Tokyo Disneyland (or “TDL” as it’s known to the Japanese) turns 30 on April 15, but like George Clooney, or heck, even the famed Mouse himself, age hasn’t withered it a bit.
TDL means different things to the Japanese, but if you sift through all the memories and narrow it down to one sentiment, it would have to be happiness. The concept is ever elusive to the nation’s work-centric population, laboring under the burden of an economic recession lasting 20-odd years. Still, every Japanese has this stamped-on-the-DNA sort of knowledge that happiness will be theirs once they pass through the gates of TDL — which makes its publicity department the happiest of them all.
Appropriately, TDL has dubbed this year — beginning April 15 and lasting though March 20, 2014 — the “Happiness Year.” (I don’t know what we’re supposed to do come March 21, 2014.)
Despite the somewhat shortened “year,” when it comes to TDL the Japanese usually don’t ask questions and are content to just bask in its joy, as if nitrous oxide was being piped directly into its air.
Not this writer, though. I’m one of the rare and cranky Japanese who have never been enamored of the Mouse and his clan, EVER. The solitude and loneliness was such I once thought of starting a support group, but couldn’t get any other people to join.
TDL, or more accurately, Oriental Land Company Ltd. — the group that owns and runs both TDL and neighboring Tokyo Disney Sea under the Tokyo Disney Resort umbrella — has slammed out consistently impressive profits year after year. From 2007 to 2008, TDL grossed ¥28.68 billion and that number climbed closer to ¥30 billion each following year, except in 2011 when the park closed down for more than 30 days following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. It goes without saying that Oriental Land ranks among the top five corporations in Japan’s service sector.
Here’s a fact that not many Japanese (or anyone for that matter) are aware of: Tokyo Disneyland is independently run, and it’s a separate entity from the global Disneyland franchise owned by Walt Disney Studios. Back in 1983, when TDL was about to open, Oriental Land invited “imagineers” from the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, to coach the Japanese in the art of concocting “Disney magic.” After the first year or two, the training wheels came off and TDL became a theme park in its own right. Many fans here swear by the home-grown product and it’s said (though not too loudly) that the TDL experience outweighs the Anaheim one hands down. Certainly visitors in Japan are willing to spend more money; a TDL guest spends an average ¥9,700 per day — not including souvenirs.
Takami Kitashiro, who is an avid Disney fan in her late 30s and has bought the yearly “passport” for five years straight is one of those spenders.
“Disneyland in Anaheim is wonderful, but for the real escape experience, TDL wins,” she says. “Once inside, I’m able to forget all the bad things in my life, and am transported to a place where I’m never sad. I can’t think of any other place that makes me feel this way.”
She adds that the only bad TDL memory she can think of was when the park shut down for a month after the March 11 earthquake. “I was so sad, and so scared. I knew that if only I could get inside I’d feel better.” When TDL reopened its gates in mid-April, Kitashiro says she actually wept with relief.
While TDL sounds like a theme-park developer’s wish upon a star, the logistics of running and maintaining the place are daunting. According to former TDL employee Bunjiro Fukushima, who wrote a bestselling nonfiction book titled “Kyu Wariga Baitodemo Saikouno ni Stafu ni Sodatsu Disney no Oshiekata (Ninety Percent May Be Part-Timers, But Disney Will Educate Them Into Becoming First-Rate Staff Members),” about the system that keeps TDL running like a finely tuned dream machine.
Referred to as “cast,” part-timers are treated like performers in the ongoing TDL story. If you’ve ever wondered why a hug from Mickey Mouse can make you feel so wonderful, here’s the answer: The cast member inside that costume has gone through the kind of training normally given to CIA field agents — except the agents get health insurance and a dental plan.
Nevertheless, total dedication is a must. If you look at a TDL Donald Duck through a pair of X-ray goggles, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that beneath the layers of felt costume you’ll see a young person grinning from ear to ear, chanting some company mantra about satisfying the customer.
Despite my distaste for Disney, in my sophomore year of college I interviewed at TDL for a cast position. I had been lured by rumors of an astoundingly high hourly salary — put it down to hunger and desperation. Anyway, the experience was more like an audition for a Broadway musical than a job interview (indeed, not a few professional stage actors work for TDL to pay their bills). I failed, not so much because I was a lousy dancer, but because my ears were pierced and I lacked “a proper mind-set.” (Today still, all cast members must swear off body piercings, hair dye and excessive makeup.) Even if I had landed a role, I would never have survived the training. Later, a friend of mine who got a job and subsequently spent nine hours a day for a solid year inside the sacred gates of TDL, solemnly told me that if you are able to come out of the training program mentally unscathed, you can make it anywhere.
By the way, even the cleaning staff are cast members — and they comprise the most important working team on the premises. TDL is famed for its spic-and-span cleanliness — the washrooms alone could impress the butlers at Buckingham Palace. In his book, Fukushima writes that the cleaning staff are instructed to think of trash as “fragments of dreams” and that their job, therefore, is more romantic and meaningful than anyone had bargained for. After all, a successful theme park is a clean one: No compromises and each and every cleaning task must be done with the utmost sincerity.
Tokyo Disneyland may have roots in California, but 10 minutes on the premises will make it clear that the place is as Japanese as a Zen garden. It might be easier to find a Japanese person who hates soy sauce than TDL; J-pop group Arashi has declared their adoration for it; and baseball hero Ichiro Suzuki has said he loves it there. Even North Korea’s coulda-been-a-dictator Kim Jong Nam was apprehended and escorted out of Japan when he tried to sneak into TDL while in the country on a false passport. The lure of pure happiness has the power to transcend politics, apparently.
Get happy with offers
Along with birthday packages and menus, here are some fun things on offer for Tokyo Disneyland’s birthday.
Star Tours: The Adventure Continues
The popular Star Tours ride from Disney World in Orlando is revamped and brought to Tokyo Disneyland on May 7. It incorporates 3-D images and has 50 possible scenarios for a different experience on each ride.
Through Disney Dreams and Magic: The Happiness Year Special Version
A limited-time guided tour will take participants through the park and offer access to a special viewing area in which to see the new parade, “Happiness is Here.” The tour takes 2½ hours and is ¥3,500 for adults and ¥2,000 for children.
Tokyo Disney Resort 30th Anniversary Official Camera App
Released March 15, the Happiness Cam, as it is called, is available for smartphones. Using augmented reality, the camera has fun Disney-related effects. From April 15, an additional effect only available for photos taken within the park will be available.