Wednesday 6 May 2015

10 Days and 5 Candians in Japan, Eh - Day 3 (Disney Sea)

 (In case you missed it, click here to start this journey on Day 1)

Day 3: Thu, April 16th: (Disney Sea)

It's a big day for me. Like most every parent I know, I've drummed my fingers through all those boring, early years, waiting only for the time when I could introduce my children to the wonders of Disneyland and vicariously revel in their open-mouthed awe, while dabbing the corners of their mouths with a tissue.

It's also a big day for my ten-year-old son, Noah: He gets to wear his new Pokemon socks. For him, the prospect of going to Disneyland pales in comparison.

As all of the adults in our group have been to Disneyland, we opted to visit Disney Sea, an alternate Disney theme park, exclusive to Japan. Based on a YouTube video he saw of girls singing and dancing in the opening show, Noah has bet me $10 that he will not enjoy Disney Sea. He has no interest in singing, dancing or girls. It's not so much that he is pre-adolescent, but more that none of those things are Pokemon-related. In a few years, he will probably change his mind about girls. And, I am confident that within hours he will change his mind about Disney Sea. Then, I will be able to see my children smiling in reverential wonder at how pleasurable an idealized replica of life can be. Also, I will be $10 richer—though $300 poorer. I would pay double if I could change his obsessed mind about Pokemon, but there are limits to what even Disney can accomplish.

Turns out, I owe Noah $10!

I'm sure this shocks you as much as it did me, but Disney Sea is not for everyone, and this time, it was not for us.

The day we went, the weather was fantastic and the crowds were relatively light. All conditions seemed optimal. We entered through the South gate and strolled through the inner courtyard (a kind of holding area) before the main gates open. The courtyard was beautiful enough to keep us gawking throughout the 30 minute wait.

The courtyard waiting area, before entering Disney Sea.

The main gates opened and we leisurely found a cafe to sit and have a morning coffee and pastry. We spent the first hour admiring the coffee and pastry. The setting was also nice. Afterward, we watched the opening show which took place directly in front of the cafe.

"And now, for your entertainment, our own Disney Sea Performers present Disney Sea's Fashion Fantasmic...." were the last words we heard in English. In Disneyland, everything is labelled in English, as well as Japanese, but almost all dialogue is entirely in Japanese. The spectacular opening performance involved singing, dancing and amazing costumes which helped spin a tale involving the four seasons and fashion, I think.

I really hate that T-shirt. (Junko, Noah, me and Rihana.)

What I did not realize is that, beyond being a truly magical kingdom, Disney in Japan is also an exam for which you are expected to study. Remembering my experience in America's Disneyland, 30 years previous, I chose a very laid-back approach. If you only have one day there, this is a mistake. The crowds were lighter back then, and also, they were less Asian. Having done some research, after the fact, I have learned that Japanese crowds are keeners who arrive at the gates 1-2 hours before opening, armed with a strategy, bottled water and running shoes for the sprint to the most popular attraction.

For people teenaged and beyond, I have no reservations in recommending Disney Sea. The level of detail in the magical facades is staggering. For the entire eight hours we were there, I walked around like a wide-eyed zombie muttering, "Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow." until my jaw ached and my neck seized. Adults will enjoy strolling, dining and snapping pictures. Teenagers, for whom time is less valued, can run from ride to ride and spend 90 minutes in line gabbing with their friends before experiencing the most thrilling 90 seconds of their lives.

For younger kids, the long waits for the best rides can be a problem. My kids are amazingly patient, having spent half their lives in my wife's shopping cart, but I felt sad that they might only be able to get to a couple of the best rides. In the end, we managed one popular ride and about five of the less popular ones. But this was mostly due to our lack of preparation and our poor attitude toward stressing while on vacation.

The Venetian Gondola ride which was cool, but not as cool as I thought, having nothing to do with Venus.

Agrabah - the land of Aladdin.

Agrabah - still, the land of Aladdin.

Mediterranean Village as seen from DaVinci's Castle.

The Tower of Terror.

Here are my Disney Sea Pro Tips:

1) The Fastpass System: Before you go, you should thoroughly understand the Fastpass system now used to reduce wait-times. Purchase your tickets in advance, and make sure that you buy a Fastpass. (On peak days, there is a limit to the number issued.) You can only use your Fastpass for one ride at a time but it allows you to make a reservation to bypass the regular line and join the priority boarding lineup. Without a Fastpass, wait times in the ordinary lines can exceed 90 minutes. (Fun Fact: Disney Sea is the world record holder for the longest theme park wait time of 500 minutes for Toy Story Mania, when it was new, in 2012!) We found 60 minutes to be the norm for any of the popular rides. The Fastpass gives you a window of time during which you can freely enter the priority lineup. In this line, you will only have to wait about 20 minutes. But, as you can only reserve one ride at a time, this means that if your first reservation is late in the day, your pass is almost useless. If you wait, like we did, before going to your favorite ride and employing your Fastpass, your reservation time will likely end up being after dark. If so, do not use the Fastpass, proceed to your second-favorite ride and use it there. Otherwise, the Fastpass will be tied up for most of the day. So, get to your must-do ride immediately after the gates open. Then head for your second favorite and check out the line. If it's too long, proceed to the next priority or just wander and have ice cream.

2) Check the calendar. Avoid holidays and go early in the week (Monday to Thursday).

3) How Long To Stay: I'd say that it would take three days to thoroughly explore the park, without rushing. But if you plan well, a lot can be done in one, though it's impossible to try every ride in a single day.

4) Plan ahead and get there on time. Memorize the layout and main attractions that interest you. Also check websites to find out which attractions are currently the most popular. Some of these sites are surprisingly accurate in estimating wait times. Plan your day in advance. Unlike in America, Japanese visitors arrive 1-2 hours prior to gate opening, and they have all done their homework, have memorized a strategy and immediately race to their favorite rides. They use their Fastpasses strategically and, an hour after opening, yours will be rendered useless because of all the reservations ahead of you.

5) If you're determined to ride as many rides as possible, count on spending the majority of your day in lineups. It's really best to go it alone, or in couples, because that size of group can move relatively quickly and be most flexible. If a large group has to agree, there will be a lot of compromise and the time wasted in negotiating can eat into the number of rides you can get to. At the age of 56, I no longer see the balance in one minute of boredom for every one second of adventure, but then I'm a writer and I'm always thinking, "I could be home writing something amazing." Which, of course, presupposes that I am capable of writing something amazing, and also that there is nothing on TV. Nothing!

6) Not everyone wants to ride. Local business people often come after work to spend a leisurely evening in this magical Mediterranean fantasyland. If you are happy to just wander, stand only in lines that seem conveniently short, snap pictures and eat in the seven exotic settings, then you can easily justify the cost. If so, and if you have a Fastpass, remember to give it to another of your party so that they can reserve extra rides.

7) Small children: This system is not great for those with small children. Our kids are exceptional at waiting, but I felt bad for them after waiting for more than an hour for a 90-second roller coaster ride. In truth, I may have been more frustrated than they were. They weren't thrilled to have to bypass all the coolest rides, but three days later, via Skype, they talked to their friends about it in glowing terms.

The street performers are very entertaining and provide continual interactive performances
which should not be ignored, if you have small children.
Rihana (8) and Noah (10)

If you plan to maximize your time at Disney Sea and you're reading a map, you're already beyond saving.

The unexpected:

• In preparation for one of the street events, attendants cleared a large space in one of the town squares. It was soon lined by experienced patrons who obviously knew what was coming and where best to sit. For more than 30 minutes people walked around the clearing instead of taking the shortcut, straight through. It was all exceptionally orderly. This degree of respect for low-level authority does not exist in my country. Canadian moms with strollers would be leaping over the thin line of seated onlookers, cutting across continually. In Texas, there would be gun play.

• Though the Japanese are making an earnest effort, they still do not understand all the elements required to provide a truly welcoming environment for foreigners. Even at Disney Sea, most of the employees do not speak more than a smattering of English. Coupled with my smattering of Japanese, I was readily able to find a toilet, but getting restaurant or ride information had to be left to my Japanese wife, Junko. I've read that there is always an English-speaking attendant close by, and you will be guide to one if map-pointing and pantomime fail to do the trick.

• All employees at all Disneylands are skilled in the art of maintaining a wide, fake grin for the duration of their shift. The Japanese, who have a reputation for grasping a new concept and improving upon it, have the largest and fakest of all the smiles.

She smiles, but the girl on the left hates us all. I voted her most likely to come to work with an Uzi in her backpack.

• It was also interesting to me the ways in which the intensely-attentive Japanese can fail to be helpful. They are always ultra-polite and you feel as if they are trying their hardest to solve your problem, but while their smiles wrap around to the back of the heads I sometimes wondered why they created the problem in the first place. Other times they offer help, but not to any extent that is actually useful...

Case Study #1: A group of five ignorant Canadians enter through the South Gate and are handed a site map/guide which has the front page in English and the interior entirely in Japanese. Eventually, they deduce that, because it's Disneyland, there must be English instructions somewhere. They look but can not find, and finally decide to ask the attendant who has been silently watching and smiling like The Joker for the last 10 minutes. She deftly extracts a fully-English version of the pamphlet from a hidden cabinet. As helpful as she was, one can't help wondering why the English version wasn't offered, at the outset. (Bonus Pro Tip: reams of unread Japanese Disney Sea pamphlets can be found in the trashcan, five feet from the entrance.)

Case Study #2: A group of five ignorant Canadians who entered via the South gate accidentally exit via the North gate. They are confused that the bus stops and car park seem to be the exact mirror of the ones they remember. Eventually, they realize that they are lost and return to the gate to ask for help. The attendant could simply let them back in (it's closing time) and allow them to walk about 30 feet and exit through the South gate into familiar territory, but instead, he very politely and patiently instructs them on how to find their way around the building. Not the easiest solution, but, I suspect, the solution he thought we—er, I mean "they"—deserved.

This is our final day at this hotel which has a spectacular free onsen on the top floor. Onsens are communal soaking tubs based on hot and cold springs of earlier times. Because the bathing is done naked, the genders have separate facilities. I try to convince my parents to unwind the Japanese way with a naked soak, but my mother says she's not getting naked in front of a bunch of beautiful Japanese girls and my father sees no point in getting naked without them.

So much for #2 on my must-do list.

Up next: Days 4-6 (Kyoto)

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