Asian Adventure, Part 3 - Tokyo DisneySea

October 31, 2017, 4:56 PM

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Day 7: Flight to Tokyo, and the Glorious Hotel MiraCosta

The whole crucial point of this trip was to see the renowned Tokyo DisneySea. This park has astounded me since its 2001 opening, the creative zenith of theme park design artistry. I couldn’t have hyped it up in my mind more if I’d tried! (Somehow, DisneySea actually exceeded this hype!) A nagging anticipation hounded me throughout my final night at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, and again I awoke sometime around 4 AM.

The flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport was at 8 that morning. Too early to reach Hong Kong’s airport via MTR, I took a quick 10 minute taxi – arranged days prior by the exceptional staff of Hollywood Hotel.

My flight was with Hong Kong Express, a tiny budget airline who exclusively fly in and out of Hong Kong. The flight was eventless and no-frills in the Southwest Airlines style. The Pringles can I scarfed down in the airport amounted to the day’s breakfast.

Tokyo’s airports are joyfully efficient, a drastic contrast to Beijing. In fact, efficiency is a major theme of touring Japan. Despite a long line, I breezed through customs in 5 minutes. Before leaving the terminal, I collected a pocket mifi hotspot device from the post office, something I’d arranged for ahead of my travel dates. I stopped at the first of many Japanese vending machines, a ubiquitous sight, for a refreshing bottle of Pokari Sweat. How do they get the Pokari to sweat so much? Summers in Hong Kong.

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It took a little doing to locate the Airport Limousine which travels to Tokyo Disney Resort. Despite the name, it’s a bus. Ultimately, I opted against waiting an hour for the direct MiraCosta line in favor of the generic DisneySea line. It dropped me off at the park entrance, not the hotel entrance, but that’s a minor inconvenience to get there early.

On this bus I meet the last Americans I’ll see for over a week – a couple from Texas also on their dream vacation. I out myself as a Disneyland guy with the phrase “good neighbor hotels,” and we all gush endlessly about what DisneySea has in store for us.

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For my first visit to possibly the world’s greatest theme park, I’m pulling out all the stops! Hotel MiraCosta, baby! Comparable perhaps only to Aulani as the best Disney hotel, I’m told, Miracosta has the distinction of being inside a theme park. People talk about dramatic introductions to Disney Parks, like taking a boat across the Seven Seas Lagoon. For me, the gradual reveal provided by MiraCosta check-in is my favorite to-date.

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Hotel MiraCosta is done in a rustic sunbaked Mediterranean style, with its entry facades resembling a tiered, sloping Tuscan village. A stone fountain at the drop-off circle is in the fashion of Rome’s Fountain Trevi, depicting in aging rock a dozen mythical sea creatures. You smell a faint sea breeze from the nearby Tokyo Bay. Every surface looks costly. No expenses have been spared. John Hammond would be pleased.

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The cupola dome lobby, though somewhat small, is equally impressive. A bronze model ship conjures up images of the Age of Exploration, seated beneath a hand painted mural depicting gods for each of DisneySea’s seven ports-of-call, plus the expansion pad. MiraCosta (which translates to “Look at the huge expenses!”) is a luxury 5-star hotel, sure, but the Mediterranean theming feels warm and casual, rarely stuffy and formal.

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Check-in is slightly strained due to a language barrier. I’m lucky enough to have managed a MiraCosta booking at all from the States! Little in their website seems geared for a non-Japanese crowd. Like FastPass+ in Disney World, reservations must be booked exactly 6 months in advance at midnight local time, and prior to that moment I made sure to enter all my stats and do all my translations to overcome any speedbumps. Even then, an internet rumor suggested MiraCosta only takes foreign MasterCards, but that might be outdated info since my Visa went through without issue. Five minutes later the entire hotel was sold-out (and for mid-September, mind you). Somehow, I’d gotten a Portofino Bay room!

(Other viewing options are for the Venetian canals or the Tuscan plaza facing the Monorail. These were never considered. The Portofino view was my main goal!)

I’m here now, I’m super stoked, and the concierge is carefully trying to explain dinner reservations and park tickets. I opt for the three-day bundled package, which disallows park-hopping before the third day, and asks that you state which park you’ll visit on which day. This is fine by me. And as a MiraCosta guest, I receive a complimentary Evening Entry ticket for that night after 6.

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While the front desk is fine-tuning my booking, I explore the hotel’s public areas. I’m quickly drawn to a staircase promenade overlooking the entire Mediterranean Harbor entry area – a postcard perfect view of DisneySea’s Portofino Bay and its jaw dropping central Mt. Prometheus volcano icon beyond. This mouth-watering view only increases anticipation!

Soon a rather campy busboy, unskilled in English but very eager-to-please, leads me across a footbridge over the park entrance vestibule towards my room. MiraCosta hugs the entire perimeter of the park’s Portofino Bay, serving as a 5-story berm, and my room is on the furthest end. It’s a long walk, frankly, and disorienting the first few times. Per my booking, this room peers into the park, with more postcard perfect views of my future wife Mt. Prometheus. Here on the far end I can even see Tower of Terror and the S.S. Columbia sailing ship, plus the infinite Tokyo Bay beyond.

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Yes, this is from my hotel window!

This view is something I would spend hours examining. DisneySea teems with movement – the waves, the guests, gondolas and steamers and train cars. The volcano erupts hourly, with towering flames from a repurposed jet engine (!). The seaward boundary is blurred, making it feel like the ocean is an extension of the park itself. Goodness is it transporting!

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The energetic busboy lingers, frantically engaging me in a game of “find the hidden Mickey.” He’s proud of this hotel! He should be! I locate maps in the Magellan style with mouse-shaped islands. The park’s compass-and-globe logo is another Mickey. There’s a tapestry over the bed depicting the Fab Five as Renaissance explorers. All these Disney character infusions are classy and unobtrusive, nicely integrated with the hotel’s Italian theme which is itself well-chosen and well-executed. The interior décor was redone around a year ago, which greatly improves what might already be Disney’s best hotel.

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With slightly over an hour before Evening Entry, I sit overlooking Mediterranean Harbor. Cracking the window slightly (all it will allow), the sounds and smells of DisneySea flood in. That’s the big draw of an in-park room – an intoxicating romantic Old World charm which never dissipates. Hotel MiraCosta sure ain’t inexpensive – it’s the height of off-season, so it’s at its cheapest still. As the trip’s huge splurge it really and truly is justified with these park views and atmosphere!

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Soon, one of those minor vacation hiccups occurs. My cell phone cord has swiftly frayed into oblivion, and can’t charge my device. One leisurely minibar Kirin later, I race desperately to the front desk to awkwardly explain the problem in English. Bless MiraCosta’s staff, despite the language issue and even the tech issue (they don’t carry American electronics accessories in Japanese hotels), they swiftly locate a replacement charger in a dungeon underneath the hotel’s gift shop. This I purchase, along with a small DisneySea lapel pin (my sole personal souvenir of the trip, if you believe that). Crisis averted! Disney’s foreign hotel staffs have delighted me nonstop!

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At last the hour draws near! I proceed giddily down that staircase promenade from earlier to the hotel’s secret park entrance. Soon I’m in a bustling Italian plaza, equal parts Venice and Portofino (and maybe a little Lake Como). The sun sets behind my beloved Mt. Prometheus, giving the already-golden façades incomparable warmth. Encasing the shops and dining patios is MiraCosta, many floors up, guests visible inside their rooms creating a lived-in ambiance without compare.

Every single surface teems with detail, and I honestly start to get a little dizzy from the visual overload. Nightfall is swift. I’m in an all-new theme park at in the dark. Soft lantern lighting provides little illumination for a park which has now receded into darkness. With 4 hours before the park’s nightly closure, I’m keen on relishing this gem of a park to its fullest!

Up next: Nighttime in DisneySea

Replies (14)

Edited: November 1, 2017, 7:34 AM

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Night in Tokyo DisneySea

There’s one problem with nighttime at the Tokyo parks, and that’s lines. In California, you can hop into an E-ticket’s multi-hour queue at closing time, hugely extending your day. In Tokyo, a two-hour line is closed two hours before the park does, meaning if you enter the park at 6 P.M., several big ticket rides are unavailable. Little worry, I’d do ‘em eventually. Besides, I have in-park dining reservations tonight at 8, so I can’t linger too long.

My first course of action, two hours before dinner, is to seek food! Don’t blame me, all I’ve eaten so far today is a tube of Hong Kong Pringles. (I’m thirsty too.) DisneySea’s snacks are a subject I’ve researched vociferously, and I head directly for their world-famous gyoza dogs in Mysterious Island.

Mysterious Island is Captain Nemo’s secret base hidden in an ocean caldera. I’ll describe the different ports-of-call in better detail later. Seen first at night with little frame of reference, I’m discombobulated anyway.

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The gyoza dogs, I’m told, can command wait times to rival the nearby E-tickets. Every time I grab ‘em at the Nautilus Galley, the wait is 5 minutes. Good luck or what? Normally, this snack is a black sesame gyoza housing a hotdog-shaped dumpling. For Halloween (which just started that week in Tokyo, and wasn’t in full force while in Hong Kong), the gyoza is redesigned red and black to honor the Queen of Hearts. The gyoza bun is soft, spongy and unflavored, which actually contrasts nicely with the meat’s many spices. DisneySea has exceptional unique snacks throughout, and this is their crown jewel.

DisneySea also serves Kirin beer at roughly half of their eateries. I’m all in favor of alcohol in theme parks. As long as guests refrain from becoming drunken hooligans, it really aids in a slow, relaxed park visit.

(For some reason, Asahi and Sapporo were hard to find throughout Japan.)

Following my snack, I snag a ride on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though similar to the (Captain) Nemo submarine rides from Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, this is instead a suspended dark ride in smaller diving bells. It’s an engrossing, detail-heavy ride which I’ll describe better later. Its wait times never exceeded 5 minutes, so I rode it often.

Also never exceeding 5 minutes on this trip is Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage in nearby Arabian Coast, which I do next. This is a musical boat ride, often described as the tonal halfway between “small world” and Pirates of the Caribbean. This seems about right, and again I’ll explain that better later.

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Following a musical voyage, I am intrigued by a wafting curry scent. Tokyo Disney Resort specializes in flavored popcorns, with a dozen unique flavors. Guests are encouraged to sample them all (and buy a refillable container made from Duffy’s hollowed-out cranium). The guide maps list “popcorn” as a separate category from “dining.” Dinner plans or no, I start my popcorn quest with Aladdin’s curry flavor. It’s tasty, with a light subtle taste like the other various popcorns. I’ll be sampling popcorns regularly during this visit, so a listing of some other flavors now – caramel, soy sauce, barbecue, honey, herb tomato (my favorite), milk chocolate, etc.

Remaining in Arabian Coast, I try out a pair of flat rides which won’t warrant revisiting later. These are Jasmine’s Flying Carpets, a standard Dumbo-esque spinner (Aladdin owns the one in Magic Kingdom), and Caravan Carousel, a carousel. These are lesser ride types, B-tickets. Usually I skip such rides. But context matters a whole lot, and that’s the essential truth of DisneySea.

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The entire park is so beautifully appointed, so perfectly designed, that even minor rides like these retain that energy. Every attraction here is an extension of a greater whole. Good rides in bad parks are weighed down (the DCA 1.0 effect before the park-wide refurbishment). Standard rides in great parks, like Jasmine’s Flying Carpets, become gems.

It doesn’t hurt that the Flying Carpets are a flawless example of their form. That’s all in the decorations. A dancing, intricate fountain, exquisite tile mosaics in the queue, and panoramic volcano views. I’ve seen this ride in Walt Disney Studios Park, Paris, and it’s a pile of dreck – a parking lot ride cheaply executed. In DisneySea it’s a diamond in the rough, if you’ll pardon an Aladdin reference. And it’s among DisneySea’s worse rides!

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Caravan Carousel elevates the usual carousel form. For one, it’s a double-decker carousel, set inside a monumental dome overlooking a Middle Eastern palace courtyard. Of course I ride on the second level. In addition to horses, you can choose to ride on a camel, or a griffin. I get my wish and I ride Genie!

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That’s now four rides and multiple snacks all under my belt. One mustn’t rush DisneySea. I slowly amble back through Mysterious Island towards the park’s front, to Mediterranean Harbor for my 8 o’clock dinner reservation at Ristorante di Canaletto. DisneySea has perhaps half a dozen table service restaurants, befitting its thoughtful adult pace. Assorted online reviews suggest this is one worth trying (among others coming later!). All these fancy dinner reservations were made from home months ago.

I cross a replica of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio – a bridge with houses – overlooking the spectacular Porto Paradiso lagoon. That’s where DisneySea’s parades and spectaculars all perform, and presently crowds are gathered all along the water’s edge for that night’s Fantasmic. I’ll miss it tonight due to dinner, but I have big, big plans for Fantasmic tomorrow!

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Ristorante di Canaletto sits beside a lovely recreation of Venice. During the daytime its al fresco patio commands delicious views of singing gondoliers. This whole Venice corner of DisneySea is like its own mini-land, a quiet hidden oasis of solitude. I’m seated inside the main dining hall. Décor and details are at the expected high quality, but little else about the interior stands out except that my camera lens was humid.

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Dinner is prix fixe, with four courses of high-end Italian cuisine. For antipasto, I opt for a salad with fresh scallops.

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Then seafood pasta made with black squid ink.

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A hearty tomato bisque with garlic bread for dipping. I forget the specific Italian term for this dish.

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And for dessert, a panna cotta with fresh fruit. Panna cotta is similar to some Japanese jellies, and thus is found throughout DisneySea, often molded to resemble Duffy or other characters.

It’s good Italian food, which is probably rather hard to find in Japan. I am curious about how they settled on an Italian theme for the park’s entry land and its general identity. It’s an amazing idea, and far removed from the dumb literalness of e.g. “a California park in California.” Seems Italy would be a pretty exotic setting in Japan. Not sure if it has any greater relevance.

Little time remained following dinner before park closing. My photos suggest I wandered up to Mermaid Lagoon for some reason, which I have no recollection of.

I do recall being back in my MiraCosta hotel room when the park announcer declared DisneySea closed (a cruel, mean-spirited thing to say). I watched crowds departing from my window. The evening’s cleanup crews soon arrived via parade boats (which double for utilitarian purposes). For another half hour I lounged in the bed with the window open, the Mediterranean Harbor background music piping in. It’s mandolin covers of traditional Italian folksongs, and appropriate Disney film music such as “Bella Notte.” The total enchanting effect is hugely transporting, conjuring soothing Old World romance and laidback seaside living. Once the loop starts to repeat I shut the window, which doesn’t drown out the music 100%, nor do I want it to. I fall asleep inside a theme park, like guests on Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Is this what they call the Disney Bubble?

Up next: Day 7 – A Full Day at DisneySea!!!!!!!

November 1, 2017, 5:20 PM

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Day 7: Tokyo DisneySea’s Happy 15

Tokyo’s hotel guests don’t get Extra Magic Hours, they get the Happy 15. That’s a mere 15 extra minutes in the park before rope drop. How valuable could that be?

Very. I think we’ve all seen terrifying pics of the Tokyo park crowds. Even a brief head start on that lot, the chance to do one ride and one FastPass, that’s huge.

As per usual, I wake up super early. In Japan, that’s a crucial skill. In the Land of the Rising Sun mornings come fast, and the Japanese respond in kind. I’m up early enough to watch the dawn’s light illuminate Mt. Prometheus, that slumbering volcanic beauty. Once again, this view is from my hotel room:

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Tokyo DisneySea opens at 8. Though it’s only 5 A.M. now, I’m restless and I opt to explore the hotel grounds with my excess energy. Breakfast restaurants open at 6:30, which doesn’t jive with my plans to join the park entry line. I’ve heard breakfast at MiraCosta’s Bella Vista Lounge called a must-do I didn’t do, so there’s an excuse to return!

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Soon enough I’m strolling across the footbridge connecting MiraCosta to the monorail station – which actually crosses the park entry booths, a clever design. While casually admiring the hotel’s layered facades, I peer down and see this:

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It’s only 5:30, and even now entry lines are forming! Without further ado I proceed to the designated hotel guest line. The other lines are longer already, and they continue to grow exponentially. Luckily, I had all the park gear I needed already on hand. Didn’t have a Disney-themed floor mat, which every Tokyo local possesses, perfect for rope drop and parades. What a clever souvenir!

This is quite a while to wait until the 7:45 start of Happy 15. Part of that time I read my complimentary MiraCosta newspaper (in Anglais!), or research the park map fine-tuning a game plan. Lots of this time I spend simply studying the detailed Hotel MiraCosta façades.

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The hotel’s basic shape is a boxy rectangle, but Disney’s artisans have devoted exceptional energies to disguising it as a receding Tuscan hillside village. It looks like dozens of unrelated buildings. Between every hotel room are subtle variations in texture and depth. Like-sized windows are framed differently from the outside, creating the optical illusion of a non-uniform structure. Surfaces seem centuries old, with chipped stucco revealing layers of stonework underneath, or bricked-over archways, or wooden patio additions. Faux water damage is painted near rainspouts. Multitoned tile rooftops, bedecked in moss, are imperfectly laid. When people discuss DisneySea’s attention to detail, it’s this sort of stuff.

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Soon the hotel line is ushered towards the entry gates. Cast members gather. Excitement is palpable! The AquaSphere beyond, rotating and splashing, conveys boundless life. When the gates before it finally rise, I can barely contain myself.

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Entry turnstiles are very efficient in Japan. Just scan your own barcode and you’re in!

Now, I’d vowed to enter DisneySea with dignity and grace. I failed…miserably. Every hotel guest entering ahead of me burst into a full-on sprint, and I felt compelled to keep pace. Throughout the introductory passageway under MiraCosta are cast members with signs asking “Please walk for safety” in English and Japanese. No one obeys. This is the weirdest sight ever, Japanese people breaking the rules en masse. It happens every day here.

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I remained in a dead sprint all the way through American Waterfront. Attempts to photograph this moment mid-run were largely fruitless. Ahead of me is a nearly empty DisneySea, not a common sight at all.

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My goal – and everyone else’s – was Toy Story Mania. Later today, a mid-September Wednesday, wait times would rise over 3 hours! It’s now or never! Without the Happy 15, I mightn’t have even attempted this ride. The one near home in DCA has much shorter lines.

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"Stoooooop!!!"

All the guests ahead of me go to the Toy Story FastPass line. Distribution won’t start ‘til 8, but theirs seems a good strategy for doing this ride more than once. I sprint straight for the ride – nearly bowling over the sweet cast member greeter, who shields herself with her hands (actually, she’s waving). I’m in fact first in line for the day (!), well ahead of my most optimistic touring strategy.

Only now do I slow down, catch my breath, and admire the beautiful queue which was, for me, actually Tokyo Toy Story’s biggest draw.

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Tokyo DisneySea excels at justifying its weird character infusions. Every port-of-call is a wholly specific, self-contained world, not a generic catchall like the “castle park” lands. American Waterfront represents 1912 New York City. Somehow, Imagineering has managed to somewhat justify plopping Toy Story down here, though it’s maybe the biggest stretch in the park.

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Trolley lines through the streets end at the Toyville Trolley Park, a turn-of-the-century seaside pleasure emporium – modeled mostly on Melbourne, Australia’s Luna Park. Woody’s toothy façade swallows you through a series of carnival barker rooms which seem to feature interactive boardwalk games. We slowly, artfully transition into Andy’s bedroom, guests the size of toys. The coolest moment is passing through a multi-story white door and glimpsing Andy’s behemoth bed. The ride vehicles proceed under this bed, which hides the imaginative make-believe world where Toy Story Mania takes place.

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Some slight track differences aside, the ride itself is familiar and fun. I scored “cat.”

The crowds have increased immensely since I’ve arrived! Standby and FastPass lines are both around 30 minutes now, and it’s still 7:59. These are only hotel guests! One minute later, when they start collecting their Toy Story FastPasses, I’m all by my lonesome grabbing a FastPass for Tower of Terror. In under an hour, Toy Story's wait will be over 2.

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And as I proceed, slowly but deliberately, towards Mysterious Island’s amazing E-ticket Journey to the Center of the Earth, I glimpse the crazed Pamplona stampede of regular guests gushing in below the distant Hotel MiraCosta. Huge waves of humanity are descending upon American Waterfront just as I’m leaving. So far my morning has worked even better than planned. A flawless Happy 15!

Next up: More Efficiency at Mysterious Island.

November 2, 2017, 7:02 AM

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Mysterious Island

My adventures through DisneySea were not a systematic land-by-land affair, but a more randomized path determined by old school paper FastPass tactics. Even so, there’s enough order in this day to divide these updates roughly by land. But before we delve into the great Mysterious Island, a word on DisneySea as a whole:

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DisneySea, obviously, is nautically themed. It boasts seven ports-of-call, which are painterly “magical realist” versions of international locations. The park’s layout is defined by the massive Porto Paradiso lagoon and the river route which proceeds from there. In the center of these waterways is Mt. Prometheus, visible from each land and carefully designed so that it never feels out of place – recalling Pompeii from the Mediterranean Harbor side and resembling a jungle mountain from Lost River Delta. There isn’t really a hub, though the volcano tries, and Porto Paradiso is too small for the lagoon layout of World Showcase or Islands of Adventure. It’s a hodgepodge layout, defined by sightlines and organically meandering paths. I like this layout, but it’s definitely nonstandard.

My chosen route to Mysterious Island takes me across the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and through the S.E.A. fortress built below Mt. Prometheus. Mysterious Island is housed entirely within Mt. Prometheus’ ocean caldera. Here, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo hides his experiments. The land is wholly self-contained. Background music is mostly ambient sounds of ocean waves, seabirds, and the rumbling volcano. Nemo has constructed a precarious circular walkway overlooking the caldera’s bubbling waters. All manmade elements are exceedingly tenuous, and there’s evidence of Nemo’s struggles against the volcano’s frequent eruptions.

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Through a freshly-bored tunnel (the only thing in DisneySea that’s bored!) in the caldera’s barren rocks we reach Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is DisneySea’s landmark attraction housed within her iconic volcano. While I’m on record calling Mystic Manor my current favorite, JTTCOTE is neck-and-neck with it. So is stuff like Disneyland’s original Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a matter of mood, but Journey is doubtlessly one of the very best rides worldwide, another of my Top 5. It’s an evocative, detailed dark ride with just a kick of thrill, a true E-ticket.

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The queue carries guests further into the volcano’s bowels, into a research lab amidst magma vents. Then guests enter a terravator and plunge downwards untold fathoms towards the earth’s core – actually up one floor. This is a wonderful moment, with minimalist light and sound engaging the imagination and making us truly feel like we’re on a subterranean voyage. Altogether, the ride’s cavernous milieu is so wonderfully universal, as broad as pirates or ghosts, which I wish more rides could do. There’s more to the queue, including a fog-shrouded bottomless pit and a ginormous steampunk oxygen machine. I can only give broad impressions. The details are staggering.

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Eventually we board giant drills, which use the same ride system as Test Track or Radiator Springs Racers. The drills set off exploring the earth’s beauty. Passing through a giant geode, we enter a mushroom forest teeming with life, bizarre alien insects and mollusks all realized practically. It is otherworldly. It’s the sort of scene which creates Disney fans.

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Then an earthquake reroutes drills down a mysterious tunnel. We pass monstrous eggs and reach the shores of an underground ocean, pummeled by lightning. Then we find the molten core itself, where fireballs burst. A magma flow rises unnaturally, and reveals itself to be a lava insect kaiju just as huge as the yeti, and functional. It lunges!

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A sudden volcanic eruption propels us spiraling up a shaft to the planet’s surface, expelled from the mountain’s peak. This high-speed thrill section actual has decent airtime! A final tunnel slowdown circling the entire caldera carries us to the unload chamber. It’s a separate room from loading (which, recall, is supposed to be miles under the surface). Nemo’s crew welcomes us home.

I immediately get right back in line! The crowds haven’t fully amassed yet, though they will after a second ride.

Now, I haven’t eaten yet today. If the Nautilus Galley were open, I’d get another gyoza dog. It ain’t, so my breakfast is a tiramisu ice cream sandwich from a cart. Nutritious!

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As I circle to the other edge of the caldera to ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, let’s admire the land some more. Striking oxidized steel steampunk edifices abound. A drill machine dangles from a chain near the entrance to Journey. Its bored tunnel shines light on the inner catacombs. Down in the waters is a full-sized Nautilus submarine. Before it, the DisneySea Steamers float past.

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Even minor details like lamps and water fountains and benches are fully themed. Every Disney Park does this, but DisneySea’s utilitarian details always fit the land’s story more fully. Every detail seems more thoughtful, more perfect.

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A spiral ramp, ideal for panoramas, is the queue down to 20,000 Leagues. Again we pass Nemo’s scientific offices, brimming with props. Our underwater vehicles are diving bells which dangle from an overhead line. These capsules are fully enclosed and rather claustrophobic, a really unconventional design. Three different portholes, generously-sized, offer distinct views out. Each window is double-paned with a layer of water in between. This allows for a convincing dry-for-wet effect, with bubbles obscuring the nautical sights to come.

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The capsules dive – sound and darkness and bubbles immerse us. Lights come on in a coral seabed, followed by an eerie shipwreck graveyard infested by eels and octopi and sea snakes. Each porthole has a lever to steer a flashlight, able to illuminate the dark sights. My first ride through is rather disorienting. Following that, I start to get a sense for what we’re seeing. There is so, so much to see in here – the scenery goes by so fast – that multiple rides are needed per portholes. Multiply that by three! Good thing the line for this was always so short, even though in peak season it carries FastPasses.

Our capsule finds itself in the tentacles of a giant squid! Dialogue in Japanese describes our predicament – this goes on endlessly. It seems unnecessary, and it’s best ignored by monoglots. The capsule electrocutes the squid (!), then drifts down to the Marianas Trench. Glowing anglerfish pass by – hard to see if your eyes haven’t adjusted.

An eerie glow illuminates a sunken Grecian ruin…Atlantis. Curious gill-men peer out. Soon the city’s elders push the disabled capsule – a nice shadow projection depicts this. Wise gill-men with magical New-Agey crystals send us through a wormhole light show or something back to Nemo’s base, where we unload.

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This ride definitely grew on me. It absolutely must be experienced in person, because the low light levels make photography and videos nearly impossible. A one-of-a-kind attraction!

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Ride-wise, that completes Mysterious Island, the greatest one-two ride punch since Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. It’s a wonderful land, one I’ll return to time and again, in part for the food. Descriptions of that later. For now, with my Tower of Terror FastPass coming online, I grab a new FastPass for JTTCOTE and I move on.

Next up: American Waterfront

November 2, 2017, 5:45 PM

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American Waterfront

A secret tunnel exit leads from Mysterious Island to Port Discovery. Here, I hop onto the DisneySea Electric Railway for a quick ride into American Waterfront.

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The Electric Railway is this park’s biggest surprise, a utilitarian transportation attraction which ends up as my favorite ride here following the big E-tickets. It’s an elevated metro train, as you’d find in turn-of-the-century New York or Chicago, with a simple A-to-B route. Views from above are incredible – naturally, since they’re of DisneySea. Especially when pulling into American Waterfront, where the upper storefront levels have signage and theming made especially for Railway passengers. It’s really something! It also adds immeasurable kinetic movement to the park. More than any other transportation ride I know, this one is actually convenient. I used it frequently to travel between TOT and JTTCOTE ASAP.

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Random side note: DisneySea has flawless land transitions.

American Waterfront represents New York circa 1912, a city of immigrants and prosperity. It’s actually a very convincing simulacrum of a real city, achieved with a few city blocks of forced perspective mid-rises, appearing 4-5 stories tall. Little touches really add to that effect. The Electric Railway itself roaring overhead does a lot. So do roaming street vehicles. The Tower of Terror, seen on the opposite side of a city park, suggests the possibility of other high-rises without having to create them.

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Like a real city, American Waterfront has many different districts. Near the Broadway Music Theater – to be visited on a later date – is the ritzy part of town, where aspiring artists make residence and offer singing lessons. Nearer the docks is the seedy slum. Connecting them is McDuck’s Department Store (a rare DisneySea instance of a Disney character intrusion, but a wholly appropriate example). On the wealthy side, Scrooge sells fine goods; near the docks he runs a pawn shop. Inside, the two settings connect seamlessly. Outside, additional storefront facades between the two suggest a much busier city block.

Perfectly for DisneySea, water is the dominant thematic element here. The city is focused on its waterfront, where many different watercraft are moored – most of these are full-scale decorations, functionless but so thematically essential. In the city’s interior, the Water Department holds sway, with a Mulholland-esque narrative laid out in signage (appropriately in English, more fun for me than for the locals) about stealing water from the Hudson River, Mulholland style. Even the land’s restrooms connect to this narrative, themselves a needlessly lavish stile mosaic façade!

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At the water’s edge is the massive cruise ship S.S. Columbia. This scaled-down homage to the Queen Mary is a reminder that DisneySea was originally meant for Long Beach, an hour from my house. Instead we got DCA! A pox on you, Michael Eisner!

Unusually for such a huge park icon, the S.S. Columbia doesn’t house a major E-ticket – perhaps one of DisneySea’s few genuine mistakes. Instead it holds two table service restaurants and a Turtle Talk with Crush. Its hull serves as the backdrop for an outdoors stage show. Many of these I’ll visit in turn later.

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But we’re here now to do the Tower of Terror, found in the oppressive Moorish revival Hotel Hightower. Hooray for FastPass, because an hour after park opening the Tower’s standby is 130 minutes! Toy Story’s nearby is longer still. This area fills up fast!

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Since the Japanese don’t dig on Twilight Zone, and since Disney has a mission to breakout of licensing deals, this Tower has an original tale. It ties into the park’s S.E.A. mythology, about the villainous robber baron Harrison Hightower – the dark version of the lovable, scatterbrained Lord Henry Mystic – a noted tomb raider and slumlord. Murals inside the Tower’s lobby depict Hightower’s theft of artifacts across the globe. DisneySea’s textures are of a generally high quality, and Tower of Terror is that at its highests…no pun intended, sorry.

The preshow story concerns a cursed tribal idol, Shiriki Utundu, which caused Hightower to vanish from his penthouse elevator on New Year’s Eve, 1899. All this I parsed out from the extended Japanese narration, a testament to the ride’s visual storytelling. The idol then vanishes before our very eyes in under a second, one of those Disney Magic moments I still can’t quite figure out.

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We’re now the guests of a historical society tour, and the next stop is that same elevator. We reach it through Hightower’s storage warehouse, which recalls the archives from Citizen Kane with its overabundance of worldly treasures. No question that this movie influenced this ride! Tower of Terror is worth doing multiple times mostly for these queue elements, which are hyper-detailed and fun to study.

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The drop tower itself is a letdown…no pun intended, sorry. It’s the shortest, least physically intense version of the Tower I’ve done. That’s a minor quibble, because Tower of Terror has always been mostly about its amazing queue and preshow. The creepy show elements in the elevator ride retain that aura, and the guests’ joyful screaming during the drop sequence is infectious. Tokyo’s Tower of Terror is a really original twist on familiar elements.

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The Tower is more exciting at night, when a green lightning show on the exterior depicts Shiriki Utundu’s powers with every drop.

Exiting through the Tower’s immaculate gift shop (in Hightower’s former indoor pool, another showcase for mosaic tilework), I choose to linger in American Waterfront. Plenty has been accomplished already today, and DisneySea is meant to be enjoyed slowly. American Waterfront has a fleet of Big City Vehicles, much like the Main Street Vehicles, which simply provide a circle tour of the land. Each vehicle is wholly unique, not a copy, a flabbergasting thing to do! It’s likely an expensive ride to operate, with salaried cast members driving each low-capacity car. It’s not the kind of ride to drive attendance, but like the Electric Railway these cars add an immeasurable life to their land, which is really the DisneySea difference.

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My car was a police paddy wagon, ridden solo. Japanese guests got a great kick from watching the cops lug off a gringo. We did a slow-pace circuit around the land, a fun little diversion.

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I could go on and on about the stuff in this city, but let’s move on. The bridge near the S.S. Columbia – itself of course stocked with details to admire – leads over the major waterways to Cape Cod, a curious American Waterfront mini-land. This little area is a charming recreation of a small New England coastal village, a joy to explore. I’ll come back to that eventually.

There are no attractions to speak of in Cape Cod beside a dock for the DisneySea Transit Steamer Line – an aquatic variation on the Disneyland Railroad, the park’s main transportation attraction. Since it’s currently operating – the Steamer shuts down for the frequent harbor shows, another of DisneySea’s few faults – let’s snag a ride and see where it carries us next.

Up next: Lost River Delta.

November 3, 2017, 7:26 AM

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Lost River Delta

Leaving from Cape Cod, the DisneySea Transit Steamer sails past the S.S. Columbia’s tugboat Hercules and along a woodsy coast. DisneySea sits very close to the Tokyo Bay, and along this border is a fake seawall which gives the impression that the ocean is right there. One part of the wall has sprung a leak, completing the effect.

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The Steamer rounds an uninhabited peninsula which is to be the eventual home of DisneySea’s eighth land, likely to be called Glacier Bay with scattered Frozen elements – like how Arabian Coast is only partially Aladdin. The Steamer continues down a jungle tributary, stopping at a rusty shantytown dock in the steaming heart of Lost River Delta.

On first glance, Lost River Delta is a copy of Adventureland next door – the jungle area. But while Adventureland represents all adventure worldwide, Lost River Delta is specifically the Mexican Yucatan circa 1936. Everywhere, DisneySea does that kind of specificity.

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Indiana Jones has recently discovered the ruins of an ancient Mayan metropolis. Set before a crumbling pyramid temple complex is an archeologist base camp. Across the river, over gangplanks of rotting wood, is the Mexican shantytown, hastily assembled of corrugated sheet metal and other debris. The rest is all jungle canopy, the only area in DisneySea where landscape architecture features prominently. And while I think the romanticism of colonial Mexico could’ve been a rich additional layer for a land like this (though rather similar to the sunbaked vibe of Mediterranean Harbor), Lost River Delta nicely conveys a sense of remote jungle adventure.

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Naturally, there are tiny details littered throughout Lost River Delta waiting to be discovered. I catch only a few on this initial walkthrough. My favorite is an idol pillar which sprays out mist, sometimes from its face and sometimes from a blooming jungle flower. There are themed misters like this throughout the park, and much like themed trashcans and FastPass machines, they really flesh things out. But details aside, Lost River Delta exists primarily to showcase Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull, a clone of Disneyland’s classic Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

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This ride predates Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has nothing to do with that movie, and is superior to it. It also nicely demonstrates the difference between DisneySea (grand, epic) and Disneyland (small, intimate). In Anaheim, the massive Indy show building is completely hidden, and the Cambodian temple entrance is really tiny to not overshadow our castle. In Tokyo, the entire towering show building is visible, and completely covered in impressive Mesoamerican stone rockwork dotted with encroaching vines and trees.

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Indy’s standby wait is over 2 hours already, before noon. The Single Rider line generally takes 10 minutes. Raging Spirits nearby is the park’s other Single Rider offering. For my park approach, these rides are good whenever.

Indy’s queue is as epic as the exterior. The pyramid houses a massive chamber, a sacrificial catacomb with a huge carved idol and a cenote below teeming with skeletons. Further on, the temple’s hallways grow narrower, creepier. A golden disk catches the sun’s rays from a pinhole, depicting a haunting solar eclipse. Carved faces in the walls glow with molten flames. Sallah no longer does the preshow. Paco does, and he’s no match for Jon-Rhys Davies.

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The ride is a lot like Disneyland’s masterpiece, so it’s a complete must-do. There are noteworthy new effects, like a swirling tornado and a flame-belching idol, which are both astounding. The Mayan theming lends it a different vibe than Disneyland’s Cambodian style. While Disneyland’s dart room is where the budget ran out, here that room is fully realized with sunken carved totems. In other criteria, like color scheme and the use of John Williams music, Disneyland’s does better. Altogether, the two are about comparable. This is, and has been, one of my favorite rides of all time.

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Lost River Delta’s other ride, Raging Spirits, is more dispiriting. The park desperately needs a roller coaster, and here it is. It’s tiny, a glorified Wild Mouse, with a ride experience guests describe as either painful or forceless, depending on their coaster experience. Forceless, I say. It’s a direct clone of the Indy coaster from Disneyland Paris, and for some reason I’ve bothered to do both of them now. Each ride boasts a vertical loop, which is a neat rarity for Disney. Each climax involves passing through steam, which ain't much of a climax.

Admittedly, I like this ride’s theming more than most people do. It’s meant to be an archeological mine cart rolling around an ancient ruin, and I for one think the coaster’s supports actually make a convincing stand-in for wooden scaffolding. It’s pretty to look at, especially the staircase by the entrance where waterfalls and open flames somehow combine. Visually, Raging Spirits’ one odd flaw is the view from the top – directly out of the park, into the Hilton complex nearby. DisneySea is generally a masterclass of hiding the outside world, making this moment strangely uncharacteristic.

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Using Single Rider, it doesn’t take long to do both of this land’s rides. Indy I’ll be doing again and again later. For now my Journey to the Center of the Earth FastPass is good, so I head back towards Mysterious Island by way of Port Discovery. There I collect a FastPass for the new Nemo and Friends SeaRider. It’s nearing noon, and that’s the last FastPass I’ll gather today. They run out fast.

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Every tree in the resort has cable supports, presumably in case of typhoons.

It’s a good thing that DisneySea offers plenty more to do than just E-tickets. Soon enough I’ll be exploring some of its lesser attractions, following a brief layover in Mysterious Island for food and lava monsters.

Up next: Japanese Noodles! Also Mermaid Lagoon

Edited: November 5, 2017, 7:01 AM

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Mermaid Lagoon

Following another tremendous Journey to the Center of the Earth, I pause to eat. It’s not quite lunchtime for the locals, so it’s to wise beat the rush and dine now. My stop is Vulcania in Mysterious Island, a dining hall for Captain Nemo’s crew forged from the lava rocks. Natural steam vents heat the food (so the theming asserts), which is mostly Asian noodles.

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Since it’s hot out, I order the chilled ramen combo and a Kirin. It is excellent, better even than the good Okinawan ramen joint back home. The setting is really special as well, deep in this steampunk grotto with distant archway views of the rugged caldera. Would’ve loved visiting this restaurant again, but the desire to continuously try more new things proved too great.

Okay, now on to Mermaid Lagoon! The route there from Mysterious Island is through a windswept canyon past a falling sea wall and a geysering waterfall – never a dull moment in DisneySea.

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Mermaid Lagoon is the child-friendly land, based entirely around The Little Mermaid. It’s not a simple recreation of settings from the film – there’s no Eric’s Castle here or anything. DisneySea’s designers have a different unifying aesthetic for this park, so the land’s exterior area – a rolling seascape of sand dunes and coral rocks – seems to echo Gaudi’s architectural surrealism in Barcelona. There’s also the towering forced perspective palace of King Triton, which we’ll get to.

There's also an Ariel meet 'n' greet on the opposite side of the river, in an area which is otherwise almost entirely functionless at the moment.

Child-friendly areas like DCA’s “a bug’s land” can feel like wasted space. They mostly offer flat rides and playgrounds which hold little appeal for adult guests. Children are sequestered here, and grownups are sequestered near the coaster. Examining Mermaid Lagoon, I appreciate the necessity of lands like this, places where parents can relax while their children play. This is a good example of the form, with its beautiful, beautiful setting – care has been taken to avoid cartoony eye-searing visuals and keep if of-a-part with the entire DisneySea feel. And besides, Mermaid Lagoon is located so that disinterested guests need never pass through.

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Still, it’s mostly kiddie fare. There’s no E-ticket. Exploring the land’s exterior, there’s one Vekoma junior coaster and one spinner. That spinner is Scuttle’s Scooters, which for some reason I went ahead and rode right away. (For completionism, I’ll do all the Lagoon’s available rides eventually.) You ride in a snail shell which circles a static Scuttle on a rockwork mesa. Gentle undulations rise up and down. Eventually, the seashell rotates to face backwards. It climaxes with some gentle spinning. It’s a cool setting, alongside the waters with the passing Steamers, and little more.

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The coaster is Flounder’s Flying Fish Coaster. It is…it is…This is hard for me to say, folks…It is a bad ride! By that, I mostly mean it’s a bare naked roller coaster. Nowhere else in this amazing theme park are ride systems exposed without justification. Everything else fits its setting perfectly. Here, yellow fish trains roll across a meandering blue steel track, all around an admittedly attractive coral canyon. In another park, no problem, here it’s a necessary evil. Fortunately, the Flying Fish Coaster is carefully isolated so you’ll only see it if A) you seek it out, or B) you’re a tall westerner who likes to peer over rockwork.

Simply as a ride, Flounder’s Folly is there with Gadget’s Go-Coaster and below Flight of the Hippogriff. A good intro coaster for the young ‘uns, and functionally it’s something big parks like DisneySea need, but past that demographic there’s little cross-generational appeal here.

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We’ve only scratched Ariel’s surface so far. The remainder of Mermaid Lagoon is indoors, in a sub-land called Triton’s Kingdom. Primary entry is under that pastel palace façade, through a decorative atrium with a static Triton statue, bubble walls, and coral décor. Moving inside, the aesthetic becomes cartoonier, but it’s nicely sequestered. An indoors section for the kiddies is smart. It’s like a smaller theme park within the park, its own loud, fun thing. And it lets parents enjoy A/C outside of the heat and/or rain.

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Triton’s Kingdom sits on a lower level (DisneySea is a very multilayered park), so the lengthy entry pathway affords nice encompassing views. This pathway also has a more intimate model of Triton’s castle and the rest of Atlantis. The indoors setting is used to simulate an underwater realm, with watery patterns on the ceiling (hiding the klieg lights). The three flat rides, while not much to ride, create a nice aquatic kineticism. It is loud in here, with children rushing everywhere. Tired parents are resting on seaweed benches.

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The rides? Jumpin’ Jellyfish is an up-and-down mini-parachute ride, smaller than the version at DCA which shares its name, and more appropriately located here. The glowing neon vehicles really do resemble cartoony jellyfish swimming in a current. DCA’s looks like the reskinned carnival ride it is.

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Blowfish Balloon Race is an aerial carousel (not an Ariel carousel!) using the same ride system as Flik’s Flyers at DCA. There’s a fair amount of flat ride overlap between these parks, eh? Here, blowfish (delicious fugu sushi!) carry guests in seashell vehicles – always with the seashells. Like the rest, it’s tame and content-light, but it’s another fun kinetic detail.

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The Whirlpool is a mini-teacups ride. It was closed (another trip in my future?!). From above, I could glimpse workmen with headlights and literal fine-toothed combs giving the ride platform a fresh paint job. Such fastidiousness! Seeing renovation work firsthand, it really demonstrates that Tokyo difference.

Also in here is a theater show we’ll be visiting on another day. There’s also Ariel’s Playground, a series of explorable interactive set pieces under the entry walkway. See multiple Little Mermaid locations, from the sunken ship to her grotto to Ursula’s sea lair, and more. There are fun effects throughout to be triggered, masts to climb, and tiny one-on-one encounters with characters like Flotsam and Jetsam. Especially for a toddler play area, I found this to be exceptionally well done, and I wasn’t the only unaccompanied adult enjoying the details and design.

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Many of the grownups visiting DisneySea truly channel their inner child, in that particular goofy Japanese manner which idolizes youthfulness. There are large groups of young women, all dressed childishly and carrying around stuffed Disney characters…especially Duffies. They carry baskets and papooses and slings and strollers for their stuffed animals, entirely for the joy of doing so. The park’s merchandise caters to these tastes.

And it’s Halloween time right now, when Tokyo Disney Resort permits its guests to tour in costumes! This is a privilege the California parks don’t allow! Someone out here would doubtlessly dress offensively, then cause a ruckus if Disney objected. The Japanese guests know how to play nice, and nearly every costume seen is of a Disney Princess. It’s super adorable (especially Belle on the left!), with homemade outfits done to convention quality.

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That does it for Mermaid Lagoon, attraction-wise. You’d expect they could’ve added the Ariel omnimover dark ride from DCA and Magic Kingdom, given the land a little more content oomph. Not sure why they didn’t. Maybe the Oriental Land Company which owns and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort (yes, Disney just licenses things here) didn’t find Ariel’s Undersea Adventure to their standards. This is all speculation!

Note that with each of these port-of-call retrospectives, I’m skipping over shops, restaurants, and a myriad other niceties. We’ll be revisiting the whole of DisneySea again and again, so for now let’s continue our whirlwind, whirlpool tour!

Next up: Port Discovery

November 4, 2017, 9:03 AM

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Port Discovery

After exploring Mermaid Lagoon’s cavernous recesses, I ride the Steamer along the rivers straight past Mermaid Lagoon. This offers views of intricate corral arches and babbling brooks which only Steamer guests can see (see last photo in previous update). We proceed next through Mysterious Island’s caldera, through submerged tunnels, and everywhere there are staggeringly complete details! There’s rarely new content, like the animal scenes along the Disneyland Railroad, but the settings themselves are so fully-realized, so engrossing, you never once feel shortchanged.

The Steamer lets me off in Mediterranean Harbor. (They only allow full-circuit tours intermittently, and I never managed that.) From here I climb up winding Italian stairways and past an ancient Roman aqueduct back through Mysterious Island…my ultimate goal being Port Discovery. This is a very roundabout route, and for no reason except I was exploring, happily lost in DisneySea’s lovely settings.

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Port Discovery is DisneySea’s smallest port, with only two rides plus a smattering of shops and restaurants. I approach it from Mysterious Island’s drill tunnels, where polished oceanic boulders unfold theatrically with a panoramic view of Port Discovery below. Passing below the Electric Railway tracks, you reach a waterfront courtyard which seems to float atop gentle ocean tide pools. Beyond moored steampunk sailboats is the leaking sea wall. All around are golden towers of a futuristic aquatic something or other.

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Port Discovery’s identity is a little vague, especially compared with DisneySea’s specificity elsewhere. It’s the park’s Tomorrowland, and the same issues apply. Future speculation tends to be broad and non-specific. There’s some Port Discovery backstory going on about a futuristic weather institute, a place where scientists control hurricanes like in that dumb-looking movie Geostorm. At least, that’s what Port Discovery used to be.

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Last year, it became a Finding Nemo land…maybe? The StormRider motion simulator (where guests murder a hurricane using SCIENCE) has been totally rethemed into the Nemo and Friends SeaRider. The building’s exterior has been redressed as the Marine Life Institute from Finding Dory, with the rest of this tiny land following suit.

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Hidden – genuinely hidden – are static Dory characters such as otters, seals, and Hank. So I suppose Port Discovery is a contemporary land now, themed to some SeaWorld-esque aquarium institute? Who knows?! It’s a striking, beautiful piece of land design nonetheless, even with a muddled backstory. The forested volcano backdrop – made to look smaller and cozier on this side – creates a nice ambiance. This is a fun, lively port.

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There’s still a bit of sci-fi. Using my SeaRider FastPass, I soon enter a preshow which tells (in Japanese and the international language of visuals) about fish-shaped submarines which are able to shrink and then talk to fish. Using a variation on the Shiriki Utundu vanishing effect, cast members “shrink” a model of this sub before our very eyes. The Ant-Man ride Hong Kong is getting had better do something similar!

We then enter the motion simulator room – that same shrinking submarine. As a ride, StormRider/SeaRider is basically Star Tours on steroids, in a larger shaking room. There are a few in-cabin effects to make it unique, though seemingly fewer in this rather tame SeaRider version. StormRider was apparently DisneySea’s least effective E-ticket upon opening, and SeaRider holds true to that. I would only do this once.

Anyway, so we shrink down and are plopped into the ocean – into the waters of Port Discovery itself, just as the StormRider flew away from the land, and I do like how nearly all of DisneySea’s rides are extensions of their lands. We float into the coral kingdom of Marlin, Dory and Nemo. Nemo gets lost again – of course he does! – and we and the other fish look for him. It’s all incredibly low-stakes, Nemo’s just hiding (I think, there’s a lot of Japanese spoken on this ride and in this instance I feel I missed out). We just pass through scenes which are similar to the films, but not exact copies. Did a squid chase us? This ride’s narrative is a blur. Physically, it’s very tame too, barely earning its height requirement.

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Port Discovery’s other ride, Aquatopia, is more appealing. It’s just a C-ticket, a bunch of bizarre future rafts floating around a peaceful lagoon. Still, it gives the land movement, and it’s an early example of trackless LPS ride tech. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt next door premiered sooner, but this was the first trackless ride in development. The tech’s use in Aquatopia is a little underwhelming, because as the name indicates it’s not much more than a watery Autopia. To be honest, it’s kind of a pointless ride. But there’s always that DisneySea Difference, where the amazing setting elevates a possibly underwhelming ride. I enjoyed Aquatopia far more than I expected to!

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I also wouldn’t do this until around sunset – we’re skipping ahead here briefly. That timing was intentional, and the views it provided were worth it. The ride is interesting, a continual loader with two sides. Each raft follows a semi-autonomous route over a thin film of water. We’re meant to feel like it’s a deeper pool. The effect doesn’t quite work, but it’s a solid effort which with a little imagination I accept. Rafts spin, they reverse, they go close to whirlpools and waterfalls and water sprays. A silly, pointless, harmless, fun little ride!

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A part of Aquatopia’s inside queue features a bare ceiling and undecorated alcoves. I bring this up solely because it’s so uncharacteristic for DisneySea. The details are so, so all-pervasive that the only, only time they taper off really, really stands out. Evidence of Port Discovery’s weird identity crisis?

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Maybe that little Cape Cod sub-area nearby got created when Imagineering realized Port Discovery wasn’t yielding much content. I dunno. Other than the new Dory figures, the detail density is a bit lower here. There’s a mister effect with a broken steam pipe under the Electric Railway, which I like. There are generic marina details, like buoys and life savers, all given a mild futuristic twist. Too bad there wasn’t a world culture to inspire Port Discovery further, because the best parts of DisneySea simply thrive on that ingredient, such as…

Next up: My favorite land, Mediterranean Harbor!

Edited: November 5, 2017, 7:01 AM

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Mediterranean Harbor

Mediterranean Harbor is DisneySea’s entry land. It’s also the largest land, fully encircling the vast Porto Paradiso lagoon. This allowed Imagineering to create a truly vast variety of Italian Renaissance locations, spanning obvious influences (Venice), unknown ones (Firenze), and ones I know now only because of DisneySea (Portofino). Built to modern standards, but depicting a magical romanticized version of the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration, the perfect mindset to first instill in your guest for a day of adventure exploring the world’s oceans.

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Imagineering must’ve combined great passion with meticulous research. No doubt they took invaluable trips throughout Italy, as the fine details and finishings of Mediterranean Harbor can only come from close in-person observation. Every aged stone has crumbled in just the perfect way. There are the cute Disney touches too. Fab Five characters in Giotto paintings. Moored fishing boats have names like Stromboli and Bella Notte, subtle nods to appropriate Disney staples. Mediterranean Harbor is a staggering creation, made at a massive scale yet stuffed with intimate details in every underexplored alcove just waiting to be discovered.

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This is my favorite land in DisneySea, if my gushing wasn’t clear. Admittedly, I love perfect entry lands. Main Street U.S.A. and Buena Vista Street are my favorite lands in their respective Californian parks, and I know that’s an uncommon opinion when places like Cars Land and New Orleans Square exist nearby. I find entry sequences to be invaluable, and though I don’t do theme park shopping, exploring the extensive shops of a well-realized entry area often reveals the largest cache of details. My opinion of Mediterranean Harbor is surely improved since I’m living there during this trip.

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This land also boasts the most iconic views of Mt. Prometheus, with Fortress Explorations nestled wonderfully before it. A feather in the cap of a land which would be stupendous anyway.

Naturally, as an entry land there aren’t many standing attractions in Mediterranean Harbor. (It’s gettin’ Soarin’ in 2019.) What they do have are the lagoon shows, both day and night. My current touring strategy has me returning now to the Harbor for a midday Villains World show, and a brief respite to accompany it.

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The lagoon is among DisneySea’s most brilliant bits of macro-design. This park doesn’t do parades, which can shut down streets and make guest navigation a pain. The lagoon hosts similar daytime shows, which means the walkways are never impeded. (This does shut down the Steamer and the Venetian Gondolas repeatedly throughout the day, which is maybe a genuine DisneySea flaw.) At night, this lagoon does double duty hosting Fantasmic – no dedicated once-a-day theater venue here! Views for each are 360 degrees, so crowds needn’t amass in a single unequipped location like with World of Color. There’s still the Lido Island with its dedicated tiered seating arrangement, nicely offset from the main walkways. All in all, a really functional bit of theme park layout which is beautiful and effective all at once.

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I’m now headed back to my room in MiraCosta to watch the show. Like a king, I use the secret hotel entrance. With 30 minutes to spare, I pause for a pint in the Bella Vista Lounge overlooking the harbor. Many are dining in here, and their show views will be stupendous, but I continue on to my room, intent to get the fullest value of this unique hotel amenity.

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Indeed, it’s a great decision! Another minibar Kirin in hand, shoes off, I kick back in my overstuffed Renaissance chair and peer down on the spectacle unfolding in the lagoon below. The Villains World is a seasonal Halloween production. The park’s usual fleet of parade boats is redressed in sinister colors, each commandeered by an A-list Disney villain, or by Hades. They sing a raucous, evil song. Disney heroes are held captive on each ship. Best as I recall, they don’t even defeat the villains at the end, who float away to continue their ghoulish misdeeds. (The evening’s Fantasmic will redress this villainous victory.)

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Technically, it’s certainly quite similar to any DisneySea harbor show. Cool boats, and some live performers on the Lido Isle. The land-based entertainers have a secret passage from the Venice side, and seeing them arrive reminds me of Venice’s famous street masquerades. The show’s climax involves stuntmen flying over the harbor on water-based jetpacks. Again…jetpacks! My jaw did drop at that. As a crescendo, Mt. Prometheus erupts on cue. This was a fun show!

It’s nice too to relax at midday in your hotel room while still enjoying theme park entertainment. This made DisneySea a lot easier to tour, and left me quite refreshed soon afterwards as I returned to Mediterranean Harbor.

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My next little agenda were the sweets from Mamma Biscotti’s Bakery. It’s a cute, rustic Italian bakery in the plaza, with a crumbling stucco revealing an ancient bread mural. I get panna cotta plus a custard-filled loaf with a chocolate Mickey icon. The panna cotta in particular was delicious; I wish I’d gotten more of those.

Now, Mediterranean Harbor is laid out unusually. Unlike Main Street, which is a single corridor of shops, Mediterranean Harbor branches off in a Y once you pass under MiraCosta. This coastal shape actually perfectly copies the real Portofino fishing village. So while 80% of the shops and eateries are housed underneath MiraCosta’s main wing, leading toward American Waterfront, the path to the right towards Mysterious Island is comparatively tranquil.

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In order to cross the lagoon’s main inlet, the pathways must climb up a good floor or two. This is done along a quaint Tuscan hillside, populated with vineyards, casks and basil plants. Narrow cobblestone alleyways, filled with babbling fountains and covered bridges overhead, provide an alternate path. Past an ancient Roman wall, cracked and crumbling, the path crosses the basalt columns of Mt. Prometheus and leads to a Renaissance citadel caught within the hardened rocks of a long-dead lava flow.

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This Explorers Landing citadel – visible in every iconic DisneySea photo - houses many of the park’s sweetest gems. Here is their flagship restaurant Magellan’s (for another day) and here is Fortress Explorations, this century’s version of Tom Sawyer Island and one of DisneySea’s very best attractions. Not bad for a walkthrough!

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Such a layered and complex setting, this citadel, with a regular pathway passing through, yet still it houses so much to explore on three separate levels. I first collect a souvenir map from the Leonardo Challenge sub-attraction. This is a scavenger hunt utilizing Fortress Explorations, and it’s wholly in Japanese, so I don’t bother. Rather, I experience Fortress Explorations unguided, freely wandering the parapets and bridges which confusingly crisscross this entire mythic fortress.

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I daren’t miss a single alcove, for everyplace houses something unique. There are cannons to fire into the harbor, spyglasses hidden in watchtowers, a replica of Da Vinci’s glider to pedal. Inside chambers are exhibits displaying the forefront of Renaissance scientific knowledge, from astronomy to navigation.

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A planetarium features a gear-powered model of the solar system, which you control with a crank. A map room lets you pilot a model ship past the world’s edge. An illusion room features a lens which renders a fish-eye painting comprehensible. There’s a Foucault’s pendulum, wholly functional. An alchemist’s lab. A camera obscura. An armillary sphere. An elevator for wheelchair guests! Fortress Explorations has it all!

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That’s not even mentioning the full-scale galleon moored downstairs at the fortress docks. DisneySea is jam-packed with goodness, and sometimes even a little cluttered. Views of the galleon’s sails and rigging, obscuring more rigging beyond in American Waterfront, is where that visual clutter is keenly felt. But when wandering the vessel, it’s another serene, engrossing experience. Like the Sailing Ship Columbia at Disneyland, below decks is fully accessible, with tiny chambers suggesting life on the open seas. It’s an intimate setting in a huge public park.

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Of course I love the little details, like an incomplete bronze bust covered in barnacles. Stuff like a nearby fisherman’s hut (in actuality maybe a structure for Fantasmic equipment) fleshes out the setting. Even a small toddler playground, with a crawl tube fashioned from intricate gilt cargo containers, speaks to the DisneySea Difference. As a grownup, I probably appreciated that crawl tube more than any toddler could.

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Oh, and Fortress Explorations is ground zero for the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.), that secret society shared universe which is so beloved of Disney Park fans.

Moving upslope – up stairways which are crisscrossed by a wheelchair ramp, a common Disneyea design feature – I reach restrooms housed inside a dilapidated old farmhouse. Even the theming on these I could gush over at length. The facilities were appreciated too. Such a wonderful park, and we’re nowhere near through exploring it yet!

Up next: Arabian Coast, the Final Port-of-Call

Edited: November 5, 2017, 7:04 AM

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Arabian Coast

My late-afternoon meanderings take me again through Port Discovery and through Lost River Delta. I pause here to again do Indiana Jones via Single Rider. But I’m intent on reaching Arabian Coast before nightfall, for somehow in this entire wonderfully busy day I’ve yet to step foot in one of DisneySea’s best lands.

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Like Mermaid Lagoon and The Little Mermaid, Arabian Coast is primarily inspired by a single ‘90s Disney cartoon – Aladdin. Actually, Aladdin is more just the inspiration, for Arabian Coast creates a wider, richer world than merely cartoon Agrabah. It conjures up an entire Middle Eastern metropolis in the pre-Christian era, with winding bazaar pathways, minarets, crumbling peasant hovels and a glistening sultan’s palace separated by gateways.

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The texturing is more realistic than in Mermaid Lagoon, somewhat closer to the grit of Mediterranean Harbor. There’s still an undeniable cartoon influence, however, with walls which are just a bit cleaner and more colorful. This strikes me as the older children’s land, the step up from Mermaid Lagoon, where there are no height requirement attractions to discourage the smallest guests, but an ambiance which is just slightly more adult.

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As a testament to Arabian Coast’s broad focus, its crowning E-ticket has nothing whatsoever to do with Aladdin. Instead, Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage is based on another famous Persian myth.

I did this one already last night. It’s a wonderful musical boat ride with a distinctly unrealistic aesthetic and hundreds of animatronics. This is precisely the sort of ride Disney fans say they want more of, something which could’ve been realized by the first-gen Imagineers in the ‘60s with just a few technological upgrades.

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The Storybook Voyage is unique for DisneySea as a ride which is not an extension of its land! Instead it’s a journey into another world, a stylized world like the pages of an illustrated manuscript. It’s there in the title! Because of this, I really love the full-scale realistic Sindbad boat moored in the cove. Here, they imply, is a storybook retelling of a real adventure which happened in Arabian Coast. Only DisneySea would sacrifice precious acreage for a design nicety like that.

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The ride is lovely, absolutely one of DisneySea’s best unless you’re some sort of cynical adrenaline junkie. Our boats drift calmly through multiple scenes, which depict Sindbad and his tiger kitten Chandu crossing seas, facing mermaids, rescuing giants, parlaying sultans, and partying with monkeys. There is a consistent visual style to the sets and characters which suggests the hand of a single artist, much like Mary Blair’s presence in “it’s a small world.” Then there’s Allan Menken’s original song, “Compass of Your Heart,” sung all throughout the ride, with variations in pitch and tone befitting each scene. For my money, it’s a classic catchy tune, not the wretched ear worm found on “small world,” but a more robust Broadway melody befitting the composer of Disney’s ‘90s classics.

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Actually, the music, Chandu, and general sweetness are all later additions. The opening day version was Sindbad’s Seven Voyages, a darker and more adventurous ride channeling the tone of those old Harryhausen epics. Having just watched that version on YouTube, it’s an interesting and effective variation. Honestly, you would never guess the playful current ride is not the original, it’s such an effective reimagining.

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In between Voyages (which is perpetually a walk on – Is it unpopular with locals?!), I stop off at the Sultan’s Oasis for some tasty snacks. I’ve been subsisting on flavored popcorn for most of the day, and DisneySea’s varied counter foods wind up substituting for a proper meal this evening. Here I get a Chandu Tail, which is soft springy bread stuffed with creamed chicken, and a genuinely strange drink which involves chunks of chocolate, jelly mounds, whipped cream, and iced coffee. The Chandu Tail I really liked.

Arabian Coast’s flat rides I did last Arabian night, and won’t revisit. Its only other attraction is the Magic Lamp Theater, which is closed for this visit. It’s a 3D show where a live magician performs with an animated Genie. From the YouTube video it seems fun but inessential, though I do hate missing out on DisneySea’s one-of-a-kind pleasures.

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While one can easily bypass Arabian Coast’s marketplace via the riverfront walkway, there’s much to explore in its backstreets. As said, it’s a bustling bazaar. Meandering alleys continually reveal fresh sights, like a static cartoon camel photo-op, a Princess Jasmine fountain mural, or an enchanted rope rising from a basket. It’s all just a little cartoony. Elsewhere, a cart full of magic lamps acts as the land’s themed mister – that’s clever.

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One of the shops has a long queue leading up to it. Best I can tell, they’ve converted this shop into a game-of-chance center, which is odd. I do love the animatronic Abu in the centerpiece, which swings from the rafters constantly trying to steal the merchandise.

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That’s just the seedy part of town. There’s the sultan’s plaza, home to the Caravan Carousel and Magic Lamp Theater. In its center is a grand fountain. Comparatively, there’s not much to explore in this section, though its tall walls and nice place-making make it among DisneySea’s more enveloping locations.

And that does it for Arabian Coast.

Up next: The Sun Sets on DisneySea

November 5, 2017, 6:50 PM

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Nightfall Leads to Fantasmic!

Frequent theme park visitors will know that nighttime transforms a park’s energy in brilliant, unexpected ways. That’s certainly the case for DisneySea, and I was better equipped to enjoy its evening ambiance now after having spent a day learning its secrets.

As mentioned in my Port Discovery update, I arranged it so the sun would set while riding Aquatopia (I worked it out with the sun in advance). The ride’s water surface reflected the sky’s colors brilliantly, making a magical ride even more special.

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Upon exiting Aquatopia, the ever-changing sky was growing even more astounding. Colors were changing fast. Time to act! I wished to experience this wonderful sunset from as many spots as possible, so I instantly took off through Cape Cod towards the main docks of American Waterfront. Along the way, I was continually focused on the skies, and on how they were reflected in the park’s expansive flowing waterways. These pictures, from a span of 5 minutes, say it best!

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It was twilight as I crossed the bridge towards the S.S. Columbia, and nighttime when I reached it. That was fast! And the night’s ambiance is felt quickly, especially with the warm neon and popcorn bulbs throughout American Waterfront. The cruise ship’s Dockside Stage was then host to a Duffy-themed live show, Follow Your Dreams, with a crowd of over 1,000 in attendance. There really is something about Duffy which speaks to the Japanese audiences. I caught glimpses of this show, one of the few I never tried to watch in full later. High energy, full of dancing and Disney characters and song, but not something of huge interest to me.

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Besides, I was looking to relax. S.S. Columbia holds two table service restaurants which might do the trick, though each one had a lengthy line. One is the S.S. Columbia Dining Room on the ship’s third level, a “table cloth and fine silver” meal one might expect on a luxury sea crossing. The décor in here seemed frilly and fussy, all whites and pinks. In contrast is the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge below, with dark browns and burgundies around a carved wood bar. Though I’d enjoy the Lounge another day, the lines to get in right now were prohibitive. I moved on.

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Before heading ashore, the ship’s decks demanded exploration. This is an amazing thing about DisneySea, how many hidden pockets of fully-themed wonder exist, not as attractions, not with shops, but just for their own sake. Past shuffleboard layouts I reach the ship’s front deck. This place is meant for young couples. Not only can you do that silly Titanic thing on the bow, but the trace lingering lights of that incredible sunset complete the romantic feeling.

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This deck boasts some of DisneySea’s best views. It’s also, by design, just about the only spot where you can see outside of the park, out over the Tokyo Bay and towards the city’s coastline to the north. You can also see the Monorail and some non-Disney hotels. That’s actually impressive; it’s a “pull back the curtains” moment to reveal what’s otherwise so expertly hidden. (Apparently, in the morning light you can see Mt. Fuji from here too, a second volcano to compliment Mt. Prometheus.)

Hungrily roaming the waterfront, I settle upon Barnacle Bill’s. Sounds delicious, right? It’s the designated beer stand (Kirin, naturally), also serving hotdog-on-a-bone (?!). In a long line for beer, I eat black pepper popcorn. I wind up ordering a Halloween specialty beer, which is a black-and-tan with a top layer of raspberry juice to make it evil. I’d’ve preferred a pilsner in retrospect.

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And incidentally, even something tiny like Barnacle Bill’s has more theming than some entire theme parks. It’s the food truck of a shyster paleontologist-slash-huckster, whose banners everywhere peddle his dumb, non-existent Dinoland-style attractions. Held in a caged cart is a triceratops skull. Though within easy reach, no Japanese guest has ever defaced it. This is why we can’t have nice things in the States! As to why Imagineering settled on a triceratops for its 1912 New York harbor, I haven’t a clue. Just a prop that was lying around? I prefer this mystery. DisneySea is so idiosyncratic.

Every random pier in American Waterfront has another boat or theme of similar complexity. Most serve no functional purpose except perhaps as a place to sit. It’s all decoration, place-making, a staggering expense to no end. Pointless? By no means! DisneySea alone among Disney’s second (third, fourth) gates has attendance on par with its sister “castle park.” Guests will flock for quality, returning again and again. Walt put it best: “Quality will out.”

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DisneySea is a locals’ park, like Disneyland, and its crowd levels increase throughout the day. It’s getting kinda congested now, though the Japanese crowds fill in seamlessly and never block the walkways. Still, it’s busy enough now that I choose to return to MiraCosta while I still can, before the terraces around Porto Paradiso get too full.

I’m not turning in for the night. By no means! No, Fantasmic is starting soon and I’m headed to the best view in the park…inside my hotel room. I shower beforehand, toss on a complimentary kimono, and sit barefoot with another minibar Kirin in hand just as the lights come down on Mt. Prometheus. There is something to be said for the luxury of watching one of Earth’s best nighttime shows in a bathrobe. One of my best Disney experiences ever, easily!

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DisneySea’s Fantasmic is quite different from Disneyland’s. (I can’t speak for the one in Florida.) The narrative structure is roughly the same, with Sorcerer Mickey dreaming of assorted wonders before the villains attack his imagination. The staging is very different.

Porto Paradiso is not the Rivers of America, it doesn’t have the island backdrop or the rivercraft to repurpose. Instead they use the same boat fleet from the daytime show, and more. Mickey stands atop a telescoping stage which folds out to resemble the sorcerer’s hat, and acts as the main projection surface for animated clips. Other clips appear on inflatable spheres which float about. There are dancers, jet skis, a big Kaa boat, and water sprays. A few distinct Disney properties feature, such as Lilo & Stitch. This Fantasmic uses all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect.

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I still cannot figure out where Maleficent’s dragon came from. At one moment Mickey was firing off sparks at a gigantic Magic Mirror when – poof! – Maleficent emerged from inside the mirror, conjured up from thin air in the very middle of a harbor with people on all sides. Disney magic, y’all! Maleficent’s fiery powers, as usual, set the waters on fire. She also controls the nearby volcano, which erupts violently time and again. It is incredible.

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Of course, Mickey defeats her. The big finale, bringing back all the boats and dancers, includes short range fireworks fired straight up from the lagoon, illuminating the entire park. It’s a tremendous crescendo. Ultimately I can’t decide if this Fantasmic or Disneyland’s is better. I watched DisneySea’s from a much, much better seat by far, which means a lot. Disneyland’s has that park’s intimacy. The Rivers of America venue is a great accidental setting, whereas DisneySea was designed for this show from the very start. Ultimately, they’re neck and neck.

The fireworks which follow – a show shared between the two parks, thanks to a connecting backstage – are lame. They’re short, they’re underwhelming, and there’s no additional projection element to add zing. All other nights, the fireworks didn’t even play. Slight breezes off the Tokyo Bay shut them down. It’s nice to know that the Tokyo Disney Resort is mortal.

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Less than an hour now remained before closing time. Once again, my photos suggest I went up into Mermaid Lagoon in this final hour. No idea why I kept doing that! I cannot remember it this time either. Weird.

This was a tiring day, in a great way. Over 7 miles walked, and over 30 flights climbed. As I’ve said, DisneySea is multilayered, full of stairs. I would fall asleep quickly this night, getting necessary rest for another big day to follow.

Up next: Day 8 – Tokyo Disneyland!

November 6, 2017, 7:45 AM

Enjoying these. Very thorough. Wondering if its possible to have articles like these attached to the park guides?

November 6, 2017, 8:33 AM

I agree with Grant. I would love to be able to easily find reviews like this for parks before I visit for the first time.

Edited: November 6, 2017, 10:04 AM

Hmm, I like your ideas guys. Ultimately doing that would be Robert's decision (obviously he would finance my worldwide travels to accomplish this!). Let me try getting ahold of him...

HEY ROBERT!!!

November 6, 2017, 4:18 PM

Another awesome report, Blake! I agree with Grant and Ryan...this should definitely be linked in the park review page, as it is one of the most comprehensive reports of Tokyo DisneySea I've read. While it's doubtful I'll get there anytime soon, you've definitely reminded me why the park is so high on my must visit list.

Like the last one, I'll just list my comments on sections:

-Hotel MiraCosta looks absolutely amazing, and staying there almost seems to be a mandatory part of the DisneySea experience (at least once). I'm really curious if Disney will ever try another hotel inside a theme park...the new Star Wars Hotel would seem to be the most logical choice if they did.

-I consider getting to Disneyland 45 minutes early to be slightly excessive, so the idea of lining up over two hours before opening is difficult to fathom. Apparently the Japanese take a visit to Disney very, very seriously.

-Almost everyone I know that has ridden it considers Journey to the Center of the Earth the best theme park ride in the world. Based solely on videos, while it does look ridiculously awesome, I think a few of the attractions that have come since (such as Mystic Manor and Battle for the Sunken Treasure) look just a tad better. Still, JTTCOTE is probably better than 99% of the rides that have ever existed.

-Thank you for the description and pictures of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Exactly what that ride was has always been a mystery to me, as I've never been able to find a good video of it.

-Looking at the area pictures you have, DisneySea doesn't look like a Disney park...it looks BETTER than a Disney park. Why can't this level of detail be in all their non-castle parks? It would majorly improve Epcot's World Showcase if the pavilions didn't seem isolated from each other.

-Sounds like Disneyland's Indy may be a tiny bit better than DisneySea's. It's nice to see that the rides are actually a bit different despite having many similarities.

-DisneySea deserves a better coaster than Raging Spirits. Most people say that ride runs notably better than Paris's Indiana Jones coaster, but it's still a very dull layout (Intamin literally borrowed the blueprints from a carnival coaster).

-Minor correction...Flounder's Flying Fish Coaster is actually a Togo. For some reason, Disney opted to go with a custom ride from them rather than buying a stock Vekoma. Again, Tokyo DisneySea deserves way better roller coasters...they're the one weak area in the rides department.

-Aquatopia was once described to me as the most awesome pointless ride ever. It still looks a lot better than Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters (a slightly awesome but largely pointless tech demo).

-Lots of people think I'm crazy for having this opinion, but if I could pick one international Disney ride to import to the US parks, it would be Sindbad's Storybook Voyage. Not because it's necessarily the most impressive ride out there, but because it would be an amazing fit and is probably the best family attraction Disney has ever created (except perhaps Mystic Manor).

-Again, this is based solely on videos, but DisneySea's Fantasmic looks like a slightly better show overall (especially compared to the new version, which is a small downgrade IMO), though Disneyland's seems like a more impressive experience due to the staging of the performance.

Once again, outstanding report! I'm really curious to hear about Tokyo Disneyland next, particularly because while DisneySea seems the most travel-worthy Disney park, Tokyo Disneyland itself seems the least travel-worthy of the castle parks (at least from what I've seen so far).

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