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By Chad Emerson
Tucked along Tokyo Bay in Japan is a Disney park that rivals, if not exceeds, the creative success of its sister parks across the globe. This amazing mix of water-themed immersive environments is known as Tokyo DisneySea—a park that is arguably the hidden gem from Disney’s famed Imagineers, what some Disney officials privately refer to as the company’s “creative masterpiece.”
The “must sea” of DisneySea
In April 1983, less than a year after Epcot opened in Orlando (October 1982) another milestone Disney park opened: Tokyo Disneyland. This was the first Disney park ever built outside of the US and was patterned after the Castle-centric design of Disneyland and Florida’s Magic Kingdom.
Like its US counterparts, Tokyo Disneyland also included mainstays such as Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The park also offered the first ever roof-covered Main Street entrance area—a concession to the colder and wetter winters in Tokyo as compared to Orlando and Anaheim. Despite its popularity in Japan, the resort went unnoticed by many Disney fans in other parts of the world.
This geographic reality did not stop the Oriental Land Company—the actual owner of Tokyo Disneyland under a license from Disney that gives them some creative control over the project—from undertaking expansion plans in the late 1990s to add a large, Downtown Disney-like shopping area, two new hotels, and the expansion’s feature attraction, Tokyo DisneySea. By the time DisneySea opened in September 2001, it was already being hailed as one of the best and most creatively-detailed theme parks in the history of the industry.
Though the journey may be long and winding, finding one’s way to DisneySea is a “must sea” for anyone who appreciates theme park design at its highest level.
The park itself is themed, as its name suggests, around different water “ports of call”—some fictional, some real, and some a mix of both. On the realistic side, these include an early 20th century era American Waterfront as well as an area themed to the Mediterranean Harbor that doubles as the entrance to the park. In addition to heavy theming, the Harbor area also offers in-park lodging: the Hotel MiraCosta, with rooms that stretch into DisneySea, and a dedicated entrance for hotel guests.
On the hybrid side of things sits the Arabian Coast area that combines Middle Eastern themes with classic tales from the region. This includes a Sindbad-themed dark ride with dramatic show scenes, often centered on larger than life animatronics throughout the ride’s journey into the seven seas. While DisneySea’s more thrilling rides often generate the most publicity, this writer finds the Sindbad dark ride to be one of the most impressive new water-based dark rides anywhere in the industry.
The peak of DisneySea’s creativity, though, resides in the fictional Mysterious Island where Mount Prometheus serves as the park’s iconic centerpiece and the home to two major attractions, themed to Jules Verne’s novels “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea.” In addition to being one of the most detailed park icons of any Disney park, the mountain also doubles as the show building for these two rides as well as the home of several dining options inside its volcanic core.
DisneySea’s ports of call are rounded out with the Lost River Delta—home to two, high-paced thrill rides – plus the more casual Port Discovery that overlooks Tokyo Bay and the indoor Mermaid Lagoon, with a variety of kid-friendly attractions in a setting that takes guests into Ariel’s underwater world.
All in all, the various ports of call provide an interesting but disparate mix of themes that are effectively woven together through their water connections.
Craftsmanship & explorability
Detailed theming as a storytelling device is a hallmark of many theme parks (including Disney parks). At DisneySea the quality of the craftsmanship is in itself worth the price of admission. From the moment of entry, that craftsmanship compelled this writer to explore the park from stem to stern. Three things jumped out: attention to detail, diversity and (most of all), what I call “explorability.”
On the first issue – attention to detail – DisneySea does an amazing job of creating an envelope of theming. It’s hard to find any sightline in the entire park that is not themed. While many other parks certainly create lush settings, most still end up leaving certain areas, even if only less traveled ones, under-themed or un-themed. “Transition theming”— continuing the theming between attractions and park areas—really stands out here. DisneySea strives to provide theming to every inch of the park that is visible to the public. This is a tall order, especially with such a diverse set of themes. Yet, even while riding on the elevated tracks of the DisneySea Electric Railway or atop the main hill of the Raging Spirits roller coaster, guests have a hard time finding anyplace where a corner was cut. DisneySea is just that detailed and thorough.
DisneySea also possesses once of the industry’s most diverse sets of attractions. These range from thrill rides such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, the StormRider simulator, and the Raging Spirits roller coaster to family fare such as Mermaid Lagoon, the Sindbad dark ride, and the leisurely riverboats that transport guests around the park. In addition, many of the rides are unique to DisneySea. Only a few, such as the recently opened Tower of Terror, are not exclusive to this Disney park. (BUT this is the only Tower of Terror in the world not themed to Twilight Zone – it has a unique backstory created solely for the Japan park.)
In addition to the impressive roster of rides are diverse interactive experiences such as the Fortress Exploration located in the park’s Mediterranean Harbor. Here, rather than ride a ride or view a show, guests are encouraged to explore the heavily-themed castle that overlooks the Harbor and stands adjacent to the daunting Mount Prometheus. This underscores that the visual experience of simply walking through DisneySea and observing the theming is an attraction unto itself.
“Explorability” at DisneySea relates to the use of interesting pathways and transitions that induce the guest to slow down and pay attention. Too often, such areas in theme parks are designed primarily to expedite guest movement from one attraction to the next. DisneySea accomplishes efficient crowd flow while also providing a setting that encourages guests to explore at their own pace and enjoy themselves whether or not they set foot on a ride. The Lost River Delta area is a fine example of this. The area’s two signature attractions are height-restricted and high on the thrill quotient. Guests who don’t wish to ride can still find an interesting time just exploring this mythical delta.
Another fantastic example is found inside Mount Prometheus. The faux volcano is the entryway to the ride queues for the Jules Verne attractions. But, rather than race from ride to ride, the interior of this fictitious mountain is so full of small and interesting details that you soon find yourself exploring beyond the rides and, in my case, simply sitting on the patio of the outdoor restaurant in the volcano taking in the amazing craftsmanship.
Simply put, the entire setting of Tokyo DisneySea is itself an attraction – one that is filled with rides and shows that, in many ways, represent the apex of the themed entertainment industry. When considering this review, I became concerned that it might seem too effusive in its praise. But I can’t help but gush about this groundbreaking effort. It’s a creative triumph on so many levels. The only major negative I see is more a symptom of the park’s success: that so many theme park aficionados will probably not get to experience DisneySea because of its geographic location in Asia. For Oriental Land Company, building Tokyo DisneySea was well worth the investment. For me, it was well worth the 10-hour flight.
All images kind courtesy Walt Disney Attractions, Japan.