We had our tickets for September 2020. We had it all mapped out. We knew exactly what rides we were going on, on which days, and what food we would be eating while waiting for them. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and all those little plans went poof, in a puff of malignant magic.
It was a stunning, almost unbelievable privilege to be able to visit Tokyo Disneyland and its sister park, Tokyo DisneySea, for the first time a few years ago. I honestly thought it was a one-and-done, because who gets lucky enough to get to go to Japan more than once in a lifetime? But the call of those two amazing parks was too great, and almost as soon as I returned, I started saving for the next trip. Now, it looks, I still have a little more time to save.
Japan’s borders are currently closed to international tourists, and have been for about a year. With the recent announcement that foreign spectators won’t be allowed even for the Summer Olympics in July, it seems likely that 2021 will end up being a tourism wash. But for those of us who love planning as much as we love doing, it’s an opportunity to dream of things to come (at least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves). Here are the Top Ten things I’m looking forward to doing the most when the borders are open, and I’m once again Tokyo bound.
10. Dreamlights Parade
I have a lot of nostalgia and love for the Main Street Electrical Parade, mainly because no parade has socked me in the feels as completely. Spectromagic is fine and Paint the Night is a technical marvel, but when it comes to nighttime parades, the Electrical Parade is the only one that gives me that huge emotional rush……
……until I saw Dreamlights. This parade pushes technical boundaries (a huge Genie float changes its appearance four or five times and it’s astounding!), but it also just hits those serotonin centers and makes you a giddy kid again. From the Blue Fairy floating on magic to start the parade to the international riot of lights that make up the “it’s a small world” floats at the end, this is a nighttime parade to treasure. (Fun fact: when it rains, there’s a shorter nighttime parade called Nightfall Glow; what the parade lacks in length, it makes up for in extreme cuteness. Have you ever seen Winnie-the-Pooh in a rain hat and slicker? Get ready for cuteness overload.)
9. Alien Mochi
Okay, I can’t express enough how badly I want to munch on these creepy green alien heads right now. They are a staple snack at the Tokyo Disney parks, and while it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them mochi – they’re not filled with ice cream, but regular cream, like a Boston crème donut – it’s exactly right to call them delicious. These oval heads that look like that of the aliens in Toy Story come in threes, and burst with the flavors of chocolate, custard, and strawberry, enclosed in a sweet rice dumpling. It’s been three years, and I can not only remember the exact taste of these weird little amazements, but also the texture – firm and chewy and soft, all at once. They are astounding.
8. Tale as Old as Time
One of the real bummers about missing out on this most recent trip is that Tokyo Disney is in the midst of a colossal expansion. Tokyo DisneySea is adding a whole host of new mini-lands, themed to Frozen, Peter Pan, and Tangled. Meanwhile, Tokyo Disneyland is adding its own New Fantasyland, anchored by a brand-new Beauty & the Beast mini-land … and a gigantic new ride called Enchanted Tale of Beauty & the Beast. While normally, I’m kind of down on theme park rides that simply tell the story of the movie in compressed form, everything I’m hearing about this ride is next-level. It’s a dark ride like Pinnochio’s Daring Journey or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but plussed up and E-ticket. I haven’t watched any videos yet because I want the anticipation to last, but I’m so tempted…
7. Duffy & Friends
So they tried to make Duffy a thing over here in the States, and it didn’t work. Why would it? There’s a vague backstory of Duffy being a teddy bear Minnie gave to Mickey for an overseas voyage, but other than that, there’s no reason for American audiences to connect with Duffy. But Tokyo is a different story. The whole kawaii – the culture of cute! – phenomenon is massive in Japan, and Duffy the Disney Bear is cute as heck.
He exists as a character with his own show, a regular old teddy bear, and something called a “badge,” a smaller plush figure with a chain on him that you can attach to your backpack and show the world how Duffy mad you are. He’s got a bunch of pastel animal friends, including his girlfriend Shellie Mae (another bear), Gelatoni (the artist cat), and StellaLou, the dancing bunny. (Other friends debuted at other parks and properties, like CookieAnne the Dog at Hong Kong Disneyland, and ‘Olu Mel the Turtle at Aulani Resort in Hawai’i.)
To give you an idea just how popular Duffy is in Japan, whenever there is a new outfit debut at a Disney store, people line up for hours to be able to get one. Hours! Was I caught up in the kawaii mania of Duffy and Friends? Just ask my Gelatoni badge I wore proudly for the rest of my trip through Japan.
6. Roosevelt Lounge
One of the things we have to contend with as adult Disney fans is the notion that Disney is just for kids. It’s never been true, even though kids make up a huge demographic. But every once in a little while, we grownups want a place that’s just for us. That’s where the Roosevelt Lounge comes in.
Tokyo DisneySea boasts a strange and amazing area called American Waterfront, which is comprised of a Cape Cod and New York Harbor mini-lands. And, oh, there’s a full-sized ocean liner just hanging out in the harbor. The S.S. Columbia – which looks just a teeeeeeensy bit like the Titanic – is fun to explore by itself, but the real jewel is the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge.
Located on C Deck, the Lounge is dark and elegant, paneled in dark wood and packed with leather sofas, portraits of our twenty-sixth president, and carvings of bears holding up the ceiling over the bar. There’s also a tiger head holding a light fixture in its teeth, because it’s stately and grand, but also just a tad bit over-the-top. The food is great and the drinks are plentiful, and if you want to stop and ask yourself why there’s a tip-top lounge dedicated to a United States president in an American land in a theme park in Tokyo, stop right there. Just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome.
5. Tower of Terror
Every iteration of the Tower of Terror is unique worldwide: Orlando has the OG, Anaheim got the Guardians of the Galaxy overlay, and Paris has “A New Dimension in Chills” reimagining. And Tokyo DisneySea (still in the American Waterfront) has its own unique story. You see, the Hotel Hightower was once owned by noted explorer Harrison Hightower III, a member of Disney’s Society of Explorers and Adventurers (a meta-story encompassing worldwide parks, ships, and properties).
The hotel is a paean to Hightower’s hubris, with murals and portraits featuring the man and his many exploits. The story of the attraction, though, is what happened to Hightower when he took the wrong artifact from the wrong people – an idol that put a curse on him … and the hotel we’re in right now.
The preshow of this version is truly astounding (there are some effects I still can’t figure out), and the layers of story and history built into the Tower is breathtaking. I love every version of Tower of Terror, but this one might be my favorite.
One of the funniest things about Tokyo Disneyland is how so much of it seems firmly rooted in the past. Before I went, one of the things people said to me was “if you want to see what Disneyland looked like in 1983, go to Tokyo.” While that’s not entirely true – Tokyo Disneyland has some very new, very innovative rides and experiences – there is something about walking around Tokyo’s first Disney park to make you feel nostalgic for an earlier time. Maybe it’s the fact that when I went, the very first iteration of the Astro Orbitors were still being used. Maybe it’s the use of “futuristic” proto-Epcot 80s fonts everywhere that make it feel like the 90s never arrived.
For me, most of it was Space Mountain. Like the early Disneyland version, you ride up into the queue on a moving speedramp. While some of the effects have been refurbished and made more futuristic, it still retains the feel of classic Disneyland. I will say that “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean “dated” – even though Tokyo Disneyland retains quite a lot of the Anaheim park’s feel and flavor from the 1980s, Tokyo doesn’t ever feel old.
3. Popcorn Insanity
Popcorn?! At #3!? Here’s why: Tokyo Disney is legitimately bonkers for popcorn. There are something like 27,000 popcorn carts spanning the two parks, and nearly every popcorn cart boasts a different flavor. Salt? Sure, of course. Barbecue? Okay, a little nutty but sure.
Milk tea? Garlic shrimp? Orange marmalade? Oh yes, all this and more!
Japan loves flavor varieties (just look at the whole Kit Kat situation), and the best iteration of it is in the popcorn. When I was there, we used park maps and online guides to triangulate the locations of all the popcorn carts so we could try every flavor. I don’t know if we made it. It was like collecting Wilderness Explorers badges in Animal Kingdom, only you got popcorn instead. An arguably better prize! Plus! There’s theming! So much popcorn theming!
There’s a honey popcorn that’s great as it is, but it’s located right next to Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and that pushes it to next level perfection. In 2020, as if to taunt us, Tokyo Disneyland opened a new store called The Big Pop, a sleek and mid-century modern store that only sells popcorn and its peripherals (the popcorn bucket collectors are a whole other list). New flavors like strawberry milk and cheese caramel (is it good? Maybe?) are beckoning me with popcorny arms. Please open soon, Japan! I gotta have my pops!
2. Journey to the Center of the Earth
Sometimes you have to sit right down and ask yourself, wait. Did I just ride the best ride in the whole world? You can’t ever really come up with an answer, because mood and circumstance play such a big part in what makes a “best” theme park ride.
But I asked myself that question a lot when I rode Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like a lot.
It helps if you’re into Jules Verne, or steampunk, or, I don’t know, things that are awesome! You walk through a queue inside a volcano on Mysterious Island, a land at Tokyo DisneySea. There are artifacts from deep-earth explorations everywhere. Then you board a deep-earth elevator and it’s all steam and dials and plunging down-down-down and when you get off, there’s a Nautilus-like ride vehicle all in bronze. All that is before you get on the ride. It’s a little like Dinosaur or Indiana Jones or Radiator Springs Racers, if you took only the very best parts of all three of those and made them cooler and scarier and way more fun. There’s a giant creature at the end that very nearly kills you. You speed over a hill and it’s like you’re airborne for a second. It’s one of the coolest experiences in the world, and would be the best thing at Tokyo Disney … if not for a little guy named Sinbad.
- Following the Compass of Your Heart
As we say on my podcast, The Thirty20Eight, everything is better on a boat. That is especially true for Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage, the very best attraction at Tokyo Disneyland Resort, and maybe one of the best in the world. The ride takes you on Sindbad’s voyages around the seven seas, meaning it’s a much longer dark ride with many more show scenes than you’d think. The animatronics have a unique carved look, and the scenes are elaborate and varied. Plus, there’s a tiger cub sidekick named Chandu that accompanies Sindbad on his voyages. I really can’t state this enough: tiger cub sidekick named Chandu. At one point he pokes his head out of a pile of bananas and the kawaii is off! the! charts!
The best thing in a whole pile of best things about the ride is the theme song written by Alan Menken (who wrote songs for The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast) called Follow the Compass of Your Heart. It should be cheesy. Heck, maybe it is cheesy. But it’s sweeping and beautiful and when Sinbad returns home at the end of the ride and the whole village comes out to greet him and sing the song, it is some A+ emotional manipulation.
There are so many reasons to want to go back to Tokyo Disney, but sitting in a boat and following the compass of my heart is at the very top.