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Rob McCullough
Writer

Eight First Impressions from Tokyo Disney and Universal Studios Japan

Published: August 28, 2015 at 7:47 PM

It has taken me a long time to digest everything we had the chance to experience at Tokyo Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Japan. It’s obvious that there are a lot of sites out there that you can go to for a highly detailed review of all the elements of these three parks. I decided not to do the same. Those people had a lot more time and were able to experience way more than I was able to do in three days. Believe me, three days is better than nothing, but it won’t even let you scratch the surface. So I figured I’d just give you some of my impressions from visiting these three remarkable theme parks.

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We visited Japan in early June, which must be one of the best times to go. Schools are still in session and there are no holidays in June. As a result, all three parks we visited were relatively uncrowded. I have seen photos of the lines at the turnstiles at TDLR that seem to stretch for miles. We arrived at each park within the first hour of operation and never waited more than five minutes to get through bag check and past the turnstiles. Granted, June is the start of the rainy season so we didn’t see a lot of blue sky, but it also never poured on us and the clouds help keep it fairly cool.

Seating for parades and shows

1. You won’t believe the size of Tokyo Disneyland – If your home Disney park is Disneyland in California, going to the Magic Kingdom at WDW for the first time will give you a little bit of the size shock Walt Disney World visitors will experience upon walking around TDL. You may have heard that the streets are wider, but you won’t believe the difference. Space is something residents of Tokyo don’t get a lot of, so when TDL was designed, it was built big to handle the crowds and give the visitors the experience of being in a place with a lot of room. One of the first places we stopped to soak it all in was the edge of the hub near Cinderella Castle. There is a huge seating area in the center of the hub that must have enough seating for several hundred people. Another part of the park where the scale was very evident was Tomorrowland.

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2. The merchandise is very different – If you have ever been in a Hello Kitty store here in the states, imagine that esthetic and merchandise mix, but as Disney. That’s what it’s like to go shopping at a theme park in Japan. You traveled all the way to DisneySea and you can’t wait to ride the greatest dark ride in the world, Journey to the Center of the Earth. As you head towards the exit, you think, “I’m going to buy a T-shirt and a hat so I can wear them next time I’m at my home park and impress everybody.” Sorry, no you’re not. Not only are there no gift shops at most of the exits, the nearest gift shop to JTTCOTE sells mostly princess stationary and cellphone charms. Attraction specific merchandise was very sparse. Tower of Terror had a few things. Pooh’s Honey Hunt had a lot of Winnie the Pooh merchandise, but little of it was ride related. One of my favorite souvenirs I bought is a reproduction of the flashlight you use while riding Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek. Are you a Pinhead? Leave them at home. There will be nobody to trade with and not a lot of pins to buy. It’s just not a thing in Japan. I am curious to know if they bump up the pin programs with the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

So what are the popular things to buy at theme parks in Japan? The most popular items seem to be small gifts you take back home to give to friends and family. This largely takes the form of boxed cookies, rice crackers, ramen and candy. All the goodies in those boxes or bags are individually wrapped so they can be passed around the office or classroom upon your return. Cell phone charms, stationary – pens, pads, stickers and house wear, character head towels and hats are very popular. There is also this bear you might have seen named Duffy. Duffy is mildly popular in the states, but people lose their cotton-picking minds over Duffy in Japan. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are entire shops in DisneySea dedicated to him, his girlfriend and now a cat who paints. I bought a small Duffy plush meant to be clipped to a back pack. He is dressed in his Easter finest including a straw hat. It was the most quintessentially Tokyo DisneySea thing I could think of to buy.

More weird food

3. And so is the food – Would you want to travel all the way to Japan and eat the same stuff there you can get in Orlando? No. Most of the food is Asian inspired, but you can find the occasional burger, pizza or fried chicken meal too. The Hungry Bear in Westernland features curry dishes, not B-B-Q. The shelves in the bakery in World Bazaar aren’t overflowing with chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes and Krispy treats. What you will find instead are the kinds of breads and sweet rolls you’d find in an Asian bakery, many of them slightly tweaked to look like Disney characters including a melon flavored “Little Green Man” bun. Turkey legs are represented, but they are much smaller than the caveman sized legs sold in the US. There is also an abundance of character shaped food. Rice on a plate is almost always molded into a Mickey head. Sandwich buns in a restaurant in the Mermaid Lagoon section look like clam shells. Universal Japan has steamed buns in the shape of Hello Kitty and the Minions. Many locations at TDR didn’t offer any diet soda, but they do have delicious bottled teas and Kirin lemon…it’s wonderful. I’m sure you know about the amazing variety of flavored popcorn sold at the parks in Japan. There were at least a dozen varieties found between the parks. We finally broke down and bought the banana and chocolate flavored popcorn at Universal mostly because of the extremely cool Minion popcorn box. His eyes are articulated and they look left to right as you walk.

If anybody can pull this look off, this sexy devil can.

4. Fellow guests are extremely courteous – Do you ever get annoyed by the people you are waiting in line around, or who are standing near you while waiting for a parade or show? It might have partially been that I couldn’t understand their conversations, but the guests in these parks just seemed more civil than those in the parks in America. I never once saw a flash photograph taken inside a ride or show. Nobody ever tried to break in line. Even the large school groups we saw were on their best behavior. Most amazing is how people wait for and then watch the parades. The culture is to stay seated near the front, and this gives a much better view to everyone. People are allowed to spread out plastic sheets or blankets one hour before the parade starts. Families stay on their sheet and everyone has a fine view. I’m curious to know, is the blanket/sheet used to hold their space, or to keep them from sitting on the dirty ground.

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5. Ride vehicles are built to a smaller rider size – I’m a big boy, always have been, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable on a Disney ride vehicle. Seats seem to be designed around the average size of Asians, not North Americans. All the coasters, Splash Mountain, Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek, even Journey to the center of the earth were uncomfortable or difficult to get into and out of. In many rides there is both a seat divider between riders and a bump at the edge of the seat right where your crotch sits. This greatly decreases the size of the seat. When we went to ride the Raging Spirits coaster at DisneySea, the cast member at the single rider entrance called another cast member over to escort us to a test seat. The seat was down a hidden path, in an enclosed structure so nobody would be able to see my husband and I attempt to squeeze into the seat. We both fit, but it’s a very peculiar exercise to go through with staff members who speak very little English. Universal Studios Japan has not installed the Big Boy seats that IOA has on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I did not fit. My husband could, but even the single rider line was posted at a two-hour wait; far too long a wait based on our very limited time at USJ. Luckily we have ridden the ride in Orlando dozens of times.

...in your Easter bonnet...

6. The staff is not as fluent in English as you might expect – We only had one situation in three days of theme park visits where the language barrier seemed to be more than we could manage. That situation was eventually resolved. Just know most of the staff is not going to be able to make small talk with you in English. You will have no trouble taking care of the usual theme park business. Almost all the shows are in Japanese. The Country Bear Jamboree had a couple of English numbers, but the Tiki Room was all in Japanese. Storm Rider had English subtitles during the preshow, but there was nothing in the main theater. I’m sure our Jungle Cruise skipper was really funny based on the other people in the boat, but I had to rely on my experience to know I was looking at “The backside of water!” We watched the Backdraft show at USJ. It is sadly dated. Ron Howard looks about 16 years old in his mid-1990’s sweater and ball cap. The entire show was dubbed in Japanese which actually made this attraction more fun based on the silliness of not understanding what was being said. I am positive that if something major had come up a fluent English speaker could have called to help at a moment’s notice. It’s also important to remember to learn a few simple phrases in Japanese out of simple courtesy to the Cast Members who are working so hard to bring these amazing places to life.

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7. The rides are across the board tamer in Japan – I will always prefer the Orlando version of Tower of Terror for its ride experience, but nothing can compare with the version in Japan up to the moment the ride begins. You just have to experience it, but the queue for TOT tells a much more compelling story, and one that will never lose its connection with the visitors. The Twilight Zone is an important part of mid-century American TV culture, but it is not something that I bet many under 30s have a connection with. Anybody can look at the paintings of Mr. Harrison Hightower in Tokyo DisneySea's version of Tower of Terror and understand what he is all about. It’s obvious why bad things happened to him…and eventually us. The same goes for the Raging Spirits rollercoaster. It looks amazing! The spectator aspect of it is amazing. The ride, eh…I’m glad we did the 20-minute single rider line rather than the 80-minute standby line.

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8. Rides still have corporate sponsors – Until the last 15 or so years US rides were almost always associated with a corporate sponsor. You don’t see that as much anymore. I think every major ride and lots of smaller rides and shows in the parks in Japan still have corporate sponsors. Even the Hello Kitty Cupcake spinner was sponsored by Mr. Donut, a brand that I used to love, but don’t know if they are even still in business in the US.

Yes, that's a shore enough Mickey Churro

Final impressions – If you have any friends who are not theme park people they may seem very concerned about why you’d waste a day of vacation in a theme park that is, in their eyes, the same old thing you can do in California or Florida. A – Don’t listen to them. B - Why are you friends with people like that? My husband is less enthusiastic about parks than I am. Our first stop at Tokyo Disneyland was the line for Pooh’s Honey Hunt. I got in line and he headed out to retrieve Fast Passes for Big Thunder Mountain. When he got back his eyes were wide and bright and he said, “You are not going to believe how amazing this park is!” He was right. We both had a remarkable visit. Anybody would.

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