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Theme park reader mailbag: Tokyo Disney and Universal Studios Singapore

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Published: December 13, 2011 at 3:24 PM
Thanks to everyone who emailed questions this week. Let's open up the mailbag!

Q: I'm sure nearly every U.S.-based Disney Park fan has wondered this at some point…is a trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort truly worth the logistical (language barriers, public transportation, etc.) and financial (airfare, hotels, etc.) hurdles it takes to get there? I am strongly considering a trip this upcoming May or June. I have been thinking this over for some time and I would like to know that it is something I should commit to doing as a lifelong Disney Park fan. - Tim

Minnie Mouse
Minnie Mouse welcomes you to Tokyo DisneySea.

A: Well, I went through the hassle and booked a trip, so I guess that's my answer there: Yes, it's worth it. Now if I weren't a Disney fan, but just someone who wanted to see a Disney theme park, I wouldn't go all the way to Japan just to do that - I'd pick the ones closest to home, despite all that's available in the Tokyo parks. But travel can be a huge reward in itself, and I think it's just neat to say that you've been someplace like Japan. Walking into the park on Sunday morning, I gotta admit, I got a little emotional as I said to myself, "Hey, this is Tokyo Disneyland!"

Q: Hi Robert! Thanks for the great pictures from your trip. Quick question - my husband wanted to surprise me with a trip to Tokyo Disneyland for my birthday but I suggested waiting a little longer for Japan to bounce back after the earthquake/tsunami because I'd also want to spend time exploring Japan. You chose to go now though - are things back to normal now or is it worth waiting? Thanks! - Pam

A: I saw no signs of the earthquake or tsunami while I was in Tokyo, beyond ever-present appeals to support charities trying to help people in the northern part of the country, which was devastated by flooding. So if you're planning to restrict your trip to the Tokyo area and parts south (including Universal Studios Japan in Osaka), I'd go now, before demand comes back and drives up prices even more.

Now if you really wanted to see the northern part of the country, or, say, take a tour of coastal nuclear power plants, yeah, then I'd wait a while before booking.

Q: I've always wondered about the makeup of the crowds in Asia. Do the parks tend to draw from local/regional residents, or are they mainly destination spots, drawing from afar? What would you estimate as the percentage of attendees that are coming from outside the host country? My other question: What's something that made you say to yourself, "WOW. This is NOT my usual Disney park..."? :) - KJ

A: During my day at Tokyo DisneySea, I counted two other groups of non-Asians. One was a group of friends in their 20s from Britain and the other was a family from Australia. (I saw them each at least a couple of times while walking around the park.) So, yeah, the Tokyo parks draw almost exclusively from Japan, with a few tourists from Korea thrown in. Universal Studios Singapore drew a more diverse crowd, including visitors from New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East and Britain, as well as multiple countries in Southeast Asia.

What stunned me most in Tokyo, in comparison with the US Disney parks, was the huge number of cast members working greeter positions. I counted nine people working greeter at the Haunted Mansion while I waited. And that wasn't because of some lightning-fast rotation. That was nine greeters at the same time. A kernel of popcorn couldn't fall to the ground before someone swooped in to grab it and throw it away. It was impossible to stand in front of an attraction at Tokyo Disney for even a moment without a cast member approaching to offer help. That doesn't happen nearly as consistently in the U.S. parks, and it's not because we have less friendly or less service-oriented cast members. We simply don't have as many cast members working here.

That's a general conclusion that I'd draw after visiting Japan and Singapore. It's so much easier for an employee to offer excellent service when that employee isn't burdened with having to do four people's jobs, like so many service industry employees do in the U.S.

Q: I understand that the Tokyo Disney parks are much more crowded than what we typically see in the Disney parks in the states. Are there strategies for touring the parks and avoiding the crowds? Or does one just have to give oneself extra days to visit the parks and see the highlights, or see the rides and attractions you want to see? Thanks - Michael

A: OMG, you thought getting to the park at opening was important in the U.S.? It is essential in Asia. Using my journalism school crowd-counting tricks, I estimated that there were about 9,000 people lined up at the front gates at Tokyo DisneySea when the park opened. On a Monday. In early December. I am not kidding. Nine thousand.

The day before, I wondered why all the FastPass machines at Tokyo Disneyland were closed at 11 am. At first, I thought that they must not offer FastPass during the "off" season. But then I saw people streaming into FastPass return lines. I still couldn't figure it out, though, because my brain couldn't wrap itself around the seemingly impossible idea that all the FastPasses were gone for the day. Still, the longest wait I had all day was 1 hour and 15 minutes for Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek (which I'll write about on Friday), so the park handles its crowds well. And I didn't wait longer than 30 minutes for anything at Tokyo DisneySea. I'll write more about strategies in the days to come.

Q: Robert, Did you find that the roof over World Bazaar detracted from the environment? I just figure that Disney works so hard to create complete and total environments that the roof might be a bit jarring compared to our Main Street USA's in the US parks. - Tom

A: It's definitely jarring because it's different. Ultimately, World Bazaar just felt claustrophobic to me - not a place that I wanted to spend much of my time. I'd love to hear what Sam Gennawey would have to say about the design of World Bazaar, because it didn't evoke the same comfortable feeling that I get when walking down Disneyland's Main Street USA. Maybe it was the roof. Maybe it was the oversized second-stories. Or maybe it was just the massive crowd.

Q: I have always heard that DisneySea is the best theme park in the world? Is this true? What makes it the best? From what I see as far as rides go, they don't have too much? I've seen pics from over there and the park looks beautiful, but is it worth the flight all the way over there? I've been to all of the major theme parks here in the United States and I'm thinking about traveling international for the first time. Would Disneyland Tokyo be a good first start going outside the U.S.? - Dustin

A: Tokyo DisneySea left me feeling awed and amazed… and then really hacked off. You mean we could have had this park in Long Beach? Sorry, but I have to go outside and scream now.

Okay, I'm back. Yeah, DisneySea leaves you feeling mad that Disney is capable of designing something this impressive, with attractions this fun, and instead we got Dinoland and the old California Adventure. Sheesh. I'll get into the detail of what makes the park great when we start Tokyo DisneySea week on December 26.

If I had to pick one place in Asia for a first visit outside the U.S., I'd go with Singapore over Tokyo for the ease of communication (English is the official language) and transportation (Changi is the best airport in the world, and many attractions are clustered within walking distance of one another throughout the city.) Now, if you're looking for adventure instead of ease of travel, that changes things a bit. But visiting any Disney or Universal theme park outside the U.S. should be a snap for an American familiar with the U.S. versions of those parks. (Buffeterias are wonderful in a foreign country, by the way. Just point at what you want. No need to say a word.)

Q: Hey Robert, Hope you had a great trip. How good is the Pooh ride at TDL as I've heard it is phenomenal. Does USS's Mummy ride and Jurassic Park ride match up to Orlando's? How do the themed lands(just the theme overall) in TDL compare to MK or the original DL? Thanks - David

A: The great regret of my trip was that Pooh's Hunny Hunt was down for refurbishment during my visit. So I didn't get to ride what consensus says is the best attraction at Tokyo Disneyland. As for the Singapore rides, I'll go into greater detail during Universal Studios Singapore week next week, but USS's Mummy is a much darker ride than then U.S. versions. (And Jurassic Park is down for an extended rebuild now, so I missed that one, too.)

Q: I have a 12-hour layover (landing to take off) in Hong Kong and want to see Disneyland. Do I have enough time to make it worth the trip and be back with enough time for my international flight back home? Can you give a quick rundown of how to get there (taxi vs public transport) and top things to see? We land at 6am and park typically opens at 10? So I might have time in the am to sit and eat breakfast and explore the hotels. Where do you suggest I eat Breakfast/lunch? Does anywhere have vegetarian food? Can't seem to find menus or photos of menus anywhere. Let me know if you can help! Thanks :) - Daniel

A: Assuming you have to be back at the airport two hours before departure, and that you lose a little less than an hour each way traveling between the airport and the park (the MTR trains runs from the airport to the park, with one change of train required - take it instead of a more-expensive taxi). That gives you about eight hours to enjoy Hong Kong Disneyland, assuming no hassles in immigration at the airport. If you want to go nuts, book the character breakfast at the Disneyland Hotel before the park opens, then go hit some favorites in the park before you have to catch your train back to the airport. And finding vegetarian options is easier in Asia than anywhere else in the world. Here's the restaurant page for the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. We definitely want to read a trip report if you pull off this one. Have fun!

If you still have questions, I'll still find an answer. Please send your questions about Tokyo Disney, Universal Singapore or theme park travel in general to themeparkinsider@gmail.com.

Readers' Opinions

From Stevo B on December 13, 2011 at 3:40 PM
Robert, I might have missed this somewhere in your updates but did you travel alone? And if so, how was it? I've often thought of going to both the Paris and Tokyo parks on my own.
From Robert Niles on December 13, 2011 at 3:57 PM
Yes, I did travel alone. I was around plenty of other people covering the Transformers opening in Singapore, so I never felt alone on that part of the trip. And I've done so many theme park trips by myself over the years that the Tokyo Disney leg felt perfectly normal, too.

Having a second helps with justifying the hotel costs, sure, but they were nothing compared with the airfare, in this case. ($1500 for LA->Singapore->Tokyo->LA)

From Stevo B on December 13, 2011 at 5:24 PM
Yes, I've priced it out and it isn't cheap. I've heard the language barrier is easy to navigate, did you have problems with it at the Tokyo park?
From Robert Niles on December 13, 2011 at 7:43 PM
No problems, but of course my trip would have been more rewarding had I been able to speak more Japanese. I missed the full experience at several attractions because I didn't know exactly what the characters were saying. (Though I always got the gist of it, and in a few cases knew the corresponding English dialogue by heart so I didn't miss a thing.)

There's a kind of cast member pantomime that I learned when I worked at Disney World and would try to get visitors from other countries to go where I needed them to be. In Japan, I just tried to plug into the other end of that, to communicate whatever I needed as a guest (which wasn't much - again, I know my way around a Disney theme park).

For the most part, though, you just go where the arms point, while smiling and nodding in return. When you want to order food, just point at what you want. At buffeterias and table service locations, that's easy enough. At counter service locations, a cast member would come through the line handing small paper menus to each person. I'd just select what I wanted on that menu (which was written in both Japanese and English) and point it out to the person taking the order. (While saying "Arigato," when they rung it up correctly.) This practice is all sorts of awesome and I wish Disney would do this during the high season at Walt Disney World, too.

So even though I met only two cast members who spoke English to me while I was there, I didn't have any problem communicating (with one exception that I'll get to during Tokyo DisneySea week, and that one totally was my fault).

As far as accommodations, I stayed at the Hilton, which has enough bilingual staff to address any issue you might have. And English is the international language of aviation, so there were no problems whatsoever at the airport.

The biggest problem I faced was making Priority Seating reservations at Tokyo Disney. You can do this online, but only via the Japanese version of the Tokyo Disney website. This was the one place where I cheated, and pulled a string I had inside the Disney company to make my reservations for me.

From 71.129.38.166 on December 13, 2011 at 8:17 PM
About the visitor makeup of Tokyo Disneyland-- I was told maybe 10 or 15 years ago by relatives visiting from Japan that there was a high percentage of people from other Asian countries visiting Tokyo Disneyland. They explained it by saying that people from Korea or China didn't have to fly all the way to California or Florida to visit a Disney park, as Tokyo was a lot closer for these people.

Of course, there is a Disney park in Hong Kong now, with another under construction in Shanghai. But I find it interesting that more Asians from outside Japan don't go to the Tokyo Disney parks.

From 201.82.38.59 on December 14, 2011 at 4:38 AM
Hey Robert, I was thinking about you said on the number of greeters in the park. I reckon it is a cultural trait more than anything. I have never been to Japan, but my brother was and he told me a lot about how in Japan every little shop have at least a person working as a greeter at the door. He said that in Japan business owner treat costumers and guests as the most important value, and that it is considered disrespectful to do not have someone to greet and say "good day" to people.
It is even true here in Brazil. Especially in São Paulo, where I live and the biggest Japanese community outside Japan. On every business owned by Japanese, or their descendents, there is always a person at the door for the sole purpose of saying "good morning" or "goodbye". Some shops have machines to do it too. Of couse it doesn't happen in business of other ethnicity here. Japanese people are very found of politeness and devoted to the costumer, client or guest.
Anyway, I am a big fan of your blog and theme parks. I hope someday to visit Tokyo Disneyland also. I am enjoying immensely your posts.
Cheers!
Frederico
From Anon Mouse on December 14, 2011 at 8:42 AM
It was a long time since I've been to Japan (10 years), but I never felt language was a barrier. They made it quite easy to navigate. Although few speak English, enough did to make it possible to figure things out. They use English signs and instructions on the machines. The greeters at the subways were very helpful. You merely point to where you want to go. No one will cheat you or steer you wrong.

To lessen the hassle, read up on literature. You don't want to waste time once you arrive.

From 74.174.234.2 on December 14, 2011 at 9:23 AM
I'm surprised you didn't use Disney's translating service when visiting Tokyo Disneyland. At the U.S. parks, Disney offers a translating device for foreign visitors. I believe the translating device activates at various attractions to translate the ride/show dialogue into the native language of the visitor. So, for example, if the guest is from Brazil, the device would translate the dialogue in Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress into Portugese. Doesn't Disney offer a similar device at its non-U.S. parks?

- Brian

From Robert Niles on December 14, 2011 at 1:42 PM
I didn't bother. I didn't want to mess around at the beginning of the day trying to track down a translation unit - not when thousands of people were already getting in lines. Plus, I suspected I wouldn't need it for 95%+ of what I wanted to do, and I was right. The only place where I wished I'd had a translation was in the Magic Lamp Theater in Tokyo DisneySea, which runs a show we don't have in the U.S. so I hadn't seen it before. But I still understood the basic narrative and got the sight gags.

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