Not-so-lost in translation: Speaking English in Japanese theme parks
Written by Bryan Wawzenek
During the run-up to my recent visit to Japan and the country's Disney and Universal theme parks, I became concerned about the language barrier. I wasn't really worried about finding my way around. In the past year, my wife and I had traveled to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia with minuscule knowledge of the languages spoken there and we had bridged most of the language gaps with patience, hand gestures and a bit of educated guessing.Tweet
Given those experiences, I was more concerned about how Japanese theme parks would feel. While the U.S. Disney and Universal parks certainly offer excitement, there's also a degree of "comfort food" to my trips there. Maybe I sound completely ridiculous, but going to the American locations of these parks can be like visiting old friends. I was unsure exactly how I'd feel about my old friends speaking, or singing, a new language. What we discovered was that it was a little weird, often hilarious and usually wonderful.
Learn a Little
Because Osaka's Universal park appears to see fewer international visitors, English was not quite as commonly spoken by park workers. That is how we accidentally ended up with a reserved ticket for the "backdrop" version of Hollywood Dream (a happy accident; we just thought we were getting on the forward-moving version of the coaster). On the other hand, because of the lack of foreign visitors, we instantly became a little more "special," with workers handing us freebies and going out of their way to make sure we were enjoying our time at USJ.
The Country Bears Vacation Jamboree was sung in a mixture of both languages – and yes, "Achy, Breaky Heart" is just as cloying in Japanese. The Haunted Mansion featured Japanese narration, but Madame Leota and Little Leota spoke English, as did the ghouls howling "Grim, Grinning Ghosts." As for "The Little Mermaid" musical show in the Mermaid Lagoon Theater, all of the songs were in English with the dialogue in Japanese. Meanwhile, all of the scallywags sacking the Spanish Main sang and spoke English in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Beware of… Star Tours' hitchhiking robots?
Although most attraction plots are comprehensible in any language, for some that were completely in Japanese, I was glad that I had experienced them in English before. Hearing Darth Vader bellow in Japanese on Star Tours: The Adventures Continue is unique, but I'm happy I heard the James Earl Jones version first. I feel the same way about Japanese-only narration on Universal's Jaws (although the Japanese skipper was the most animated one I'd ever encountered) and Disney's Jungle Cruise. Although, if you know the latter's spiel well enough, you can recite the corny one-liners in your head. (As far as the Jungle Cruise goes, that is sure to change, given the renovation plans for the Tokyo Disneyland version of this Disney classic.)
Of course, the Tigger song might be even funnier in Japanese – or maybe the bouncing effect on the stunning Pooh's Hunny Hunt just makes everything better. One of my favorite rides in all of the parks was USJ's Space Fantasy indoor roller coaster, and I had next-to-no idea what was happening as we zipped around the universe. Whatever you say, space princess, wheeeee …
And then there was a ride with an orientation film in which neither Japanese nor English were spoken. Because Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull is set in an Aztec temple in South America, our guide is the Spanish-speaking Paco (who sort of looks like Jack Black's non-union Mexican equivalent). We weren't totally in the dark – the video is subtitled in English and Japanese as Paco bids us, "Adios!"
(OK, quick side note about Indy. I am a total dork who, when the opportunity presents itself, likes to "drive" on the ride. I can't help myself. I turn into a 9-year-old. So, during one of our spins on Crystal Skull, my wife realized that the Japanese couple next to us had noticed my "driving" and were roaring with laughter as the sight of the silly American. As we pulled in to unload, we were all laughing at my antics, the woman mimicking what I had done, and sharing a moment of enjoyment even though we didn't share a language. It's a theme park moment I'm sure I'll never forget.)
Two other DisneySea attractions offer a different sort of English enhancement: souvenir fliers written in English. When we queued up for Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, a cast member raced to grab a couple of these small but colorful pieces of paper that listed the English lyrics to Alan Menken's "Compass of Your Heart" – the theme that plays throughout this exuberant musical dark ride. Another intricately designed sheet was available at the entrance to the Tower of Terror, which explained the backstory that was recited by the ride's "tour guides" before the pre-show.
The sole instance where the language barrier proved an insurmountable impediment was at DisneySea's Fortress Explorations (a free-roaming area that's sort of like Tom Sawyer Island for the Renaissance). Although there are English-language maps for the attraction, the Fortress's scavenger hunt game is only presented in a Japanese booklet. Oh well. I really can't complain if that's the one thing in three parks that we couldn't do because we didn't know Japanese.
At the Disney parks, characters were all-too eager to goof (pun intended) around with us. Maybe it was because we were a little less reserved than the average Japanese visitor (although we saw some pretty excited guests during our time there) or maybe it was because we were a little extra thrilled to see characters that are not commonplace in the U.S. parks (Scrooge McDuck, Abu from "Aladdin," Bernard and Bianca from "The Rescuers," Max from "Goof Troop"). No matter – it's great to discover that a handshake, high-five or hug is the same in any language.
Universal took it to a whole different level. Bert and Ernie, who had been taking pictures with guests separately, decided that they needed to both be in a picture with my wife and me. We didn't request this, but were happy to accept. Visitors who had to wait a little longer didn't get upset and politely offered to take our picture with the Sesame Street residents (and we gestured to do the same after our picture). Almost exactly the same thing happened with Charlie Brown and Lucy, although Lucy seemed less agreeable (not sure if she was in character or honestly annoyed with Chuck's insistent prodding). I can only imagine how much more boisterous the characters might become in the presence of an English-speaking kid, and not just us kids-at-heart.
Regardless, the character interactions were bizarre, fantastic and unforgettable … which could describe the entirety of our experience as English speakers in Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan. All I can offer is a heartfelt "arigato gozaimasu."
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