i’ve been going over the notes from my research trip to asia this past june (tokyo, hong kong, and macau), so here are some observations about the major attractions i visited—tokyo disneyland and disneysea, the hong kong disneyland resort, the venetian macau, and macau fisherman’s wharf.
i had been to the tokyo disney resort twice before—once in august 2001, in which i visited the disneyland park, and once in january 2003, when i went to the newly opened disneysea park. both times i saw the resort as an ordinary tourist and enthusiast, and i didn’t pay very close attention in a serious sense. returning to japan this past june for the first time in five years has allowed me to take a far closer look at this lavishly designed resort—one of the most profitable and popular thematic destinations in the world.
some background; the tokyo disney resort is owned by the oriental land company, which licenses the design from the walt disney company. disney receives only an annual royalty percentage of admissions, food and merchandise sales. this unique arrangement came about because at the time of the tokyo project’s conception (1979–83), disney was in the middle of building the EPCOT center theme park in orlando, and was severely strapped for cash; the company later came to regret this decision terribly, given the immense profitability of the tokyo resort.
the first park, tokyo disneyland, opened in april of 1983, and is considered “third generation” by disney designers—meaning that the anaheim park is the foundation, the magic kingdom in florida is the second iteration, and the tokyo park uses both as a basis. to the casual visitor, tokyo disneyland would appear to be very similar to the walt disney world version, with a few elements blended in from the original disneyland. yet there are five very key distinctions.
first of all, the main street U.S.A. concept was significantly retooled for japan, on both cultural and geographic grounds. the japanese are less familiar with the nuances of a small american town at the turn of the century, but due to the influence of the west during the meiji restoration, they have an affection for both european and american victorian architecture.
taking a cue from walt disney world (which also boasts exaggerated victorian forms instead of small-town midwestern americana), main street U.S.A. is thus further homogenized, and also renamed world bazaar to distance it from its distinctly american roots. the architecture is something out of a dickens-like fairy tale; it has all the makings of the late 1800s to early 1900s, broadly, but there is no specific reference to latch on to.
you can’t really say that world bazaar represents any real time or place—and that’s part of the appeal. in addition to these cultural revisions, this entryway to tokyo disneyland is completely covered by an elaborate glass canopy, making it an ideal mass shelter in times of inclement weather (it rains often in tokyo, and sometimes snows in the winter).
from a design perspective, this gives the area the feel of a grand european train station, conservatory or perhaps a royal arboretum. the specific layout of the glass panes and ironwork superstructure reinforce this impression.
the second key distinction that sets tokyo disneyland apart from its sister parks is the layout of the railroad—it only runs around the adventureland / westernland / critter country section of the park, and does not make a continuous loop like at every over magic kingdom-style disney park. there are probably three reasons for this.
first, by japanese law, any train with more than one station (stop) must be regulated by the nation’s rail authority. if the disneyland railroad circumnavigated the park grounds with multiple stops, it would be subject to functional and aesthetic alteration that would perhaps hurt the overall design (uniforms, ticketing, train engine and car layout, etc.). not to mention that disney rarely likes ceding control over its operations to anyone, let alone a government regulatory body. with only one stop, the train is legally considered a “ride” and not a transportation system.
second, the perimeter plan of tokyo disneyland did not include a raised berm; rather, only landscaping is used to shield the park from backstage areas and the hotels / parking lot. riding a train around this boundary would expose guests to these vistas and shatter the thematic illusion of an immersive environment. thirdly, the japanese do not associate classic railroads with americana (as is the effect at the original disneyland)—rather such trains are a symbol of the wild west. thus it makes perfect sense that the disneyland railroad encircle only the exotic “wilderness” areas of the park, as a centerpiece of the overall theme.
and the way in which the big thunder mountain attraction layout and this railroad route interact (unique at a any disney park) is delicately designed and marvelously dynamic.
the third way in which the tokyo version is distinct from other disneyland style-parks is that frontierland is renamed westernland. this is because the japanese have no concept of what a frontier is. being on a small set of islands with extreme population density, there has never been anywhere to go—so the idea of a vast land out on the edge that is largely unsettled is completely foreign.
the japanese do, however, have a very romantic notion of the western cowboy (owing mostly to the mass popularity of western films staring john wayne and clint eastwood), and understand what westernland is (and where it is, and what it represents) almost instantly.
this makes westernland the largest area of the park, just as frontierland is at disneyland paris. the wide-open feeling of the american southwest is accentuated in every regard, from the detailed rockwork to landscaping.
there is also a quaintness to the structures in this part of the park, almost like the feeling conveyed at disneyland’s original main street. it’s markedly different from the “ghost town” feeling at the stateside parks, or even disneyland paris, for that matter. again, this is probably done to better meet the expectations of the japanese, based on what they’ve read and seen in their media, and in ours. the representation dictates the reality.
the wilderness—”wild-ness”—is all-encompassing. and, in contrast with the extremely dense urbanity of tokyo around it, very refreshing and beautiful. i saw many japanese just walking quietly, taking it in, near the banks of the water features.
fourth in terms of difference from the other disney parks is tokyo’s tomorrowland. the future has always been a troubling area to theme, and as a result both anaheim and florida’s versions have been re-done to convey a nostalgic ‘past-future’ fantasy (sometimes called retro-futurism); disneyland paris’ version was designed this way from the start.
after this flurry of remodeling, only the tomorrowland at tokyo disneyland remains largely what it was on opening day in april, 1983—a white concrete urban utopia of corporate control and technological supremacy (based on both the earlier 1967 redo at disneyland, and walt disney world’s original 1971 opening day model).
in the early 1980s when the park opened, japan was at the height of modernization and its economy was gearing up to be the envy of the industrial world. the overall views of corporatism and technopolies that reigned supreme then are still held by many japanese.
what’s most nostalgic for americans is the period of middle-class prosperity immediately after world war II (1950s), but for the japanese this same wealth didn’t come until decades later; it’s this period that their tomorrowland represents.
lastly, my single strongest impression of tokyo disneyland was its sheer size and wide open spaces. again, being so population dense, especially in tokyo, the japanese absolutely revel in being able to walk around freely in recreational spaces. the world bazaar avenue is wide and spacious, the central plaza hub seems endless and lush with landscaping, and even the small attractions of fantasyland are given wide berth.
the central plaza here is easily three times the size of the original in anaheim. this takes a cue from walt disney world in florida, which also has a larger main street, larger plaza, and an identical, towering cinderella’s castle. in westernland particularly, the walkways and paths are at times triple the width of their stateside counterparts, which means, practically, that tokyo disneyland has nearly triple the capacity that the anaheim park has—and the annual attendance figures to prove it.
conversely, the tight layout of the original disneyland is intentionally designed to feel delightfully intimate when compared to the sprawling, impersonal spaces of los angeles and the greater southern californian area. in tokyo, however, size does matter.