The fighters are anxiously waiting ringside so lets make the introductions and let the chips fall where they may!
Ladies and gentleman, entering the ring now is the winner from round two of our ongoing battle. It crushed the competition of the non Magic Kingdom style parks and has its eyes set on the ultimate prize, the title of the best Disney park in the world. Boasting an exciting theme, near flawless execution, varied and innovative attractions and an exotic overseas location I am proud to present TOKYO DISNEY SEA!
|The Beast from the East
I now give you the originator of the category, the first true theme park, the winner of round one of the competition and a powerful fighter regardless of its’ advanced age. Featuring some of the most beloved attractions in the world, a theme that has not only stood the test of time but has been emulated countless times and a history and charm that other parks cannot touch. Lets hear it for the original DISNEYLAND!
We all know the rules so when the bell sounds come out fighting, and may the best park win.
Round One: Attractions
Disneyland wants to get down to business in the attractions category and does so by unloading some of the biggest weapons in the industry. It peppers Tokyo Disney Sea with a powerful combination of true classics. Pirates of the Caribbean is considered by many to be the best theme park attraction ever made, and the original here in Disneyland is arguably the best of them all. Not content with just one beloved classic dark ride Disneyland also boasts the original Haunted Mansion. This is another attraction that has legions of adoring fans and a never-ending devotion from them.
However it is not just in dark rides that Disneyland excels. Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and the Matterhorn are all roller coaster based thrill rides, each of which is considered a classic and some of the best themed coasters out there. In fact it is arguable that Big Thunder Mountain, despite being over 25 years old, creates the most immersive themed environment ever for a roller coaster based attraction.
In addition Space Mountain is nearing completion on a total overhaul that will replace the entire track and ride vehicles with much more modern and smoother counterparts while also adding new lighting and special effects. This should take a great attraction that was showing it’s age a bit and propel it into the 21st century. Still not satisfied, Disneyland lands more devastating blows with what is hands down the best flume ride in the world, Splash Mountain.
To show that it has not only classic attractions but also rides that feature newer technology Disneyland can turn to the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. This 10-year-old attraction revolutionized theme park rides by combining the thematic elements of a top-notch dark ride with the rush of a thrill ride in an all-new and unique way. Combined with a killer theme and spectacular execution it has gone on to become an instant classic in its own right.
In fact Disneyland has a plethora of attractions that run the gambit from the small dark rides of Fantasyland to the larger E-tickets mentioned earlier. Disneyland has just added its own version of the Buzz Lightyear ride that has been very popular at Walt Disney World and more recently at Tokyo Disneyland. The Disneyland version replicates the more elaborate sets and effects used in Tokyo and promises to be yet another hit for the park.
However Disneyland is not without fault in the attractions category and shows some signs of weakness. There has not been any major E-Ticket level rides added in a decade. Disneyland ultimately needs what every park needs, a constant flow of new attractions to keep itself fresh. Buzz and the refurbished Space Mountain help, but a major, all new and original ride is sorely needed as well. Still, in terms of sheer numbers, variety and overall execution Disneyland is tough to beat in the attractions category and delivers a near knock out punch.
On the other side of the ring Tokyo Disney Sea has no problem with new and exciting E-Ticket rides. As a new park (opened late in 2001) the park has nothing but new attractions and virtually all of them are unique and original created just for this park.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of its flagship attractions and it delivers everything one could want or hope for from an E-Ticket. It feels modern and new and unlike anything else in the Disney arsenal (it is most closely related to Epcot’s Test Track or the defunct Rocket Rods at Disneyland). This is a great example of how Disney can take a traditional dark ride and inject some thrill elements into it without giving up what makes Disney attractions special to begin with. It is similar to the Indiana Jones Adventure in that it is thrilling without being a pure thrill ride. Journey to the Center of the Earth is a stellar attraction and really shows off the mettle of this park.
Speaking of Indiana Jones, Tokyo Disney Sea has its own version of the Indiana Jones Adventure. It is more or less a clone of the original in Disneyland but if you are going to copy a ride they at least chose one of the best. Tokyo Disney Sea has some powerful weapons and it knocks Disneyland back with E-Tickets such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Storm Rider which is a next generation flight simulator featuring in cabin special effects.
The park is currently building two major new rides as well. The first fits into the American Waterfront section of the park and is a version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Unlike the American versions this one will not have a Twilight Zone theme and the exterior architecture will take on the look of an early American skyscraper (above). The ride itself should be very similar to the U.S. counterparts. The second attraction going up now is titled Raging Spirits and is a looping roller coaster. This promises to be a longer, more elaborate version of the Indiana Jones coaster found in Disneyland Paris. It will not have the Indiana Jones theme though it will share much of the same look as it races in and around ancient ruins.
Where Tokyo Disney Sea stumbles a bit is in the number of attractions, especially smaller D or C ticket attractions. They have no equivalent of the Fantasyland dark rides. Rather an area called Mermaid Lagoon features small roller coasters and typical carnival type rides. While these are in general nicely decorated and housed in a very well themed indoor environment they cannot compete with rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight or Mr. Toads Wild Ride. Tokyo Disney Sea does have a very nicely done Sinbad attraction which falls somewhere between It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of overall execution as well as an Aladdin themed 3-D movie.
Tokyo Disney Sea has some wonderful walk through attractions including the incredible Fortress Explorations. Though not as flashy as the larger rides the detail poured into these walk-thru attractions is stunning. A handful of smaller scale attractions such as gondola rides and the Aquatopia (a sort of futuristic bumper boats ride that never quite lives up to it’s potential) round out the mix.
While everything at Tokyo Disney Sea is done with a level of detail and skill seldom seen elsewhere it currently lacks the volume of attractions Disneyland boasts. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a park that has had 50 years to evolve and add attractions to a park barely 4 years old… but that is the fight we have today and Disneyland uses it’s age to it’s advantage.
As the bell rings to signal the end of the round both combatants have delivered solid efforts, however Disneyland has the edge in this category. The park just has too many attractions for Tokyo Disney Sea to contend with. They both have a version of the Indy ride and while Tokyo Disney Sea offers Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Storm Rider, Disneyland can counter with Pirates, Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain. The soon to open Tower of Terror and Raging Spirits up the ante for Tokyo Disney Sea but Disneyland still has the Matterhorn and Space Mountain, plus all of the Fantasyland rides plus Roger Rabbits Toon Town Spin which is a very good and under rated attraction in it’s own right. Disneyland also boasts many smaller scale attractions such as the Tiki Birds or the Railroad and combined it slightly edges out Tokyo Disney Sea. After round one Disneyland is standing tall, but the fight is far from over.
Round Two: Atmosphere
In atmosphere the two parks again are among the strongest in the world and they can go toe to toe with each other with neither backing down.
Disneyland lands a solid blow with its old growth trees and the charm that come from 50 years of doing business. Disneyland in many ways has been pieced together over the decades and this creates a deeply layered, rich atmosphere than no new park can recreate.
Small surprises wait around every corner and in some ways Disneyland’s small size has forced the designers to be more creative when planning things out. At one point in Fantasyland there are several attractions literally stacked on top of each other. This sense of age and growth over many years gives Disneyland a certain legitimacy lacking from virtually every other theme park out there. It is less pre-planned and more organic in its feel and this somehow feels more real and less pre-fabricated.
On the other hand Tokyo Disney Sea is indeed brand-new and while that means a lack of old growth trees and some of the charm it also means a fantastic master plan in which everything works wonderfully well. The vistas and sense of place and scale that this park can produce are unrivaled at any other park in the world. You can see out over the actual ocean in several spots of the park and the centerpiece of the park, the Volcano Mt. Prometheus is always lurking in the background. The center of the park, Mysterious Island is truly the most perfectly and completely themed large-scale park environment I have ever seen. To think that this park will only grow better with age is staggering.
When Tokyo Disneyland was built in the early ’80s the designers intentionally left the walkways very wide to give a sense of space to the often-crowded Japanese visitors. While this was a good thought the end result can be a little sterile, almost mall like. It is hard to create an immersive environment when giant walkways have to snake through it all. With Tokyo Disney Sea designers rectified this. While still allowing ample passage the walkways now are more intimate in scale and allow for a greater sense of environment.
While Disneyland has great charm the tight space can also work against it. You end up with some odd fits like the Haunted Mansion almost touching Splash Mountain. And Tomorrowland is frankly a bit of a mess right now. After the last failed rehab this section of the park is lacking focus and a cohesive look for the entire area. The result is a bit of an uninspired mix that is showing its age. (As an aside, the original rehab plans for Tomorrowland would have produced a very exciting environment, but budget cutbacks prevented that from ever coming to fruition. The ongoing rehabs at Disneyland are currently addressing some of the Tomorrowland problems, but it is likely that even when complete this area of the park will still need larger scale improvements before it is back on track.)
So on one hand Disneyland has charm; on the other hand Tokyo Disney Sea has awe. Both have incredible atmospheric elements and unique traits that only they can boast.
Disneyland is the prettier of the two parks. With its flowerbeds, waterways, shade trees and smaller scale it creates a park like setting. Tokyo Disney Sea is the grander of the two, the scale of some of the areas is truly impressive and the level of detail is incredible.
Close as they are in overall level of quality they are very different from one another and Tokyo Disney Sea pulls out the win in round number two. Though it is lacking the charm of Disneyland it simply overpowers its older foe with an all-encompassing commitment to theme. Every single section of Tokyo Disney Sea does the best it possibly can in creating unique and exciting atmospheres. Just strolling around the place is a real pleasure.
At the end of round two these two mighty fighters are tied. Half the battle is over, but two rounds remain.
Round Three: Dining
Round three addresses the dining options that each park offers. Both scored well in past fights so lets see how they compare head to head here.
Disneyland has an assortment of dining options that range from fast food carts to sit down restaurants. The crown jewel of Disneyland dining is the private Club 33. While this offers intimate fine dining overlooking New Orleans Square it cannot be considered in this competition because it is not open to the public. Right next-door however is the Blue Bayou restaurant. This is considered a “must do” by many Disneyland faithful. Housed at the start of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Blue Bayou is permanently bathed in the blue glow of moonlight. The faux outdoor setting is very convincing and offers a unique dining opportunity. The food is solid, though not spectacular but the real reason to visit it the beautiful atmosphere.
|Blue Bayou invented themed dining
Other Disneyland offerings include the buffeteria style Rancho del Zocalo a nicely themed Mexican/Barbeque place and Tomorrowland’s Red Rocket Pizza Port. Of course there are many counter service fast food places and various food carts as well. Most Disneyland dining locations offer nice surroundings and fairly good food (as far as theme parks go).
|Rancho del Zocalo is pretty
Tokyo Disney Sea can sense some weakness from its competition here and seizes the opportunity by really delivering a powerhouse blow in the dining category.
Magellan’s is a very elegant dining room set in the heart of the fortress nestled by the base of Mt. Prometheus. A gigantic 2 story high globe dominates the domed cylindrical room and detailed artifacts from around the world are set on display. A hidden dining room is housed in a wine cellar and the overall detail found here is wonderful. The food is up to par as well, closer to what one would find at a fine resort hotel than a theme park.
|Magellan’s is spectacular
Tokyo Disney Sea boasts a wide range of specialized dining options and all of them are truly spectacular in their themed execution. For example the Vulcania restaurant is set inside a geothermal power station chiseled into the side of Mt. Prometheus. It serves Chinese food buffeteria style and the interior rockwork and general Mysterious Island themeing is something to see.
|Vulcania takes it up a notch, or two, or three
In the American Waterfront section of the park within the S.S. Columbia (a giant scale replica of an early 20th century steam ship) you will find the S.S. Columbia Dining Room. This is another full service sit down restaurant with an elegant setting. There are really far too many dining options to list here and each is unique and very well done. From the Arabian themed Kasbah food court in the Arabian Coast area to the futuristic Horizon Bay in the Port Discovery section of the park, each restaurant shines brightly. In fact with the exception of Epcot, Tokyo Disney Sea offers more dining options than any other theme park.
As round three comes to a close Tokyo Disney Sea is pulling ahead – winning two of the three rounds. There is still the intangibles category left and Disneyland hopes to mount a comeback here.
Round Four: Intangibles
The bell has sounded and the final round is underway!
Disneyland scores some early points with something no other park can offer… history. Disneyland was the first theme park on the planet and the only one Walt Disney personally walked within and oversaw. You can fee that history and it is evident all over, from Walt’s apartment over the fire house to the Disney gallery that showcases original conceptual paintings of the park created by many of the original Imagineers.
|Walt walked (and slept) in Disneyland
As I’ve mentioned before Disneyland also has the advantage of being around so long. Age gives a certain patina to some surfaces and allows the park to feel established and as if it has been here forever. Disneyland also has the unique benefit of being an honest American icon. It transcends being simply a theme park and in some ways feels more important, almost as American as real landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. It is indelibly a part of the American fabric and that can be felt while in the park.
|Something no other park can boast
Tokyo Disney Sea is no slouch in the intangibles area itself. The Japanese parks are the cleanest and best run you’ll find anywhere. Everything is kept in absolutely pristine condition and it is in the nature of the many Japanese visitors to keep things this way. Tourists there seldom subject the parks to the same level of wear and tear as they tend to do here in the States.
|But they have a freaking Volcano
Tokyo Disney Sea scores more points still by having a wonderful theme and even its location bordering Tokyo Bay works in its favor. While Tokyo Disney Sea lacks Disneyland’s history, it has enough other intangibles going for it that it is really a dead heat.
|And does it even look like a theme park or something more?
At the end of this round BOTH parks are still standing and it’s almost too close to call in this category, so we could have had a virtual tie. However Disneyland has a slight edge here and wins due to its history and charm.
Scoring the Rounds
The final bell has sounded and we have a split decision, so now we are going to need to go back to the scorecards.
Disneyland won in the most important category, attractions. It has some of the worlds best, many of the most beloved and famous rides in the world and a wide variety of them so as to appeal to virtually anyone.
Tokyo Disney Sea rallied back and took round two, which was atmosphere. It has an incredible sense of scale and grandeur; set pieces ranging from an active volcano to steam ships and even a renaissance fortresses simply cannot be beat.
Tokyo Disney Sea also won round three, dining. It’s untouchable in its mix of restaurant options and their execution.
Finally Disneyland came back strong in round four to squeak out a victory in the intangibles section, thanks to its current stature and past history.
So with two rounds in each park’s favor how do we declare a winner?
And the winner is…
It’s clear that these are the two best theme parks in the World, one a seasoned veteran that invented the category and has defined what a theme park is for five decades. The other is a young upstart full of ambition and innovation. A decision will have to be made, but no matter the outcome BOTH of these parks are real winners for visitors.
I hate to do this but if I am FORCED to declare an overall winner, I have to go with the original, Disneyland.
I have little doubt that over time Tokyo Disney Sea will continue to mature and perhaps one day overtake Disneyland as the single best park in the world. But for now Disneyland holds its own in every category and scores a win in the key area of attractions. Its current refurbishment is returning it to the beauty it once had and management seems to finally be addressing some long-term issues. New attractions are being added, older ones are being refreshed, and in general the park is looking great on the eve of its 50th anniversary.
Yes, Tokyo Disney Sea deserves all the credit in the world, and it’s simply amazing. But it lacks Disneyland’s stature and it will need to grow a little more and fashion a history of its very own.
The two combatants have each proven their worth, and both parks can leave this fight with their heads held very high.
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