Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
I went to the museums. I went to the gardens. I did what I was supposed to do, until I didn’t. Then I went to Disney.
Being A Proper Traveler
I’d have no time to see either Disneyland Hong Kong or Tokyo during this trip, I’d decided before leaving. There were just too many sights to see and too little time to dedicate a day to one of the parks, Disney fan though I may be. After all, many of the same attractions I could enjoy in Orlando at Walt Disney World were present in both parks, so novelty aside, there’d be little benefit to taking a day-sized chunk out of my schedule to visit one of the parks.
The only exception to this was DisneySea, the second Disney park in Tokyo and one with a unique nautical theme. Many of the attractions here are unique and can’t be found at any other Disney location worldwide. As my time in Tokyo stretched on, I increasingly thought back to a reader trip I’d put together for PointsAway a few months before, for a Disney fan wanting to plan a trip to Tokyo for her family just to see this special park.
I visited the Meiji Shrine, Sensoji Temple and Ueno Gardens, making my way between these disparate but popular points in Tokyo via subway. I eventually wandered into the National History Museum, as much for the air conditioning as anything else on this hot and sticky day. Tapestries centuries old and statues and artifacts dating back millennia populated the museum.
For a while, I was impressed with what I was seeing: this was a trove of history that simply didn’t travel. The Smithsonian, Chicago’s museums and other premier destinations I’d visited only had a few artifacts of this caliber from Asia and from these time periods, while Japan’s national museum seemed to stretch on with hundreds of examples for every one that somehow made its way to America.
However, after winding through a few floors of one building and making my way over to the next, I realized I was mostly glossing over artifacts as much as 10,000 years old. The first few examples in any format – particularly old pottery, artwork, tapestries, swords, etc – were impressive, but after that, my brain simply refused to exhibit any appreciation for the wonders in front of it.
Two weeks of moving at an incredible pace had taken its toll: points of interest were beginning to blur together, my camera roll had exceeded 1,200 pictures and my feet ached beyond belief. A rugged climb in Hong Kong had done in my feet and knees, and I’d been growing a bit sorer each day since.
I’d checked off the critical elements on my list and, realizing I just didn’t care that much about seeing more historical treasures, as much as I knew I should, I began to consider what to do with the remainder of my day. It was about two in the afternoon.
I thought about tracking down somewhere that I could grab a sushi lunch, but thought better of it, planning to get sushi for breakfast the next morning at the Tsukiji Fish Market. I thought about going to Sony’s showroom at their headquarters or going back to Akihabara, but determined I’d just see things I’d already seen or bust my budget with more purchases I didn’t have the space to take home. I thought about taking a ride somewhere, anywhere, on a bullet train just to say I did, before reminding myself I’d have over 16 hours in the air the next day and today was best spent outside of a confined cabin.
I was stumped, sitting in the center of Tokyo with my plans failing to provide a solution for the first time of the whole trip. All the while, a hum of “Disney” continued to grow in my mind. With no other answer arising, I decided to catch a train to Ikspiari, Tokyo Disneyland’s version of Downtown Disney, a shopping area near the parks.
The Magic Portal
Worst case, I figured, this would take me to a new part of town to explore and I might find a Tokyo Disney-branded t-shirt or knick-knack that would be fun to have. I didn’t have a concrete plan to visit one of the parks. I let the cost serve as a barrier, along with the relatively late hour in the day. It would be 3PM or so before I got there, after all, and if they closed too early in the evening, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to see much even if I went.
Everything changed when the train pulled into Maihama Station outside the parks.
Every Disneyland has a castle at its center, but not all of the castles are the same. Some follow the original Disneyland’s pattern, with a castle modeled after the one in Sleeping Beauty. The Hong Kong park follows Anaheim’s lead, as does Paris.
Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, however, features Cinderella’s Castle at its center. It was this design that was followed during the construction of Disneyland Tokyo. Disney legend holds Cinderella’s work ethic and sense of duty made her castle the more logical fit in Tokyo, as compared to the relative damsel-in-distress Sleeping Beauty represents.
That’s why, when the train pulled into Maihama Station, I glimpsed towers and spires so familiar from home in the distance and felt my heart stop beating for a second or two. Orlando was more than 7,250 miles away from this place, nearly a third of the Earth’s circumference away. But there it was: Cinderella’s Castle was there, just past those buildings and up that hill, and that meant that from a train in Tokyo, I could see home.
My impulse was to go there, and to see it up close, just to prove it was real. The adult understood that there could be a second castle just like there can be a 3,457th McDonald’s, but the kid inside could process that castle’s silhouette only as magic.
I knew it would be wasteful to go to Disneyland Tokyo when so much of the park is so similar to what I can see at home, but I knew just as strongly that I’d arrived at my final destination for the day. I headed toward DisneySea, the perfect compromise of new and known, revitalized for one more adventure.
A Different Disney
DisneySea doesn’t follow the hub-and-spoke layout of parks like Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. It follows more of a V shape, jutting out from a large plaza with a swirling globe and fountains at its center, where Disney characters parade around taking pictures and giving autographs to guests.
I first made it into the area called Mediterranean Harbor, which looks quite a bit more like Venice than Macau’s Venetian.
It’s possible to catch a gondola ride here or to check out the largest concentration of shops and dining options in the park. The large lake at the middle is circled by other portions of the park, most similar to how Epcot’s World Showcase is built around a central water feature. Just as Epcot’s lake is used to stage its nightly fireworks show, Illuminations, Mediterranean Harbor hosts Fantasmic, a variation on a show sharing the name staged at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando. I’d return later in the evening to see the show, but for now headed on to another section of the park.
Port Discovery is like an aquatic Tomorrowland, sharing many of the design sensibilities seen in these celebration of yesterday’s future at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland.
A big band had attracted a crowd, playing variations on some popular Disney tunes.
There are boats that move and spin like a water-based version of Alice In Wonderland’s teacups, and a station for the electric trolley that circles the park.
Past the attractions, the seawall separating DisneySea from the actual sea outside was open just enough to allow a small spout of water to continuously spring forth. In the foggy distance, it’s possible to make out a few windmills and buildings miles away from the park.
The main event in Port Discovery is StormRider, housed in the “Center For Weather Control” building.
I was handed a small, English flyer explaining the ride’s story by a Cast Member and gained a new appreciation for how foreign visitors to the parks in Orlando must sometimes feel. The ride itself was in Japanese but it was easy enough to follow along with the story: a massive hurricane can be destroyed before it does any damage by a ray gun equipped to the ship.
By the time I stepped off the ride, I briefly realized my feet didn’t hurt for the first time in days.
Lost River Delta
I leaped next toward the Lost River Delta which is home to the one ride I wanted most to try: Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull.
I’ve yet to make it to the parks in Anaheim, so I’ve only previously seen the live action Indiana Jones show at Hollywood Studios in Orlando, and hadn’t had the chance to take a ride in Indy’s jeep. This ride was actually designed and deployed years before the fourth Indy film, which has a similar name, and follows an unrelated story.
I wasn’t provided with a story packet for this ride, so I only know the broad strokes: Indy does things Indy would do, like raid a temple, almost get run over by a giant stone ball, have some arrows shot at him through ancient Incan or Mayan or Aztec statues and generally sound nothing at all like Harrison Ford as he shouts urgently in Japanese.
I think the ride was even more fun without any true grasp on the story than it would’ve been in English, and a single-rider line saved me more than an hour of standing in line, letting me board the ride in less than five minutes.
Lunch & The Mysterious Island
I realized it was nearly 4PM and I hadn’t eaten anything since the hotel buffet that morning. I decided to make sure as many people would disapprove of my choices this day as possible by having Mexican for a late lunch, at a Three Amigos-themed restaurant complete with Japanese mariachi band and Donald Duck.
The tacos were stuffed full and folded tightly, almost like a hard-shelled quesadilla. If you provided someone who’d never heard of Mexican food with the right ingredients and then explained the broad strokes over a shaky phone connection, this is roughly what would result. That’s not to say it was terrible, merely that it’s a different interpretation on Mexican in the same way one wouldn’t really call Chipotle or Moe’s Mexican food. The tortilla chips and guacamole were more on the mark. I just appreciated the fact that I was eating such a ridiculous meal in a ridiculous place and loving every minute of it.
After lunch, I headed on to the Mysterious Island, home of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Center Of The Earth.
This was my first chance to ride 20,000 Leagues, but I missed out on Journey, which was the one I was looking forward to more. The line stretched on for over an hour, so I decided to check back later, but the ride had been shut for the day due to mechanical difficulties by the time I got back. Nonetheless, this was one of my favorite locations in the park. The rocky structure and circular layout capped by a volcano is one of the best-designed areas in all of DisneySea.
Arabian Coast was next, built to resemble Agrobah, the fictional Arabian capital in Alladin.
Key here were an Alladin-themed double-decker merry-go-round and 3D Alladin-themed show featuring some live action intermixed with projected animation.
The attraction tells the story of how Genie helped a nice kid become a famous magician and how an evil rival locked Genie up in order to ruin the kid’s show and dominate the magic scene in Agrobah. The kid unlocks Genie, who then teaches the villain a lesson.
There’s plenty of singing, dancing, transfiguration and jokes, many more language-centered than earlier attractions. That made for a few moments when I wasn’t certain what the audience was laughing at, precisely, but the story was still visual enough to follow along and enjoy, coupled with the novelty of Japanese voice acting again not quite following the vocal precedent set by the original actor. In this case, Genie didn’t sound very much like Robin Williams, but it was a better match than Indy was.
I wish something like Mermaid Lagoon had been built at Magic Kingdom as part of New Fantasyland, rather than the unremarkable Mermaid-themed ride that made the cut. Mermaid Lagoon featured a number of basic rides inside a large, “dark ride” environment that put on a show of colors thanks to plenty of special paint and blacklights. Everything in here catered to a younger audience, but it’s a fine visual spectacle that I enjoyed briefly before moving along.
The American Waterfront might have been my favorite part of the park, as it’s among the most audacious. The SS Columbia is the clear standout here, a full-sized ship that doubles as a restaurant and the background for a number of small music and stage shows.
A comparatively tiny tugboat sits alongside, reminiscent of the one in Steamboat Willie.
This area is supposed to resemble New York’s harbor around the beginning of the 20th century. It does a fine job from an architectural standpoint, so long as you don’t look to closely at the food vendors’ menus, which consist almost entirely of Japanese fare save for a hot dog stand.
Nearby is an area housing the Toy Story: Midway Mania ride also found at Hollywood Studios in Orlando. While Orlando’s space is built to look like Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California, this one resembles a turn-of-the-century boardwalk, complete with a Mr. Potato Head barking out the Japanese equivalent of “Come one, come all!” to passersby.
Neat as the different exterior was, I knew this ride from home, so I set my sights on finding something else unique to DisneySea. A show was starting in a large theater nearby, so I made my way in. It was a big band production, featuring classic songs and presented entirely in English.
The band was entirely Japanese, but the singers had clearly been imported from the US. Whether a few would pass muster back home remains unsettled, but watching a drummer dressed as Mickey blow away the finale number made the show worth it.
It was growing late by this time, and Fantasmic was set to begin in just a few minutes. I was curious to see what would stay the same and what would change when compared to the version I’d seen at home. The beginning was nearly identical and took place in English, but the story and set began to diverge from there to better suit the broad circle of water that served as the floating stage. At Hollywood Studios, a bowl of seating faces a fixed structure surrounded by a wide moat. Here, with an entire bay of water, more floating effects were used.
Despite the performance abruptly switching from English to Japanese a few minutes in, Fantasmic couldn’t help but feel familiar. The fresh set and some changes in pace made it fresh but familiar and a good cap to my time at DisneySea.
After Fantasmic, I took awhile to stroll through the park, just taking pictures and enjoying my surroundings. I saw more Americans here than anywhere else in Tokyo, but was still outnumbered 20 to 1 by locals.
Despite the language gap, I never felt as at home during the trip than when simply walking around that evening. This was different, yes, but also undeniably familiar. If you love Disney as I do, it’s hard not to look at DisneySea as the best kind of American export. The park, its attractions and its food might be tailored to the local audience, but the spirit of Disney is ever clear throughout. DisneySea is as much a Disney Park as any you’ll find and stands up in measure to any of the parks in Orlando or Anaheim.
A funny thing happened: I didn’t feel my feet the entire time I was in the park. I bounded up steps, looped back and forth through the park and felt great the whole time. By the time I made it back to the train for the half-hour ride back to the Hyatt in Shinjuku, my feet and legs were aching, the pixie dust having apparently worn off.
Some might chide me for wasting my time on a theme park when I was so far from home and on such a tight schedule. You’re not wrong to do so, even. But for me, on that day? A little Disney magic and a taste of home turned what would’ve been an only vaguely remarkable afternoon into something I won’t forget.
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