Most Americans know about Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but that’s about the extent of their Disney theme park knowledge. If you’re a fan of theme parks then you probably know about Disneyland Paris and a few will also know that there is a Tokyo Disneyland. More knowlegdable Disney fans know about Hong Kong and possibly the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland, but if you’re a avid or hard core Disney fan you know about the hidden jewel that sits next door to Tokyo Disneyland.
From the first guests stepping foot on to the World Bazaar (picture Main Street USA inside a glass building) during opening day in 1983, Tokyo Disneyland was an instant hit. The magic kingdom styled park has been the top or second highest attended park for years since opening. The introduction of a Second Gate on the newly expanded Tokyo Disney Resort (a huge addition of landfill in Tokyo Bay) divided the attendance, and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has retained the highest spot ever since. But the attendance at both parks in Tokyo is quite high compared to even other Disney Parks.
When the Oriental Land Company wanted to expand their park into a full fledged resort with Hotels and a second park to compliment Tokyo Disneyland the Walt Disney Company was happy to accommodate them. They first proposed a Tokyo version of the Florida MGM-Disney Studios. The CEO of the company, Michael Eisner, wanted to get the Japanese to agree to a clone of the movie park back in America (in addition to some backroom deal making to get more control by the Disney company), but the suits at OLC flatly rejected it. So the Imagineers went back to the drawing board and looked inside their vast collection of ideas and pulled out a concept that had been rejected in Long Beach earlier in the decade.
Port Disney. Or specifically, DisneySEA, which was the theme park within Port Disney. Port Disney was originally planned as a Disney property in Long Beach featuring five aquatic themed hotels, a shopping district, a huge parking structure and a ocean themed park. Picture what Disney’s Animal Kingdom is only with sea creatures and the Disney narrative of sea myths. Sadly, because of a growing mountain of bureaucratic red tape it died within a few years. The Imagineers at WDI pulled out these plans, revised them a bit and presented the designs to the Oriental Land Company as a new proposal for a second, complimentary theme park to what would become a resort. OLC loved the idea of a sea-themed group of attractions, drawing on an appeal to the Japanese people and their cultural history with the ocean.
Now some of you may ask why the company had to get the Japanese to agree to this plan. After all, it’s their parks and characters right? Well, without going too deep into it here, the parks in Japan are the only ones that the Walt Disney Company doesn’t own. They lease the characters and the rights to Oriental Land Company to build attractions based on them in return for a percentage of the gate (your ticket), the merchandise (those ears and shirt you’re wearing) and the food (that really expensive Coke and that bag of black peppered popcorn). The Mouse is also required to train all Cast Members, and the OLC is required to use Walt Disney Imagineering when designing anything for the park or resort.
Tokyo DisneySEA, the park that resulted from these meetings, opened on September 4, 2001 and would be a great contrast to the American park that opened in February earlier that year. While Disney’s California Adventure was a cookie cutter theme park with clone attractions and off-the-shelf rides, DisneySEA had all original rides seen nowhere in the world (an Indiana Jones clone was built as well as a much more detailed Jumpin’ Jellyfish). The parks were completely different in almost every aspect. From the cost: DCA $650 million ($750 million for Downtown Disney, a new hotel and refurbishment of two existing hotels), TDS $2.2 billion (not counting the many billions that went into the landfill, new shopping district and construction of two new hotels).
After it was all done Tokyo Disneyland had a stunning complimentary park to send guests to as an alternative that was a one of a kind. While Tokyo Disneyland had seven “lands” for guests to enjoy, Tokyo DisneySEA offered seven “ports” for guests to enjoy. The theme was exploration and adventure both in and around the high seas. Try imagining Adventureland, Frontierland and New Orleans Square all expanded out and aquatically themed. Sounds nice, huh? What exactly were these ports?
Well as I said there were seven of them and each had its own distinctive theming and narrative to explain what they were.
Mediterranean Harbor is the entry port to the park, much like Main Street USA is to Disneyland. The Italian architecture (think Venice with canals) leads you to a huge bay over which looms the active volcano Mount Prometheus.
Mysterious Island is essentially Jules Verne land. If you’ve seen 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, it’s designed like Captain Nemo’s secret island base. This area contains a Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction, a Nautilus parked in the island atoll, and is generally steampunk-themed—very late 1800s cool.
Port Discovery is an Art Deco aquatic version of Tomorrowland. It’s the smallest port, but an extremely fun area of what would a quasi-futuristic 1930s seaport. With an attraction called Aquatopia where you rider around whirlpools how could it not be fun?
What would a Disney park about the ocean be without a reference to the Little Mermaid? Mermaid Lagoon is an entire port designed around the classic Disney film in which you enter a full size version of King Triton’s Castle. This is the area mostly designed for children and those that are kids at heart.
The Arabian Coast port is Agrabah by the sea—Aladdin land, basically. It’s a lovely place right out of Disney’s version of 1001 Arabian Nights, complete with a double decker merry-go round inside a huge blue Arabian dome filled with Genies.
The American Waterfront is a turn of the century New York/Cape Cod with gothic buildings and structures that evoke what Big City America was like at the dawn of the twentieth century. And it includes the best Tower of Terror in any Disney Park.
The Lost River Delta is Indiana Jones land—a South American jungle area circa the 1930s/40s, complete with Aztec Ziggurats and archeological explorations for those that want an alternative to The Jungle Book. A Temple of the Crystal Skull seven years before the film (much better than the film, btw).
An experience in this place will leave your mind numb and make you more critical of the American parks. Trust me, you’ll need more than one day here because the first day you’ll be looking up at every detail with your tongue waging. If you’ve never gone to this park and you love Disney theme parks, or just love theme parks in general, go. You won’t be disappointed. It’s the most lovely and well thought out park I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of theme parks.
Speaking of which, if you’d like to know more about the history of the Oriental Land Company click here and here, and for the history of Port Disney/Tokyo DisneySEA just look here and here. These articles should give you a better insight into the rich history of Disney in Japan as well as lost parks that are lovingly remembered. The author of those articles sure sounds familiar… But seriously, if you’ve been planning a vacation down in Florida or out in California, maybe even a trip to Shanghai in a few years with all those pennies you’re saving in that jar—save them. If you’re going to Asia, skip Hong Kong and don’t wait for Shanghai. Stop over in Tokyo and take in the jewel that most people don’t know about, and you won’t be able to stop talking about.
Honor Hunter is a writer focusing on the entertainment business of film, TV, games and pop culture all around. The Mouse is his specialty, but not exclusively, as he posts about news, rumors and opinion of the world we all love to know.