In sheer richness and detail, Tokyo DisneySea does set a new standard for theme park design. But considering how much it cost, did the Oriental Land Company buy itself the best theme park ever?

The Tokyo DisneySea theme park, though virtually unknown in the United States, has been a heated topic for Disney fans on the Internet for the past five years. Thanks to an elaborate design, numerous original attractions—and most of all, a huge budget—it assumed the designation of the “world’s greatest theme park” even before it opened in September 2001. I had the good fortune of taking a trip to visit the park this past May.

My verdict: it’s good. DisneySea is both spectacular and fun, and embraces a level of detail that isn’t always found in its sister Tokyo Disneyland park.

Instead of walking you through the park verbally, I’m going to give impressions of the park’s two most significant dimensions: its atmosphere and its attractions. (Apologies to those who are live entertainment fans: I’m not, so I didn’t partake in anything that DisneySea had to offer in that area.) Finally, I’ll spend some time analyzing the park, trying to determine why it is the way it is, comparing it to other Disney and non-Disney parks, and thinking about ways the park could have been different.

I should say upfront that if you desire a completely unblemished experience at DisneySea, you might want to skip this review. I’ve tried to limit “spoilers” to a minimum, but in preparing a critique, it’s inevitable that I’m going to give you a snapshot of something that you’d be experiencing fresh if you hadn’t read about it. I’m not going to ruin the park for you, by a long shot—you’ll still be dying to visit after you read this—but if you’re a purist, you may want to look away.

My Expectations

…for the park were high, though tempered. I’ve seen Disney do some great stuff in the past ten years (Indiana Jones, Tower of Terror, Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris), as well as some other things I wasn’t so enthusiastic about (most of the Animal Kingdom attractions including Kilimanjaro Safaris, and the proliferation at all the parks of movie-based shows and Dumbo clones). But after hearing about all of the brand new attractions, incredible attention to detail, and a new “land” (“sea?”) devoted to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, my favorite Disney movie, it was impossible for me not to get excited.

The Detail

…in this park is amazing. I’d seen a lot of pictures of DisneySea before I’d ever set foot in the park, but it was still quite an experience to lay eyes on it for the first time, popping through the entranceway under the Hotel MiraCosta. I can’t claim that my eyes were tearing up, but it is a striking site to see DisneySea’s volcano (called Mount Prometheus on the park map, though I didn’t see a reference to this name anywhere in the park), the elaborate Fortress, and its sailing ship parked out front. It’s one of the most dramatic visuals in all of Disney’s parks, second only to the juxtaposition of Disney World’s Main Street with Cinderella’s Castle at its end. The sight here isn’t as incongruous as that: even when the DisneySea’s “lands” intrude on each other, like when the domes of the Arabian Coast become visible from the Lost River Delta, it’s almost impossible to object: everything blends together quite nicely. (My girlfriend commented that the park needed some color—nearly everything is a kind of beige—a problem accentuated by the overcast morning weather. By the afternoon, the sun had come out, and the park came to life. On a gray day, the park does look a little washed out.)

The Fortress, though it looks like a castle, isn’t really a castle in the vein of those found in the Magic Kingdom parks. Instead, it’s a place to explore, more like Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island. The Fortress provides a dozen or so rooms to discover, each with a Renaissance-inspired scientific or artistic mini-exhibit. One room showcases a Foucault’s Pendulum, suspended thirty or so feet from the rafters, knocking down a single peg a day as the world rotates around it. Another shows an illusionary painting whose image only comes into focus when standing in a particular spot. Tiny radio-controlled boats let you circumnavigate the flattened pre-Columbian world map (and are surprisingly fun!). Faux cannons that you fire by pulling a rope fuse let you pass the time shooting at the Transit Steamer boats, just as visitors to Disneyland’s Fort Sam Clemens do with their rifle fire, attempting to hit the Mark Twain Riverboat. As with everything else at DisneySea, the fortress is filled with the kinds of detail that Disney fans love, from its beautiful cobalt-and-gold domes to an elegant sculpted fountain with medieval sea serpents.

Detail is everywhere in DisneySea. I wasn’t prepared for the ornate New York buildings in the American Waterfront. American Waterfront functions as a kind of Main Street for DisneySea, hosting the majority of the park’s shopping and eating facilities. (This park actually has two Main Streets if you count Mediterranean Harbor.) It was most fascinating because the amount of detail put into the buildings would, on paper, seem to make them “too” real. (One of the buildings even has fire escapes down its front.) I would have bet you beforehand that making the buildings so authentic would miss out on the charming abstraction of Disneyland’s Main Street, but after seeing DisneySea’s New York, the Main Street buildings seem like mere cardboard cut-outs.

The awestruck feeling continued as my family stepped on board the park’s huge ocean liner, The Columbia, for a drink in the ship’s Teddy Roosevelt Lounge. (The ship’s rendition of a margarita isn’t quite what one from the West would expect; go for a beer instead.) I’ve heard that the Columbia is a stylistic carryover from when the park was targeted for a location next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Whether this story is true or not, it seems like for somebody high up in Imagineering, The Columbia was the heart of what they were trying to build in DisneySea. The lounge—in fact, the entire ship—is extraordinarily ornate. So much so, in fact, that it provoked as much confusion in me as admiration. Despite its enormous physical presence, the Columbia seems a kind of “throwaway” element of the park: it contains a restaurant but no attractions (no attractions are even nearby), and despite the fact that I loved it, if it weren’t there, it would never have been missed. For Disney to have put so much effort into something that will generate relatively little revenue seemed, well, bewildering, even to someone like me who both expects and demands that Disney go a little over-the-top. I’m sure that Disney’s aware that even the largest budgets can be spent too easily, and the fact that the Columbia made it into the park in such an elaborate fashion is remarkable.

Most visitors new to the park would assume that the most popular attraction in the park’s elaborate Mysterious Island section would be the big-budget Journey to the Center of the Earth ride or 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, but they’d be dead wrong. The most popular attraction in the park is Mysterious Island’s Gyoza Sausage Bun cart, which had a line of at least sixty to seventy people going almost all day long. In terms of return-on-investment, this food cart is easily the most lucrative portion of the park. Beyond providing sausage buns, Mysterious Island doesn’t disappoint. Geysers explode with regularity (and what an explosion: that’s a lot of water!), a one-third scale Nautilus is docked to one side while Transit Steamers plow their way through the center of the caldera. It all looks fantastic. A little sterile and creepy looking, even—it’d be nice to have just a little bit of vegetation in there—but it’s still great. (I hope the Imagineers left a little room to put a Nautilus walkthrough in Mysterious Island: although its detail is extraordinary, the place begs for a place to spend a little more time taking it all in and immersing one’s self in the atmosphere. A re-creation of Paris’ Mysteries of the Nautilus—maybe just a little more elaborate—would be a great way to accomplish this.)

Other less heralded areas of the park are nearly as spectacular. Since Mermaid Lagoon is almost entirely indoors and photos of it are hard to come by, it was a bit of a mystery to me. A pleasant surprise, it’s arguably the most successful themed land in the park. Mermaid Lagoon builds a sense of drama in its entryway: after passing a beautiful statue of King Triton at the entrance, small windows give you seductive glimpses into the truly outstanding visual of the play area. The Imagineers did a fantastic job here: the activity area looks convincingly like a scene from the animated movie.

And after covering Disney’s Tomorrowlands in my last column, DisneySea’s Port Discovery was of particular interest. The concept doesn’t make any sense—there isn’t much to discover here, and the idea of a futuristic seaport is an odd one—but it really doesn’t matter because it looks so good. Obviously inspired by some Imagineer’s beautiful sketch, Disney was evidently willing to cook up whatever “back-story” it could in order to build it. I especially liked the prototype watercraft sprinkled around the port’s harbor, as well as the giant, spinning gyroscope-like sculpture that serves as the land’s icon. (Boy, is that thing big.)

I could go through every other “land” step-by-step, but my words won’t really add up to much: it all looks great. Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, New England Harbor…they’re all as elaborately crafted as any Disney fan could hope for.

The Attractions
…are what I always get most excited about. Most new Disney parks borrow heavily from their older siblings, copying existing attractions from the established parks in order to keep budgets in line. As such, it’s refreshing that DisneySea has only one attraction that exists anywhere else, and it’s even hard to object to that since it’s such a good one: a version of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones.

I had to start my exploration of DisneySea’s attractions with one big disappointment, however: Journey to the Center of the Earth, the park’s premiere attraction, was closed for refurbishment while I was there, re-opening the very day I had to head back to the States. I knew about this ahead of my departure, but unfortunately, scheduling considerations prevented me from taking the trip at any other time, so I just had to live with this sorry state of affairs. Not willing to give up without a fight, I hatched an elaborate scheme that involved traveling to the park by myself during the last five hours of my Japan stay, stowing my luggage in a Disney locker, buying an admission to the park just to see the ride, then taking the train out to the airport to meet my family and catch my departing plane in the nick of time. Unfortunately, I discovered, even going to those extremes wouldn’t be enough. I had been mistaken: the attraction was opening the day after I left, not the day of my departure. I was beaten. (On the bright side, though, it does give me a rationale for heading back to Japan in the near future.)

I plowed ahead, and it wasn’t hard to raise my spirits. Mysterious Island’s other big attraction, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, was easily the attraction that I wanted to see most at DisneySea. I absolutely love the movie; I love Harper Goff’s beautiful Nautilus design, and I have fond memories of Disney World’s much-maligned version that closed down for good several years ago.

In this updated version of the attraction, you don’t literally go underwater. Using techniques termed “dry-for-wet,” 20,000 Leagues tries to make its terrestrial sets look like they’re under the sea. Why go “dry-for-wet?” For one, it’s theoretically possible to make a dry experience seem more realistic than an underwater one that takes place in a pool fifteen feet deep, as Disney World’s old version attempted. Building the ride visuals is easier in a dry environment, allowing grander, more elaborate scenes than would be possible in a lagoon. And maintenance costs should be lower: it’s easier to keep up ride equipment that isn’t submerged twenty-four hours a day.

So there are plenty of reasons to go “dry,” and the Imagineers use a clever technique to make the vehicles seem like they’re underwater. (I won’t detail it here, but I will say that it works very, very well.) Unfortunately, having made the investment in creating a submerged illusion, Disney reaps none of the benefits for having done so. Remember, the first 20,000 Leagues attraction created a perfect representation of being underwater: it was underwater. To expend huge engineering effort to replicate that effect isn’t worth it if it’s not going to pay off in some additional fashion. And 20,000 Leagues doesn’t collect on any of these dividends. Even though the motion of the vehicles moving through simulated water feels completely authentic, the sea environment doesn’t look very realistic at all, with the simplest of animatronic effects (is that the exact same moray eel from the old Disney World attraction that pokes its head out at the riders?) painted in the standard ultraviolet-light color palette we see in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It feels more like a “dark ride” than a real underwater experience.

The sets in the attraction seem tiny: there isn’t a moment where you don’t feel like you’re staring at a wall. How about a few big dioramas, like in the original attraction (only better since we’re not underwater) showcasing some incredible seascapes? No such luck: ultraviolet murals try to give the same sense of size, but unfortunately, they don’t. It’s like the Imagineers got so wrapped up in creating the virtual underwater experience that they forgot to give us anything interesting to look at. If you’re going to build an attraction, what’s inside has to be better than what’s outside, and in this case, it’s not: nothing in the ride looks half as cool as its Mysterious Island exterior. This wasn’t the 20,000 Leagues attraction I had dreamt about.

Although the ride vehicles are incredibly impressive, sadly, this new 20,000 Leagues isn’t as good as Disney World’s old version or Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage. It’s over in less than half the time of the original, the visuals aren’t as compelling (and less realistic!), and the ride isn’t interesting enough to compensate for losing the novelty of really going underwater.

So Journey was a no-go, and 20,000 Leagues was a disappointment. Depressing. My group and I trudged ahead, and fortunately, we found what I thought was the park’s best attraction. Sinbad’s Seven Voyages is one of the park’s sleepers, buried deep in the back corner of the park’s Arabian Coast section. Unfortunate guests who bypass it are missing one of DisneySea’s most enjoyable and impressive experiences. Sinbad is a “dark” boat ride, and with its tiny animatronic figures, seems superficially like It’s A Small World. But there’s an actual story here—and not too much singing—so it’s more like a non-thrill version of Splash Mountain or a Fantasyland dark ride than anything else. The animatronic figures are astonishing: they move with a fluidity and realism that’s truly hard to believe, like wooden toys magically sprung to life. The sets look fantastic, with bright storybook colors and cool lighting effects. (Ironically, a problem opposite of the one that sinks 20,000 Leauges occurs here: the sets are a little too big for the tiny figures, and the environment sometimes seems a tad empty.) The ride is quite long as well. One of Disney’s best attractions ever, Sinbad brightened my spirits considerably after the disappointment of 20,000 Leagues.

I’ve been told that Tokyo’s building codes don’t allow open flames inside buildings. Normally that would seem to be a good thing, but when it comes to building theme park attractions—particularly a version of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones —it’s a serious problem. (Note: I’ve since been told that the story about fire codes in Tokyo is inaccurate; the flames were kept out of Indiana Jones simply due to budget cuts.)

DisneySea’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull is basically a clone of the Anaheim attraction with a few minor changes thrown in, some which improve the ride, some which don’t. I would have liked it if the Imagineers had seized on the “Sea” theme of the park to make this Indiana Jones about water rather than fire. Imagine hundreds of gallons of water running through the face of Mara (the Crystal Skull, in this case), huge waterfalls pouring from the temple ceiling, nearly submerging your jeep as it tears away in the nick of time. Kind of a promising idea if I do say so myself, but instead of a water theme, there’s a vague “crystal” motif with a kind of tornado in the center of the temple that’s less cool than it might have seemed on the drawing boards. A couple of the effects have been improved: the weak “falling rat” effect from Anaheim is thankfully gone, and there’s a laser-like beam that emanates from the Crystal Skull’s eyes that causes explosions to go off around the jeep on one or two occasions. These effects improve slightly on the Anaheim experience, but only slightly.

It’s completely valid to point out that as a California resident, I’ve ridden on Indiana Jones dozens of times…dozens of times more than Japanese residents, who will be experiencing the ride for the first time, and who will presumably be thrilled with it. Good for them. Indiana Jones at DisneySea is a great ride, but after being weaned on Disneyland’s version, there’s nothing special here that will get you really excited. Even the new ride’s queue area, though impressive, doesn’t match up with Anaheim’s. Disneyland’s Indy is still the definitive implementation.

Next we trekked over to Port Discovery, and had a great time. Aquatopia is a joy to ride. The attraction consists of three-person bumper boats that move in a seemingly random fashion around a shallow pond, narrowly avoiding waterfalls, fountains, and whirlpools along the way. Unlike the standard Disney ride, there’s no “track” that the boats ride on, at least not in the traditional sense. The vehicles are controlled by a central computer that knows every vehicle’s location and tells each vehicle where it’s supposed to go next. It’s this technology that makes Aquatopia more interesting than the standard amusement park boat ride, because the boats are always just missing each other. And you can’t just watch the boat in front of you to see where you’re headed: chances are, you’re not going the same way it is. Despite the ride’s technological complexity, Aquatopia is probably the simplest pleasure in the park and one of its very best rides. (Despite the added expense, I’d be much happier seeing a variant of Aquatopia placed in parks like Disney World’s Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom over yet another Dumbo clone.) I’d never call it “thrilling”, but of all the attractions in the park, it was this one that seemed to make people the happiest.

StormRider is a nice update to Star Tours that manages to be both more engaging and entertaining than the old Lucas-inspired simulator attraction. You won’t be shaking your head in amazement—the ride has a fairly standard “simulator” feel to it—but a nice pre-show area, the elaborate interior of the ride vehicle, and some cool show effects make it entertaining. StormRider is fun, but hard to fall in love with; I’ll give the nod to Aquatopia as Port Discovery’s better attraction.

Most of the park’s smaller attractions are superb. DisneySea’s two major “traveling” rides—the sea-going Transit Steamers and the Elevated Railway—are both entertaining. I’m always partial to scenic rides that let you take in the picturesque surroundings, and both of these attractions do a terrific job at that. The kiddie rides in Mermaid Lagoon are also very enjoyable, and they look spectacular. I didn’t ride Arabian Coast’s double-decker carousel, though it looked like fun. The Magic Lamp Theater, a 3-D movie featuring the Genie from Aladdin (and quite a bit of live-action) was not so hot: it’s easily the least outstanding entry in the legion of Disney 3-D productions.

A Word Of Warning

…to prospective visitors: if you can’t understand spoken Japanese, you will absolutely feel like you’re missing out on something when you visit DisneySea’s attractions. I don’t speak the language, and on a few of the rides— 20,000 Leagues and Sinbad, in particular—I struggled to figure out what was going on since I understood none of the narration. Paradoxically, English is the dominant language for signage throughout the park (even the paintings that tell the story of Sinbad in its queue area have elaborate English descriptions), but no such luck on the rides themselves. Technological fixes to this seem possible: selfishly, I’d like to be able to tell cast members to flip a switch and have my 20,000 Leagues mini-sub switch to an English-speaking Captain Nemo. I say “selfishly” because, surprisingly, on a very crowded day in the park, besides my party of six, I saw literally four non-Japanese individuals, far fewer than I’d anticipated. Because of these demographics, Disney probably got it right in not bothering to support English in the attractions. (If so, however, then what’s up with the English signage?)

Step Back For A Moment

…and instead of focusing on the execution, let’s discuss the park from a conceptual standpoint. I had a great time soaking in DisneySea, but it’s inevitable that questions would pop into my head as I walked around Imagineering’s newest creation. Was this the right park to build in Tokyo? Did the Imagineers fill it with the proper sights and attractions? Does DisneySea advance our idea of what a theme park is supposed to be?

In my “Disney Returns To Its Roots” column, I stated before I’d visited that “Tokyo DisneySea…illustrates that Walt Disney Imagineering has finally remembered what an amusement park is supposed to be like.” Well, now that I’ve been there, does DisneySea show that Imagineering knows what it’s doing? I think it does. DisneySea is the first park where Imagineering has tried to create another Disneyland. Not a copy of Disneyland—they’ve done that already in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris—but another Disneyland.

Disney’s other parks are about wildlife, movies, even California, but it’s been a long time since Imagineers created a park based completely on fantasy, capable of holding virtually any attraction they could think up. DisneySea’s “lands” are thinly veiled recreations of Disneyland’s: instead of Tomorrowland, we get Port Discovery. Instead of Adventureland, we get the Lost River Delta and the Arabian Coast. Fantasyland is replaced by Mermaid Lagoon and Mysterious Island. Main Street exists in the form of New York Harbor. Modeling the park after Disneyland serves the newer park well: like Disneyland, DisneySea’s concept isn’t so lofty that it will drown in its ambitions, as Epcot and Animal Kingdom do.

But making the park conceptually so much like its sibling has its drawbacks as well. If you look at Tokyo Disney Resort’s two parks as a whole, would a $3 billion version of California Adventure (or something similarly different) have been a better complement to Tokyo Disneyland? (And wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have a park called “California Adventure” somewhere else besides California?) As it stands, you could almost swap the names of Disneyland and DisneySea, and if you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t care. Though I can hardly fault Disney for wanting to build DisneySea as is, going the California Adventure route certainly would have provided a better-differentiated experience.

DisneySea’s name troubles me a little. I’m necessarily speaking from a U.S. perspective, but it’s loaded with marketing challenges. Talking to a friend in Tokyo asking questions about the park, she repeatedly referred to it as “Sea World.” I think this will be a common misperception. If someone goes there expecting a killer whale show, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. And if they’re like me and a killer whale show isn’t that exciting to them in the first place, they’re not going to go at all.

Spelling the name is a challenge: you have to capitalize the “s” in DisneySea to be able to read the word. (The uncapitalized “Disneysea” is just a little too confusing to try to pronounce.) The name only really makes sense if you understand the land/sea analogy it’s playing off of, and that’s a tad obscure. I know it took me over a year before I figured out that the name “DisneySea ” was playing off of “Disneyland.” (Land/Sea…get it?) This made me think I was stupid until I realized that this correlation was news to everyone I mentioned it to, even while we were standing in the park. Furthermore, it’s kind of a false analogy: the “land” in Disneyland’s name doesn’t exactly refer to “land masses” or “continents,” it’s just a generic term for a “place.” Using the term “sea” in the new park is taking the original park’s name too literally.

Given these issues, to go out on a limb for the name “DisneySea” seems strange since the park is themed around the sea in only the loosest possible sense. The word “sea” will pop into your head walking about DisneySea about as often as the term “land” does when visiting Disneyland (that is to say, not very frequently at all.)

How Does The Park Stack Up Against The Competition

…Disney and otherwise? Did Imagineering get it “all right” with DisneySea, and “all wrong” with California Adventure, as has been widely asserted? DisneySea is clearly more elaborate and beautiful than California Adventure—no one would ever dispute that. It fits more closely into the Disney theme park tradition: most of its “lands” could easily slide into one of the Magic Kingdom parks. Is it better than California Adventure? Yes, but it’s not a slam-dunk.

California Adventure’s roller coaster, rapids ride—even its Ferris wheel—are great attractions. I’d rate them all better than the one original E-ticket attraction I rode at DisneySea (20,000 Leagues). Both of California Adventure’s 3-D movies are vastly superior to DisneySea’s Magic Lamp Theater. DisneySea’s StormRider and California Adventure’s Soarin’ Over California come out as a tie. Sinbad trumps Superstar Limo in a landslide. DisneySea does have Indy, and a Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction that I didn’t experience. But whether that attraction is good or bad would make little difference in my assessment: like I said, DisneySea is a better park than California Adventure. (An appropriate question: is it better on a dollars-spent basis than California Adventure? Looking at it from that unfair perspective (“unfair” because as a visitor I shouldn’t care about how much was spent, just whether I’m enjoying myself), considering that DisneySea cost two to three times as much as the new Anaheim park, I think I’d call it a tie.)

Is DisneySea better than Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the best non-Disney themed park in the world? The two are remarkably similar in layout and theming. Universal did a great job with their park’s atmosphere and detail, but in this area, DisneySea is truly the best. In terms of attractions, though, Universal wins out. Nothing here is as stunning as Universal’s Spider-Man. Nothing here is as exciting as Universal’s Dueling Dragons coaster. Again, I’ll make it a “draw,” though for very different reasons than I did for California Adventure. (Some good news for Disney on the attraction front: Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland comes very close to being as good as the revolutionary Spider-Man.)

Finally, is DisneySea better than Disneyland? It’d be easy to claim that nothing could be as good as Disneyland for nostalgia reasons alone, but let’s try and look more deeply.

Suppose Walt Disney had built this park in 1955 rather than Disneyland. Would he have set the world on fire like he did? I’m going to say “no,” because DisneySea doesn’t touch as many nerves as Disneyland. It’s not as stirring as Disneyland…not as universal. Disneyland is the canonical theme park, and not just because it was the first.

Why is this so? Hard to say, but for me, Disneyland all feels like one coherent experience, designed by one person (albeit with a lot of assistance). It’s an idealized, physical representation of the 1950s American worldview, delivered in a manner that’s charming rather than condescending, and a place that feels like home the second you step into it. DisneySea is beautifully designed, but by comparison, it feels like a bunch of cool things placed next to each other. This manifests itself in something as simple as the naming of DisneySea’s lands. One of the inspired—and nearly unique—features of Disneyland is that its “lands” don’t describe their content geographically, only qualitatively. “Adventureland” is where adventure lives, and it just so happens that it’s set in a South Seas jungle. (As a contrasting example, in France, it’s set in Morocco.) “Frontierland” is about exploration, and in the U.S., that means the Wild West. Imagine if Disneyland followed the DisneySea model and Adventureland were called “Bora Bora,” and Frontierland became “Tombstone, U.S.A.” Maybe it’s me, but that’s not quite as magical. The lands become re-creations, not original places. DisneySea is a re-creation of places, real and imagined. Disneyland is, well, an original.

So if DisneySea isn’t far and away the best theme park in the world, did Disney and the Oriental Land Company do the right thing by spending so much money on it? From a pure fan’s standpoint, the answer of course is “yes,” but from an economic standpoint, we’ll have to see. Disney is now in the middle of a defining experiment, having opened its most expensive park ever (DisneySea) within a year of opening two of its least expensive (California Adventure in Anaheim and Disney Studios in Paris). The path that future Disney theme parks will take will largely be decided by the financial success of these two approaches.

Early on, it appears that the premium route is winning: DisneySea attendance seems quite strong (though I haven’t heard any statistics), while California Adventure attendance has been lackluster. (Note: Since this column was written, it was announced that DisneySea hit the ten million visitor mark faster than any park before it; it has been very successful.) However, using Disney-MGM Studios as an example—a park that underwhelmed me when it opened, but has since grown into one of my favorites—I think it’s premature to make any real assessments. After each park has been open for four or five years, it’ll be a better time to make a determination about which approach works better.

In Conclusion

…DisneySea is a fantastic park. It’s the first non-Disneyland park that will truly remind you of Disneyland. Yet despite its great beauty, it’s not as bold as its predecessor. Its execution is first-rate, but DisneySea doesn’t advance the theme park experience. It doesn’t prove to me that parks have to be so ornately constructed, with such huge budgets, in order to be worthwhile. It’s not so good that it obsoletes the parks that preceded it, even California Adventure. It might sound like I’m criticizing DisneySea here, but I don’t intend to. Not every park can be a breakthrough; that requires a great confluence of creativity, technology, and economics that can’t happen just by asking for it. It should be good enough that DisneySea is a terrific park, and it is.

DisneySea’s biggest, splashiest moments are a bit of a disappointment. 20,000 Leagues doesn’t live up to expectations (it wasn’t just me: no one in my party was particularly impressed), and Indiana Jones is a solid but uninspired re-tread of what’s found in California. Not riding Journey to the Center of the Earth was a bitter disappointment, but even if it’s fantastic, I think I’d still have to say that the big-ticket items, though good, aren’t great.

DisneySea’s small moments seem much more special. (And when I say “small,” it’s a misnomer, because in reality Aquatopia and Sinbad aren’t “small” and “simple”—they’re highly sophisticated. It’s a testament to the skill used in designing them that they seem simple.) Fortunately, this is a park that seems to understand these small moments, as Disneyland did when it first opened. Exploring the Fortress, riding the Transit Steamers around the park, boarding the Columbia, playing in Mermaid Lagoon, traveling on the Elevated Railway, wandering through the beautiful New York, New England and Mediterranean Harbors…they’re all exquisite experiences that resonate much more deeply than the park’s E-ticket attractions. The good news about DisneySea is that it tries to be Disneyland in all the little ways, and it succeeds. That’s exciting.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.

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