The Tokyo Disney Resort is an anomaly.
First and foremost, it’s neither owned nor operated by The Walt Disney Company. Instead, the Japanese resort (the first international resort bearing the Disney name) is wholly owned and operated by the Oriental Land Company (OLC), a Urayasu-based leisure and tourism corporation. OLC pays Disney to use character likenesses and royalties, somewhat like a franchisee! In return, Disney acts as a consultant and contracts out Disney Imagineers to design, develop, and install attractions.
As curious as the collaborative relationship may sound, it’s the key to Tokyo Disney’s runaway success… That’s because OLC is the perfect “middle man” to connect the Disney brand to the Japanese people. For example, when Tokyo Disneyland was being designed in the early 1980s, OLC made it clear that they did not want Imagineers to integrate Japanese culture, customs, and stories into the park.
They didn’t want a Japanese-influenced Tomorrowland, or a Fantasyland of Japanese fables… Rather, they wanted the Magic Kingdom exactly as it existed in Florida, with all of the “Western” influences and stories in tact.
Although the idea might’ve boggled Disney executives and creatives, OLC was exactly right. Tokyo Disneyland is practically a clone of Magic Kingdom (with some big-budget diversions in the decades since opening) with all the “Americana” of a Main Street USA, the Space Race futurism of Tomorrowland, and even the cowboys and Indians of Frontierland. And the Japanese have overwhelmingly adopted the Disney brand as their own, regularly queuing hours to meet obscure characters, literally selling out gift shops each evening, and wearing Disney merchandise whether nine months or ninety-nine years old.
And – since OLC operates Tokyo Disney Resort with complete financial independence – the resort tends to feature no-holds-barred, no-costs-cut attractions, like the LPS-guided Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and the spectacular Monsters Inc.: Ride and Go Seek. OLC pulls out all the stops, funding the full-fledged, built-out versions of rides that American Disney fans can only dream of.
But they really pulled out all the stops in 2001…
What can be said of Tokyo Disney Resort’s second theme park that hasn’t already? Tokyo DisneySea is a shining pinnacle of what Imagineering can create when the reigns are released. The same year that The Walt Disney Company debuted the underbuilt, underfunded, creatively-starved subject of our in-depth Disaster File: Disney’s California Adventure, the Oriental Land Company revealed Tokyo DisneySea, a built-out, big-budget theme park that’s become the golden standard of themed entertainment design.
The nautically influenced park was built on reclaimed land on Tokyo Bay, giving the distinct impression that the park is sincerely set on the edge of an endless ocean.
Its seven themed “ports” are so detailed, so complex, so massive in scale, and so well-designed, Tokyo DisneySea earns the distinction of being the kind of park you could spend a full day in, ride nothing, and still feel satisfied – the sought-after concept of “the park as the E-Ticket.” With the scope of Disneyland Paris, the scale of Magic Kingdom, the realism of World Showcase, and the budget of Shanghai Disneyland, DisneySea has become a veritable icon of themed entertainment; a Mecca for Disney Parks fans, topping their bucket lists and becoming a “must see.”
And even amid a custom-designed and big-budget Indiana Jones Adventure, the one-of-a-kind, Twilight Zone-free Modern Marvel: Tower of Terror, the unforgettable fan-favorite Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages, and a copy of Soarin' absorbed into the in-universe story of S.E.A., it’s one particular adventure that rises above DisneySea's many icons.
In the late 1990s, as Imagineers doubled down on their designs for Tokyo DisneySea and a Jules Verne themed land as the park's centerpiece, the idea of a Journey to the Center of the Earth ride bubbled up again. They say good ideas never die at Disney, and we can be glad for that...
Imagineer Tom "Thor" Thordarson was given a blank slate, essentially told that DisneySea was going to house a ride themed to the Jules Verne story and asked to give executives "his take" on the concept. He was handed the Scott Sinclair plans crafted for the Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tram Tour and told to use or scrap any parts of it in his plan.
But rather than a passive behind-the-scenes encounter, DisneySea's starring E-Ticket adventure would be an immersive, thrilling, wild descent into the planet's core. And as usual, Disney Imagineers did their research. Tom Thorardson and his peers visited caverns and caves across the country to get a better understanding of what a journey to the center of the Earth would really be like. "But I had to make all this bigger than life," he reported to our friends at Disney and More. "I had to learn from real nature, but then project a sci-fi logic to the rest."
Meanwhile, they needed a cutting edge ride technology to bring these phenomonal scenes to life.
Ultimately, designers decided to involve what was – at the time – Disney's most cutting edge ride system. 1995's Indiana Jones Adventure had pioneered a "slot-car" style dark ride, but as the New Millennium neared, the concept was being refined and re-upped thanks to two ambitious (or maybe, overly ambitious) projects... Disney's slot-car ride system was being taken to the extreme at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
First, the much-maligned subject of our in-depth Disaster File: The Rocket Rods showed Disney exactly what not to do with the technology, tragically derailing a disastrous "New Tomorrowland" and ultimately closing forever with no replacement to this day.
While the next installation was very, very delayed, at least it worked. That Lost Legend: TEST TRACK, proved that the slot car system could be an E-Ticket, climbing, descending, turning, and racing through dark ride scenes toward a 0 – 65 mile per hour finale.
Now, the third generation of the ride system would be put to work on Disney's most ambitious modern dark ride since Indiana Jones Adventure itself. And it all begins in the most spectacular themed land that Imagineers have ever brought to life...
Standing 189 feet over Tokyo DisneySea is the park’s icon: Mount Prometheus. The darkened, geothermal peak is sincerely gargantuan… As imposing as the Tree of Life and as all-consuming as Cars Land’s Cadillac Range, Prometheus is a towering icon visible from every square foot of the land. It should come as no surprise that Prometheus ranked high on our list of the Seven “Natural Wonders” of the Theme Park World.
But this is no passive central figure. Prometheus is very much alive. Steaming, rumbling, hissing, and growling, the mountain is a continuous threat, and an unavoidable reminder of the power of our earth and seas. But what’s so amazing about this soaring volcano isn’t just its size; it’s what’s inside.
Nestled into the collapsed caldera of the volcano – accessible only via subterranean tunnels lit by excavation lights – is an entire seaside fortress. This hidden Seabase concealed entirely within the volcano’s sunken caldera ring is the fabled Mysterious Island – headquarters of Captain Nemo himself. It's an almost-alien world of Victorian retrofuturism, exploration, and science.
Suspended entirely on oxidized catwalks around the caldera’s rim, this concealed world is underscored by a continuous, distant, mysterious tone that ebbs and flows with the steaming geothermal water below. Geysers erupt against recently cooled lava flows and bubbling torrents burst forward just below the dizzying catwalks.
A spiraling copper pathway leads down to the gurgling water below, past the docked Nautilus and to the park’s stunning family dark ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though DisneySea’s version of the ride is a world away from the beloved fan favorite Magic Kingdom once hosted, the Japanese ride is no less impressive. As a matter of fact, located at any other park, it would be a headlining E-Ticket in its own right. But here, it’s merely an aside to the park’s crowning jewel…
The perfect fusion of Disney storytelling, technology, literature, and adventure... the ride that sends Disney Parks fans scurrying for plane tickets to Tokyo... It's time to Journey to the Center of the Earth. The expedition begins on the next page...