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Why Disney fans have their post-pandemic sights set on Japan

Visitors wearing masks pose July 1 at Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu, Japan. Cutting-edge technology combined with a reverence for classic Disney stories add to the Tokyo park's appeal.

JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

By CARLYE WISEL | Bloomberg | Published: February 11, 2021

As some families eagerly await COVID-19 vaccinations so they can get their Mickey-loving kids back to the Magic Kingdom, the most passionate Disney fans are looking forward to something else entirely: a trip to Japan.

Tokyo Disney Resort will emerge from the pandemic bigger and better than before. And it's already a nostalgia feast - the idyllic Disney of childhood as preserved in one's mind, where the castle is still blue, soap is magically dispensed in the shape of Mickey Mouse, and families efficiently board versions of Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad that somehow always look as good as new.

Only-in-Japan rides and unique experiences, such as a Big Band revue with Mickey Mouse playing the drums live, amp up the charm beyond anything seen stateside. Whimsical snacks - including mochi shaped as Toy Story's Little Green Men aliens, soft-boiled eggs with Mickey-shaped yolks, and a rotating variety of popcorn flavors that include garlic shrimp, curry, and honey-soy - can't be found anywhere else. And on souvenir stands, kawaii culture makes for Disney keepsakes unlike any others.

That's why 3 million visitors to the parks each year (in normal times) come from overseas - 10% of its total attendance. In 2019, Tokyo Disney Resort reported record-setting visits while its sibling parks in the U.S. and Hong Kong saw 3% declines in attendance.

"It truly does feel like the ultimate pilgrimage," says Geoffrey Koester, a higher education administrator, content creator and lifelong Disney fan.

That's partially because the two theme parks, Disneyland and DisneySea, four hotels, and shopping district located at Tokyo Disney Resort are wholly owned by the deep-pocketed Oriental Land Co.; in addition to licensing and royalty fees, it contracts Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) to bring its next-level visions to life.

Unlike Walt Disney Co., OLC's business entities almost completely revolve around the theme park resort, resulting in well-funded experiences, along with forward-thinking expansions that celebrate nostalgic Disney icons rather than flashy commercial acquisitions. (That comes with a flip side; a less-diversified balance sheet means the company lost its only real source of income during its four-month closure in 2020.)

Cutting-edge technology combined with a reverence for classic Disney stories, rather than its more recently acquired "Star Wars" and Marvel franchises, is the fairy dust to Tokyo Disney's appeal. A 75 billion yen ($720 million) "Beauty and the Beast" expansion completed in 2020, for instance, gives guests a ride through Beast's castle from aboard an enchanted teacup; a further 250 billion yen ($2.4 billion) will soon bring "Peter Pan" and "Tangled" attractions to DisneySea in a more significant way than at parks in the U.S. There's a caveat, though: While it's all familiar intellectual property, the storytelling is primarily in Japanese, be it on rides, shows, or parades.

"I often find myself wishing I could erase all of my memories and experience our Disney parks again for the first time," says Alexa Starkey, dental hygienist and self-proclaimed Disney adult. "Tokyo Disney Resort represents a way to get that first-time Disney feeling again."

Tokyo DisneySea tends to astonish Americans most. Taking inspiration from the seven seas, its "ports" meld shockingly realistic scenery wherein a Venetian gondola drifts past a fiery volcano, or an elevated train bypasses turn-of-the-century Manhattan as it curls toward a steam-powered ocean liner.

"So many of the attractions at Tokyo are not found at any other park, and even those that share a name with another park aren't nearly the same experience," says Koester.

The Jules Verne-inspired Journey to the Center of the Earth, for instance, puts passengers face-to-face with a ghastly, oversized lava monster before bursting through a volcano; the Japanese take on Tower of Terror drops its original "Twilight Zone" theme for a fresh storyline about the disappearance of a wealthy hotelier. On the entertainment side, the nighttime Electrical Parade Dreamlights puts a modern spin on the illuminated Main Street Electrical Parade floats of yesteryear, while stage shows include the Mardi Gras dance revue, Let's Party Gras.

The parks are also a proving ground for technology. Pooh's Hunny Hunt - in which a sweet but slightly psychedelic story unfolds from a seemingly self-driving vehicle - pioneered "trackless" rides nearly two decades before one arrived at Walt Disney World. Now Disney's U.S. parks are using this system for many of their freshest attractions, such as the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride that opened in 2019 at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Daniel Jue, WDI portfolio creative executive for Tokyo Disney Resort, has a further theory regarding the parks' devout fandom: its Japanese guests. Here, they don matching outfits and character headbands, mimic parade choreography, and simply let loose in a way that doesn't happen elsewhere in Japan's day-to-day society. It's participation as attraction.

"My hypothesis is that there is a kind of a human, essential need that Tokyo Disney Resort fulfills for our Japanese guests," he says.

Take Duffy the Disney Bear, a stuffed animal that received a lukewarm reception in American parks but is perhaps the greatest Tokyo Disney phenomenon. Japanese audiences dress up Duffy dolls in costumes, push them in strollers, and commandeer high chairs for the dolls in restaurants. Duffy's corresponding crew of a half-dozen gleefully simplistic animals, known as Duffy & Friends, have such strong appeal that they paved the way for OLC to generate roughly $8 billion a year in merchandise spending in 2018 and 2019.

Cultural beliefs such as omotenashi - the Japanese philosophy of intuitive hospitality - only further Disney's own core values of service with a smile. Such little things as the fact that bags left in one's room can be seamlessly transferred to another hotel are commonplace Japanese amenities that would come across (at best) as unconventional consumer demands at American theme parks.

"There's this level of standard that has to be met, no matter what, and in Western culture, we're a little loosey-goosey on it," says Chris Nilghe, founder of TDRExplorer, which offers English-language information and guides to visiting the resort.

Tokyo Disney Resorts closed for months at the start of the pandemic, then reopened on a limited basis in July, with fewer available shops and restaurants in order to facilitate social distancing. By the time international borders reopen, operations should be closer to normal.

Rules and regulations, including bookings and ticket sales, are ever-changing amid the pandemic. Generally, first-time guests are encouraged to book hotels roughly six months in advance, with rooms at Hotel MiraCosta - facing the visual spectacle of Tokyo DisneySea - in highest demand.