’m sure you care more about actual substance and photos than me playing up our rollercoaster emotional experience as we planned the trip. Plus, I don’t want to bore new readers to death right away with my normal rambling. There will be plenty of opportunity for that later.
Our trip started with the flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Tokyo. When planning for a visit to Tokyo, one of the most important things to prepare for is time travel. Due to a wrinkle in the space-time continuum…or something like that…you arrive in Tokyo over a day after you leave the United States. This is not nearly as impressive as when you return, when you arrive home earlier than you left Japan. I believe this is the same technology that was used in “The Timekeeper” attraction. That might explain why 9-Eye was on board our flights.
I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to sleep strategy. I was probably fortunate in that I was able to sleep most of the flight from LAX to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and then again for a full night only a couple of hours later when we checked into our closet–I mean hotel. Initially, I didn’t think I was going to be able to sleep much on the flight; I was really excited and there were great recently released films to watch. I started the flight by watching Jack Reacher and was about to dig into Cloud Atlas before I saw something that I knew would put me to sleep.
As much as I hate to admit this, the sure-fire sleeper was Wall-E. While I love Wall-E, I almost always fall asleep during its opening scene because it’s so quiet and has a peaceful score. Sure enough, 10 minutes into the movie and I was out. I woke up after it ended, and put it on again to achieve the same result. I ended up “watching” Wall-E three times that flight for over four hours of sleep. Not bad.
After the Wall-E marathon, I watched Life of Pi, which ended right before we landed at Haneda Airport. From what we gathered, Haneda seemed to be primarily used for flights within Asia, whereas Narita was the long-haul airport. Haneda is closer to Tokyo. Our flight just happened to be in Haneda…lucky, I guess. As soon as we landed, we made our way through Customs and tried to find the place to pick up our MiFi modems.
For those using this report as planning for a trip of your own, we each rented modems and spare batteries from picked them up at the airport. We had unlimited data this way, and used Facebook Messenger for group communications. We didn’t have any checked baggage, so as soon as we got the modems, we walked to the train station and got on a train. Our total time from deboarding the plane to boarding the train was probably about 30 minutes, and that includes walking the terminal, going through customs, picking up the modems, and waiting for the train. Already, we had experienced the great efficiency of Japan!
In the era before Google Maps, people probably used paper maps and actually had to have a sense of navigation. In our brave new world, Google Maps tells you exactly which trains to take, and where to walk. It also works as a compass for those who are bad with orientation (us). With it, you’d basically have to try in order to get lost…which we did a couple of times.
We stayed at Hotel Horidome Villa. Its website describes it as “an oasis in which to relax quietly after a day of hard work.” That’s one way to describe it. Another might be, “closet with beds.” Despite the size of the room, which is the norm for “Eastern Style” hotels there, the hotel was very nice. Clean and very friendly staff.
The things we did the next morning don’t relate to Tokyo Disney Resort, so I’ll just flash forward to the parts of the trip about which you probably care. Think of this as the part of Mission: Space where everything goes dark for a second and it’s months later. Except this is only like 8 hours later. If you are interested in what we did the next day, check out this article on Senso-ji Temple on DisneyTouristBlog’s sister site, TravelCaffeine.com.
By late afternoon, we were on the train for Tokyo Disney Resort. At that time of day, it was about a 45-minute train ride, and the train was fairly crowded. As we neared the Resort, we could start to see Mount Prometheus, Cinderella Castle, and other icons in the distance. At this point, the fact that we would soon be inside those parks finally set in. You know the feeling you got when you were a child on Christmas morning? Imagine that, plus receiving a fighter jet as a present, and then multiply that feeling times 40. That’s about how I was feeling right about then.
Up until that point, the plan for the evening had been to have dinner in one of the hotels so we didn’t have to purchase an extra park ticket for that evening. That plan went totally out the window (just try telling a kid on Christmas morning they couldn’t play with their new toys until January 1) as soon as we saw those parks.
When we got off at the Ikspiari station we quickly purchased our monorail tickets and made our way to the Hilton Tokyo Bay (click here to read our full Hilton Tokyo Bay Review). We checked into our rooms and dropped off our stuff in record time, and immediately headed back to the monorail to the parks.
Before the trip, we had discussed the pros and cons of doing Tokyo Disneyland first and “saving” Tokyo DisneySea. Once we arrived, there really was no question of what we should do first. The siren song of Tokyo DisneySea beckoned us, and nothing short of lashing ourselves to the monorail would have prevented us from visiting it first.
Experiencing a new Disney park for the first time is always an incredible experience, and this was doubly true when visiting the theme park mecca, Tokyo DisneySea. Unlike Paris, which had a “familiar yet different” feel, Tokyo DisneySea was entirely foreign. I had no sense of the park’s layout before we arrived–for all I knew, Mount Prometheus could be at the front, back, or middle of the park.
Every little mundane detail from the time we first arrived on Tokyo Disney Resort Property until we walked through the Tokyo DisneySea turnstiles sticks in my mind. Little things like a map of the property at the monorail station or a Coca-Cola ad near the lockers at Tokyo DisneySea all are vivid.
The vivid details start to vanquish from my memory after we went through the turnstiles. I recall Henry suggesting that we get a group photo in front of the Aquasphere before going any further. I’m glad we did…it is a permanent reminder of the happiness racing through me right before taking in that glorious park (ahh…the simpler days!).
After that, the experience is more of a lucid dream than a vivid recollection. I remember the high level experience, but it was such a sensory overload that I didn’t soak up any of the minutiae.
As we walked from Aquasphere Plaza under the Hotel MiraCosta to Mediterranean Harbor, a beautiful sunset appeared in front of us. It was as if the stars aligned and the beauty of the park had collided with the beauty of the natural world for something really amazing.
Within about 5 minutes of being in the park, I had managed to get lost from everyone else. I was darting around the park, half focused on absorbing the park during that beautiful sunset, half focused on capturing photos of it. I didn’t really succeed in either regard. My memories and photos of that first walk around the park are a mess. The photos are a good representation of both: poorly composed and rushed, but with some flashes of beauty here and there.
Here’s a look at my shots from that hour:
I wouldn’t trade the half-formed memories of that first hour for the world, though. While they may have no specificity, my overall (big picture, I guess) memory of that sunset is stronger than my first memories of any other Disney parks we’ve visited (although my first memories from Tokyo Disneyland are pretty unique).
This beautiful scene lasted for about an hour, and in that time I managed to see every land in Tokyo DisneySea, some more than once. The point where I was wrought back to reality from the waking dream was also sort of the point where I descended deeper into it. Right after taking the photo above of the DisneySea Electric Railway, I turned to head back towards Cape Cod. As I did, I thought I heard the Epcot entrance music playing in Port Discovery.
For me, this was like the moment in a (real) dream where the continuity breaks down, you realize you’re dreaming, and you wake up. I mean, Epcot music in Tokyo DisneySea?! That’s a dead giveaway that something is a-miss. In this case, I knew I was awake and actually in Tokyo DisneySea (okay…I was pretty sure), so I paused to try to figure out what was going on. It probably wasn’t actually Epcot music, just similar-sounding music. After a few minutes of just standing there, I came to the conclusion that it was, without a doubt, Epcot music.
After that interruption brought me back to reality, I finally looked at my phone and saw some chatter in our group chat. It turns out shortly after I disappeared, the rest of the group scattered and similarly wandered around.
We met back up in Lost River Delta, where we stopped at Yucatan Base Camp Grill and Expedition Eats for drinks and snacks. Sarah grabbed a beer at Yucatan Base Camp Grill, and I grabbed a Yucatan Sausage Roll at Expedition Eats. This would be the first in a long line of snacks that we had on the trip. This was pretty good, although the roll was a little crunchier than I would’ve liked. The sausage was great, though.
Although I mentioned above that a trip to Tokyo Disney Resort might not be that much more expensive than a trip to Walt Disney World depending upon demographics, dining is the variable I didn’t include. Certainly, you could do dining on the cheap and have it cost about as much as dining at Walt Disney World. However, portions are smaller, and there are a lot of awesome little snacks that you’ll probably want to try. Going in, we considered this a once in a lifetime trip, so we didn’t really hold back when it came to spending. We probably spent about as much per day on snacks as we would have in an average day at Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival, which is to say a lot of money. That’s one thing that can sneak up on you.
We had basically made a once over of DisneySea by ourselves, but there were a few things we missed, so we wandered through Lost River Delta a bit before heading to Arabian Coast and Mermaid Lagoon. Mermaid Lagoon was absolutely gorgeous from the outside, but it would be the land we spent by far the least time in (it’s almost entirely indoors with a faux “under the sea” design that’s executed quite well) during the trip.
After a quick pass through Mermaid Lagoon, we headed back to Mysterious Island. I continue to go back and forth on whether Mysterious Island is my favorite land or whether the American Waterfront is my favorite land. Both were brilliant in very different ways. I’ll eventually do a dedicated post to the genius of Mysterious Island. For those unfamiliar with it, this is Jules Verne’s second Disney theme park land, with the first being Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris (while not technically “his” lands, they both are strongly influenced by his works). The Imagineers should draw inspiration from Verne more often, because both of these lands are huge hits.
When looking at Mysterious Island on paper, it’s not all that impressive. It has two rides, a couple of counter service restaurants, and a gift shop. Viewing it as “only that” does a huge disservice to Mysterious Island, because 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. It perfectly showcases man’s attempt to conquer nature, and nature’s way of fighting back against man…with a little bit of the mythical thrown in for good measure.
Mount Prometheus, an active volcano at the edge of the land (think of it as Cinderella Castle…it’s the park’s icon and not technically in any land, but Prometheus is most closely associated with Mysterious Island as Cinderella Castle is most closely associated with Fantasyland) and the gorgeous rockwork throughout the land allows guests to be fully immersed in the experience. Even the background music (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.
Of course, if you’re just off the edge of civilization, what’s the first thing you need? More snacks! Here we stopped at the Refreshment Station (a simple snack cart) after seeing a line that looked like it was only about 10 minutes long. We had heard that the line here can be longer than some attractions in the park, so a line of only 10 minutes was pretty appealing.
Here we ordered the Gyoza Dog, which is without question the most hyped snack at Tokyo Disney Resort. Actually, I’d call it the most overhyped. It’s basically a potsticker in a soft, spongy roll. Robert Niles describes it better here. The texture was interesting, especially of the roll, but it was just a bit too bland for my taste. Perhaps if we hadn’t heard so much about this thing and just stumbled upon it, my opinion of it would be higher. I was excited to try it, and given the lines at this stand throughout the trip, I expected more.
From there we headed down to the Nautilus Galley for more eating. We had yet to do a single attraction but were already starting round three of eating. This isn’t so much because we are pigs (although that might be part of the explanation), but because that night was the last night of Golden Week in Japan, which is a series of national holidays that makes the parks insanely busy. The following day crowds were expected to drop off precipitously, which was the reason we planned the trip for that week but did not plan on visiting the parks that first day. Rather than wait in a 3+ hour long line for Toy Story Mania or 2 hour lines for Journey to the Center of the Earth or Tower of Terror, we opted to soak up the parks and snack. It ended up being a good strategy, but passing by some of those rides I’ve dreamed of experiencing for years tested my patience.
At Nautilus Galley, we grabbed Frozen Beer and Gyozo-Dumplings (I could be wrong on the name there). The Frozen Beer was awful, just like it is in Epcot–I’m convinced this stuff is just a gimmick and no one really likes the taste of it. By contrast, the Gyozo-Dumplings were incredible. They had a great fried flavor and excellent texture.
As we finished up this round of snacks, we realized that Fantasmic was about to start. We figured we’d make an effort to get good spots for this later in the week when DisneySea was less crowded, but we didn’t have anything better to do, so we decided to see if we could find spots at the last minute.
As we left Mysterious Island, we noticed a small crowd gathering up high in Fortress Explorations. For those unfamiliar with DisneySea’s layout, this would be like watching World of Color from Paradise Pier by Toy Story Mania. The front of Mediterranean Harbor was packed, so we figured we’d give it a try.
It turned out to be a halfway decent view. Tokyo DisneySea’s Fantasmic is appeared to be designed to be more of a 360-degree show, although the best spot for certain scenes was unquestionably the other side of the Harbor. Still, not a bad view given that we snagged them 10 minutes in advance on a national holiday.
I’ll go into DisneySea’s Fantasmic in depth later, but suffice to say, it was very good, and very different than the US shows. I go back and forth on whether I prefer it or Disneyland’s version, and it’s a very close call. Disneyland’s has intimacy, an awesome dragon, and makes great use of the Columbia. DisneySea’s has much better tech and lots of stunning and vibrant visuals. Both versions are significantly better than Walt Disney World’s version.
No one in our group had OD’d on the awesome that was Tokyo DisneySea thus far, which was a small miracle. We decided to slow things down and regroup by heading to the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge, aboard the S.S. Columbia.
Let it not be said that the Japanese aren’t distinctly patriotic…towards America. Outside of perhaps only Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge is the greatest theme park tribute to any US President. True to his badass persona, President Roosevelt puts his tribute over the top by serving you booze in it. The only thing President Lincoln serves up is a quiet place to nap. Advantage: President Roosevelt.
The Teddy Roosevelt Lounge completely embodied the man, the myth, and the legend of Theodore Roosevelt. From his ruggedness to his scholarly-ness, it’s all on display. Even the rich woods, dark leather, and animals adorning the walls somehow perfectly encapsulate the Roosevelt dichotomy.
After we got done at the T.R. Lounge, we wandered over to Toyville Trolley Park, basically trying to kill time until our first attraction. We noticed its line had already been cut, so we figured we probably should stop killing time and get on something else.
We were already in the area, so we decided to make it Tower of Terror. The posted wait time was around 45 minutes, which seemed reasonable as compared to what it had been earlier in the night. Given that the park was to close in about 30 minutes, this would end up being our only attraction of the night.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of my favorite attractions at Walt Disney World, and I love that it combines one of my all-time favorite television series with great Disney design. For me, it’s the closest thing Disney has to “stepping onto a set” besides Cars Land. I especially love the queue, pre-show, and post-show, all of which are littered with reference to episodes of the TV show. While the ride part of the attraction is fine, I do wish that it were given dark ride (or something more substantive) treatment, just because it’s so short.
Tower of Terror in Tokyo DisneySea doesn’t have The Twilight Zone tie-in, so I was skeptical that I’d enjoy it as much as the Walt Disney World version. Despite that lack of a tie-in, it far surpassed all other versions of the Tower of Terror. This is something that it’s impossible to convey in photos and you really can’t wrap your mind around without being there, but the level of detail and way those details convey the backstory is just insane. The queue branches after the pre-shows with two stories and several individual load rooms on each story (I don’t know the exact number, but I’d estimate 6-8 total), each of which has its own (differing) meticulous detail. I plan on doing a stand-alone blog post covering the details of Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror, but suffice to say, we ended up doing the attraction several additional times in the hopes that we’d be placed in different load rooms.
Internet rumors are often unreliable, but I’ve heard that Tokyo’s Tower of Terror was the most expensive theme park attraction ever built, at least before Radiator Springs Racers. There isn’t a whole lot of new technology present in the attraction (although there are some amazing effects), but I totally buy its reported price tag based solely on the level of detail and the likely amount those details cost to find or fabricate.
All things considered, Tower of Terror ended up being my favorite attraction in Tokyo. It wasn’t even close to my favorite ride, but the whole experience from start to finish was so immersive and brilliantly told that it became my favorite attraction there (and by extension, worldwide).
After that, Sarah, Henry, and Kate were exhausted and decided to call it a night. When night photography is an option, my body doesn’t know what it means to be exhausted. (That, or I’m just senseless.) Tokyo DisneySea prohibits tripods, and although I would be able to use one later in the trip for an evening, I couldn’t resist taking photos that night. One night wouldn’t be enough time to capture everything, anyway. I wandered around and seeing what makeshift tripod-like surfaces I could find throughout the park.
I didn’t know what the park clearing protocol was in Tokyo, so rather than risk crossing the park to head for the Arabian Coast (and being swept toward the exit in the process), I opted to just stay in the American Waterfront and shoot there. Clearing seemed to take a little less time there than it did in the US parks, and this was probably largely because some lines were cut prior to park closing (had they not been, a steady trickle of guests would’ve been coming off of Toy Story Mania for a couple of hours).
Shooting without a tripod was certainly a challenge, and not a challenge in a good way (like with a 50mm prime) that forces you to get creative with composition. It was just a pain. I understand that tripods had to be prohibited due to their overuse when recording stage shows and parades, but I wish the ban were tailored to those things. I didn’t see any other guests really interested in photographing architecture, and I can’t imagine tripods used for that would pose any problem. That said, blanket rules are probably easier to enforce that ones laden with exceptions.
After shooting in the American Waterfront for a while, I was slowly herded to the front of the park by a polite Cast Member. I chatted with her for a bit about where I was from and the beauty of the parks at night (global consensus among park closing Cast Members with whom I’ve talked is that night is the most beautiful time in any of the parks) as I walked to the front of the park. We didn’t see any other guests on the way, so I assumed it was time to go.
Then, when we got to Aquasphere Plaza, there was a huge line of people in front of the 30th Anniversary display. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a line of about 20, and this was well after the rest of the park was empty. Security Cast Members were there helping guests with photos to speed along the process.
There was nothing here I really wanted to photograph. I just wanted to let the experience sink in at this point, so I just sat on a nearby bench, watched, and listened. So I didn’t come across as the creep in the corner, I got up to snap a couple of photos whenever Cast Members would start to approach. I finally left with the last of the guests almost exactly an hour after Tokyo DisneySea had closed. I could cross “last guest out of Tokyo DisneySea” off my list of meaningless accomplishments!
While I waited up at the monorail station (the monorail spacing throughout the day fluctuates depending upon perceived demand…at this point, demand was low, so I found myself waiting a while), I noticed the same background music playing that was playing down in Aquasphere Plaza. Being a huge fan of background music and knowing that Tokyo DisneySea background music is sometimes impossible to find, I decided to record some of this with my phone. I knew quality would be awful, but I wanted to have it to “take me back,” regardless of the quality. Luckily, I later found a CD of this music for sale, and that music definitely left an indelible mark on me, as everytime I listen to it, I’m instantly transported back to the end of that first night in Tokyo DisneySea. Such a little thing, but it’s my most distinct memory from that entire first day.
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