A few days ago, I had the day off work, so I bounced over to TDS for the better part of the day. (It's a nice problem to have.) My wife and I will be leaving Japan soon, and I don't know how many more times we'll get to go to TDS before we leave, so I got a little in-my-own-head about the experience. I thought I might share some of the things I thunked throughout the day with this board. It's pretty long, and totally biased, and probably rife with factual and mechanical errors, but hey: you get what you pay for.
One of the main things I thought about was advice for people who haven't been to TDS. I don't mean practical, nitty-gritty things like, "How do I get from the N'ex train to the Keiyo platform?" or "Who do I have to murder to book consecutive days at the Miracosta?" There's ample pragmatic advice of the sort available on this board and elsewhere. I mean, what advice do I, personally, have for a first-time TDS visitor?
Apparently, a lot.
1.) Be familiar with the Japanese academic calendar.
Or at least, consult one of the attendance calendars available. In brief: academic semesters run April to September and October to March. Exact start and end dates vary, but the parks are slammed between these semesters, even a few days before and after the breaks. (My recent trip was on Thursday, the 3rd of April, and it was as busy as I've ever seen it.) Kids get a summer break between mid-late June/early July and late August/early September. They are typically NOT slammed about a week out from those breaks.
Fun fact about Japanese schools: attendance is not legally mandatory for junior high and senior high school students. (A lot of them drop out and become complete recluses. They're called hikimori, and it's a big deal, and it’s way too sad a digression to get into on a Disney theme park message board.) The fact is, it's ALWAYS going to be busy in TDL and TDS. I've been on the major national holidays (New Years, during Golden Week), and as close to "off-peak" times as exist (and that's allowing for a pretty charitable definition of "off-peak"). The school calendar is the best predictor. This isn't some great hidden wisdom I'm sharing, I know ("Disney is crowded! Kids go there! The Russians shot a dog into space! Have you guys heard about the new pictures that move?"). But if you keep those breaks in mind, you can safely expect a merely huge crowd rather than a huge crowd plus every single extant Japanese teenager.
If you really want to avoid crowds, mid-Jan to mid-Feb is pretty nice, but the weather sucks. I think the best time to go is either mid-April (middle of the week, at least a week after school is back in session) or mid-May (again, middle of the week, at least a week after Golden Week).
Oh, and a funny thing about the holidays: keep in mind that New Year's is THE big holiday here. New Year's Eve (Ōmisoka) is the second most-important day of the year, which means traditional family meals and activities (like a midnight shrine visit, or the annual American Idol-esque "Red vs. White" pop star contest which airs from 7 p.m. to 11:45.) New Year's is the biggest day -- traditional post cards arrive, shrines are visited, etc. These are actually pretty good days to visit the parks, believe it or not.
2.) Forget Toy Story.
Pretend it’s not there. Don't tell your kids about it. Thanks to where the ride queue is positioned, you can probably keep it out of their direct line-of-sight, if you're careful and you utilize distractions ("Look up there, kids! I think I saw Mickey and Shellie May kissing in that apartment window!"). On the park map, description of the ride lies on the left edge ride above the center fold, so you can quite naturally cover it with your thumb.
I don't know what combination of ride novelty, property familiarity, KAWAAAAIIII (DES NE?!?), interactivity, and all-ages appeal makes this the hardest ticket in the park, but the OLC should commission a study. When I went the other day -- and, yeah, this was during ano-school day, so everything was worse by orders of magnitude -- FP for Toy Story ended around 9 am. Standby time, around 11-ish, was 280 minutes. I'm no mathemagician, but... carry the four... divide by the cosine... that's nearly FIVE HOURS. Having seen the lines, I believe it.
There is SO MUCH you can do in DisneySea in that time. And I'm presuming "spare time in Japan, specifically in one of two Disney parks" is not an abundant resource for most of those reading this.
I mean, you could...
- Hunt Hidden Mickeys (recommended).
- Hunt ACTUAL Mickeys (not recommended).
- Ride Sinbad 30 times (not recommended).
- Take a few minutes to people watch and soak in the ambiance (more on this in a sec.)
- REALLY explore Fortress Expeditions. There's SO MUCH NEAT SCIENCE-Y STUFF crammed in this area. (I think it's interesting that a lot of the things here -- like the camera obscura -- can also be found at the Griffith Observatory in LA, a real science place for science.) If you have kids, this is certainly a way better use of time than waiting in a line. They'll have plenty of time to do that as adults, when they’ve been crushed and broken by various bureaucracies.
- Leave the park, take the Keiyo line to Tokyo station, exit for the Imperial Palace, walk around the old palace grounds and garden, return to Tokyo station, buy a sweater from UniQlo, get lost trying to find the Keiyo platform again, take the Keiyo BACK to Maihama, go to Starbucks in Ikspiri, read the English language Japan Times newspaper you bought at Tokyo station (oh, I forgot: you did this), do the sudoku and the NY Times crossword in the paper, take a nap , take the Disney Line BACK to the park, and re-enter. (I’m kidding, of course. Ikspiri is lame.)
"Yes," you say, "that is certainly a list of things. But what about FP?" Are you an Olympic-class speed-walker? (Fun fact: "racewalking" is an actual Olympic event. Look it up!) Did you arrive at the park two hours before rope-drop? Do you know, precisely, the most efficient route, utilizing the fewest speed-steps, from the gate to the Toy Story FP kiosks? Then congratulations! You get to wait in line for a FP! Later, you'll ride Toy Story! Probably at 9 p.m.! Hope the kids are awake and alert!
Toy Story: it's just not worth the time investment.
3.) Have an adult beverage (if you like that sort of thing).
Yes, yes, as you know, you can have a delicious draft beer... well, A draft beer (I kid! Kirin's not completely terrible!). Or a beer-cassis cocktail ("Barnacle Bill's" in American Harbor, if you trust someone named "Barnacle Bill" to touch your drinkware). Or a frozen beer (at the Nautilis Galley, which has the additional advantages of cool ambience, smoked turkey legs, and delicious gyoza). Or... okay, the takeaway here is "Beer: there is some." You can also get wine and sake -- that's sah-KAY, not sah-KEY, my gaijin friends -- at various restaurants. These are all good things.
But these are not what I mean when I say, "Have an adult beverage."
What I mean is, you should go to the SS Columbia, 2nd floor (deck? I don't speak boat.), to the Teddy Roosevelt lounge. There, you will sit in a big comfortable chair in a relatively quiet and empty room, and drink a cocktail. A real cocktail. I recommend a Moscow Mule -- they serve 'em in copper tumblers, as is right and proper. These are real bartenders, with knowledge and skill, making real cocktails. The pours may be a little short, but you don't want to get wrecked (SHIPwrecked? No, that's no good, forget it) anyway.
I like to have a stiff drink before and/or after Tower of Terror. Shut up, I don't like heights. But your mileage may vary. This is an especially nice thing to do right around sunset, which brings me to my next point...
4.) Find, and enjoy, the "quiet spaces" in the park.
My favorite is the S.S. Columbia fore-deck... the prow... the top-nose part... you know, dammit, on top of on the front of the boat (I don't speak boat!). I know this isn't the case, but I often feel like people don't realize you're even ALLOWED to walk up there, even though you totally are. (This may be a symptom of Japanese crowd mentality, discussed in more detail below. I'll do the study up if anyone wants to pony up a grant.) I've only seen other people out there once, and that was in the little outdoor seating area with table and chairs (and shade!) on the deck, not up the stairs towards the front of the boat.
I like going here, especially around sunset. First of all, it's relatively quiet, and as "private" as you're gonna get in a mega-popular theme park adjacent to the world's most densely populated urban area. Second, you get two great views. Facing the park, you'll enjoy... well, an amazing elevated view of the park. (Duh. What, did you expect to see gazelles bounding majestically across the African savannah? You had too many Moscow Mules, and now your kids are crying.)
Sorry, I digressed. No, I mean this view of the park is one of my favorites, up there with the view from the first turn at the top of Raging Spirits (at the peak of the initial ascent, turning right), and the brief glimpse at the climax of Tower of Terror. Except this view is followed by a sphincter-clinching series of artificially accelerated freefalls. Shut up. Heights.
So that's the one view. The SECOND view I like from the Columbia deck is in the evening, turning 180 degrees to look out over Tokyo Bay. (Okay, maybe, like, 200 degrees, clockwise. Towards the west. You'll know, because THE SUN.) Fun fact: there's a lot of industrial development lining Tokyo Bay on all sides. This means lots of particulate matter in the atmosphere, which sucks for the environment, but makes for great sunsets.
And the other thing I like about these views is that enjoying them together gives you a very cool sense of perspective. In the Disney direction, you have the visual overload, the majestic scale, Disney's hallmark verisimilitude draping every themed land. Then you turn around, and you see the rather un-magical outer wall of the park, and beyond that a rather unremarkable road, and beyond that the REAL sea wall, a long expanse of dull grey concrete emblematic of Japan's "concrete for concrete's sake" mentality (seriously, you guys, it's grey as HELL up in this country), and beyond THAT, the bay. It's a neat contrast between real and hyper-real.
Especially after a Moscow Mule or three.
5.) Don't worry about the language. Except in terms of ride planning.
Seriously: TDL and TDS are truly bilingual. Enjoy it, because Japan is LEAGUES behind the rest of the world in terms of using English as an international lingua franca (for political and sociocultural reasons... I'll spare you the rant). You won't have any problem doing anything at Disney, though. Cast members often initiate dialogue with obvious NJ's in English.
In my time visiting TDL/S, my Japanese communicative competence has improved from "404: FILE NOT FOUND" to merely garbage. If all I did was go to Disney, I'da never had to learn nuthin'. (Except KAWAIIIII!!! Because Duffy.) You'll find that even the most tourist-y of stuff in Japan is built to accommodate Japanese tourists first and international visitors second (if at all - another rant for another day), but Disney/the OLC is the exception.
BUT: language ability, or lack thereof, should play a role in how you prioritize activities. Some activities are fine, despite the language barrier. For one example: take Storm#$%^er. Wait, sorry, no, that's StormRIDER. ("Storm#$%^er" is what my wife and I insist on calling it, based on our initial understanding of the premise: "Okay, we're gonna take this ship, and we're gonna fly into that storm, and we're gonna *&^% the $%^# out of it." I digress.) Stormrider is like Star Tours, in a bigger theater, with additional special effects, and no multi-bajillion dollar marquee pedigree. You watch a movie, the room shakes, stuff happens, badda bing, storm $%^#ed. Stormrider is all in Japanese, of course, but it doesn't really matter. Your lack of Japanese listening comprehension skill will not impede your understanding of how comprehensively and righteously that storm gets the business.
On the other end of the spectrum, take Turtle Talk. This activity does not involve a spaceship sexually assaulting the weather. It's a turtle, who asks and answers questions. In Japanese. If that's not a language you speak -- or, perhaps more importantly, if it’s not a language your KIDS speak -- Turtle Talk should be a low priority.
Typically, stuff at TDS falls into the former category. The E-ticket stuff is fine. I guess ToT has a lot of unique narrative set-up, but it’s all pretty well telegraphed. (Heck, they say "Adios, amigos!" when you're off at Raging Spirits. Es muy incongruous!)
The shows are mostly okay; you can get the little handheld English doohickey for, say, Mermaid and Aladdin; it's not strictly necessary, though. (One thing, though, that I might've missed at the Mermaid show: Ariel decides its best to stay in the sea as she was expected, which both allows for continuity as a movie prequel and TOTALLY reinscribes collectivist sociocutural value BLAH BLAH BIG WORDS). IIRC, the translator doohickey doesn't start up until after the pre-show at Aladdin, but I'm not 100% certain about this.
But a couple of things edge towards Turtle Talk territory. I don't know about others' experience in TDS, but I've done the gondolas a few times; it's a lovely ride, but the gondoliers do their spiels in Japanese, so don't expect to get the jokes. (Sort of like how it goes down in the Japanese Jungle Cruise.) Once, a gondolier incorporated me into his act, using occasional English and acting as a "translator" for laughs. That was a hoot, but it was the exception to the usual experience. Another ride where language might be a little more important is Sinbad, but Sinbad is a hot mess anyway. The DaVinci expedition is all Japanese, too, sadly. Because I wanna do it. What, you thought this was for the joy of children?
Hmm. I guess what I'm saying is, skip Turtle Talk (and Toy Story). Sorry, Pixar fans!
6. You know to do what crowd isn't, right? Do it harder in Japan.
The crowds here are more herd-like and predictable than crowds at the US parks. This is NOT a value judgment, or a pejorative statement; it's merely an observation. If you want academic citations for discussion of Japanese sociology supporting my thesis (and demonstrating that I'm not merely making unfair blanket generalizations based on ethnicity/nationality), email me at [email protected].
The major implication of this regards meals: eat at non-peak times. Presuming I get up real early to queue for rope-drop (highly recommended), I like to lunch around 10, sup around 4:30, and snack around 8. A lot of people recommend avoiding seated meals altogether in favor of regular (irregular?) snacking throughout the day at the kiosks. I like this approach, too, since it saves time, and allows you do things like eat flavored popcorn, smoked bird parts, and sugar-coated breads all day without too much dietary guilt and inner-voice fat shaming. (Another shout-out for the Nautilus galley is warranted here. Beer, turkey, and gyoza!)
There are a couple of things to consider, though. First, if you're doing a multi-day trip, your body will begin to ache for precious nutrients. Second, if you or anyone in your party has dietary restrictions, snack options might not be suitable. (My wife is a vegan. I won't go into detail about it here, but TDL/S pretty much suck for vegans, food-wise.) Oh, also, Sakura -- the Japanese restaurant in TDS -- is always super busy, given Japanese crowd behavior. I don't go to eat Disney to eat Japanese food, because it's everywhere else outside the park, and the food here is not especially remarkable in comparison.
The second implication: lines are shorter during the big shows/parades. Yes, derp, this is blatantly obvious Disney common sense, but I've found it to be especially true here, and double especially true during the big water shows at TDS. (Of course, I'm not a big show/parade fan, so again, mileage may vary. Mythica is pretty cool, I'll grant.) The effect seems especially pronounced to me towards the back end of the park (Indy, Raging Spirits).
Hey! Speaking of those rides...
7.) FastPass and Single Rider ftw.
Two rides, tens of meters apart, which both utilize the Single Rider system. It's not rocket surgery. We've never burned a FP on either of these rides. Especially not Raging Spirits, which, for a single rider, is basically an all-day walk-on. We like to ride it right before the park closes, too; the nighttime view of the park from on high is really cool, and the crowds have typically migrated towards the front of the park to shop for souvenirs, so the line is short. More than once, near closing time, we've noticed that the stand-by line was actually faster than the FP line for this ride.
As for FP, save it for the unique ride experiences in TDS you'll never get anywhere else. By this, I mean ToT and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Tokyo's Tower of Terror is simply terrific, but even with a FP, you'll have a little bit of a wait. WITHOUT one, you'd better get there first thing in the morning, while everyone is scampering for Toy Story FPs. And as for Journey, well, that's the best ride in any Disney park in the world, with the best queue themeing of any of the rides, housed in the best weenie of all the parks (drink in that first view once you're through the gate the first time, because DAMN). Full stop. Why, no, I shant entertain discussion of the matter. Do it early and often.
8.) Okay, ONE piece of practical advice.
The Hotel Trusty, Tokyo Bayside (google it, book through agoda.com) is a super cheap Japanese business hotel just a couple of subway stops (and a brief walk) away from Shin-Kiba station, which is one stop away from Maihama. It’s a super short trip from there to the parks. There’s always vacancy, in my experience – it’s built near the Tokyo Big Sight convention area, which was developed during Japan’s economic boom, so it’s bigger than it currently has any reason to be. Japanese business hotels are super cheap (60-70 bucks), have endless supplies of piping hot water, and have super-awesome blackout curtains (probably for blackout drunks). If you REALLY want to shoe string your trip and stay off-site, this is a non-obvious option. (Just request a non-smoking room, unless you want to sleep in an ashtray. Japan!) Also, it’s right next to the weird children’s science museum that’s about how Tokyo purifies the drinking water supply. Also, it’s a quick walk to Odaiba, an artificial island full of absurd malls (and a Statue of Liberty, for some reason). So that’s… something?
One's man's opinions, anyway. If you've made it this far and still give a hot damn, I appreciate your time and am wowed by your persistance. Who knows? Maybe I'll post some MORE thoughts, in re: actual complaints regarding TDS. Yes! There are some!