May 28, 2024

Should You Wait to Visit Tokyo Disneyland?

We love Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. They’re our two favorite Disney theme parks in the world, and we’ve been singing their praises for years. However, we also have to admit that reopening has been excruciatingly slow in Japan, and that’s very apparent at TDR. As such, we’ll be covering whether now is a good time to visit, or if you should wait until Spring 2024 or beyond.

Let’s start on a positive note, which is that you can now visit Tokyo Disney Resort if you so desire. That wasn’t true at this time last year, or the year before, and was barely true the year before that. Although behind the rest of the world, Japan has finally reopened to individual travelers and it’s easy to enter the country.

We’ve already done exactly that, spending about a month in Japan including a return to Tokyo Disney Resort. During that, we experienced everything that’s new and saw firsthand how the parks have changed as compared to pre-closure. The bad news is that Tokyo Disney Resort is still pretty far from firing on all cylinders…

If you’re familiar with Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the easiest way to think about current operations at Tokyo Disney Resort is that they’re about 18 months behind the U.S. parks in some regards. In general, it seems like this is the dynamic all around Japan, not just at Tokyo Disney Resort.

Face masks are still ubiquitous, plexiglass partitions are common in restaurants, and other health safety protocol remain commonplace long after they’ve been abandoned in the rest of the world. If you’re an American, there’s a decent chance you haven’t worn a face mask in at least a year.

You will be wearing a face mask if you visit Tokyo Disney Resort. For many travelers, that alone might be make-or-break. (I have zero interest in reviving that debate here. If you’re interested in more about our experience and thoughts on this, see Face Mask Rules v. Reality in Japan on TravelCaffeine, which covers our non-Disney travels in Japan.)

At Tokyo Disney Resort, there are still shuttered restaurants and retail that have not reopened in the past ~3 years following the closure of the parks. Snacking is a big part of the experience at TDR, and it’s definitely hampered right now. Between the plexiglass partitions at regular restaurants and the lack of snack spots, eating is not nearly as fun as it was pre-closure.

While individually minor, these closed locations also significantly impact retail and restaurant capacity in aggregate. The end result is crowded shops and very long lines for dining options, especially at peak times.

Because capacity remains restrained, there are no multi-day tickets or Annual Passes being sold at Tokyo Disney Resort. This is definitely a negative for locals or those who are going to spend 3-4 days in the parks, and they’ve (understandably) been complaining loudly. They definitely have a fair point–Universal Studios Japan is full stem ahead, actively advertising the low cost of upgrading to an AP.

With that said, this is arguably a net positive for international tourists. The single and partial day park tickets are considerably cheaper than the US parks, and the lack of APs and multi-day tickets definitely puts a dent in crowds–especially on weekends, which were previously bonkers. Tokyo Disney Resort is also a contrast to USJ, which we found to be busier than ever.

Likewise, FastPass has not returned…and is probably gone for good, just like at the US parks. In its place, Tokyo has rolled out the paid Premier Access line-skipping, which is probably the permanent replacement for free FastPass. Standby Pass is also available for select shops and attractions, albeit usually only on merchandise release days or particularly busy dates.

The debut of paid FastPass was the most controversial move we’ve ever seen at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Perhaps it’s my bias, but I’m more mixed on it at TDR. For now, it’s limited to only a few attractions and the new Tokyo DisneySea nighttime spectacular. We didn’t buy it for any rides, but did so for “Believe! Sea of Dreams.” Not having to ‘compete’ with locals who have a surplus of time and camp out for hours made that more than worth it to us. Regardless, there’s a very different dynamic as compared to pre-closure as a result of no APs and no FastPass.

Crowd levels are also difficult to assess as a result of all this. As with Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the Tokyo parks feel more crowded even with lower raw attendance levels. Tokyo Disney Resort felt busier during our recent visits than during comparable dates in 2019 and earlier. (We visited over more or less the same time frames in 2013-2018, too.)

It’s our understanding that this has not been the case on a consistent basis. Attendance numbers had and have been lower at other times, but with travel subsidies and a surge of pent-up demand, those periods of lower crowds are likely rarer–if not a thing of the past, entirely. This is especially true with Tokyo Disneyland’s 40th Anniversary about to kick off in April 2023.

In short, there is a supply and demand imbalance at Tokyo Disneyland–and that’ll become even more apparent as international travel comes roaring back and domestic subsidies continue to fuel pent-up demand among the Japanese. (Sound familiar? Welcome to 2021 at the US parks.)

Unless most of this is quickly restored or fixed for Tokyo Disneyland’s 40th Anniversary, it’s likely going to get worse once that celebration begins. Many Japanese visitors and local fans are undoubtedly holding off visiting until that event starts.

Speaking of which, the long-awaited Tokyo Disneyland 40th Anniversary celebration kicks off on April 15, 2023 and runs through March 31, 2024. This “Dream-Go-Round” event will feature an all-new daytime parade and…that’s honestly about it. Although a lot more is being advertised, pretty much everything else is scaled back as compared to prior milestone anniversaries.

This is a sharp contrast to Tokyo Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary, when there was a parade plus multiple new stage shows and a projection show on Cinderella Castle that was a beautiful love letter to the park. On top of that, the decorations in World Bazaar and throughout the parks were excellent. Just contrast the above decor (which I’ve enhanced) for the 40th with the below decor for the 35th.

It’s not just this event that’s scaled back. Seasonal entertainment has been reduced across the board. There is no Easter event this year, and the Halloween and Christmas celebrations last year were still dramatically scaled back as compared to 2019. These are just the flagship special events–the smaller scale ones haven’t been happening at all.

There are also a number of entertainment options that have yet to reopen, which is especially noteworthy because so much of the experience at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea is predicated upon entertainment. There are still daytime and nighttime parades, but they are lacking performers or have otherwise been truncated.

Many stage shows are similarly scaled back, or not being presented at all. The daytime harbor shows in Tokyo DisneySea have been reduced to brief smile & wave greetings that are reminiscent of the character flotillas at Animal Kingdom. Certainly nothing you’d make a point of seeing, as was the case with the harbor shows at Tokyo DisneySea in the past.

If it’s your first visit, you might not even notice this. Even with the limited lineup, Tokyo Disney Resort still has more entertainment included with regular admission than the U.S. parks. However, if you’re a repeat visitor, there are ways that the parks currently feel like shadows of their former selves.

More to the point, there’s not as much to help you fall in love with Tokyo Disney Resort. When we first visited for Tokyo Disneyland’s 30th Anniversary, the Japan parks blew us away and exceeded our wildest expectations. We became instant superfans and TDR evangelists, dedicating a disproportionate amount of coverage here to Tokyo Disney Resort.

Longtime readers might remember that…and also might’ve even been annoyed by how much attention we devoted to parks that were “unrealistic for the average American to visit.” (A common line from the many complaints we received. Eventually, we heard you, scaled back coverage of the international parks, and dialed down our effusive praise.)

That was only a decade ago, but it was a different world then. Social media wasn’t what it is now, and there was next to no English coverage of Tokyo Disney Resort. There was (literally) one site–it exists today almost exactly as it was then. In the years since, word has gotten out–influencers, vloggers, and other bloggers have also started spreading the gospel of Tokyo Disney Resort. And with that, expectations have grown sky-high.

To be clear, we’re not pointing any fingers for that. If there’s anyone to blame, we are certainly among those who are “guilty.” The very first sentence of this post proclaimed Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea our favorite theme parks in the world. We have been vocal cheerleaders for these parks over the years, and stand by that–even today.

However, with that comes holding Tokyo Disney Resort to a higher standard than any other theme parks. OLC has demonstrated that going above and beyond, attention to detail, and the guest experience all are immensely important. We’ve often compared OLC to the early Eisner era at Walt Disney World, meaning that the “Disney Difference” is still paramount to management. Unfortunately, right now OLC is failing to live up to their own high standards.

More than anything else, my biggest worry is that Tokyo Disney Resort first-timers in 2023 won’t have that same lightning in a bottle experience that made us fall in love with the parks, and with the country as a whole. Since we returned from Japan, I’ve felt very conflicted and haven’t really written about it as a result. That’s a huge change as compared to 2013-2019 when each extended stay spawned dozens of posts. It’s also not what I expected; we did a ton of new-to-us things!

My internal struggle has essentially been wondering what a first-timer’s reaction would be to today’s Tokyo Disney Resort. It’s not the same as our first visit, but even back in 2013, locals told us that “it’s not as good as a decade ago.” Even assuming that was true, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea were leagues better than what we had at home. We didn’t know what we were missing (well, until I bought a bunch of old DVDs), and to us, it was incredible.

This is essentially the present status of my dilemma. Tokyo Disney Resort is not what it was in 2019 and earlier, which is fairly undeniable. However, for guests coming from Disneyland or Walt Disney World, it is still much better. The core themed design of Tokyo DisneySea is intact and Tokyo Disneyland still exudes happiness in a palpable and contagious (poor word choice after the last few years) way. You can’t help but smile in these parks…even if that smile is covered by a face mask.

Whether you should visit Tokyo Disney Resort in 2023 or wait until things are back to normal is impossible for me to answer. It’s also entirely possible that reduced entertainment is the new normal. Even back in 2019, our ‘Growing Pains at Tokyo Disney Resort‘ article posited that the parks could be pivoting from lavish and frequently-changing entertainment to new attractions as a driver of attendance. So those waiting for a version of normal that includes fully-restored harbor and stage shows and big seasonal celebrations might be waiting a while.

The more compelling reason to wait is for Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea, the $2.3 billion expansion featuring Frozen, Tangled, and Peter Pan. Fantasy Springs will add multiple blockbuster boat-based rides, restaurants, retail, and a second in-park hotel to Tokyo DisneySea.

Fantasy Springs will be the most expensive expansion to any existing theme park anywhere, ever. It’ll cost triple the amount of the recent Tokyo Disneyland ‘large scale’ addition that included a Beauty and the Beast mini-land and more, and over double the cost of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Although delayed from its original opening timeframe, construction has been full steam ahead on Fantasy Springs. The new land will open sometime in Spring 2024 in OLC’s first quarter of the next fiscal year. That means sometime between April 1, 2024 and June 30, 2024. We cover everything you need to know about this new land, including a predicted opening date and soft opening timeframe in this post.

As a general matter, we oppose postponing travel and other experiences for something theoretically better down the road. In life and with Disney theme parks, there’s this fantasy of a perfect tomorrow and imperfect today. Something better, newer, or bigger on the horizon that you should wait to see. That overlooks the costs of waiting, and also the downsides. This philosophy is probably better suited to domestic travel–the type of trips that occur annually.

With Japan in particular, my go-to line was not to postpone visiting, as your ‘once in a lifetime’ trip is more likely your first of many. The Tokyo parks and Japan as a whole had an addictive quality that turned many, if not most, visitors into lifelong fans. I still think that will be the case for many people, but definitely far fewer than before.

If the parks had a “95% approval/recommend rate” before, that’s probably down to 80% or so now. That’s still enough for a “Certified Fresh” distinction, but it’s definitely not as impressive as cracking the 90% threshold. Don’t get us wrong–there’s still a lot to love. Dreamlights remains mind-blowing. All of the adorable food is heart-melting. Seeing Mount Prometheus erupt for the first time will still give you chills. Tony Solaroni is the intergalactic ambassador we deserve. The list goes on and on and on and…

However, this is one situation where waiting another year might make sense. Tokyo Disneyland’s 40th Anniversary looks like it’s going to be a dud (aside from the parade), Fantasy Springs is right around the corner, and hopefully there’s a greater sense of normalcy and progression in the phased reopening by early 2024. Even if your first trip to Japan doesn’t end up being a once in a lifetime trip, there’s still a good chance you won’t visit this year and then turn around and return in 6-8 months.

So, if the question is whether to visit in Spring 2023 or Spring 2024–with no option to do both–I’d probably wait. If an international trip is a “must” this year, consider going for the Grand Finale of the Disneyland Paris 30th Anniversary Celebration. Or, simply visit Disneyland or Walt Disney World. With the Disney100 festivities in California and a variety of changes in Florida, it’s arguably a good time to do the domestic parks.

Ultimately, this is a long-winded way of saying that we cannot offer our normal enthusiastic endorsement of visiting Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea ASAP. However, we also cannot recommend against visiting Japan in 2023. It’s truly a tough decision, and hopefully the pros and cons discussed here help you make the decision for yourself.

What we can do is speak for ourselves. After a nearly 3-year absence, we were so happy to be back in Japan and at Tokyo Disney Resort. I’ve mentioned before that Kyoto is our favorite city in the world; it’s one of those places that just “clicks” for us and where we feel most at home. While different in ways big and small, that was still true.

We also had a blast at Tokyo Disney Resort, and did not want to leave at the end of our visit…just like normal. There were a lot of little annoyances and disappointments along the way, and unpleasant reminders of how things felt in late 2020 and early 2021. However, that was far outweighed by the joy and fun we had.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of all: we are already anxiously awaiting our next trip to Japan, and look forward to experiencing the Harmony in Color Parade along with other aspects of Tokyo Disneyland’s 40th Anniversary. However, we will also be back for the opening of Fantasy Springs, so we’re not choosing one or the other. Voting with your wallet is the most compelling endorsement, or lack thereof, and after all this grousing about what’s “wrong” with Tokyo Disney Resort right now, we’re still giving the parks in Japan our vote. Maybe that says everything that needs to be said.

Planning a trip to Tokyo Disney Resort? For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Tokyo Disneyland & DisneySea Trip Planning Guide! For more specifics, our TDR Hotel Rankings & Reviews page covers accommodations. Our Restaurant Reviews detail where to dine & snack. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money post. Our What to Pack for Disney post takes a unique look at clever items to take. Venturing elsewhere in Japan? Consult our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan and City Guide to Tokyo, Japan.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Tokyo Disney Resort since reopening? Was it your first trip to Japan, or are you a repeat visitor? How do you feel about the state of the parks in Japan? Think it’s worth waiting until Spring 2024, or do you recommend going now? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

Source link

Previous post 2023 Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix preview
Next post Daily Crunch: Japanese marketing tech firm Geniee acquires Zelto for $70M