Tokyo Disney: You May Get Wet

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The Oriental Hotel Tokyo Bay is a "Good Neighbor Hotel", meaning it's affiliated with the resort but not actually part of it, thus not feeling obligated to charge resort hotel prices, though the other Good Neighbor Hotels in the immediate vicinity do. At $140 per night, it was an absolute bargain for the area. For that, we had a one-stop ride to Maihama, or, alternatively, a free shuttle directly to either park. The hotel contains a total of five restaurants of varying cuisine; we mostly ate at the Grand Cinq, its Western-oriented buffet restaurant. (But featuring local drinks. If there is one edible thing I wish I could find here in the US that I encountered on this trip, it.s the melon-flavored Fanta.)

At the lobby level, being a Disney-area hotel, it had not one but two stores selling mostly Disney souvenirs. And then there was the most unexpected amenity, Lawson. This was a 24/7 convenience store, right there in the hotel. This was our source for afternoon sandwiches and rice balls, and the all-important bottles of Pocari Sweat.

If this is sounding like the perfect balance of convenience and relative affordability, let me give you the catch: This is a Japanese-oriented hotel. The staff speaks an absolute minimum of English. The hotel shuttle schedule, the labels at the buffet, everything like that is in Japanese only. I had to make our reservation through a Japanese-language Web site. I would stay there again in a heartbeat, but you absolutely have to have some basic familiarity with the language or you will be lost.

In fact, around this time, I was starting to feel more like we were really in Japan on our own than I had in Yokohama. From the time we left Yokohama Station to when we arrived back at Narita Airport, we barely heard a word of English and saw no other obvious Westerners. I'm sure we weren't the only foreigners at the Disney resort-- it's clear they get a lot of visitors from mainland Asia-- but for all we knew, we were the only Westerners in the whole place.

This gave me a little, but just a little, more chance to actually use Japanese. By far the most useful phrase I knew was "F'tari des'," which was how to tell the Cast Member asking how many people were in my party that there two of us.

That evening, I made a quick excursion via the hotel shuttle to get tickets. Tokyo Disney has an interesting ticket structure: no matter how many days on your ticket, you have to pick a specific park for each of the first two days, and then can visit either park at will for the remaining time.

Tuesday, bright and early, we had a solid breakfast, then headed out to DisneySea. As it happened-- the reason we picked this park to go to first-- it was the 6th anniversary of its opening. Just past the gates, Cast Members were handing out commemorative clips to everyone. I stuck mine on the belt of my beltpack, and I'm not sure I'll ever get it loose again.

Everything you've heard about DisneySea is true. It is gorgeous, exotic, beautifully detailed, imaginative, magical, absolutely spectacular. Oriental Land Co. has out-Disneyed Disney, especially considering what Disney was building at the same time was Disney's California Adventure.

The first few minutes we spent generally gawking at the scenery as we walked to the center of the park, where Mount Prometheus, a huge, partially operational volcano, encloses the Mysterious Island, after the Verne work of the same name.

First thing I rode was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I'd been eagerly anticipating for months. The scenery in the first part of the ride was fairly nifty, and the negative gees right toward the end will give your thrill-seekers something to compensate for the wait, but the really overriding memory I have is how loud it was. I mean, LOUD. I mean, you may think they have pumped up the volume at the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, but that is absolutely nothing compared to the pure shrieking decibels that this ride can put out.

Next we crossed the island for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is nothing like either the book or the other Disney submarine rides. The submarines hold 6 people each and are suspended from an overhead track. The ride rooms are actually dry, with water effects being produced by the windows of the subs.

Next we went to Fortress Explorations, which is a walkthrough of a vaguely Renaissance-style castle intended to be the fantastical residence of Leonardo da Vinci. There you can view a Foucault pendulum, learn a bit about European alchemy, play with an ornithopter, and engage in other low-intensity amusements. Here I got the funniest picture of the trip: a sign reading CAMERA OBSCURA, and another sign just below it, showing a crossed-out camera. I think they just meant no picture-taking...

From the battlements, we watched "Chip 'n' Dale's Cool Service". There may be a plot to it, but the basic idea is that people crowd the shoreline of the Mediterranean Harbor area, and two boats with high-pressure pumps on board combine to absolutely drench everyone. 10:30 in the morning may seem early, but it was getting awfully warm for the humidity already, and we stopped for lemonade before pushing onward.

We passed by the kiddie rides of Mermaid Lagoon and crossed to the Arabian Coast to try out the Caravan Carousel, which is no different from your typical merry-go-round, except for having a second floor, and, like everything else in the park, being a work of art. Then it was over to what would be my favorite ride.

Sindbad's Storybook Voyage is the Small World equivalent of DisneySea. It's an indoor boat ride with an inspirational song that will remain stuck in your head for months afterward. The story hits the familiar highlights: Sindbad (who looks suspiciously Japanese for a guy from the Indus Valley) sets out from his homeland with his mini-tiger sidekick in search of adventure, encounters pirates and the roc, frees a giant, hangs out with a sultan, visits a kingdom of monkeys, rides a whale, and returns home fabulously wealthy. This ride just opened in March with the latest animatronic technology, which has terrifically fluid and detailed movement.

Next around the corner was the Lost River Delta area, which is themed to Mesoamerica. Remember what I said about important signs including a translation in English? Well, just the make the theming complete, in this area they're translated into Spanish instead. (In the Mediterranean Harbor area, we would later notice, they're in Italian.) Luckily, if you make it this far, you will have already discovered that the Japanese characters for "entrance" and "exit" are easy to memorize.

Lost River Delta is the home of DisneySea's port of the Indiana Jones Adventure, which is why the short film introducing you to the ride is narrated not by Salah but by a guy named Paco, who wishes you bienvenidos ahora as you move onward. The ride itself is exactly the same, and after Journey to the Center of the Earth, the noise level is almost comfortable.

It was now getting very hot indeed, and we decided to head back toward the entrance on the DisneySea Transit Steamer Line, which circles the park like the railroad does at Disneyland, except you have to disembark at whatever the next stop is and re-embark to continue on.

At the Mediterranean Harbor, we wandered through the shops to catch some air conditioning, and I pondered aloud whether we should do a full circle of the park by boat, or catch another ride or two in the immediate vicinity, or maybe just mosey back toward the hotel now. Chris was noncommittal, but after some prodding I finally got an opinion out of him.

"I want to go home," he said.

Come to think of it, he'd hardly said anything lately, his expression was not one of anyone having the remotest amount of fun, and he was looking several shades paler than usual.

"We're going back to the hotel," I said, suddenly working out that I was watching a live demonstration of heat stroke.

Right back we went, and while Chris collapsed on the bed with a bottle of Pocari Sweat, I managed a shower and determined that there was no way in hell the T-shirt I'd been wearing through the morning was coming near me again without a laundering it would never forget.

One long nap and a lot more rehydration later, we were ready to set out again after supper. For variety, we tried the Chinese buffet. The hostess at the front started to explain something to me in a concerned tone, and the part I managed to understand was that she was explaining it was an all-you-can-eat buffet, and was that all right? I said that daijōbu des', and that seemed to clear the way.

Here we encountered very genuine Chinese food, with such ingredients as soybeans in their natural state (a lot like lima beans, it turns out) and a seafood dish that appeared to include whole baby octopi. Here was another new Fanta flavor, lemon, which I also wish we could get in the US.

I planned to see how far I could get with chopsticks, then find a fork when I was forced to give up. But an alert waitress spotted that we were foreigners and brought us forks straight away, before we had even asked. And then, I made it all the way to the Western-style dessert without using my fork. I don't know if it just seemed easier, or the genuineness of the food made it that much easier to handle with chopsticks.

Refreshed, we headed back to DisneySea. We strolled around the 1930s-ish New York section of American Harbor, admiring the scenery, then got on the DisneySea Electric Railway to Port Discovery, the futuristic area.

Our next ride was StormRider. This is a motion simulator like Star Tours, but with added effects. In the pre-show, you get a spiel about how you're going to ride along in an observation plane while the Port Discovery Institute deploys its sufficiently-advanced-technology storm dissipator. This of course goes horribly wrong, leading to the dissipator winding up stuck through the roof of the passenger cabin. After that you get rained on. It's also two or three times as loud as Star Tours.

The other ride at Port Discovery is Aquatopia, where you sit in a two-person vehicle that takes a seemingly random path around pond with weirdly lit random rocks and waterfalls. I'm not sure what the point is, if there is one, other than to admire how the ride doesn't have a track at all, just a floor, and yet the vehicles are very clear on where to go.

Back on the railway to American Waterfront. Chris wanted to see the queue area of the Tower of Terror, but I steered him away, knowing my Japanese vocabulary wasn't up to the task of explaining that we wanted to take the chicken exit, or whatever it's called there.

Besides, the evening show, BraviSEAmo, was coming up soon, and the Tower queue might take a while to get through, so we went next door to explore the steamship S.S. Columbia for a little bit, before heading back to the viewing area for the show. As we were walking along the along the railing of the uppermost deck, Mount Prometheus started belching fire. Flames cascaded down one side to the water, which erupted more fire itself. Then something started rising out of the fire there, and ominous music built, and-- hey! It was BraviSEAmo, starting way early!

We ran down the stairs and hustled over to the Mediterranean Harbor to catch the last flourish of lights and pyrotechnics, and a really good look at the dragon-thing that's the centerpiece of it all. The soundtrack concluded with the voice of Mickey Mouse saying, "Bravissimo!" Right after that was an announcement, first in Japanese, then English: "Ladies and gentlemen, due to weather conditions, this show was presented in an alternate form."

Mollified that we at least hadn't missed the full version, we started back toward the entrance, when the illusion of an Italian cityscape was broken by a good hard subtropical downpour. We finally had a use for the rented cellphones as we got separated in the stampede for cover.

The next day, going to Disneyland, we prepared for the heat. I carried a bag with a bottle of water and a bottle of Pocari Sweat for each of us, plus umbrellas in case of rain or extreme sun. We planned to be heading back out the entrance no later than 1pm. We could also take it easier for being in a park where a lot of the rides would be clones of the Disneyland versions, and thus not essential to ride.

The first order of business was to get FASTPASSes for Pooh's Hunny Hunt. This is a dark ride with no thrill-ride aspect at all, and yet it's the single most popular ride at Tokyo Disneyland. If you can't be first in line at the gates when the park opens and outrace the crowd to get there, FASTPASSes are a must.

With a couple hours before our FASTPASS window opened, we headed to the far corner of Critter Country to visit the Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes. Chris elected to remain on dry land with the bag.

Like at Disneyland, this ride involves sitting in real canoes and doing real paddling. It required more pre-clearance than any other ride in the resort. A Cast Member at the start of the queue inquired, "Do you speak English?" On getting a yes, he had me read a sheet of warnings, including that I should not ride this ride if pregnant, that no food or drink was allowed, and that I might get wet. At the other end, another CM asked in Japanese if I spoke Japanese, and I said s'koshi (a little), so he went through what I think was the exact same list of warnings in Japanese.

In the canoe, the atmosphere is much the same as in the Disneyland canoes, in that you get the impression that the CMs manning it are Jungle Cruise guides sentenced to hard labor. The CM at the head of the ship starts by greeting everyone, and you all shout back, "Konnichiwa!" I didn't understand much of the spiel after that, but the scenery was interesting and we got to see some local wildlife up close and personal, as sleeping ducks bobbed by just a foot or two away.

So it was all great fun until about halfway around, when suddenly there was a flash of chain lightning right across the sky and an almighty KERACKKK, and then the skies opened up. In a few seconds, we could not have been any wetter if we had been sitting in a shower.

Normally, I find it extremely irritating to be stuck in a ride vehicle with a bunch of shrieking teens or young women. However, I will grant that, this one time, the situation warranted some shrieking. The lightning was continuing sporadically, and it continued to pour, and here we were in a canoe out on open water.

I felt a more vague sort of dread myself, noting how close the top edge of the canoe was to the water, and thinking about the number of personal electronic devices I was carrying, including the rented cell phone. I really thought this might be where they would have us head to shore and get us back to the start of the ride via backstage, but no, we paddled furiously and got back to the landing the usual way.

Rendezvousing with Chris, I transferred my PDA, cell phone, and camera (all still working, thankfully) into the bag, on the premise that even if it had gotten damp as he ran for cover when the rain started, it was a hell of a lot less wet than I was. We squelched back to Fantasyland, where most of the ride queues had about tripled in size as people looked for somewhere to get under cover, so we went to see the Country Bears show. This was the summer vacation show from Disneyland, puzzlingly only partially dubbed into Japanese.

After that was the Mickey Mouse Revue, which was actually constructed for Disneyland in 1977 and shipped to Japan later. An animatronic orchestra conducted by Mickey Mouse plays while animatronic characters like Snow White, the Three Little Pigs, and the Three Caballeros perform songs from their films. As I am an animatronic and music fan, I think this was my favorite thing in this park. The pre-show is a film narrated by the soundtrack from Fantasia. No, I mean the character, not the actual soundtrack. Look, go watch Fantasia and you'll see what I mean.

By now the clouds had lifted and park maintenance was aggressively moving water off the walkways. The rain had done absolutely nothing to cool things down, so it was now as hot as the previous morning, and twice as steamy to boot.

It was about time to visit Winnie the Pooh now, and find out what the mysterious quality about it was that attracted the crowds. Remember Aquatopia? This used the same system-- no track, just a flat floor. The ride vehicles arrive in the boarding area in a line of three. They stay in line for a couple scenes, then group into a triangle to watch Tigger introduce himself. Then you go into a huge room containing the Hundred Acre Wood and your group of vehicles splits up, each taking its own meandering path through. They regroup for a bit, and then in the dream sequence, they not only split up again but start getting mixed in with other groups of vehicles. And all this is probably randomized to some degree, so that even if you started in the vehicle in the same position every time, you'd get a different view, and you have to ride several times to see everything.

So now I get it. Now I understand why people talk about this as the next generation of dark rides. Now I know why the traditional tracked version-- constructed at Disney's California Adventure after this version-- was taken as such an insult by fans in the know. Whoa.

After that, the rest of Fantasyland was a bit of a letdown. Peter Pan's Flight, Snow White's Adventures, and Pinocchio's Daring Journey are all exact replicas of the ones in Anaheim, except the lines move much faster, which turns out to be because the rides run about half again as quickly in Japan. Dumbo and the Tea Party are clones as well, so we skipped them. Small World is largely the same, but more detailed in Oceania and less so in Europe.

The Haunted Mansion is an exact copy of the one at Disney World, which was just as well because, as the Web site had warned us, it was closed, denying Chris his favorite ride. We took a few minutes to look over the graveyard (all in English) and the appropriately sepulchral FASTPASS machines.

Heading around to Westernland, we made for the Western River Railroad but I had to stop at the wagon advertising chocolate popcorn. Thankfully the railroad has no restrictions on bringing food on board, so we munched dark-chocolate-drizzled popcorn while enjoying the views of Tom Sawyer Island and Big Thunder Mountain, with the unexpected bonus of a Primeval World replica.

By now it was definitely becoming time to head back to the hotel for a rest, but our route took us past Pirates of the Caribbean, which turned out to be another nearly exact replica. The differences are that there's only one drop, and you get out of the boat before it goes up the lift, and take a separate escalator.

We found time somewhere in the afternoon to ride a complete circle on the monorail. Under Japanese laws, it's treated as serious public transportation rather than an amusement park ride, which means it charges an actual fare. The interior looks like a cuteified version of the inside of a real short-distance train, complete with hanging straps, which end in Mickey-head-shaped handles. We had a nice view of the Pacific shoreline and of an absolutely gigantic construction project over by Disneyland.

We also visited Ikspiari, the on-site mall, where Chris had a long look around a store selling nothing but model cars, and I did the same at a model train store, but wound up just getting a mug and a coaster because I couldn't determine whether the trains would work with US electricity.

In the evening we visited Tomorrowland, which has a duplicate of Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, right down to the frustrating-to-aim guns; the Grand Circuit Raceway, which is an Autopia equivalent only louder; a Star Tours (closed, alas); a Space Mountain (40-minute wait and only I wanted to ride it, so we skipped it); and a Rocket Jets, up at the top of a tower like God intended. The Starcade is the exact opposite of the cutting-edge technology in Anaheim; instead, it's like a museum of first-generation arcade games.

We stopped here to watch their version of the Electrical Parade, which has some extra floats not seen in Anaheim and is, once again, much louder. After that we toured Toontown, which has all the same elements as in Anaheim, just reconfigured some, including a clone of the Roger Rabbit ride.

So that was it for Wednesday. Thursday, it was time to check out, but we didn't have to until noon, leaving us the option of forgetting about our plans for a little sightseeing in Tokyo or Narita and instead making one more trip into the parks. Chris really, really wanted to see the queue for the Tower of Terror. With another warning that I wouldn't be able to explain in Japanese that we didn't want to actually ride it, thence we went, and I am glad we did.

The setting for Tokyo's Tower of Terror is the Hightower Hotel in New York, built by an eponymous millionaire adventurer who is depicted in murals around the lobby proudly carting off various cultural artifacts while angry natives lurk in the background. Another wall holds the quotation, "The world is mine oyster which I with sword will open." The Latin on a crest further along translates to "The world is my oyster." You can probably see where this story is going.

You are ushered into a study by members of the New York Preservation Society, who explain how Hightower-sensei's last expedition brought back this idol here which represents the African spirit Shiriki Utundu. They then start a record which records the celebratory party, which suddenly disolves into shrieks of horror and evil laughter as the room goes dark. The idol's face lights up (no, literally) and a picture of the hotel at the back of the room switches to show an elevator rising to the top and then crashing to the ground. The idol's face is still glowing as it laughs, and then the lights come up and pow, the idol has evaporated. That is an effect I may need to see three or four more times before I work out exactly how they did it.

Onward to the elevator loading area, and it was time to find a CM and say we didn't want to ride, and hope they knew enough English. Luckily they did, and we were escorted out, and I said sumimasen to everyone involved, and we also got to see that all the back hallways are as well-themed as the front.

Once outside, I said that I might want to ride Journey to the Center of the Earth again, and Chris decided that he might put his distate for thrill rides aside and join me. We made to go through an area we hadn't seen up close yet, which was themed as a New England village, and across the way we spotted a sign reading LOVECRAFT BONDED WAREHOUSE.

Have I mentioned that Chris is a major H. P. Lovecraft fan? Straight to it we went, noting that most of the village was made to look well-kept-up, whereas the warehouse was weathered and dilapidated. Also it was #13. We were way beyond coincidence now; there was definitely a Lovecraft reader at Oriental Land Co. That was our Disney Moment.

Journey to the Center of the Earth presented Chris with another interesting queue to look at, but confirmed his opinion that thrill rides are no fun. And actually, for all that I was looking forward to it, I don't think I'll ride it ever again. It's just too damn loud to enjoy.

So we decided to finish off with one more trip with Sindbad, which was a great idea except it got the theme song stuck solidly in my head all the way back home.

We checked out, reversed course to Tokyo Station, made the long walk again, and tried out the regular train to Narita, which after the Narita Express seemed most notable for being slow. At Narita Airport, they still had not turned on the air conditioning. The G-Phone desk now had a poster up wishing farewell to Worldcon members.

The flight home was an hour and a half shorter, leaving Thursday evening and getting into Seattle Thursday morning. Then the turboprop again, then the taxi, and we could finally collapse in the throes of eastbound jet lag.

Looking back, the first thing I keep feeling is astonishment that I actually thought we could do this. I mean, reservations in a foreign language I only half-understand, hardly any English for three days, the strange food, the cramped spaces, everything. But I am of course immensely glad that we did.

Now, if I could just get that Sindbad song out of my head for a bit.

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