Welcome to Tokyo's DisneySea!

Welcome to Tokyos DisneySea!

If you think you know all about Disney's theme parks after visiting Paris or Orlando, think again



By Christian Sylt

Published: Fri 30 Jun 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 30 Jun 2017, 2:00 AM

The setting couldn't get much more formal. Having stepped through an ornate wooden doorway, I find myself in a lobby with a gleaming marble floor and a sweeping staircase ahead of me. There's a vaulted ceiling with paintings of pioneering American scenes encircling it. Smartly dressed middle-aged couples surround me as I climb the stairs and head into a cavernous concert hall. It may sound like a regular trip to the theatre but it's actually far from it.
An usher leads me to a plush seat where I can take it all in: the gold fittings on the teak walls, the intricate images of clouds carved into the arch around the stage and the red velvet curtains which hang in front of it. As the lights go down, there isn't a murmur as a full-size jazz band, dinner jackets and all, starts to play.
It is followed by a tap dancing set-piece and some belting trumpet numbers. Then comes the finale: a drum solo which gets the biggest cheer but not because it's well played. There's no doubt it's impressive. Indeed, it wouldn't sound out of place headlining London's famed Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club or a Broadway musical. However, this one has an unexpected twist as the drums are played by none other than Mickey Mouse.
The show is called Big Band Beat and its home is the Tokyo
DisneySea theme park in Japan. It is no exaggeration to say that DisneySea is unlike any other theme park in the world and the jazz show is just the start.
Anyone who says Disney parks are all the same and are only aimed at children clearly hasn't been to the Tokyo outpost. Located just over 10 miles from the centre of Japan's capital, the resort comprises two parks - DisneySea and its more traditional, fairytale-inspired neighbour Tokyo Disneyland. At most Disney resorts, the must-see park has a centrepiece castle and cuddly characters roaming around. Not here.
DisneySea is the only Disney park which is themed to water and it is split into seven ports surrounding a giant lagoon. There's the American Waterfront, which is home to Big Band Beat, the Arabian Coast, the Aztec-themed Lost River Delta, Mermaid Lagoon, Mysterious Island, Port Discovery and Mediterranean Harbour which merges into the park's entrance. The attention to detail is staggering.
The first clue that DisneySea is not your average park comes long before you set foot in it. There's no neon sign hanging above the entrance and not a hint of any mouse ears. In fact, the front door is hard to find as it's so well themed.
It is hidden under a crescent of crumbling rustic houses, which look like they have been uprooted from downtown Florence or Naples. The apartment blocks are different heights and different types of bricks appear to have been used to build them. Some windows have been bricked up, rust seems to have stained the walls around drain pipes whilst elsewhere, the paint has cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath. It's unlike the entrance to any other Disney park and it sets the scene perfectly.
The effects are all deliberate and designed to give the impression that guests have been transported to an Italian coastal town. As you walk underneath the row of houses, there's an even bigger surprise. Looking up, you find a huge domed stone ceiling, the likes of which is usually reserved for monasteries, complete with stained glass windows and iron chandeliers hanging from it.
Then, comes the big reveal.Passing through the park gates you suddenly find yourself on a sprawling Venetian piazza with an open air café to the right, a gelateria on the left, an aqueduct in the distance and a network of canals weaving around it with gondolas gliding along them.
Other theme parks and hotels have had a go at replicating Italy but none comes close to this level of detail. The piazza is lined with the same buildings which form the entrance but on this side they are painted in the faded pastel shades common in Venice. They have traditional terracotta roof tiles and street names on the corners of the walls. The balconies have ornate iron railings; trellises hang from terraces; windows have colourful canopies above them; and people even peer through the curtains. No, they're not extras or animatronics but guests as the entire entranceway is actually an opulent hotel called the Miracosta - the only one in the world which is inside a Disney theme park.
When most theme parks and hotels copy cities or countries, the end result tends to look squeaky-clean. What makes DisneySea so uncannily convincing is that it appears to have been weathered and worn in over decades despite actually opening in 2001. Windows don't just have wooden shutters, the paint looks like it is cracking off them. Posters appear to be peeling off the walls and the round-trip gondola ride reveals that there is even exposed brickwork underneath the bridges.
Testimony to this authenticity, I couldn't help but smile as I tweeted photos of myself in the park only for friends to reply that they hoped I was enjoying Italy. It might seem more logical to visit the actual country but part of the fascination of DisneySea is that it is a man-made wonder.
By the end of my first afternoon, I had the surprising realisation that I hadn't been on any rides yet as I had spent so much time taking in the atmosphere. You really could while days away doing just that but the rides are just as impressive as the scenery.
DisneySea is cleverly designed on different levels to maximise the use of space - which is at a premium in Tokyo. So it is crammed with rides and they can be split into two categories. The first are the pick of the flagships from other Disney parks.
You're in luck if you're a fan of Toy Story Mania where you fire virtual projectiles at 3D screens. There's also an elaborate edition of the Tower of Terror indoor drop ride and an ingenious Indiana Jones simulator, which races through a ruined Aztec temple. It uses every trick in the book to thrill from projections on the wall simulating a swarm of beetles to carefully-timed blasts of air which give the impression that darts are whizzing over your head.
The rest of the rides are unique to DisneySea and the highlights have the more adult theme of Jules Verne. They are hidden underneath a 189 feet-high volcano in the middle of the park which spews huge fireballs with a roar so loud it sounds like a plane taking off.
There's an ingenious 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea ride which tours past shadowy shipwreck sets that can be illuminated with a moveable torch. It is all viewed through double-glazed screens which have water and bubbles in between them to make it look like the sets are submerged.
DisneySea's star attraction is Journey to the Centre of the Earth, an indoor roller coaster which culminates in the car being fired out the side of the volcano. Its speed varies from slowly passing what appear to be underground gems to revving up after a close call with an eerily-realistic lightning strike.
Surprisingly, the volcano doesn't look out of place and not just because Italy is famous for them. Blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, Disney has planted a range of exotic shrubs on the mountainside with both figs and rosemary were spotted (and smelled!) on my visit. The most you can usually hope for from a theme park is to feel like you're on a film set but the details at DisneySea give it an air of permanence and solidity. It's far from toytown.
At the foot of the volcano is a full-size Renaissance fortress filled with models of machines made by Leonardo da Vinci, a working planetarium and more obscure devices like a giant pendulum surrounded by a circle of pegs which each get knocked down with every swing to show the rotation of the earth.
Sometimes I felt like I should have dressed for the occasion. Of course, there are hordes of Japanese girls with pig tails in princess outfits but DisneySea is also a magnet for elderly couples with women dressed in designer dresses and men wearing linen suits.
Last year, DisneySea had an estimated 13.5 million visitors and, ironically, its popularity is the park's only downside as you have to queue for everything from rides and restaurants to bathrooms and vending machines.
Queuing appears to be a national past time in Japan with lines for the most popular attractions stretching for more than three hours on busier days. It's common to see queues snaking around buildings and find them ending in a popcorn cart. The Japanese have an obsession with popcorn and park maps list the exotic flavours on sale from cappuccino and chocolate to black pepper. The smells waft through the air and even they have been carefully chosen with the most memorable being the curry common in the Indian-themed Arabian Coast.
DisneySea and the neighbouring Tokyo Disneyland are so popular that they have a seating system unlike any other at a Disney park. Park tickets give access to all attractions but you need a seat if you want to guarantee attendance at some of the big name shows, like Big Band Beat. Inserting park tickets into 'biglietteria' machines near the piazza enters you into a lottery with the prize being seats at a show. It's best to enter the lottery when you arrive at the park as all of the seats often get snapped up before midday.
Although Japan is renowned for technology, Tokyo is also one of Disney's only resorts which lacks in-park wifi. And unlike Disney parks in the US and Paris, where you can usually 'hop' from one park to the other, you need to pick which park you want to visit first when you buy a multi-day ticket for Tokyo.
Surprisingly, language isn't a hurdle as many staff speak English, many rides are partially in English and park maps and signs are in English too. There's no need for a Japanese phrasebook to get around either as signs and ticket machines on Japan's spotlessly-clean Metro are all in English. The monorail at Tokyo Disney is part of the metro so it can take you right to the park gates.
Two weeks is the best way to make the most of a trip to Japan. The futuristic sights, sounds and shopping in downtown Tokyo can easily fill one week with the delights of Disney taking up the other. After four days of walking around DisneySea, I was still finding hidden gems including a full-size reproduction of a Cape Cod seaside town. Real life Italy can't match that.  
wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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