Tokyo Disneyland

5th September 2017

The first draft of our Japan itinerary this year featured two days at the Tokyo Disney Resort separated by a trip to Hokkaido. This schedule was designed to avoid back-to-back days at large corporate parks that we fully expected to be physically and mentally draining, while also allowing us to spend Megan's birthday at the home of the mouse. Sadly however it wasn't to be; the multi-day tickets available via the park web site had to be used consecutively, and the price difference between those and single-day admission made our preferred option prohibitively expensive.

The park is accessed via JR Maihama Station, which is well set up for heavy crowds. Our first queue of the morning became the two minute long cattle grid needed to exit through the ticket barrier, followed in short order by a somewhat longer wait for the mandatory bag inspection at the resort entrance. We used the time to indulge in some people watching, where we noted an almost exclusively Asian demographic, with only a handful of people with other ethnicities. The next wait could easily have been with the five hundred plus people waiting to purchase tickets, but I'd bought ours up front allowing us to breeze through the turnstiles. We had to chat to a cast member to get an English map, but with that done we made our way to the back of the park where we reserved fast passes for Pooh's Hunny Hunt. We then joined the fifty-five minute wait for standby access on the grounds that it wouldn't be a proper start to the morning without at least one relaxing Pooh.

Pooh

The fast pass system had yet to come into operation for the day at this point, and as a result the queue moved forward at a steady rate. There were cooling fans at strategic locations, and I took the time to do a slow three sixty in front of each, much to the amusement of two teenaged girls waiting behind us. Much of the path worked its way around an outdoor landscaped garden that could have belonged to any ride in any park; it was only the last few minutes where we walked past illustrated twenty foot high pages taken straight from the English version of the A. A. Milne book. In due course we reached the boarding platform, where we were escorted to our four seat vehicles and dispatched.

Pooh premiered at the turn of the millennium with a state-of-the-art trackless control system developed by the team at Walt Disney Imagineering. The idea of operating a dark ride without a guide rail was a completely new concept at a time, and though other manufacturers have developed outwardly similar systems in the intervening years the majority utilise a wire under the floor, meaning that vehicle paths are fixed. There are no such limitations in the Disney system, which uses a complicated series of sensors and a control program that randomises individual tracks, meaning that every ride really is different. The technology is at its most impressive in the final scene of Pooh, where somewhere in the region of twenty honey pots weave in around each other at moderate speed without ever coming close enough to risk a collision. The vehicles also have the ability to bounce up and down, something that as of this writing has not been duplicated elsewhere.

Our second stop was at Gadget's Go Coaster, operating with two trains at maximum possible efficiency, resulting in a ten minute wait. The ride was entirely as expected for a roller skater, though it was interesting to see that a narrow walkway had been installed next to the final turn before the brake run. The purpose of this retrofit was very unclear, as the train would only stop beside it in the event of a catastrophic failure of a wheel bogie (and even then I rather suspect momentum from a fully-loaded train would keep things going). Further, there was no obvious way to access it from ground level without a ladder, negating its value for evacuation.

We had been enjoying our day up to this point, but things went downhill for a period at Space Mountain. There was an advertised seventy minute wait, which was correct but entirely artificial as it was caused by a ridiculous number of people using fast passes. We counted well over one hundred guests for every six from the standby line, and having to stand there while that volume of people went through the merge point left us fuming. One can understand that the powers that be want to accommodate as many guests as possible using the free fast pass system, and that's a noble aim, but there's something badly wrong when the approach disenfranchises everyone else. With plenty of time to think about it I came up with a number of possible solutions to the problem that park management could implement:

  • The simplest solution to the problem would be to drastically reduce the number of distributed fast passes. This would result in a longer standby line that would move much more quickly, though the daily pass limit would obviously be reached more quickly.
  • Another option would be to make the ride exclusively accessible via Fast Pass for a defined window of the day, and standby only at other times (morning and evening). The number of fast passes could potentially be increased slightly in this situation to slightly above the capacity of the ride, reflecting the fact that not everyone reserving a pass will actually use it.
  • The best approach, albeit a costly one, would be to refit the ride with a double loading station and allow fast pass users to enter through a different door keeping them away from standby riders. We'd have been far less annoyed by the extended wait if the reason for it was out of sight.
Space Mountain

The merge point is perhaps ten minutes queuing time away from the boarding platform, which sits underneath an enormous themed spacecraft. There is no preferred seating available, but we were lucky enough to be assigned to the back. It was impossible to fault the efficiency; our vehicle started to move no more than five seconds after we'd taken our places, halting briefly at a staging area where our restraints were double-checked by a cast member with a torch. Moments later we were dispatched onto a three part lift hill, each segment marked by an unpleasant lurch as the chain mechanism caught. The main portion of the layout was decently long, but surprisingly flaccid, falling firmly into the family coaster category. The overall presentation was also lacking, with a sparse interior and no onboard music, the latter being a particularly significant omission given the atmospheric tracks found on the equivalent rides elsewhere in the world.

We decided it was worth reserving a set of fast passes for a second ride later in the day, and with that complete I casually mentioned to Megan that it was time for some diarrhoea. She looked non-plussed and slightly worried until I explained that I was referring to the fast pass we'd reserved earlier in the day for Pooh. The so-called fast queue stretched well beyond the designated area, resulting in a twenty minute wait. The root cause here was obviously the volume of issued passes, coupled with the fact that the operators were running with a slightly more sensible ratio of eight to one rather than the twenty to one we'd seen earlier. The ride was definitely worth the repeat, not least because we saw several details we'd missed the first time round, notably a sign for the "sticky place" (the mind boggles).

We followed this up with Pinocchio's Daring Journey, a short and dated dark ride that scarcely justified the ten minutes we waited for it. The sets were bright and colourful, particularly as we passed through Pleasure Island, but the presentation lacked the level of detail seen on newer dark rides and the motion effects were quite limited. The cars moved around the track more quickly than I'd have liked, making it hard to take everything in, and there was no efficiency gain in that as we ended up stacked behind five other cars in a queue for the unload platform.

My favourite attraction of the day by some margin was Haunted Mansion: Holiday Nightmare, a seasonal overlay of the standard Haunted Mansion featuring characters from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas that the park operates annually from September to December. The changes include a new soundtrack, changed visual effects, and hundreds of new props including wrapped presents, pumpkins, santa hats, and holiday lights. The underlying attraction is still recognisable to Disney regulars, but one has to look closely; for the average punter it is essentially a completely different experience. I've since learned that the alterations were originally designed as a retrofit for the similar ride at Disneyworld Magic Kingdom, but that management at the American park declined the installation for reasons best known to themselves.

By this point in the day we were pretty hungry, and decided to stop at the Crystal Palace self-service buffet. Normally this fact wouldn't feature in my diary, but I feel bound to chronicle the experience of getting a table for its sheer weirdness. The restaurant was not busy when we arrived, but despite the large number of empty tables we were told that we would need a reservation to be seated. We duly filled in the requisite paperwork, giggled at the transposition of the letter 'r' with 'l' in my surname, and sat down in a waiting area inside the restaurant. Less than thirty seconds later our table magically became available. Our meals cost ¥3090 (~€23) per person, which was more than I'd have liked to pay, though on the plus side the quality and selection of dishes on offer was excellent.

Crystal Palace

Our next stop was at Pirates of the Caribbean, modified/upgraded (opinions vary!) for the 2007 season with lifelike animatronic versions of Jack Sparrow as portrayed in the various movies. The ride is for the most part a gentle float that lasts roughly eleven minutes from start to end, though there is a token splashdown near the beginning shortly after the boats pass by the Blue Bayou restaurant (which is apparently superb, but the reservation system is only available in Japanese). The standard of presentation on the ride was extremely impressive, to the point that I was astonished to discover that almost all of the hardware dates from when the park first opened in 1983.

Our second ride on Space Mountain was a somewhat happier experience thanks to the fast pass line, though it's worth noting that we still had to wait twenty minutes to board. The coaster gods were apparently smiling on us as we were assigned to a front seat, and from that location the experience was in a completely different league to the lacklustre back seat from earlier in the day. The already significant sense of speed was amplified by the rush of wind in my face, and both combined to make the lack of onboard audio at least marginally less noticeable. The installation of a few planets and a sound system would still be a significant (and cheap) way to make the ride better; perhaps that will be done at some stage.

One of the nice things about the Tokyo Disney Resort is that park management are willing to invest in new attractions instead of building clones of those that exist elsewhere in the chain. Monsters Inc: Ride and Go Seek is a variant of a target shooting ride that replaces guns (and turkey callers) with torches that guests can use to illuminate targets. There is no scoring, but an animatronic moves each time a target is lit successfully. The ride design is exclusive to Tokyo as of this writing; the Monsters Inc dark ride at Disney's California Adventure is a much simpler affair that was retrofitted onto the old Superstar Limo attraction.

The only attraction in the park with a single rider queue as of this writing is Splash Mountain, and it's well hidden; the only mention of it is a small footnote in the park brochure. Would-be guests can access it via the regular fast pass queue, and it's well worth doing; the standby wait time when we approached was in excess of two hours, yet the wait time for single riders was as near as matters zero. We were on board (in separate boats) in under five minutes including the walk through the lengthy queue, and we'd have waited even less if the cast member assigning seats had been less distracted. The ride featured a lengthy enclosed section full of high quality animatronics, making it well worth the effort. Readers should be aware however that the splashdown section delivers a lot of water to the boat by local standards; a poncho is recommended for those riding after sundown.

In the interests of completeness we decided to join the three quarter hour queue for Peter Pan's Flight, the wait being primarily because the ride has relatively low capacity by Disney standards. The park's only suspended dark ride passes through the Darling family residence, out a window, and above an imagined version of London decorated with Big Ben and the tower bridge. The rest of the journey takes place around a colourful version of Neverland that is very similar to the version found at the Disneyworld Magic Kingdom, though the installation here features a range of special effects and upgraded scenes that were added at the start of 2016.

Snow White

There was a more manageable fifteen minute wait for Snow White's Adventures, an unusually dark attraction where the wicked queen and poisoned apple take prominence among a collection of skeletons, bats, and vicious looking trees. There were two brief moments of colour along the route where the seven dwarfs put in an appearance, but these were the only places I'd describe as suitable for younger children; the rest was definitely aimed at a mature audience. (It's interesting to note that a virtually identical attraction at Disneyland is called Snow White's Scary Adventures; why the adjective was removed in Japan is anyone's guess).

There was no wait at all at Mickey's Philharmagic, a multi-dimensional cinema attraction that I'd argue to be one of the finest of the genre I've come across in my travels. The show comprised a few well known Disney tracks performed by a virtual orchestra, including I Just Can't Wait To Be King, A Whole New World, Part Of Your World, You Can Fly, and Be Our Guest, with the footage accompanied by a wide variety of effects. Water sprays and wind effects were similar to those seen elsewhere, but there was also a smell effect at one point and an effective physical rendition of Donald Duck hitting the back wall of the auditorium at the end of the show.

We took a second pass through the Haunted Mansion: Holiday Nightmare and a quick snack break before settling down to watch Tokyo Disneyland Electrical Parade: DreamLights, a twenty-five minute long performance consisting of brightly lit floats working their way through the park. Some well known characters were rendered in lights, while others were handled by western actors in elaborate costumes whose job seemed to consist entirely of smiling, waving, and uttering platitudes such as how lovely to see you all, are we having a good time, and isn't this fun. Though pretty at first the novelty of the show had worn off by the time the last float passed by, negating any enthusiasm I might otherwise have had on seeing the rather stark and cheap-looking Presented by Unisys banner.

Our last ride for the day, accessed via fast pass, was Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, a shooting dark ride with four different points levels depending on the colour of the individual targets. Luck was on my side for once in that I managed to hit a few of the really high value ones, outscoring the normally superior Megan by a factor of ten to one. The queue time tripled in the few short minutes we were inside, apparently because most of those watching the parade decided to head to the nearest ride; those retracing our steps might want to bear this in mind.

By this stage we were tired and ready to leave, but decided to hang on for a few minutes to watch the park's fireworks display. We were able to lay claim to a spot directly in front of Cinderella's Castle, which I thought would be ideal for photographs. There were indeed some nice shots to be had, though the ones that came out were predominantly due to luck as the launch point was from the left hand side of the park close to Splash Mountain. It was only afterwards that the reason for this became clear; the show is shared with nearby Tokyo DisneySea and needs to be clearly visible from both parks. (Those on a budget can likely also get a good view from nearby Wakasu Seaside Park, which has a clear view of the Disney resort from across the bay).

Castle