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A tour of Tokyo DisneySea: History, layout and Mediterranean Harbor

Written by
Published: December 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM
DisneySea was the second park that Disneyland fans could have had, instead of California Adventure.

Tokyo DisneySea

Let me explain by taking you back to 1988. That year, the Walt Disney Company bought the parent company of the Disneyland Hotel, which it had been trying to acquire for many years. Walt could barely raise enough money to build the Disneyland park back in the 1950s, so he had left development of the hotel to Hollywood producer Jack Wrather, best known for The Lone Ranger and Lassie TV series. By 1988, Wrather Corporation has acquired the lease for the Queen Mary in Long Beach, too, so when Disney finally got the Disneyland Hotel, it also got the Queen Mary.

But what to do with it? In buying the Disneyland Hotel, Disney also acquired a lot of its surrounding land - including the land on which the Mickey and Friends parking structure now stands. Throw in the land surrounding the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and Disney now had not just one, but two, options for the expanding to add the second theme park that it wanted for Southern California. It could build a second park in Anaheim, or build in Long Beach.

Disney Imagineers' initial concept for Anaheim was to bring Walt Disney World's second theme park west. "Westcot" would have been a scaled-down version of the EPCOT Center theme park, built on Disneyland's parking lot. It would have had a golden geosphere, surrounded by the nations of World Showcase, but with no space-consuming World Showcase lagoon, given the tighter quarters in Anaheim.

The Long Beach option was a nautical-themed park with the Queen Mary as a centerpiece - a "Disneysea" to Anaheim's Disneyland. But building in Long Beach would have required an expensive monorail expansion to link the two parks, as well as living with the uncertainty of building on land that the company was leasing, and didn't own.

So Disney stepped away from the Long Beach plan, eventually dropping the Queen Mary lease. And after EuroDisneyland opened in 1992 as a giant money pit, the company ditched the Westcot plans, too, opting instead for a less-expensive California-themed park - which became Disney's California Adventure.

But Disney's Imagineers are perhaps the world's greatest recyclers - they never throw anything away. When the Oriental Land Co., the Japanese firm that owns Tokyo Disneyland, decided in 1988 it wanted to add a second park to that resort, initially it considered a version of the Studios theme park then under development at Walt Disney World. After kicking around that idea for a few years, Imagineers convinced Oriental Land to develop the Disneysea plans from Long Beach instead.

S.S. Columbia

While Disney beancounters kept California Adventure (v1.0) focused on retail and lightly-themed attractions, they had no say over what Imagineering could do in Tokyo. Bound by its licensing deal with Disney, Oriental Land agreed to a much larger budget for DisneySea than Disney had for California Adventure - about $4.5 billion to about $1 billion for DCA.

So while American theme park fans derided California Adventure, on September 4, 2001, the Oriental Land Company opened Tokyo DisneySea, the most elaborately detailed theme park in the world.

The American Waterfront

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 caused Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea to be closed for the first extended period in the park's history. But today, neither park shows any sign of damage, and if the lingering effects of the disasters are harming attendance at the parks, well, I can't imagine them being more popular that they appear today.

I arrived at one of the park's two entry plaza 45 minutes before opening, and found several hundred people waiting. By the tine the park opened at nine, I estimated nearly 9,000 people were queued to enter, by my old journalism school crowd-estimation tricks. There's no soft open to allow people to fill the entry plaza before a rope drop - just a flood unleashed through the turnstiles at nine.

Disney smartly tried to distract a few of the early entrants with Mickey and Minnie.

Mickey and Minnie

But for the most part, visitors simply sprinted into the park. Honestly, that entry was one of the few times I've ever felt fear in a theme park - hundreds of people in a full-speed-ahead run, flowing in front two entry plazas, as cast members simply smiled and bowed toward them, making no attempt to slow anyone. My first reaction was to tense and brace for an inevitable impact, then I noticed that even with so many people running so fast, no one was colliding. The crowd simply was moving as one, at breakneck speed. So this is what Pamplona is like. You're gonna run with the bulls, baby, 'cause you don't want see what it's like to stop.

So I ran.

Entering the park

Tokyo DisneySea is laid out in the familiar circular pattern, with a central body of water between the many themed lands.

Tokyo DisneySea map
The map of Tokyo DisneySea, available from the Tokyo Disney website.

You enter through the Mediterranean Harbor, walking under Disney's Hotel Mira Costa and past the many shops and restaurants in this entry land.

Hotel Mira Costa

Then, to the left is the American Waterfront, dominated by the Tower of Terror and life-sized S.S. Columbia (which looks to be a dead ringer for the Queen Mary. Sigh.) Beyond that, in order, come the futuristic Port Discovery, the Amazon-themed Lost River Delta, Arabian Coast, Mermaid Lagoon and Mysterious Island.

Mysterious Island

But before we rush off to Mysterious Island, let me say a few words about the merchandise available at Tokyo DisneySea, and give you links to our restaurant listings for the places to eat in Mediterranean Harbor.

I'd hoped to pick up a couple of nice Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea T-shirts on my visit, but found that if Tokyo Disney sells T-shirts, they don't have them available in December. Instead, I found plenty of winter headwear,

Winter headgear

sweets,

Sweets display

and Duffy.

Acres of Duffy

And that's it. In fact, Duffy commanded an overwhelming majority of character display space in stores throughout DisneySea. Oh, and Duffy has a girlfriend, too: ShellieMay.

Shellie the Disney Bear

I understand now why Disney seems so keen on pushing Duffy to its American theme park fans. Because Disney is printing money with Duffy in Japan: Duffy dolls, Duffy purses, Duffy hats, Duffy keychains, Duffy lanyards, and, yes, Duffy popcorn buckets.

Duffy popcorn buckets at Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo visitors queue deep to buy them all. Is it any wonder why Disney wouldn't try to clone this cash cow in America?

If wading your way through Duffydom has left you hungry, you've got several dining choices along the Mediterranean Harbor - so long as you like Italian.

Venice canals

  • Ristorante di Canaletto is a table service restaurant along the canals of Venice.
  • Cafe Portofino is a counter-service location on the other side of Mediterranean Harbor, specializing in Italian food tweaked toward Japanese tastes.
  • Zambini Brothers Ristorante stands next to Cafe Portofino, but serves more traditional Italian fare.

Tomorrow, we'll continue our virtual trip around Tokyo DisneySea with a look inside Mysterious Island, home to what's become my favorite Disney attraction anywhere, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Also on the tour: Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery, American Waterfront

Readers' Opinions

From Mike Gallagher on December 26, 2011 at 3:53 PM
As someone who's not as Disney-centric as many on this site, and someone who knows precious little about any theme parks not located here in the US of A, I've gotta say I enjoyed the history lesson about how DisneySea came to be (hey, I'm a poet and don't know it!) Fascinating stuff, Robert, and I'm looking forward to the next chapter.

But...

" The Long Ranger? "

Wasn't that an XXX rated movie? ;)

From 71.129.38.166 on December 26, 2011 at 11:11 AM
Robert, when you said two weeks ago that there were several thousand people lined up at the gates at opening, I suppose a stampede into the park was the logical conclusion.

My question: what about families with younger children and babies in strollers? Do they know to stay out of the way until the rush has slowed down?

From José María Sandoval on December 26, 2011 at 12:59 PM
I can´t wait to tomorrow, great report!!
The history is very interesting.
From Robert Niles on December 26, 2011 at 5:58 PM
Autocorrect strikes again. (Sigh.) Fixed. Thanks. As for the strollers, I didn't keep count, but several times thought to myself that I wasn't seeing nearly as high a percentage of families with strollers as I see in Orlando or Anaheim. I don't know if that's due to demographics in Japan, or people being more likely to wait until their children were older before visiting Disney.
From Mike Gallagher on December 26, 2011 at 2:27 PM
Robert, you're leading the parade..I just went back and fixed a typo of my own, so I'm just marching in it.

Actually, I see now the "edit" button is nowhere to to be found in my first post above. So I guess "here" will remain as "her" therein.

From Mike Gallagher on December 26, 2011 at 3:53 PM
Someone fixed it! Was it you, Santa? I thought you'd be too tired from yesterday to deal with something trivial like that!
From Robert Niles on December 26, 2011 at 5:59 PM
Little known fact: Santa has admin rights on TPI. Betcha didn't know that huh?
From Mike Gallagher on December 27, 2011 at 4:47 AM
Santa can do ANYTHING!!!
From James Rao on December 28, 2011 at 10:14 PM
Finally catching up on TPI (been a busy few weeks here at year end). Great stuff so far, Robert. Love all the photos and details, and the history lesson was an unexpected, but welcomed delight. Looking forward to catching up on the rest of this week's posts tomorrow. Night!
From Marc Benz on January 1, 2012 at 4:48 AM
There is actually sort of a rope drop, but only for guests of the Hotel MiraCosta. They are allowed to enter a small square near the central lake. There they are entertained by characters.

While they are not allowed to leave that square until the official opening time, they still get a bit of a head start from the guests waiting at the park entrance.

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