Tokyo Disneyland is everything you'd expect from the Disney empire, and a great treat for children if you're travelling as a family. Mario Leto provides an overview of what to expect.
Tokyo Disneyland entrance - image © Mario Leto
Yes, there is a Disneyland in Japan. It’s called Tokyo Disneyland, but it’s actually in Chiba, which is a suburb of Tokyo. Should you go there? Well, do you have kids? Then yes, you should go. Are you a big Disney fan? Then yes, you should go. Do you enjoy flawless service, highly choreographed performances, and white people dressed up as animation characters? Yes? You should go!
Maihama Station train platform - image © Mario Leto
To be exact, Tokyo Disneyland is in the district of Maihama in the city of Urayasu in Chiba Prefecture. It can be reached from Tokyo Station in 15 minutes using either the JR Keiyo Line or the JR Musashino Line (both ￥220). Your destination is Maihama Station, and the park is a short ten-minute walk from there. It opens any time from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. depending on the day, so be sure to check the schedule before leaving your lodgings. Weekday mornings and evenings see heavy commuting traffic throughout the metropolitan city, so plan accordingly.
Up and over the pedestrian bridge - image © Mario Leto
Arriving at Maihama Station, navigating your way to the park shouldn't be too difficult. You'll see Disneyland in the distance from the train windows, and then from the train platform, so direction should be obvious. But just in case your vision is a bit blurry from too much sake the night before, make this your plan: Exit the south gate, turn right, go up and over the pedestrian bridge, and follow the crowds to the park entrance. And try not to giggle and skip the whole way.
Inside the gates - image © Mario Leto
We arrived at the park around 9:00 a.m. on a Wednesday and bought our tickets at the gate. A one-day pass for adults over 18 years of age is ￥7,400; for juniors between the ages of 12 and 17, the price is ￥6,400; and for children ages 4 to 11, the price is ￥4,800. Two-day, three-day and four-day passports can also be bought, as can annual passports and a few other creative time-slot and dual-park options (Disneyland plus DisneySea). It's all laid out here on the Disney website.
Day breaks over the castle - image © Mario Leto
Wednesday was a strategic day to visit. We of course had to consider the kids' schools, but weighing most heavily on our minds was the crowd factor. There are plenty of crowd calendars online that show every day of the year labeled somewhere from very busy to not so busy and everything in between, but common sense should serve you well enough: Weekends and holidays are very busy, Fridays and Mondays slightly less so, Tuesdays through Thursdays the least. Magical Wednesday it was.
The holiday-jingle band - image © Mario Leto
Arriving inside the park is always slight madness. Where to begin? And how to discuss it with everyone chattering about and a band playing near the entrance? The answer: Fastpass. Fastpass is authorized queue jumping. You get a special pass for a specified time to walk past everyone waiting in the queue so that you can ride that popular ride without waiting for hours. You can get one Fastpass at a time, and after you use it, you can get another. So make a break for that attraction that you know will have a monstrous queue by mid-morning and get your Fastpass. For full details, check out the Fastpass page on the official Disney website.
Star Tours, the best ride of the day - image © Mario Leto
My family's own day started in Tomorrowland, the section of the park with a science fiction theme. On previous visits, our kids had been too young to express interest in rides like Space Mountain and Star Tours, but the passing of time offered new opportunities for our growing children. We made a beeline for Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters to get a Fastpass, but alas, it was under construction. We instead stopped by Space Mountain for the Fastpass and then made the short walk to Star Tours, which had a mere five-minute wait. Good choice. By the end of the long day, Star Tours was declared the best ride of the day by my seven-year-old daughter. If you like the movie Star Wars, then Star Tours is a must.
The Holiday Nightmare Haunted Mansion - image © Mario Leto
After Star Tours, we walked over to Fantasyland and got in line for the Haunted Mansion, which has a Nightmare Before Christmas theme. During the 20-minute wait in line, daddy irritated everyone by singing This is Halloween and pointing out all the decor from Tim Burton's blockbuster animation. The ride itself is a slow tour through the movie's various themes and the kids, having seen the movie several hundred times, loved it (when they had their eyes open). Afterwards, my oldest daughter and I made our way back to Tomorrowland to use our Fastpass on Space Mountain, and my wife and the youngest went to It's a Small World.
Space Mountain and strategic branding - image © Mario Leto
Space Mountain is a twisting high-speed roller-coaster ride in the dark. Period. There's not much by way of visuals and so isn't really suitable for young kids. My seven-year-old, while amazed by the new sensations of having her body jerked in unexpected directions at high speeds, didn't really have much to say about it later. I doubt she'll choose to ride it again the next time we're in Walt's neighborhood. It's a Small World would have been a better choice. Luckily for my oldest, it is such a beloved attraction that my wife and youngest rode it again with us later in the day.
Robotic midgets dwell inside - image © Mario Leto
It's a Small World is a boat ride through different parts of the world. The kids' enjoyment is riding in a boat and looking at colorful scenes with robotic midgets dancing on either side of water. The adults' enjoyment is trying to accurately identify the different countries on display by associating known cultural attributes. There are always a few stumpers, but I blame it on the outdated decor and the lack of any attempt at realistic depictions of the robotic inhabitants. My personal favorite moment of the experience was pointing out the Japanese section of the ride to my Japanese wife and yelling, "China!"
Moderate crowds in Fantasyland - image © Mario Leto
Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 and was the first Disneyland built outside of the United States. It is styled after the original two Disney parks and, not surprisingly, cleared its initial debt in a mere four years. The whole Japanese Disney shebang is actually owned and operated by The Oriental Land Company, a Japanese recreation company established in 1960. Oriental Land pays royalties to Disney for character licenses and such and hires and trains many of the workers in the park. It's more complicated than that, but not really interesting enough to document in this blog. If you are in fact interested, check out the seven-part history on the Oriental Land website.
Heading to Tom Sawyer Island - image © Mario Leto
After using our Space Mountain Fastpass, we should have made a quick move to get another one for another attraction, but we didn't. We dawdled for a bit. We bought some honey popcorn (more on this later) and strolled over to Westernland. We took a Tom Sawyer raft over to Tom Sawyer Island where we walked through a cave, climbed a tree house, ate some snacks in a Western frontier fort, and poked around an American Indian village. It was the least busy area of the entire park (happy adults) but the kids got bored after a while and whined about "getting back to the park." Yes, we were indeed still in the park, but their reaction to the contrast was understandable. Besides, everyone was getting hungry.
Queuing for Snow White's Adventures - image © Mario Leto
The lesson to be learned from the previous paragraph is this: Get your Fastpasses as soon as possible. Failure to do so will result in either waiting in line for hours or forfeiting certain park experiences. I'm a forty-five-year-old academic living in Tokyo and happily opt for attraction forfeiture, but if you're seven years old or from out of the country, it's certainly something to consider. By the time we did make a move for another Fastpass around noon, the available times for queue skipping were around 19:00 and for us that was too late. We had planned to be on the way home by then. Kids had school the next day and would be tired and crabby.
Center Street Coffee House - image © Mario Leto
Another lesson to learn before arriving at the park is that a decent meal can be hard to find without long waits. There are several nice sit-down restaurants but several is not enough with over 30 million visitors per year as of 2013. Solution: make a reservation prior to your arrival at the park. From our experience, that's a great idea. With our family's dietary needs, we had hoped to eat at the Japanese restaurant Hokusai, but that would have meant a two-hour wait, and that doesn't fly with kids. We ended up at Center Street Coffeehouse and only had to wait for 30 minutes, but still, for hungry kids, 30 minutes is an eternity. We survived, but for your own culinary survival, check out all the restaurant options on the official Disney website.
Vegetarian baguette sandwich, salad, and soup - image © Mario Leto
At Center Street Coffeehouse, I got the vegetable plate set which included a baguette filled with stir-fried vegetables and a fresh veggie salad (￥1,680). My wife and the kids got the seafood plate which included an assortment of deep-fried seafood, rice, baked potato, and salad (￥1,980). Overall, the food was fresh, crispy, succulent, and satisfying. Disney does things right, and the food is no exception. Yes, everything is overpriced, but that's the cost of Disneyland. If you're picky about your finances, stay home or risk making yourself miserable. There is also the option of bringing your own food, but how much can you bring for an entire 12-hour day of Mickey madness?
Honey popcorn - image © Mario Leto
If you have special dietary needs, Disney Japan is sort of on the ball. Some of the sit-down restaurants explicitly state the availability of "special dietary menus", but in our experience, that doesn't amount to much. Vegetarian? Yes. Vegan? Not without forfeiting part of your meal. Gluten intolerant? Lol. The bright side is that all food in the park, be it seven-course meals or snacks from vendor shacks along the parade route, comes with multi-lingual ingredient lists that you can inspect. Just ask the waiter or vendor to have a look. That's how, out of the six popcorn flavors available, we ended up with the honey popcorn. Don't be afraid to ask. Disney employees aim to please, and that, dear reader, is from the horse's mouth.
Goofy's Paint-n-Play House - image © Mario Leto
After lunch, the kids wanted to head over to Toontown. It is the ultimate playground for kids under ten. You can walk through Mickey's house (crowded!) or clamber through Donald's boat. You can play a pointless Paint-n-Play game at Goofy's (pictured above), or indoctrinate your kids at Minnie's house where she "loves to cook and bake". It's all low-key amusement for the young ones but lacks the child-adult interest balance. For me, it's one big yawn and I try desperately to redirect the kids to other parts of the park as much as I can. Despite its own particular challenges, I pray for adolescence.
Walt and Mickey miss the parade - image © Mario Leto
In addition to the standard attractions at Disneyland, there are other forms of entertainment to endure. One of these is the sit-down shows in most sections of the park. These shows usually include a stage and limited audience space requiring reservations or lottery tickets. Some of the most popular are Lilo's Luau and Fun in Adventureland, Mickey and Company at the Diamond Horseshoe in Westernland, Once Upon a Time in Fantasyland, and One Man's Dream II—Tomorrow Lives On in Tomorrowland. Check the show list on the official Disneyland website for show times, places, and information about reservations and lotteries. Like the Fastpass, show reservations should be made ASAP because seats fill up fast.
Second parade of the day - image © Mario Leto
Another form of entertainment is the park-wide parade which occurs three times a day, twice in the daytime and once after dark. One of the daytime parades is a themed parade which changes according to the season, and the other daytime parade a general Disney character celebration. The nighttime parade is a light-show, strangely but aptly called the "Tokyo Disneyland Electrical Parade Dreamlights". All of them are stellar productions (some of them years in the making), and are worth watching if you're a first-time visitor. My wife and I generally try to avoid them now, though, because they are crowded and require wasting attraction time for staking a spot for optimal viewing pleasure. That's especially important for kids under 130 cm tall who can't see above the crowds.
Shopping at the World Bazaar - image © Mario Leto
One last form of entertainment worth mentioning is the shopping. Nobody can go to Disneyland without purchasing some kind of souvenir, especially if you are a tourist from outside the country. You will feel compelled to possess something with the words "Tokyo Disneyland" on it and only years later, when you find that souvenir on some shelf in the back of your closet, will you question the wisdom of that original compulsion. The entrance to the park, the section called World Bazaar, has the most concentrated number of shops to indulge your purchasing pleasure, but every section of the park offers some sort of shopping opportunities with its own thematic flair.
The things you will find in the back of your closet - image © Mario Leto
Not surprisingly, I have an adult male pet peeve that prevents me from personal purchasing overindulgence: Everything for sale at Disneyland displays the name of the park, and most have some visage of one of the major Disney characters in prominent display. Do you want a hat? It'll have ears or the word Disneyland in sparkles or Goofy's silly face on it. Want a coffee mug? Same. How about a pencil, a notebook, a t-shirt, or a box of chocolates? Same, same, same, same. There is no escape from the branding wonder that is Disneyland. Well, almost.
Move aside Snow White: I'm looking for the Magic Shop - image © Mario Leto
There is one shop at Tokyo Disneyland that I cannot resist, and once inside, a purchase or two is always inevitable. That shop is the Magic Shop. There are dozens of magic tricks for sale in the Magic Shop, and, more importantly, a magician on hand to demonstrate them all. I have seriously spent hours there, watching the magician's small performances and browsing the tricks on display, asking for demonstrations, and then repeating the entire routine. On this particular occasion, my older daughter joined me in this ritual and my wife had to physically remove us from the premises.
Crossing the rope bridge on Tom Sawyer Island- image © Mario Leto
Overall, we had a rather relaxing day. We rode a couple rides in Tomorrowland and a few in Fantasyland. The kids enjoyed a couple attractions in Toontown, and then there was our respite on Tom Sawyer Island in Westernland. We, of course, have the advantage of living in Tokyo, so there is no need to rush around the park trying to cover all the attractions. Besides, that would be nearly impossible. If you are visiting from outside the country and have an interest in experiencing the park to its fullest, I highly recommend, at the very least, two days in the park. And don't forget, there is also DisneySea next door, which would require at least another two days. The four-day pass now starts to make sense. Disney: Always on the ball.
Dusk descends on the Magical Kingdom - image © Mario Leto
Before I sign off, I think it's worth the time to review a few things that will make your Tokyo Disneyland trip more rewarding: 1) Make restaurant reservations before arriving if you want a nice sit-down meal, 2) Use the Fastpass option as soon as possible to ease your wait times, 3) Bring some of your own snacks to ease the burden on your wallet and to fend off frustrations about dietary restrictions, 4) Young kids will love Toontown and Fantasyland the most, 5) Stake your land claims early for prime seating along the parade route, and 6) Don't forget to make early reservations for any performances you may want to see. A bit of planning will go a long way for everyone. In the words of Mickey himself, "Hot diggity dog!"
About Mario Leto
Mario Leto is assistant professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. His research and writing interests include travel, literature, and media discourse on food and dietary alternatives.
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