D, K and Z in Japan, Day 10

Aug. 24, 2006: Tokyo Disney

You know something’s really afoot when our teenage son Zephyr gets up at 6:00 a.m. (Tokyo time, New York time, Los Angeles time or Timbuktu time), especially without someone dousing him with cold water and dragging him out of bed by his big toe. This morning was obviously special, because he was up with the roosters, as were we all. This was THE day, as far as he was concerned, the day of our visit to what he considers the highlight of our trip: Tokyo Disney. We were on the road by 7:00, hoping to avoid the morning commute traffic.

Didn’t work. We got into that quaint little burg just in time for the thick rush hour, and spent two and a half hours making a drive that should have taken about an hour. So we had time to marvel at such sights as a parasailer right by the river – a most unexpected location for such an activity – and a couple of the enormous, slow-moving Ferris wheels that seem to be quite popular here.

We pulled into the Disney parking lot at about 9:30, which means we still were early enough to put in a full day of it. Since we’d already seen plenty of the original Disneyland in Anaheim when we purchased a year’s pass there about 10 years ago, we opted instead for Tokyo Disney Sea, which is celebrating its 5th anniversary. (It amazes us that many people who are planning for, or have already begun, a vacation at a Disney resort are unaware that each complex offers more than one theme park to choose from. Even Disneyland in Anaheim, which for many years stood alone, now sits next to California Adventure. Walt Disney World in Orlando has always featured 4 parks: Magic Kingdom – which is virtually identical to Disneyland; Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney MGM. Tokyo Disney now has Disney Sea in addition to Disneyland, also the same as the one in Anaheim.)

After pulling a sneaky one on our hosts by rushing up to the window and buying their tickets for them (Take that, Yukari!) we placed ourselves in the hands of our resident Disney expert, Zephyr.

He herded us to the rear of the park, to a section called Lost River Delta, because early in the day, most guests are still clustered near the entrance. Thus, there should be shorter lines for the rides in the back.

The main one we were interested in was “Indiana Jones”, which as far as we are concerned is the most memorable attraction in Anaheim (at least now that Zephyr is past the Mickey and Minnie stage, if anyone truly does get past it).

Seeing that the wait for Indy was estimated at 30 minutes, we moseyed on next door to another ride that looked promising, a wooden roller coaster and water dash called “Raging Spirits”. The line here was 35 minutes long, so we obtained a Fast Pass (which is like making a reservation for a much faster-moving line), then went back to “Indiana Jones” to wait with the masses. The actual anticipation time seemed to be only about 20 minutes, but that could be in part because the queue was designed to be more spacious and speedier than the one in Anaheim. The ride itself was essentially the same (except in Japanese, of course) with a few minor differences. We all enjoyed this ride so much that we turned around and did it again while waiting on our Fast Pass to be valid.

Having had a really early start to the day, Dennis and Kimberly felt the need for a cup of tea to give them a jolt. Actually, they preferred chilled tea, considering the stifling weather, but they didn’t see any after checking in several places. In fact, this was the first place they’d even seen hot tea – at a café in the nearby section called Arabian Coast. The cups were about half normal size and the tea was flavored with mint, in the Arabic fashion, of which we are not particularly fond. But it hit the spot and gave us a punch to go have some more fun.

We next used our Fast Pass for “Raging Spirits”, which was not really as thrilling as we’d hoped – it really was all built around a single loop. But Toshihide considered it his favorite attraction of the day, at least until the last one.

Heading over to Mysterious Island, we next obtained a Fast Pass for “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Then we started to cool off by riding Aquatopia, which was rather like bumper cars on water, except they didn’t actually bump. But as we were about to enter, we saw that the attraction was closing due to a breakdown that left dozens of people stranded in their little water cars. Well, they weren’t stranded for very long; the water was drained out within minutes.

Next stop was Mermaid Lagoon, where we caught a live revue based on the movie “The Little Mermaid”. We’d viewed such a production at MGM in Orlando, and were curious whether they were the same. In a word, iie (“No” in Japanese). This one was a performance in the round, with songs in English and dialogue in Japanese. The performers, including some rather large and elaborate puppets, were suspended on trapezes, and in fact the trapeze bar seemed to be stuck right through Ariel’s tail, allowing her to spin in some pretty deft, if seemingly painful, maneuvers. All in all, it was a decidedly entertaining program.

This presentation was staged in a pavilion that included a restaurant, gift shops, carnival-type rides for tots, and a play area complete with an intermittently-spurting splashing fountain. Dennis, who’s never very comfortable in hot weather, jumped into the latter to cool off by getting drenched.

It was mid-afternoon, and the snacks we’d brought had just about played out, so we started trying to round up some grub. We ended up going back to the café in Arabian Coast and having a pita sandwich filled with a sort of potato salad. Delicious, though not very filling. While we were there, we asked the servers to fill Kimberly’s teacup (still with the bag in it) with more hot water. It was the type of request we make often in the States, but here it caused a great deal of puzzlement and disbelief, thanks in part to the language obstacle. We feared perhaps we’d committed a major diplomatic blunder until Yukari helped us smooth things over; so Kimberly got her hot water and her second wind after all, and all was right with the world.

Thus fortified, we were off to sample more attractions. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was a bit of hokey fun during which we marveled at how well they made it look as if we really were underwater. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was a jolting atmospheric cruise, somewhat like “Indiana Jones”, but with a surprise thrill at the end. In the section called Port Discovery, “Storm Rider” was a simulated flight into the heart of a storm, featuring the Disney trademark of the unpredicted occurring with delightful predictability.

On to Mediterranean Harbor, where we took a ride on a Venetian gondola, complete with a volcano erupting in the background.

Our hosts, who’ve actually been to Italy, remarked that the setup was amazingly similar to the real thing – minus the active volcano, presumably. [More recently, we’ve been to Venice ourselves; the resemblance is indeed strong]

We passed “Aquatopia” again, and saw that it had reopened, so we couldn’t resist getting on in the hopes of getting a good splash. But the only person who did was Dennis, who’d finally dried out from his little adventure in Mermaid Lagoon, and now was soaked all over again.

Hopping onto the DisneySea Electric Railway, we headed over to American Waterfront, the last section we were to explore, even though it was closest to the entrance. There we saw a song and dance revue featuring animated Disney characters.

You’d think that with a name like American Waterfront, we would have seen a few Caucasians on the staff. But everyone we saw working here was Asian. Which doesn’t necessarily sacrifice credibility; there are, after all, plenty of Asian-Americans. But the thing is, we’ve seen almost no Caucasians during our time in Japan – not even in Tokyo, and not even in Disney. Which is especially curious considering that it’s the height of tourist season.

What we have seen a surprising number of is women and girls dressed in kimonos. And there were several of them here today, most of them surprisingly rather young. One adorable little girl was decked in the unlikely combination of a kimono and a baseball cap. We spotted two young ladies dressed in the traditional garb and Kimberly asked them if she could take their picture. Misunderstanding, they gladly started to take the camera from her to snap her picture; but then she explained that in fact she wanted a photo of them, and they were surprised and flattered.

It was at American Waterfront that we decided it was time for dinner. It was more difficult than we expected to locate food for vegetarians, except for what some might call California cuisine (fruits and nuts). The American style restaurants had nothing but salad. But at a Japanese style place (in American Waterfront, no less) we finally found suitable dishes. And suitable food on those dishes, as well.

The real highlight of this section of the park – and indeed the highlight of the park itself – was an attraction that officially wasn’t even open yet: “Tower of Terror”. Zephyr was quite excited when he saw the looming structure with a calculatedly crumbled look to it, and guessed that it might be “Tower of Terror”. He was even more delighted when he learned that indeed it was.

But he was crushed to find out that it wouldn’t be opening until Sept. 4. But then hope was resurrected when he recalled from his extensive (one even might say obsessive) research into theme parks that attractions often will have a “soft opening” – that is, a preview – in advance of the actual official scheduled grand opening. And upon investigation we found that (Oh joy, oh bliss) such a preview was in fact taking place today. And because so few people were aware of it, the lines were quite short in comparison to elsewhere in the park.

We’ve encountered “Tower of Terror” in our previous fact-finding missions to Disney MGM in Orlando; and now there’s one at California Adventure as well. In those locations, the “hotel” is an Art Deco era monstrosity in which the dominant motif is the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. In fact, the parlor in which the orientation is given, via a black-and-white film clip featuring Rod Serling, is adorned with mementos from various episodes.

But, presumably because the public over here is not particularly familiar with The Twilight one, the present site sports an entirely different theme. The context is a decrepit luxury hotel built by fictional hotel magnate Harrison Hightower, a Robert Ripley type character who supposedly traveled the world a century ago collecting all manner of souvenirs and artifacts, some of them (Shhh!!) possessing supernatural powers.

Among these was a little idol called Shiriki Utundu. (In Japanese pronunciation, Shiriki is “shrieky”, which is what teenage girls tend to become on this ride.) Evidently, this idol was by no means idle, and caused Hightower’s mysterious disappearance – after which the property closed and fell into disrepair. Moreover, any brazen soul who dares enter the hotel even today meets a similar fate. That’s where you and I come in, pilgrim.

The line into this attraction was considerably more interesting than its counterparts in the U.S., thanks to a larger assortment of curios to admire while waiting. And we discovered two “Hidden Mickeys”! (Mickies? Mickia? Mickey Mice?) The orientation, of course, was quite different, and introduced us to Shiriki, not only in the video clip, but also in the form of a statuette that disappeared before our very eyes amidst some fancy lighting effects. Even after witnessing this feat several times, we’re still uncertain how it was accomplished.

And witness it several times we did. Even if every ride on “Tower of Terror” was the same, it still would be worth repeating again and again (at least for some members of our party). But it is NOT the same every time; the little gnomes that live in the attraction’s computer have a wry sense of humor, and change the program a little each time. But the experience always includes a wrenching series of lifts and drops in a large “elevator car” (with seats on it?), a sudden view from the heights as the doors abruptly fly open near the top, a moment of weightless sensation, and the sheer exhilaration of feeling your liver stuck in your throat a time or two. For some folks (e.g., Kimberly, Ayaka and Keisuke) once a night is enough. Yukari refused to challenge the Hightower curse at all. But Dennis, Zephyr and Toshihide were gluttons for punishment, feeling confident that they’d saved the biggest thrill for last.

Before we knew it, the witching hour of 10:00 was upon us, Disney started closing its gates, and we had to get our carriage back to the palace before it turned into a pumpkin. As we headed to the garage, Toshihide assured us that he remembered where we parked. We soon learned that he was overconfident on that point. But he made up for it, getting us back home in a brisk 45 minutes. For many of us, though, the drive was even briefer, as we were fast asleep.

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