Tokyo takes the Mickey

Thirty years on, the first Disneyland built outside the US still baffles and delights, writes Daisy Dumas.

A dozen chimney sweeps, soot-smeared and dusty, have leapt in front of us. They're jumping, twirling and spinning their brushes as a raucous Mad Hatter and a small army of hearts, spades, jacks and diamonds brings up the rear. Flower girls bob by, their blooms as bright as their smiles, and I half expect Dick Van Dyke to come and tap me on the shoulder.

The strains of Happiness is Here are on repeat, drumming home the theme for Tokyo Disney Resort's 30th anniversary celebrations - ''Happiness''. It's not a theme the onlookers take lightly. The parade crowd is bedecked in mouse ears, and it's hard to know where fiction ends and reality begins, who is paid to be in character, and who is enthusiastically making the most of their Disney treat.

Each year, 27 million people flock to the site, where, like its host city, things are on a vast scale. Tokyo Disney Resort opened in 1983 as the first Disneyland outside the US, and with its newer DisneySea sister and Ikspiari shopping village, it now spans 200 hectares.

There are 79 attractions, scores of restaurants and three theme-inspired hotels, along with mountains of caramel popcorn, the eau de Disney, its sweet scent following in the wake of every crowd, pram and spinning teacup.

To mark the big year, a Star Wars-themed ride, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, was rebooted in May, and as I hurtle through a galaxy far, far away, letting out the odd yelp and gripping the arms of my seat, it becomes clear that it isn't all sugar-coated sweetness.

We've woven through a space-age metal web, boarded our spacecraft and taken instructions from the captain to fasten our seatbelts. Whizzing out of our docking port and into warp speed, our ride is anything but smooth, crashing through forests, negotiating intergalactic rush hours, and eventually screeching to a jerky halt in front of a bumbling, Japanese-speaking C-3PO.

Outside in the sunshine, away from a groaning Chewbacca and armies of speeding troopers, litter doesn't seem to exist, crowds are quiet and ornamental gardens have not a leaf out of place. Lining pathways, staff rush to help, directing, smiling and bowing.

It's popular - 90 per cent of customers are repeat business - and it's full. Queues snake around zig-zags, bob around corners, and slowly shuffle into the mouths of make-believe worlds.


At about an hour's wait for each major ride, I'm told by my companions that it's no worse than at other Disneylands. It's certainly not something that seems to bother the compliant hordes, 60 per cent of whom are from Tokyo, with just 3 per cent from overseas.

Disney Castle stands at the centre of a family-friendly kingdom, where Jumbo's ears flap alongside the nursery-rhyme-like It's a Small World. Splash Mountain soaks us as the roller-coaster spills into watery darkness, while the Haunted Mansion is an eerie web of fiendish holograms and 999 ghosts.

From land to ocean, we take the resort's monorail to DisneySea, with its seven theme-based ports. We wander from a pristine Mediterranean harbour to a New England waterfront, then on to the Lost River Delta to find Indiana Jones, Temple of the Crystal Skull - a ride so clever and deliriously believable that for a moment, as my souvenir photo proves, I am certain there is no way out.

Dank walls come alive with rats, blowguns are trained on us - screech-inducing shots of expertly aimed puffs of air - and hundreds of skulls seem to seal our fate as a boulder the size of a house rolls towards our Jeep. We are going to die! In the nick of time, Harrison Ford swoops in to save the day.

At Port Discovery, we take on the eye of a storm in the four-dimensional StormRider and crash-land after averting a catastrophe.

Tokyo's version of the Tower of Terror is a spooky psychological affair - in my case made spookier by not understanding a word of the back story - as we plunge down a haunted, faulty elevator shaft to the cackle of demons. In Toy Story Mania, we're suddenly dinky, weaving through Woody's mouth into Andy's giant bedroom to board a tram. During a romp through Buzz Lightyear's world, we shoot targets with laser guns, scoring points for accuracy.

Japanese sensibilities and their enthusiasm for Walt's world make for fabulous people watching. In sushi restaurants and at waffle stands, in shops and on rides, adults are dressed as dolls, babies as mice and old men as cartoon characters. Fluffy Disney ears fly off the shelves, and I see a man unashamedly covered in Mickey Mouse key rings.

A fireworks display ends Disney's nightly Dreamlights parade and at DisneySea, the stops are pulled out for Fantasmic!, a laser, flame, water, music and fireworks spectacular that defies logic as an evil witch and her giant mirror melt into a bubbling, technicoloured watery grave.

How it all works, I have no idea, but this is a parallel universe where Mickey speaks Japanese and Princess Leia comes up against an army of equally fluent enemies. Suspension of disbelief is included in the entry cost. How the hovercraft steers itself, where StormRider's indoor rain comes from, or how the smell of apple pie reaches the Mickey PhilharMagic audience remains a mystery. You can try asking, but these are closely guarded secrets.

The writer was a guest of the Oriental Land Company.



Japan Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Tokyo, Jetstar flies from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney to Tokyo, Disneyland is an hour from the airport by bus and Disney Resort’s Metro station, Maihama, is a short ride from Tokyo Station.

Go the whole hog and stay at one of three Disney-themed hotels: art deco-themed Ambassador Hotel, DisneySea Hotel’s waterfront MiraCosta, or the grand Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. Six official hotels and five partner hotels offer more choice and, if needed, run shuttle buses to the resort. For details about  ‘‘official hotels’’, see

There are many different kinds of tickets available, covering different time periods, age groups, etc. Buy tickets in advance to guarantee entry. Full details at


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Features attractions from the best-loved Hollywood movies as well as the usual wandering characters.

A Japanese period film theme park, where guests can dress up as samurais and geishas and get their photo taken, or make like a samurai - in a controlled manner, at least.

A must-visit for fans of Hello Kitty. Take a tour of Hello Kitty's house or take a boat ride with Sanrio characters.

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