Hi, I’m EJ and this is a long overdue trip report of my first trip to Tokyo Disney Resort, last January. It almost makes no sense to write this as a report per se, but it’s more of a reflection of the ups and downs of making your first trip during one of the busiest times of the year.
Going to Tokyo for the New Year’s is the best worst idea ever
If you’re reading this site, they’re you’re probably one of two things. You either a. really love Disney or b. are really fascinated with Japan. Some would lean more on one side or the other, but if you’re anything like me then you love Disney and Japan in equal measure.
To further complicate things, imagine that you’re from a country that does not have a Disney theme park, which means that it has been over a decade since I last heard the gleeful singing of the Pirates of the Caribbean or settled myself in a Doom Buggy between hitchhiking ghosts, or hurtled down Chickapin Hill.
Thus planning for a trip to Tokyo Disneyland can be an especially daunting task.. How does one even begin to plan for the trip of a lifetime that captures as much of the spirit of Japan as possible, while maximizing time in what is arguably the best Disney theme parks in the world?
With a lot of creative choices, and a bit of cutting corners.
I’m a teacher, so I am not exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to vacation schedules, I decided that the best compromise was to go on my first trip to Japan during New Year’s!
Little did I know, that the second worst time to go to TDR was in the New Year’s. First, parks were always at capacity (or if you’re lucky, almost at capacity). But for the still uninitiated like me, those didn’t matter so much.
Second, since the New Year’s is a major holiday, many other attractions on my to-do-list were closed, or were closing. This included all of the museums and Tsukiji market. Planning the trip became a puzzle on it its own.
Since we were on a budget, both time and money wise, we settled on this plan. 3 days in TDR (TDS on 01/01,TDL on 01/02, parking hopping on 01/03) fit in better with what we wanted to do, and gave us some wiggle room to do other stuff.
It also became immediately clear that if we had to axe at least one of things on the list. What had to do was the second top priority, the Ghibli museum. Due to scheduling conflicts, and varying New Year’s break schedules, it was the one that had to go. However in its place was the time to visit everything else on the list, and spend New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. And that was pretty special.
Off-property, done right.
I think most Disney fans would agree that the most magical vacation experience is had by staying on property. I agree, but anywhere from $300-$500 a night at its cheapest, it’s not an option I always take.
This trip was not one of those trips, and since most trip reports I see in message boards seem to be about on-property trips, I had to do my research.
Most people don’t seem to have any favorable experiences with off-property hotels. Rooms were too small, smelled of cigarettes, or from my experience, fully booked or just plain difficult to contact.
Instead, I settled on finding a room through Airbnb. I searched for Tokyo Disneyland, and was able to book a room for two for a week, for the price of one night at a Disney resort hotel. An added bonus was that my host was so incredibly accommodating that he even bought our tickets for the “Doraemon museum” for us, since they could only be bought at the Lawson’s convenience store a month before.
The biggest concern for people staying off-property is accessibility, and many seemed to be unwilling or apprehensive to take the bus.
The place we stayed in, was very convenient as it was right next to the Kasai station of the Tokyo Metro. And there was a bus that went directly to TDR. The trip takes only 15-20 minutes, and since it was just a bus, the lines weren’t as long as taking the trains. Staying right next to the metro meant that central Tokyo, like Nihombashi was just a short train ride away.
We landed in Narita before lunch, took the very convenient Kesei Bus to Kasai Station. I slept through most of the bus trip but for some reason awoke to catch a glimpse of the Tokyo Disney Resort.
On the highway, the first thing you would probably see is the ornate facade of the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. You’d think, could that possibly be Disneyland? A quick scan of the horizon and you’ll immediately spot the gleaming form of Space Mountain, and next the spires of Cinderella Castle, and far off in the distance is the Hightower Hotel – my first glimpse of Disney Sea.
Since we just passed the resort, I figured that our stop should be coming up soon. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Kasai Station and found that the apartment we had rented was indeed very close to the train station (and even closer to the bus stop for Tokyo Disneyland). However, as soon as we got in the apartment, we immediately set off for Yves’s must-see in Tokyo, the Fujiko F. Fujio Museum (the Doraemon museum).
We had a few days to kill before TDR itself, so we were able to go around Tokyo and see some sites, meet friends, watch The Lion King in Japanese and visit temples on New Year’s Eve.
First Day of the Year
Woke up really groggy on the first day of the year. New Year’s Eve was not wild at all, but we got back to the apartment at around one in the morning from Sensoji Temple and got up at around six.
A one minute walk from the apartment and we were at the bus stop. Any doubt that this was the correct bus stop disappeared when I saw the people waiting. Two little girls with their mother. Looks like they’re headed for a theme park. Cue the adult woman with a Minnie Mouse bag, with half a dozen Duffy keychains dangling from it. Yup. Definitely the right bus.
It was already 8:00, and we had already broken the first rule of TDR, be there an hour early. I was panicking. How could we possibly have a good day now? The fifteen, twenty minute bus ride was torture. With each stop, I wished that people would get off, and no one would get on.
As we took the last turn into the resort, and the bus pulled in at the TDL bus depot. I walked as fast as I could and saw the swarms of people that had amassed in front of the gate. It was about 8:20. I think I prepared myself well enough in advance. I read many trip reports, but like many great wonders of nature. Nothing could prepare you for the sight of thousands of, mostly Japanese, people amassed at the entrance of a Tokyo Disney Resort theme park.
“What a way to start the first day of the year,” I thought. We climbed up to the monorail. (At this point, I had not yet figured out that the bus also went straight for TDS. It should have been reasonable to think so, but I guess I wasn’t thinking.)
On the platform, I impatiently waited for the monorail, when I spied this…thing at the horizon. Could it be?
Yes, it was.
The crowd at TDS, were a little more manageable than I thought.
Once we made it inside, at about 15 to 20 minutes after the park opened. Not too bad, I think, for being 30 minutes late. This the crucial part, where all those watching all those YouTube videos about TDS and pouring over the park map would pay off. I grabbed our tickets and made a run towards American Waterfront.
Now, I had never been on Toy Story Mania, but I had no intention of fighting everyone for a slot, so I turned right at McDuck’s and made a mad dash for Tower of Terror, for an 11:00 AM Fastpass.
Mysterious Island & the American Waterfront
I met up with Yves in front of the Hightower Hotel and made our way to Mysterious Island. We went for the regular line, and since everyone was still in line for Toy Story Mania, it was about a 30 minute wait. Which is a good thing, since we had barely gotten in line when the line began to build up behind us really fast.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is the one ride I was looking forward to the most. Many people have deemed it to be the best Disney ride ever made, and I wanted to see if it lives up to expectations. This is one ride where I was happy that I went the spoiler route. One, it prepared me for the climax, and two it set my expectations.
My personal definition of a great Disney ride is theming, animatronics, and length. Journey is a rather short experience that ends somewhat abruptly after the climax. I partly wish that had some final scene like Splash Mountain to cap things off. However, that is a minor quibble compared to masterpiece of Imagineering that is Journey to the Center of the Earth. Boasting what is probably the one the best examples of best theming in any attraction, from the sign, to that superb queue (with that elevator ride). During the ride itself the scenes and creatures, for some reason, reminded me of Epcot from years gone by. I’m not sure if it was the imagination poured into the attraction or the fact that it was all new to me, was a sensation I did not think I’d ever experience again.
This was before the ride turns into a thrill ride. I loved how fast the vehicles felt, and how it gave you virtually no opportunity to react. Yves was especially caught off guard by the climax, even if I pointed it out him from Mediterranean Harbour.
All in all, I would not personally place Journey to the Center of the Earth number one of my list. Certainly it’s in my top ten, and quite possibly top five. To be fair though, with so many great new attractions (like Mystic Manor and Big Grizzly Mountain in Hong Kong) lately, I really don’t know what is my number one pick.
Since there was ample time, and with only a 20 minute wait, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the next stop. As a kid, I enjoyed being stuck “underwater” in what many called “a concrete fish tank” in Disneyland, but the same I was mildly disappointed with this one. I do give it credit for the reimagining and the ingenious ride system. And it is in may ways an improvement to the original, but the illusion of going underwater, a great effect by the way, is somewhat ruined by the fact the ride vehicles aren’t want afterwards. An unreasonable expectation, I know, but I suspect that I’m not the only kid/kid at heart, who checked after the ride if the vehicles actually got wet.
That, and well, the convex view underwater made me dizzy.
We made the trek back to the American Waterfront for the Tower of Terror, a ride that admittedly freaked the heck out of me back in the day (in the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios). I was pretty nervous about this one, and was pretty hesitant to enter.
The Hightower Hotel itself is a structure that I would best describe as impossibly beautiful. From all the structures in TDS, this one I could not believe they built in such ornate detail. I had to see it for myself, and even when I did, I still could not 100% believe that the building in front of me was build just for a ride.
Equally impressive was the preshow, a sinister mood-setter that works across language barriers and ends with a perfectly timed effect.
The ride itself was okay. I am not sure if my memory fails me, but it was not as scary as the original in Florida. The drop felt like nothing at all, and if I thought Journey was a tad short, this one was really too short. Then again, this isn’t a problem unique to the TDS version of the ride. While this one has a better preshow, but as many say, the Florida original is still the best by far.
We pass the Broadway theater and see the crowd lining up for the first Big Band Beat show of the day, so head for the lottery machines in Mediterranean Harbour. Keeping in mind the tips shared by Patricia, I listened for the general mood. I heard someone squeal in delight and I took that as a good sign. I happily emerged with two tickets for the last show that day.
To the Lost River Delta & the Arabian Coast
It was almost noon, so having lunch at Ristorante di Caneletto was out of the question, especially on New Year’s Day. After going through all the options, we settled on Mexican food, which meant that we had to go all the way to Lost River Delta.
Going by “sea” was the best way to go and the DisneySea Transit Steamer Line was the ship to take us there. Many theme park aficionados will tell you that “kinetic energy” is an essential, and often elusive, element to a theme park’s atmosphere. Because of this, I think that the DisneySteam Line is the most important ride in all of DisneySea.
Now, any amusement park will have rides twirling and whirring about. That much is a given. However, only the best and most immersive theme parks will give you rides that actual serve as functional modes of transportation. Think of the Disneyland Railroad, the Monorail, and the now-retired Skyway. The DisneySea Transit Steam Line, as well as the with the DisneySea Electric Railway, serve a similar role, but both are impeccably detailed and themed to DisneySea specifications.
Upon arriving at Lost River Delta, we grabbed Fastpasses for Indiana Jones and went to Miguel’s El Dorado Cantina for lunch. When they say Japan isn’t the place to eat Mexican food, they weren’t kidding. It’s not that the food wasn’t spicy. (It wasn’t, but I was already expecting that.) The meat was dry and at about 1580 JPY the recommended meal quite pricey for what it was.
After lunch, we checked out Mystic Rhythms and the next convenient show for us wasn’t on until about 2:30, so we decided to move on to the Arabian Coast.
I had started to snow every so slightly, just a light flurry, so we looked for something warm to drink. I spied the stall the sold the much praised Chandu’s Tail, and bought two cups of coffee to warm ourselves up, and a Chandu’s Tail, to hopefully make up for the mediocre lunch.
Chandu’s Tail, I did not know what to expect from this Tiger Tail with creamy chicken. The verdict? It was just like a regular steamed bun. If you grew up eating baozi/paozu/siopao then you would know exactly what Chandu’s tail is, except the filling is creamy chicken with corn. In theory, I think it’s a great idea, but I wish there were more options in the filling, as I am not the biggest fan of corn.
Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage was right next door, so we went in. The line wasn’t long at all, 15 minutes and we asked for the English story card, which was really just a piece of paper with the basic story, and more importantly, the English lyrics to the Alan Menken song, “Compass of Your Heart.”
Sindbad is a criminally underrated attraction, beloved by many enthusiasts, by often dismissed by many as a children’s ride, which is not entirely untrue. However, I’d prefer to think of it as timeless adventure for all ages. Yes, the original was darker (based on the videos) and this version made it tamer and child-friendly – a small compromise, because the addition of the “Compass of Your Heart” really makes the attraction worth repeating.
We swung by Mermaid Lagoon, but since the Little Mermaid show was not due to open for a few months, we had nothing to do except look around and soak in the most intricately themed collection of carnival rides.
Back at the Arabian Coast, the line to the Magic Lamp theater was too long, so we got Fastpasses instead, and headed for Mystic Rhythms, which was due to begin in less than ten minutes. The sprint back to Lost River Delta paid off as we entered the theater just in the nick of time.
We were seated to the far right, but near the front. The view was slightly obstructed, but more intimate given our proximity to the instruments. Mystic Rhythms is, or rather was, DisneySea’s take on the acrobatics-cultural show. What gives it the Disney twist is the level of detail in this lush, visceral production. It reminded me of Fantasia in the sense that the visuals and music did the storytelling by evoking emotions. It’s a shame that it’s gone, but I hope that something equally unique occupies the Hangar Stage soon.
After the show, it was already time for our Fastpass entry to the Magic Lamp Theater, but since Port Discovery was nearby, I thought it was worth checking out StormRider. The small gamble paid off. There was a 30 minute wait for the attraction, but the Fastpass machines were dispensing tickets that would allow you to enter in just 10 minutes.
StormRider was a pleasant surprise. Yeah, the film quality leaves much to be desired, but this was quite immersive, with the most effective use of in-theater effects I’ve seen in a theme park attraction. I’m cautiously optimistic that the new Finding Nemo attraction replacing it would have some equally immersive elements.
Back at the Magic Lamp Theater, we asked for the subtitle device, oddly enough the only attraction in TDS to have one. The pre-show was fun with an animatronic snake as the narrator, but the art style used to depict Assim, the protagonist of the show and Master Shaban, the antagonist, was oddly simplistic, even generic cartoon caricatures.
Even if Assim is the hero of the story, real star of the show is Genie. And the main show is a live magic show mixed in with 3-D effects – like a kid-friendly version of the Terminator 3-D show in Universal. It was cute, entertaining, but I do not remember too many details about the show itself. It’s worth a look, but I wouldn’t be rushing to see it again.
After that it was just a matter of killing time before our Indy Fastpass time slot. Yves really likes carousels, and I am not the biggest fan of carousels and spinners, but when the carousel is as gorgeous as the Caravan Carousel, he didn’t have to twist my arm.
We went on Sindbad again, and this time, it had a wait time of less than 5 minutes. While I am generally happy when lines are this short, I felt it was almost criminal that it was this short.
We arrived at Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull 5 minutes before our slot, so it was just a short wait before they let us in. The queue snaked through the temple and was impressively cavernous. We didn’t have time to soak it all in, as we were ushered pretty quickly past the waiting crowd and into the ride.
The ride itself is as satisfying as it was when it first opened in Disneyland. The theming was slightly different, but it was not really as drastic of a change as it was for Tower of Terror, so it sort of puzzles me why they had it changed in the first place since the overall ride experience felt comparable. One standout moment was the “fireball”/smoke ring, which I think is the best use of this de rigueur effect in any attraction.
Back to the American Waterfront
We grabbed a last minute Fastpass for Ranging Spirits and still had enough time to take a leisurely walk back to the American Waterfront to see Big Band Beat. While I had spent the day resisting the urge to buy popcorn, I’m not much of a popcorn guy, the smell of black pepper (and it was nearly dinner time) was too much and I gave in for a regular box. While popcorn itself is not my favorite (I prefer the round puffy kind of popcorn), the flavor was subtle and sophisticated, that I resolved to eat my way through Tokyo Disneyland’s popcorn the following day.
The show itself, Big Band Beat, was similarly sophisticated and satisfying.I was afraid I’d fall asleep since it’s been a long day, but Big Band Beat did not let me off the hook that easy. The performances from singers to the dancers, and most especially the band were fantastic. Even Mickey, who usually takes a rather passive role in these types of shows, really gets into it and gives those drums a workout. My favorite part, the dueling drums, shows that there’s no better special effect than pure unadulterated talent. This easily became my most favorite theme park show of all time. It was so good that I wished that there was a real stage door so I could meet the band.
Well, even if there were an opportunity to meet them, there was no time, as that evening’s showing of Fantasmic was due to begin in thirty minutes and crowds, naturally, had already formed around Mediterranean Harbor.
This version of Fantasmic is a great re-appropriation of the original show that sufficiently feels familiar yet fresh. I do miss the Sailing Ship Columbia and the Mark Twain Riverboat, two of the highlights of the original show in my opinion, but the trade off is the much grander scale that takes advantage of the Mediterranean Harbor setting.
Fantasmic would have been the perfect end to a long and tiring, first day of the year, but we still had Fastpasses for Raging Spirits. Lost River Delta seemed so far away from Mediterranean Harbor, and I wasn’t up for that.
Instead, I thought, what if the line to Toy Story Mania wasn’t that long anymore? We made our way to Toyville Trolley Park and felt that the declared 75-minute wait was worth the trouble since the park wasn’t going to close for another 90 minutes.
That was a decision that we slowly began to regret. The wait time ballooned well-beyond 75 minutes and was more in the 120-150 minute range. This was made worse by the fact that most of ou
r time in the queue was outside at night, in the Japanese
winter. Now it’s not as cold as other places, but the winds from Tokyo Bay made everything feel so much colder.
It was a good thing then that we discovered for ourselves that Toy Story Mania is indeed a very, very, very good ride. Maybe not 150 minutes in the winter good, but we didn’t regret anything. Especially since by the time we finished, it was past closing time, and we were treated to a beautiful stroll in an essentially empty Mediterranean Harbor.
So yes, it was a good first day of the year after all.
That ended up being much longer that I thought it would be. Next up, Days 2 & 3 in TDR, and how I almost gave up on Disneyland.