Tokyo Disneyland: Fans mark a quarter-century of Tokyo's magical kingdom
June 1, 2008
To highlight Tokyo Disneyland’s 25th anniversary, making an already-special atmosphere even grander demanded some serious magic from Disney organizers.
Yet, it’s the sort of thing the world has come to expect from the company that has worked to make our dreams come true for more than 80 years.
Though not related to Donald or Pluto, Mother Nature did her best, providing a gorgeous spring day for the April 15 festivities.
Otherwise, parades with towering floats, fireworks, and special 25th anniversary memorabilia accompanied Tokyo Disney’s standard amusement rides, famously costumed hug-givers and cheerful ambiance that have always helped offset big crowds, long lines, and what normally would be cartoonish food prices.
But hey, it’s Tokyo Disneyland. Tolerating 45-minute waits is part of the rite of passage for a destination that ranks high on many people’s things-to-do-before-I-die list. And for Pacific-based military members — especially those with kids — this is a doable pilgrimage.
One servicemember unaware of the day’s significance, at least until he arrived, was Maj. Jason Wratchford, a JAG officer at Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul. Wratchford said though his family had been to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., they still chose to dedicate a good chunk of their Japan visit to Tokyo Disney Resorts.
"We’re going to spend three days here," said Wratchford, who along with wife, Michiyo, came with their two children, 4-year-old John, and Sabrina, 6. "This is a great place for the family, and the kids love it."
"And it’s nice to be able to speak Japanese again," added Michiyo, a native of Japan. "Even at Disneyland."
Some park guests were very cognizant of the day’s significance. Kendra Trahan, president of the Florida-based National Fantasy Fan Club (a Disney enthusiast guild that for proprietary reasons is known today simply as NFFC) and author of "Disneyland Detective," made the trip from the States with more than 70 other NFFC members to be part of the celebration.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Trahan, a 40-year-old Lake Buena Vista, Fla., native. "We are not only here to enjoy the special events but to also honor ... the memory of Takahashi-san, who is a Disney legend."
It was, after all, Masamota Takahashi, a former interpreter for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, who in the 1970s boldly approached Walt Disney Productions about building a Disney theme park in Japan. Takahashi, then president of the Oriental Land Company, knew his company had enough land in the Tokyo area to build an American-style theme park he felt the Japanese would embrace.
Under drizzly skies on April 15, 1983, nearly five years and $1.4 billion later, Takahashi helped cut the ribbon that made Tokyo Disneyland the first overseas address for the world’s most famous rodent and his fur-covered buds. Their international home in Chiba, Japan, just outside Tokyo, has since drawn more than 480 million visitors, according to an AP news release, and since its opening has enjoyed a considerable annual attendance increase. In 1983, the park had nine million guests. Since 2003, it has netted roughly 25 million per.
While the park continues to flourish, there is some concern Japan’s rising median age will eventually spell an end to those peak numbers. In Japan, however, such science could be misleading.
Many Japanese visitors are more than the "one and done" guests more likely found in the States, where many without children steer clear of amusement parks. In a nation where cute is fashionable for the 5-year-old and 30-somethings alike, Tokyo Disneyland seems to have a niche Far East audience.
For instance, long after 36-year-old Atsushi Morie’s wife stopped dancing as a Tokyo Disney cast member, he continues to visit the theme park on a very regular basis. Adorned with his Mickey Mouse jean jacket on TDL’s silver anniversary, Morie said he began coming to Tokyo Disneyland 12 to 13 years ago and now makes the trip as many as eight times a month. Today, he says, he’s hooked on the shows, parades and music.
One 45-year-old Japanese mother said she began taking her 21-year-old daughter when she was a baby, and now the two visit the park between 50 and 60 times a year, a weekly routine the mother said has become "a necessity."
Americans may not have the same affinity for all things Disney, but many are captured by its aura.
During the grand opening 25 years ago, Bradley Card was a 26-year-old SOFA-status employee working on systems integration with the Japanese Self Defense Force in Yokosuka. Now 51, he still recalls the joys he felt as the park was getting ready to open.
"As a kid, I grew up in L.A., so I was always a pretty big Disney fan," said Card, an NFFC member who was then working for the company known today as Unisys. "I remember the disappointment of getting shipped home right before the park opened. Fortunately, one of the jobs we were working on went wrong so they flew me back to Japan shortly after the opening. I still got to see it in its inaugural year. Disneyland hasn’t changed too much; it’s still the greatest place on earth … for kids, it’s obviously fantastic."
Stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Staff Sgt. Tim Farris, 27, and his father-in-law, Jim Zubern, were nearly as excited as Farris’s brothers-in-law, Christian, 10, and Jamie, 11, as they walked the plank onto The Pirates of the Caribbean water ride.
"This is a great place for family to come, and it’s easily accessible from Yokota," said Farris, who finished a six-month tour in Oman not long ago. "Plus, it’s a little taste of home."
That sentiment was shared resoundingly by servicemembers visiting the park on its silver anniversary.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Larsen and his wife, Samantha, said traveling from Misawa Air Base to get some Disney time in with their two children was worth the 450-mile trip south.
"Up in Misawa, there’s a limit to the amount of things you can do every day," said Larsen, who knows that an upcoming deployment to the Middle East is more than likely. "So this is a great place for the family to come and enjoy."
While Misawa and other Pacific bases have plenty of great outdoor activities and other recreational activities, they are probably just a little light in the supernatural pixie department, which is exactly the reason why military members and their families, as well as the rest of the world, continue the mass mecca toward Cinderella Castle. Just ask the experts.
"You want to know what my favorite part was?" asked the Larsen’s 6-year-old Emma as she recalled the parade that had just passed through Disney’s streets. "I got to see Tinkerbell."