TOKYO, Japan -- For cultural tourists, flying halfway around the world to spend time at an American-style Disney theme park might sound crazy. But for Disney fans, it would be crazy to skip a visit to Tokyo Disneyland and especially Tokyo DisneySea, located 15 minutes by train from Tokyo's main train station.
Opened in 1983, Tokyo Disneyland is pretty similar to the primary Disney parks in Florida and California -- castle in the middle surrounded by Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, etc. But there are a few differences.
Tokyo Disneyland feels bigger, certainly bigger than the narrow streets of Disneyland and maybe even larger than the more expansive Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. That's necessary: In 2010, the Tokyo Disney parks were ranked as the No. 3 (Tokyo Disneyland with 14.4 million visitors) and No. 4 (Tokyo DisneySea with 12.6 million visitors) theme parks in top attendance worldwide behind the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando (16.9 million visitors) and Disneyland in California (15.9 million visitors), according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association.
Tokyo Disneyland sports a few differences from its American counterparts. A glass canopy protects Main Street at Tokyo Disneyland from the city's rainy climate, and a railroad ride doesn't circle the park, instead making a loop around Westernland and Adventureland.
Unless you speak Japanese, the Jungle Cruise and its drivers' corny jokes get lost in translation, and Space Mountain's coaster seems faster with more banking turns but fewer steep drops. A "Monsters Inc."-themed ride is an original not found in any of the American parks, and Star Tours here has yet to get the upgrade the ride received at American Disney parks earlier this year.
Another notable difference: Japanese people line up to paddle canoes at Tokyo Disneyland; at California's Disneyland in June, river guides were practically begging guests to hop in a canoe. That illustrates the most glaring difference between American and Japanese visitors to Disney parks: The Japanese people are simply more enthusiastic.
In America, Disney may be more for kids, but in Japan, it's truly for all ages. Even teen and twentysomething boys, who might be expected to evince a certain amount of cynicism, waved to Mickey Mouse and sang and clapped along during live stage shows. As reserved as many Japanese people may be in their regular lives, a visit to a Disney park seems to give them permission to go mildly wild.
Food-wise, popcorn of many different flavors (soy sauce and butter, anyone?) seemed the most popular snack, perhaps because it comes in a Disney character lunch pail. Japanese visitors snatch up Disney merchandise by the bagful; the stores at the Japanese Disney parks have wider aisles but they are still twice as crowded as the stores at American Disney parks.
Tokyo DisneySea celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Of the two parks it's by far the more interesting with an abundance of unique rides not found at American Disney parks.
Inspired by legends of the sea -- both parks sit on the edge of Tokyo Bay -- DisneySea is divided into seven ports of call:
• Mediterranean Harbor: Ride a Venetian gondola; board a steamer for a ride around the park.
• American Waterfront: Take an elevated electric trolley ride; plummet on the Tower of Terror with a story different from the same ride at American parks.
• Port Discovery: Fly into a hurricane on motion simulator Storm Rider; skim the water's surface on Aquatopia, riding in open-air vehicles that take unpredictable paths.
• Lost River Delta: The Raging Spirits coaster does a loop; the Indiana Jones Adventure is similar to its American counterpart.
• Arabian Coast: Sinbad's Storybook Voyage is a more story-driven It's a Small World.
• Mermaid Lagoon: "Little Mermaid"-themed kiddie rides and a live acrobatic show starring Ariel and friends.
• Mysterious Island: A completely different take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than in America (mini-subs that seat six) and the best thrill ride in the park: Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The rides at Tokyo DisneySea are generally no more intense than at other Disney parks -- Raging Spirits is similar to a Wild Mouse-style coaster and would be more accurately named Slightly Perturbed Spirits -- although Journey to the Center of the Earth, based on the Jules Verne story, surprises riders with technology similar to Test Track at Epcot in Orlando.
Japanese visitors to Disney parks seem more interested in live stage shows than Americans. Both parks provide several shows, some with live music, which is largely missing from American Disney parks.
DisneySea's shows are more extravagant, including a Big Band show with 1940s-era swing jazz performed by a 12-piece band and 20 singers/dancers. Mystic Rhythms, a Cirque du Soleil-type show features water, fire and acrobats suspended by wires.
Most of the shows, aside from classic Disney songs, are not in English -- visitors to "Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" shows can request electronic devices that display English subtitles -- but the gist of the story transcends the language barrier.