What can be said about Tokyo Disneysea that hasn't already been said by so many? This park designed by and licensed from Disney but owned by the Oriental Land Company is one of the best theme parks in the world. It is arguably the best from a technical perspective. Tokyo Disneysea is a masterpiece of Imagineering, housing a plethora of wonderful rides and having been designed from the ground-up along a central, engaging theme. Virtually everything in Disneysea "works."
That central theme, and what I find most enchanting about Disneysea, is the wonder and adventure of discovery and exploration. Every attraction in one way or another reinforces this theme. It is not merely about the ocean, but where the oceans take us. You can go along with Sindbad on his storybook voyage, or journey with Captain Nemo under the sea or to the centre of the earth, or investigate a temple with Indiana Jones. Even the Tower of Terror reinforces this theme, in its own satirical way. The stories of each ride are not driven by violent conflict per se, but rather, the thrill and happenstance intrinsic to exploration. Not only does the park have a unifying theme, but there is a tapestry of interweaving stories throughout the park. One of the major ones is the fate of Atlantis, which begins with a few picturesque but unobtrusive ruins lining Mediterranean Harbour and resolves in the depths of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Oh yeah, and it helps that it has an entire section with two attractions inspired by my favourite author and one of my favourite Disney films!
#1: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth
By necessity, my first spot is a tie. I simply can't choose between these two magnificent attractions. On the one hand they are alike enough to be thought of in the same breath, and on the other they are so different that it is impossible to choose between them. Both attractions are based on the works of Jules Verne and Disney's live-action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That is what makes them similar and what puts them over for me, given that Verne is my favourite author and 20,000 Leagues is my favourite live-action Disney film. Where they differ is that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a classic dark ride using the same basic mechanics as Peter Pan's Flight, only simulating a journey to the bottom of the ocean. Journey to the Center of the Earth begins as a more upscale dark ride but has a nice jolt of high-speed thrill ride just at the end as you shoot out of a volcano and zip the circumference of Mysterious Island, the port in which both attractions are found. Both are based in the Retro-Victorian aesthetics pioneered by Harper Goff for the film, but both add a nice, creative, cartoony element that ties Disney live-action, animation, and theme parks together. They are remarkable visualizations of their source material that still add nice twists that I can't reveal for fear of spoiling them! They fit so well into the general theme of Tokyo Disneysea, which is the adventure of exploration and discovery: their plot has Captain Nemo inviting you to become a member of his scientific crew. Most deliciously of all, they are based on a 60-year old film and 150-year old book, neither of which could be considered hot tentpole franchise material. 20,000 Leagues and Journey are perfect examples of how fantastic ideas and well-executed attractions win out in the end.
#2: Fortress Explorations
On the flanks of mighty Mount Prometheus is Fortress Explorations, a Reniassance castle belonging the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (Get it? SEA... DisneySEA?). Within its walls we are introduced to the great artists, merchants, cartographers, and explorers who, during the Reniassance, shaped our modern world. Under the great dome sits a gigantic brass orrery charting the stars overhead. In a lower chamber is a map of the flat Earth on which one can steer motorized galleons around various sea serpents and other obstacles. High atop the battlements is a flying machine invented by Leonardo Da Vinci, and in an alcove is an optical illusion that shows us the destruction of the great city of Atlantis. Fortress Explorations acts as a kind of thesis statement for the entire park's theme of exploration and adventure. I would be a card-carrying member of SEA if I could!
#3: Sindbad's Storybook Voyage
Sindbad's Storybook Voyage is, on paper, one of the lesser forms of Disney attraction in that it is a series of disjointed vignettes from a story happening to a character (rather than an adventure that the guest is at the centre of). Weirder yet, it's a story that doesn't even derive from a Disney film. Nevertheless, it is a very charming attraction with a disgustingly catchy and inspiring song that still tugs at the sense of wonder and reinforces the park's grand theme. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and walked out thinking that Disney should make a Sindbad movie based on it.
#4: Tower of Terror
Since The Twilight Zone is largely unknown in Japan, Imagineers reinvented the Tower of Terror to tell a satirical story about the close ties between exploration and colonial exploitation. Instead of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, this is the Hightower Hotel, built by wealthy eccentric and jerk Harrison Hightower III (who bears a striking resemblance to Imagineer Joe Rhode). An icon to himself, the hotel stores Hightower's collection of plunder and celebrates the courage with which he acquired it. All around the lobby are frescos showing him standing tall, carting off some treasure, while a horde of angry natives, or a pack of wolves, or a sandstorm, pursues him. In the Turkish Baths converted into the giftshop, Hightower adorns the walls as the model for murals of the Hindu god Vishnu. The most telling piece is a fireplace with a portrait of Hightower. In the portrait is a grand ceremonial altar from some farflung place with a great statue of its forgotten deity. Look more closely... That altar is the fireplace, and Hightower tore down the deity to install this portrait of himself in its place. Eventually this kind of jerk has to meet his comeuppance, which is what this version of the Tower of Terror is about.
#5: Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull
Just an eyelash shy of being as good as the original version in Anaheim, Disneysea's Indiana Jones Adventure still deserves recognition for how amazing a ride either version is. The story begins in the queue, where the careful eye can discern helpful warnings amid the Mayan hieroglyphics. Then one loads into the runaway jeep for a careening voyage through the eponymous temple. The Crystal Skull offers visitors a sip from the Fountain of Youth, but it all goes awry. Thankfully Indiana Jones is there to save you from the Gates of Doom. Essentially the same as Anaheim's, this version has small tweaks and nudges to make it different and accent the Mesoamerican, Crystal Skull theme (thankfully not a theme derived from the 4th Indiana Jones film, which this ride predates). Instead of the well of fire in the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, here there is a whirlpool of souls threatening to drag you away. Instead of the giant snake, there is the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. Altogether it is a very satisfying ride experience with excellent effects that puts the guest as the centre of the action and reinforces the park's theme of discovery and exploration.