Long after the sun has disappeared beyond Mt. Fuji the heat of the day remains, trapped in the vast forest of buildings that make up Tokyo. The air feels like damp plastic on my skin. Shinjuku teems with people moving in every direction, seemingly going nowhere.
Returning to my hotel via the trash-strewn streets of the seedy Kabuki-cho neighborhood I decide I don’t need a shower. I need three.
For the next ten sweaty days I’d lead a group of university students around Tokyo and Osaka. Theirs was an educational trip, itinerary bloated with professional appointments and corporate visits and business-casual attire. Afternoons of free time in street clothes would lend occasional reprieve.
On the penultimate day of their trip the group would go Tokyo Disney Sea. Everyone was looking forward to it for various related reasons and one common one: a day free of conscious constraint and suffocating clothes. I saw it as I did so many other days of travel: a chance to go somewhere I’d never been. See it with my own eyes.
And then write about it with honest sarcasm.
A Whole New World. Shining, Shimmering, Sordid.
At Shin-Kiba Station the Keiyo Line rises from underneath Tokyo Bay and soars into the air above an expanse of seawater canals and platforms of reclaimed land laden with the gray rectangles of industry. It's nice.
As we pass over the mouth of the Arakawa River hints of amusement appear in the distance: spires and roller coaster tracks piercing the roof of a forest that looks both inviting and terribly out of place. Then the volcano comes into view and my head is all Jurassic Park.
By the time we pull into Maihama Station the forest and the volcano (but not the pissed-off meat-eating dinosaurs in my head) have disappeared, replaced with typical Japanese train station scenery: paths of bumpy yellow tile to help keep the visually-impaired from falling onto the tracks; overhead signs telling you in four languages where you are; and everywhere, unrivaled cleanliness.
A short walk transports us from mere spotlessness to hospital-grade sterile and the first signs that we are entering an insane asylum.
“You Will Be Exactly As Happy As We Say You Will Be”
As an independent traveler, seeing a place for the first time can be a wonderful experience. As a guide it’s not a lot of fun.
“Here are our tickets for Disney Sea,” I said to the young man in the starched clothes he quite effectively was pretending not to hate.
“Okay!” he said, smile wide as Tokyo Bay and just as suspect. “The train to Disney Sea is right this way!” He waved a practiced palm toward the escalators – the only way one could possibly go from here aside from running and screaming back the way one came. Then he pivoted left, smooth as the current hiding a deadly undertow, his hand now directed at a wall of machines. “Please buy your train tickets here!”
“We have to take a train?”
“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful!”
Forgetting that this was Disney I then asked if we had to pay.
“Yes! Two hundred sixty yen! Please get off at the third stop!”
I always imagined my Japanese coworkers, dutifully bubbly and smiling all day, getting home to their hole-in-the-wall apartments at 11:30 every night and collapsing on their futons, sobbing uncontrollably into their Mickey Mouse pillows. This is what I thought of now as I listened to this uber-exuberant person dressed in clothes that no human being could possibly enjoy wearing.
Unlike every other Disney ride, there was no waiting to get on the train. They came every three minutes, beige cars with windows shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head sliding innocently up to the platform. Women in their fifties and sixties bowed and waved gentle palms, inviting us all to get on, smiling as if to assure us there was nothing to worry about.
Approaching our first stop we could see the entrance to Tokyo Disneyland. There were, according to my count, six thousand and eleven people lined up in the vast pink plaza waiting for the gates to open, ready to make a run for the shortest line, no matter what ride it was for.
Next stop brought us to Bayside, an ambitious, ostentatious display of hotels branded Sheraton, Hilton, Dynasty, and Grand Nikko. On the far side of all of them were the waters of Tokyo Bay. Welcome to our hotel. There’s nowhere to go from here.
Tucked into one corner were Crystal Chapel and Glass Chapel. It’s a popular thing in Japan to have a wedding ceremony in a fake church with a fake priest who reads from a book no one understands, not even the fake priest. Here in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth you can celebrate the Happiest Day of Your Life in whichever chapel suits your bad taste.
Next stop, Disney Sea Station, where music floated in the air overhead from somewhere unseen; music at once happy and hysteria-inducing. I followed the crowd, urging my group to hurry up and get away from the music though not quite in those exact words.
In the plaza outside the entrance gates I passed out pieces of paper bearing ink jet collages of happy animals with maniacal eyes. Down in one corner was a fuzzy QR code.
“Here are your tickets, guys,” I said, silently praying this was how it was supposed to work because I don’t care who you are or who you are dealing with, humans have not evolved to the point where they can handle having to stand around in a pink plaza under a blazing sun outside the entrance to Disney Anything while their guide struggles to figure shit out.
Inside the gates, now standing in a circular blue plaza under the blazing hot sun, we set two times to meet up later: 1:00 for anyone who’d had enough and wanted to leave, 5:00 for everyone else. Either way, we’d meet at the fountain with the globe spinning so slowly it could drive you mad waiting for your homeland to come around.
“Everybody got it?” I said to the backs of everyone’s heads as they hurried off.
I walked toward the fountain, thinking I’d just float around for the next eight hours.
But this is Disney where, evidently, certain kinds of happy are not allowed.
I turned to Barbara, the group’s academic leader and ostensible head disciplinarian. “You first,” I said, waving a palm toward where the rest of the world was headed. I’m sure she thought I was being polite when really I had this feeling I shouldn't be going in there.
We Will Tell You Where To Go, Our Way.
We shuffled along, the rest of our group already disappeared into the gullet with the rest of the hoi polloi. I’d not stopped sweating since Shinjuku. Luckily we were here at Disney Sea. There had to be someplace I could go swimming.
From that scorching blue plaza we were sucked into a vortex of fake European building facades and real air-conditioned gift shops. The walkway narrowed, funneling us through a gateway called the Passaggio Miracosta and into another sprawling, searing plaza that was neither costa nor mira. Straight ahead was a huge body of water, extremely inviting and entirely fenced off. Wide walkways ran off in both directions around Forbidden Lake (not its real name though it could be).
“So where to?” I asked Barbara and no one. I looked around. There was not a single sign anywhere indicating where anything was. “Is there a map of the park somewhere?”
Barbara had never been here either, but like everyone else in the group (except me) she was technologically savvy. “You have to download the app to get the map,” she said.
Maybe that was why all the parents had their faces in their phones while they dragged their kids along by one hand. As if that wasn’t what most parents did these days anyway.
“It’s more environmentally friendly not having to make all those signs,” she added. “I guess.”
Not to dispute that line of thinking, but I did notice one huge board with the word “Information” in playful lettering across the upper edge – and a tarp covering the map that, presumably, lie hidden underneath.
You have to download the app.
I’ve got so many words for this. None of them are SEO-friendly.
Forgoing the app we walked blindly off, left around the Happiest Lake on Earth, past Venetian Carnival Market Confections, the Villa Donaldo Home Shop, Gondolier Snacks, McDuck’s Department Store, a popcorn wagon, a gift shop named Rimembranze or something, High Tide Treats, a toilet, Bayside Takeout, Breezeway Bites and more water that is off limits until Disney figures out a way to make you pay extra for it.
Half a mile of walking and not a ride in sight. This, I’m sure, is entirely by design. It takes so long to get to one of the rides – even if you know where any of them are – you begin to fear collapsing in the searing heat if you don’t get something to eat or drink or at the very least go recuperate in the sub-arctic gift shop air conditioning.
It is notable that among the innumerable opportunities to spend your money – on food in themed restaurants, on drinks in fantastically-un-environmentally-friendly containers, on happy souvenirs made (I am speculating here) by very unhappy workers in some polluted Chinese factory – among all this, there are no water fountains. None you are allowed to drink out of anyway.
For a successful business model entirely devoid of ethics, look no further than Disney.
Fine. Have Your Water.
It was ten o’clock when we stumbled upon Journey to the Center of the Earth, a ride with a line that wound back and forth in the bowels of the Jurassic Volcano I’d seen from the train. I’m normally not a big fan of getting eaten by a velociraptor but I’d risk it if it meant escaping the World’s Happiest Frying Pan for a while.
I’d heard stories of lines at Disney being two, even three hours long. You could watch all of Jurassic Park in that time and still have opportunity to catch some of Joe Versus the Volcano (word is you won’t be upset if you don’t get to see how it ends).
Incredibly, the wait for Journey was barely longer than it would take for a herd of velociraptors to pick your bones clean. “It’s only fifty minutes!” I said, turning to Barbara.
She looked at the sign.
“It says fifty-five.”
I looked back. She was right. It was now suddenly fifty-five.
Check that. Sixty.
We jumped on line, along with two of our group who just happened to come by at that time. They looked tired and thirsty but happy.
As we shuffled slowly, back and forth through the ropes, passing the same people again and again, I noticed two things.
One, a lot of people were dressed identically. Yes, some parents like to dress their young children in identical clothes, though I don’t know why. Maybe they think it’s cute. Maybe it’s a subliminal statement to the world: "Our kids don’t have to wear hand-me-downs." Maybe it makes it easier to describe to the authorities what their one missing child is wearing.
“I don’t understand what happened, I was just downloading an app and when I looked up he was gone.”
But these identically-dressed people were all grown-ups. Couples. Female friends of high school or maybe college age, or maybe older, it’s hard to tell sometimes. There were male friends too, with matching shirts and pants, blissfully unaware that that sort of thing would get you beaten up in most other countries.
The other thing I noticed was – God Be Praised! – there was a water fountain! This, I figured as I stuck my face halfway down the pipe, was a legal maneuver. There must be some law that says you can’t deprive people of water for three hours, no matter how happy you tell them they are.
Condiments Not Complimentary
The ride was bumpy, fun, and extremely short-lived, ending right after a neck-snapping exit from the top of the volcano and a wonderful blast of heat from the flamethrower roasting our scalps as a final bit of happy fun.
There were no water fountains on the way back out into the Happiest Furnace on Earth.
We walked past Refresco’s, Magellan’s (French Cuisine), and along the citadel of a fake castle overlooking Mediterranean Harbor (No Swimming) before making our accidental way around to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. The wait was only thirty minutes. Thirty minutes in the shade and, dare to dream, another water fountain.
Young children who are fascinated by pale mechanical human-lizard sea creatures and a huge, growling, convulsing, constipated meat-eating plant might disagree, but I’d say the water fountain was the best part of the ride.
It was now, my fellow adventurers decided, time for lunch. And wouldn’t you know it, there was a place to eat right there in front of us. Vulcania Chinese restaurant. Of course.
As the others headed for the line at the counter I grabbed us a table, in the shade and in view of an enclosed body of water called Vulcan’s Cauldron, which seemed quite apropos as it was probably going to start boiling over any second.
Whenever I’m planning a long bike ride or a hike into the mountains I make sure to pack a lunch. Same for a day in the Happiest Overpriced Food Court on Earth, From my bag I pulled out a toasted ham and cheese sandwich that wasn’t toasted when I put it in there that morning.
Beneath it were the three bottles of water I’d forgotten I’d also packed.
I prefer mayo or mustard on my ham and cheese, but there at Vulcania soy sauce would probably have to do. I wandered toward the counter, the line, the trash boxes with the tray return space on top – all over Chinese Pompeii. And no condiments anywhere. No packets of soy sauce, or anything else. Not so much as a napkin dispenser.
Don't you people realize these are not things you can download?
Lost Children, Lost River Delta & Losing My Job
After the Happiest Chinese Restaurant in a Volcano on Earth it was time to check in at the globe fountain. A few of the students had already sent messages through our WhatsApp group that they wanted to go back to our hotel in Ginza. And probably shower and go drink somewhere.
They were waiting in the shade near the Passaggio Miracosta, having, as they said, eaten some of the best Italian food ever. They’d also stumbled upon an intriguing morsel called Lost Children. “It’s right over there,” they said, pointing to a green awning next to Mamma Biscotti’s Bakery.
I walked over and peered through the open doorway. An unattended reception counter stood to the right. Three chairs sat empty along the wall on the left. The sight was oddly comforting. There were, ostensibly, no lost children. By extension this meant there were no children being forced to sit in an empty room like they had been sent to the principal’s office for the crime of getting lost in a place designed so adults can’t figure it out without an app.
“Oh, and if you want to know where we’re holding your desperately crying child, please download our app.”
Three or four students ended up leaving early (having been on not even one ride, which meant time wasted or time well-spent, I wasn't sure). Barbara extended to me an invitation to leave too if I wanted – which was tempting but I feared it was some kind of final test to see if I deserved to be asked to guide another group for ten sweat-soaked days again next year.
If I was not going to be asked back next year it was not going to be because I went home early on the last day. It would be because I got thrown out of the park for jumping into a fountain.
We turned and walked once again toward that desert-hot expanse of terra cotta happiness with that oasis in the middle, protected by a team of snipers standing atop Passaggio Miracosta dressed like Yosemite Sam for all I knew. A mile away to the left was the Tower of Terror, fronted by an elevated railway and, undoubtedly, a dizzying array of edible, wearable, memorable forms of happy for sale.
Barbara, however, must have downloaded an app because out of the blue she suggested we head for something called the Lost River Delta.
I imagined more water I could neither touch nor drink. Pavlov’s dogs would have eaten right through their metal cages by now.
We took the long way around, past Steamboat Mickey’s Clothing Store, Delancey Catering, Restaurant Sakura, Liberty Landing Diner, another popcorn wagon, Cape Cod Cook-Off, Cape Cod Confections, Aunt Peg’s Village Store Gift Shop, Seaside Snacks, another popcorn wagon, and a ride thing called Aquatopia where you get driven around an acre of blue cement in a vehicle you don’t control, past geysers and waterfalls that don’t actually get you wet which means I would be compelled to jump out of my cart and avail myself of a good drenching and, in turn, say goodbye to Barbara.
I probably wouldn’t fare much better on the Nemo & Friends Sea Rider.
Past Skywatcher Souvenirs and just before another popcorn wagon we crossed the Puente del Rio Perdido (the Bridge to Perdition, wonderful) and found ourselves in the forest I’d seen from the train that morning. There was so much shade I was sure we were going to have to pay extra for it.
But here in the Lost Delta is where our fortunes turned.
The Happiest Place on Fire
The Indiana Jones Adventure consisted of a jolting, high-speed jeep ride through total darkness, interspersed with illuminated moments that give you a sense of what it looks like right before you jump the tracks and die. Raging Spirits was a rollicking if not exactly towering roller coaster ride featuring a loop-dee-loop with a graveyard of lost hats in the grass below, along with a Mayan pyramid with flowing water that was somehow on fire.
The lines for both rides were short enough to make me think something was wrong. But Land of Stupid Lizard People this was not. I was glad Barbara led us here, and decided she should be invited back next year.
We also ran into several of our group there in the Delta. They were chatting and smiling and feasting on massive turkey legs. In their faces and their words it was clear: they were having a blast.
The path out of the Lost Delta led to the Arabian world of Aladdin and Jasmine and maybe the Genie but I saw no sign of him or his bottle. ...Bottle...Bottle...Why is my head saying bottle?...
“I still have a bottle of water left!” I shouted. I could hear the lunacy in my own voice. Barbara looked at me like she heard it too. Or maybe she was plotting to pilfer what water I didn’t guzzle down on the spot.
As my three companions ducked into the ladies room (I certainly had no excess water in me) I sat in a square-foot spot of shade near Abu’s Bazaar and watched a crowd gather outside a theater-looking place called the Arabian Coast. All at once they were let in, hurrying out of the still-scorching afternoon, leaving the entrance deserted until the next group began to slowly form and sweat.
Wandering past the nearby Open Sesame takeout stand I saw parents leading children – vice versa, actually – into something called Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage.
“You guys want to check it out?” I asked my three dates when they returned.
Like we had anything better to do. And hey, it was a few more minutes out of the sun. Assuming inside wasn’t an authentic 145-degree replication of the real Arabia.
In a setting reminiscent of the iconic and torturous “It’s a Small World” ride we rolled slowly by a set of scenes inhabited by mechanical figures of people and animals and all the indications of a happy life. Not at all reminiscent of Small World, this was not a platitudinous idea being rhythmically, maniacally beaten into our heads by a multi-colored, never-ending chorus of pleading puppets. This was a story being told (Yes, I know, hence the “Storybook Voyage” thing.) in a series of playfully captivating scenes.
Yes, I am a grown man, and I am giving the Sinbad ride at Disney Sea two thumbs up.
A leisurely stroll past the Sultan’s Oasis restaurant and another popcorn wagon, across a bridge to some spinning ride thing that somehow only makes adults puke, past Mermaid Memories Souvenirs, the mesmerizing Mermaid Lagoon, over another bridge and past Sea Turtle Souvenirs and a popcorn store, under a railway and past a Handwashing Station (Do Not Drink) and we were back at Vulcania where we had lunch about a week ago.
Disney Sea Is What You See
Before passing one last time through Passaggio Miracosta we stopped in a gift shop. Not that it was my idea, I’ve never been one to buy souvenirs, and checking the price tags on these varied nuggets of false gold certainly did nothing to change that. But I wasn’t going to argue being subjected to the air conditioning.
One item I saw in those thirty blissful, nauseating minutes sticks out in my memory; an object representative of Disney Sea, perhaps, but also indicative of what I think I was unconsciously trying to make the day mean. It was a globe throw pillow, soft and plush and, if I wanted, mine for only $75. The part facing out the window of the box showed Europe, cut through by one of the seams in the cloth. If I didn’t know this pillow was supposed to be the Earth I’d think I was looking at a hippo in high heels. Maybe you see something else.
Back at the Happiest Blue Plaza on Earth I watched a slow, steady stream of people walk up to the globe fountain to take selfies or, in that vanishing art of being personable, ask someone nearby to take a picture for them. Across the plaza the members of a marching band paraded back to their dressing room. I imagined them shedding their long pants and jackets and big furry hats, a bunch of shriveled, dehydrated figures as skinny as the clarinets in their hands.
A few more soon-to-be-emaciated people in chipmunk costumes appeared, waving as frenetically as anyone making eight bucks an hour could be expected to. People hurried over to wave back, to take pictures, to generally let themselves be sucked into the very essence of this place, which neither google nor Disney would appreciate if iterated honestly.
One and two at a time our group straggled into view. They too took pictures in front of that spinning globe. They showed each other the souvenirs they’d bought. They laughed and goofed around like kids and talked excitedly about their day.
In my last clear memory of the Happiest Place on Earth Where There’s No Swimming Allowed in Any of the Water, of one of the students remarked, with a sincere glow in his expression and a levity in his voice, “What a wonderful place!”
Yes. The Happiest, Most Magical, Most Wonderful Place on Earth.
A money-swallowing, spit-sucking, download-demanding, fake happiness-selling dystopia.
Depends on who you talk to.
By the way: If you’re looking for someone to show you around all the ups and downs of Disney Sea while not bailing early or getting tossed for jumping in the fountain, I know a great guide.