it’s weird that an American would go to a Disney theme park while in Japan, well, clearly you’ve never heard of Tokyo DisneySea. Often called the most beautiful theme park in the world, DisneySea is what happens when you give Disney Imagineers an unheard-of budget and the freedom to create their most ornate designs. With “ports of call” based on Venice, turn-of-the-20th-century New York, a harbor town from 1001 Arabian Nights, an overgrown Mesoamerican river, and more, it features some of the most detailed and immersive spaces in any Disney park. Its centerpiece, Mysterious Island, which is set inside a volcano and themed around the work of Jules Verne, raised the stakes for what we could expect from a theme park. DisneySea is a must-visit for any fanatic Disney parks lover.
Even if you don’t really care about environments or theming, and just dig the rides, you’ll probably want to make time for DisneySea if you ever find yourself in Tokyo. It’s full of exclusive, one-of-a-kind attractions, and even the ones that might sound familiar, like Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones Adventure, are significantly different from their American counterparts. It’s a gorgeous, unique park that should restore at least a little bit of love in even the most jaded and jilted Disney diehard, and if you ever find yourself there, here’s what you should prioritize.
This is literally just a gondola ride, although it goes through some beautiful scenery. You’ll float through the beautifully designed Venetian canals and into the park’s Mediterranean Harbor, seeing some of the best designed parts of the park. If you’re looking for a tranquil, relaxing ride that will keep you off your feet for a while, that can also be ridden by almost anybody, you should set aside 15 minutes or so for the Venetian Gondolas.
Despite the name, and despite looking kind of like bumper boats, you will not get wet on Aquatopia. This quick, minor diversion has a bit of a reputation among American Disney fans, because it’s exclusively found at DisneySea and is one of only a few Disney rides to use a trackless local positional system. That means it doesn’t rely on the kind of rails found on almost every other Disney ride, which means the route your vehicle takes will be unpredictable. Aquatopia’s boats glide and spin through a very shallow pond, skirting past waterfalls and whirlpools, and constantly turning or twirling at unexpected moments. If it’s your first time on an LPS ride you’ll probably be impressed; if you know what to expect, it’ll just be a quick, amusing, kind of aimless spin. It’s worth riding at least once, and the line never really gets that long, so it’ll be easy to squeeze in, even if you’re only at DisneySea for one day.
From a pure thrills perspective, this is a perfectly acceptable roller coaster, and despite its short length, one of the more intense Disney ones, with a full loop included. The Incan temple that surrounds the ride, based loosely on The Emperor’s New Groove, is a well-designed structure, and although there’s some thematic interaction, including steam and fire effects, the environment isn’t as detailed or immersive as most major Disney coasters, which makes it feel a little lacking. It’s a fine thrill for coaster fans, but it’s not an experience in the way the best Disney rides are.
Currently the most popular ride at DisneySea, this is pretty much the same as Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You’ll ride through a series of short midway-style mini-games themed to different Toy Story characters, using a small cannon on the front of your vehicle to shoot at various targets. It definitely has that Toy Story charm, and kids love it, but despite its popularity it just doesn’t feel like a classic Disney ride. It’s a fine way to spend five minutes, though, especially with family or friends, assuming you don’t have to wait in line for an hour and a half first.
I still mourn the old Magic Kingdom ride, which was one of my favorites during our yearly visits throughout the 1980s. DisneySea’s is based on the same concept, but it is a very different ride. You don’t climb down into any submarines and there’s not actually any water involved at all. The smaller ride vehicles seat about six people, with three large windows giving them all front-row views into an underwater world. The vehicles glide slowly through the dark ride on an overhead rail, surrounded by odd flora and fauna, an ornery giant squid, and, eventually, the ruins of Atlantis. It doesn’t have that illusion of actually going underwater that the Disney World original had (a trick I fell for until I was way too old), but it captures the sense of discovery that made that ride one of my favorites.
Walk-through attractions don’t usually get the same love and hype as rides, but Fortress Explorations is a must-see for any DisneySea visitor. Themed as a secret Renaissance-era headquarters for S.E.A. (AKA the Society for Explorers and Adventurers, a fictional secret society that factors into the backstory of various attractions throughout DisneySea and other Disney parks), it features about ten interactive exhibits spread throughout a seaside fortress, with a galleon that you can explore docked nearby. It includes a clockwork planetarium, with planets that can be rotated by turning a crank, and a flat-earth map with boats that you can move around. There’s a camera obscura, an alchemist’s lab, and even a recreation of da Vinci’s flying machine overlooking the sea. You can also fire off cannons or just explore the insides of the sailing ship. Everything is themed meticulously to look like something that possibly could have existed 500 years ago. It’s not hard to see da Vinci himself tinkering around, or Albertus Magnus transmuting some base metals in the alchemy lab. It’s a vibrantly realized art installation that you can completely lose yourself in.
Although it uses the same type of ride system, with a jeep-style vehicle that speeds up and slows down suddenly, rocking and bucking in a way reminiscent to a real off-road vehicle, and repeats some of the same scenes, this isn’t completely a duplicate of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride. It’s incredibly similar, and has that same charge of excitement as you speed through an ancient temple full of the kind of perils found in the films, but the storyline is different (despite the name, it’s not really based on the fourth film) and a few show elements are swapped out for new scenarios. What sets Tokyo’s apart is the queue. Disneyland’s queue is no slouch—it might be the best in the park, with dark, overgrown corridors and various show pieces selling the illusion. DisneySea takes it to a new level, though, with the line snaking through the heart of a multi-level temple with realistically faded paintings on the wall and elaborate statue work. It feels like an expensive film set and not a theme park line. And you can still experience the entire display even if you take the single rider line, which almost always saves you a lot of time. This is one of the few rides at Tokyo Disney with a single rider line, and it was almost entirely empty the three times I went through it. As fun as the ride itself is, Temple of the Crystal Skull shows how important design and theming is to the overall experience.
If Disney is desperate to drop The Twilight Zone branding from its American towers, they only need to look to Tokyo for a fine replacement. (It’s too late for Anaheim’s tower, of course.) The Japanese version cuts out Rod Serling and his show entirely, instead focusing on a turn of the century American adventurer (and pilferer of exotic antiquities) named Harrison Hightower III. Hightower looted the globe throughout the latter decades of the 19th century, stockpiling ancient treasures and religious icons in his opulent hotel in New York City. His last find, an African idol known as Shiriki Utundu, carried a curse that Hightower scoffed at. If you’ve ever ridden a Tower of Terror ride, you can probably guess how that curse turned out for old Harrison. This version is mechanically the same as the Tower of Terror that’s about to be rethemed to a Guardians of the Galaxy ride at California Adventure in Anaheim. It’s not as long or as elaborate as the original in Orlando, which knocks it down just a bit as a ride experience. The new theme is vividly realized, though, with the design of the lobby and waiting rooms full of Victorian splendor. Instead of the boiler rooms you have to wait in at the Anaheim version, you’ll queue up in the storage room where Hightower keeps all of his purloined artifacts, which greatly enhances the overall atmosphere. And then the actual drops themselves generally follow the pattern of the Anaheim version, with a few adjustments. I rode the two about ten days apart from each other, and although the actual ride is essentially the same, the Tokyo version has a more interesting story and theme.
I like dark rides. Yeah, I’m into the faster, more thrilling stuff too, but you need a balance and you need rides for all ages, and Disney gets that better than any other theme park company. If Sindbad’s Storybook Village, another DisneySea exclusive, was found in Disneyland or Magic Kingdom, it’d probably be about as beloved as Pirates of the Caribbean or It’s a Small World. (C’mon, the people who love Small World really love it, and even if you hate it you have to admit it’s a legit Disney classic.) Sindbad’s Storybook Village is a slow boat ride through a series of vignettes from the legendary adventures of the Arabic sailor, with a ton of charming audio-animatronics singing the original Alan Menken song “Compass of Your Heart” throughout. It has a unique, cartoonish art style that sets it apart from any other Disney ride, and the way the song flows seamlessly from verse to bridge to chorus as you slowly float from room to room is an impressive feat in audio design. Most scenes are packed so full of detail that it’ll take multiple rides to take it all in—I rode it four times over two days and was still noticing new elements on my last trip. I’m sure there’s still more that I failed to pick up on. It also features a memorably fantastic audio-animatronic of a giant, who plays a musical duet with Sindbad after scaring away some bad guys. (The story takes a lot of liberties with the source material.) It’s the kind of ride that Disney does better than anybody: it’s overwhelming in its details, and stirring in its presentation. Plus Sindbad’s pet tiger cub, Chandu, is so adorable that I kind of wanted to bring him home with me.
The most striking landmark in DisneySea is Mount Prometheus, the volcano in which you’ll find the port-of-call known as Mysterious Island. Themed after the 19th century sci-fi of Jules Verne, Mysterious Island is the exclusive home of one of the greatest Disney rides ever made. Journey to the Center of the Earth is a rousing thrill ride that takes you deep into the volcano before blasting you out of the side and briefly exposing you to the open air. It uses technology similar to Radiator Springs Racers in California Adventure and Test Track in Epcot, but has an elaborate queue and pre-show that’s as vital to the overall experience as the ride itself. You’ll really feel like you’re exploring a Victorian-era laboratory while waiting in line. Before boarding your vehicle you have to take a “Terravator” a half mile into the Earth; it’s another entry in Disney’s legacy of stylized elevators that are more for show than actually transporting you anywhere. It’s the kind of thematic touch you expect from Disney Imagineering when they have the budget to fully realize their vision. Once you’re at the base station you climb aboard your vehicle, which looks like a metal capsule with a sloping, pointed front, and start off on a tranquil trip through the Earth’s crust, with a display of lights, rock formations and animatronic creatures that look like nothing on the surface. Of course it doesn’t stay quiet: an earthquake knocks you off course, you almost get struck by lightning near an underground sea, and after coming face to face with a giant lava monster your vehicle suddenly rockets forward and erupts out of the side of Mount Prometheus. The ride itself is short, and its extreme popularity insures hour-plus lines from open to close, but if you can get to the park at opening or make smart use of Fast Pass you can probably squeeze in two or three rides without having to wait too long. It seems unlikely to come to any of the American Disney parks any time soon, so you should experience this one as much as you can during your Japanese trip.
Also check out our guide to the best attractions at the Magic Kingdom.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.