Growing up, the one thing I always dreamed of doing as an adult was to visit every Disney park in the world. I had been lucky enough to go to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida multiple times with my family, but that simply wasn’t enough to scratch the Disney itch for me. As I got older, I fell in love and married a guy who ended up loving the magic of Disney just as much as I did.
He went to college in Florida (not because of Disney — that ended up being a beautiful coincidence!), so I visited him down there and we made as many day trips to our happy place as we could. Eventually, we got married (I walked down the aisle to “When You Wish upon a Star,” naturally!) and we embarked on our Disneymoon the following morning at 8AM.
At some point in our ten years together, we made a Disney bucket list, vowing to visit every Disney park in the world someday in our lives. For our one year wedding anniversary, we took a road trip from northern California to Los Angeles, of course stopping for a few days at Disneyland in Anaheim.
Now that we’d happily conquered the U.S. parks, we decided our next move had to be international. We planned a trip to the Disney parks that many Disneyphiles agree are the best of the best: Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. We braved the 16+ hours of travel from New York to Japan, with a twinkle of pixie dust in our eyes, ignoring our jet lag, brutal late-summer Tokyo humidity, and the unavoidable language barrier… all in the name of Mickey Mouse.
Full disclosure: our friends and family pretty much thought we were insane, and maybe we were, but we just knew it would be the experience of a lifetime… and it was. They simply couldn’t figure out why we’d travel halfway across the world to ride Splash Mountain in a language we didn’t understand. But we knew that we had to see for ourselves exactly how the Japanese do Disney, and it turns out, the differences are what made the trip so memorable.
1. Two parks, one world
There are steadfast debates about whether Walt Disney World or Disneyland is the “better” Disney, with many arguing that WDW, with its vast size, four parks, more than two dozen hotels, and numerous leisure and adventure attractions, is the true “vacation” experience, and others believing that Disneyland’s smaller size and quaint charm make for a more “authentic” Disney experience. The great thing about Tokyo Disney is that it was truly the best of both those arguments. The Tokyo Disney Resort itself has a handful of hotels (the stunning Hotel MiraCosta is even located inside the Tokyo DisneySea park) and is largely squared away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, making for a truly immersive experience even if you’re not staying in an official on-site hotel. The two parks mean that TDR is smaller than WDW, but with a more resort-like feel than DL, which is situated smack in the middle of Anaheim’s busy streets.
2. Tokyo Disneyland brings the classics
On a surface level, Tokyo’s signature park is a perfect blend of the iconic rides and themed lands that bring millions of visitors to Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom year after year. After all, the large, statuesque Disney landmark there is an almost exact replica of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom — if you blink, you could almost forget you’re actually thousands of miles away from the familiar Florida sunshine. Most of the rides are equal counterparts to their American versions — in Tokyo Disneyland, you can ride Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Adventures, Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, Star Tours, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, and more. Of course, since you’re in Japan, you’ll likely not be able to understand the corny jokes your Jungle Skipper will make in Japanese, but that makes the experience all the more unique.
3. Disneyland’s familiar charm in spades
Before taking your (always necessary!) selfies in front of Cinderella Castle, you’ll walk right down the middle of Main Street U.S.A…just kidding. That’s not in this park. But you do get to experience World Bazaar, which features shops and restaurants just like its U.S. versions, except in Japan, you’re shielded from the elements, thanks to the heavy rains and snow that Tokyo experiences. As you make your way into the park, you’ll immediately notice that while most of the themed lands and areas are similar to the castle parks in the States, the streets are much wider, giving TDL a much bigger feel overall. This is due to the immense crowds that the park receives (in 2013, TDL hosted 17.2 million visitors, cementing its status as the world’s second-most visited theme park behind the Magic Kingdom!).
4. Unique differences
As I mentioned, many of the rides are similar to their American versions, but instead of having “it’s a small world” stuck in your head all day, you’ll be singing “sore wa chīsana sekaidesu,” which is undeniably cool. Also, the Haunted Mansion is in Fantasyland, which gives the happy, colorful land a dark and spooky vibe. Also unique to Tokyo Disneyland? Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, which is the world’s first trackless ride. This one often sees long waits due to its incredible theming and the fact that you ride in a hunny pot with literally no track beneath you, and it’s unbearably cute. Monster’s Inc. fans will also love the adorable Ride & Go Seek, which was sadly closed while we were there.
5. Tokyo DisneySea — the most breathtaking theme park ever
I had read online that Tokyo DisneySea, which is celebrating its 15 year anniversary this year, was truly a sight to behold for a Disney fan, and it did NOT disappoint. The theming here was so immersive that at times we were convinced we were strolling the cobblestone streets of Italy or about to get on the subway in our native New York. This park is unique in that it has no “photo” landmark (i.e. no castle, no Spaceship Earth, no Tree of Life…) but that’s probably because the entire park is a photo landmark. Made up of seven themed sections (called “ports of call”), TDS was inspired by the neighboring Tokyo Bay, which the park was built on, and has many attractions unique to this park alone. You can take a relaxing Venetian gondola ride in Mediterranean Harbor or plummet through a volcano in the intense Journey to the Center of the Earth ride, if you’re looking for thrills. This park reminded us of Epcot in that there are slightly fewer rides than other parks, but the atmosphere made us want to stop and stroll around for hours, taking in all the small details and soaking up the park’s architecture and beauty.
6. The cast of characters
Of course, you’re still in the world of Disney, so you can certainly find Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and the rest of the crew. But what we liked were the characters we’ve never met at the U.S. parks. We got to meet Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid, who said I must’ve swam quite a long way to make it to Tokyo! The Japanese are also big fans of Duffy the Disney Bear and his girlfriend, ShellieMae, so guests can meet them, too. One other cool thing were the different costumes that the characters wore — fashion is no joke in Tokyo, and the gang were decked out accordingly. BONUS: the “face” characters spoke English, which made for some of the only interactions in our native language that we had the entire trip!
7. You won’t go hungry
The food at Tokyo Disney was so incredible, I wrote an entirely separate post about it. We enjoyed plenty of the same theme park staples as the American parks, and some of the restaurants are also the same, but that’s where the similarities ended. Some of the highlights included shrimp tempura and Mickey-shaped chicken nuggets at Crystal Palace, and of course, the restaurant dedicated to the beloved Mickey waffle.
8. Outside the park gates
While Disneyland in California is home to Downtown Disney and Walt Disney World is home to Disney Springs, Tokyo has their own version of a shopping and entertainment center called Ikspiari. Ikspiari is home to 140 shops, restaurants, and attractions situated in a (mostly) indoor mall and actually isn’t Disney-themed at all, aside from one Disney store. It had a mix of unique Japanese boutiques and also standard favorites like Gap and Lacoste. It also features some awesome Japanese bars and restaurants… and some familiar “Western” spots like T.G.I. Friday’s and Rainforest Cafe.
9. Getting there is half the fun
Bar none, one of our favorite parts of the trip was the different modes of transport that visitors use to get to and from the parks. If you’re familiar with the American parks, you surely love riding the monorail from park to park or being greeted by a Disney bus driver to return to your hotel. Tokyo’s monorail (which you pay for, unlike in the U.S. parks!) was probably one of the coolest parts of the trip — the windows are Mickey-shaped, and even the straps for guests to hold onto are Mickey-shaped and decked out for the holidays. The Tokyo Disney Resort is adjacent to the busy Maihama train station, which links park guests to the “outside” world via train. The Disney Resort Cruiser buses are equally adorable, with Mickey-themed windows, seats, and even tail lights. We were certainly sad to leave, and the super kawaii modes of transport made the departure all the more difficult.
10. The spirit of Disney
As Walt Disney famously said on Disneyland’s opening day, “To all who come to this happy place: welcome,” and that’s exactly what our friends in Japan did for a couple of wide-eyed Americans. I’ll admit that we were nervous about the language barrier, getting lost, or any number of mishaps that could have happened along the way, but the people in Tokyo and the Tokyo Disney Resort were so kind, warm, and excited to welcome us to their home park, that even as we were leaving, we wanted to turn the plane around to go back. They truly love Disney and believe in its magic, and it’s this attitude that was both infectious and made us feel so at ease and at home. There was nothing more magical than getting to share in their joy, and I can only hope that some day we are able to go back.