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Around The Disney World, 1977 – Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland conference room at WED Enterprises

We’ve seen what was happening at EPCOT Center in 1977, but sometimes it’s interesting to look at where projects were in their development relative to others. In many ways, Tokyo Disneyland and EPCOT Center were twin developments; their design and construction overlapped through the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they opened only seven months apart from each other in 1982 and 1983. This period was a high point for the Imagineers at WED Enterprises; never before or since have they simultaneously devised and executed two projects of such magnitude. But if EPCOT was just a model in an Imagineering office at the time, what was Tokyo Disneyland?

“The site of the Company’s proposed Japanese theme park, a 600-acre parcel of land bordered on three sides by Tokyo Bay.”

Tokyo Disneyland seemed to have a leg up, as it at least had a cleared site ready for construction. Strangely, though, it wouldn’t open until after EPCOT Center. From the 1977 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report:

During the last week of September, representatives of the Company made a comprehensive presentation to Mitsui Real Estate Development Co., Ltd., Oriental Land Co., Ltd., and Keisei Electric Railway Co., Ltd. in Tokyo covering the results of the phase II work performed by WED Enterprises in close liason with the Japanese interests.

This year-long effort, the expense of which was borne by the Japanese, covered planning, conceptual design, preliminary engineering, preliminary construction, fabrication and installation estimates, operational planning, organizational development planning and marketing and promotional guidelines. This work also developed the areas in which additional information and input will be forthcoming from the Japanese groups covering essential information available to them and based upon their knowledge and information of conditions in their country.

“THE WORLD BAZAAR: A major new element planned for Tokyo Disneyland is this completely enclosed center for international shopping, dining and entertainment.”

Recently, Oriental Land Co., Ltd. has undergone a major re-organization, with control moving from Keisei Electric Railway Co., Ltd. to Mitsui Real Estate Development Company. Implementation of this change and the necessity for the new organization to appraise the entire project on its own initiative make it probable that a further period of time will elapse before the Japanese and our Company will be in a position to make a decision as to whether the project will go forward.

Further, delays are being experienced in the public access links to the project. The current estimate is that the Tokyo Bay Expressway will not be fully completed until 1982, although the first lanes will open during 1978. The start of construction for the new Keiyo Line Railroad is indefinite at this time.

Assuming a favorable decision to proceed, it would therefore appear that the project could not open to the public before 1982.

A modern aerial view of the Tokyo Disney Resort from the same direction shows Tokyo Disneyland towards the top of the picture, and Tokyo DisneySea towards the bottom.

As you can see, the Tokyo Disneyland project was in a strange limbo at the time. While a great deal of work was well underway, including preliminary construction, it was still officially undecided whether Disney and the Japanese companies were going to go forward with the project. Even with the delayed opening projected as 1982, the park wouldn’t actually open until Spring of 1983.

This map overlay from Google Earth matches up with the cleared land for Tokyo Disneyland in 1977. You can see the S.S. Columbia from Tokyo DisneySea in the foreground; Tokyo Disneyland itself is marked with the red pin.

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19 comments to Around The Disney World, 1977 – Tokyo Disneyland

  • Those were definitely busy times at WED. The systems for both parks were based upon internally developed designs, from the lowest level up, so there was a lot of shared technology. WED was an early user of CAD/CAM systems and computer databases, at a time when all design work was still done on paper. The systems was called MIMS, and was loathed by the engineers. I recall turning in paper drawings and having it take weeks to get back an error filled CAD version. There was an idea that with a detailed enough multi level set of documentation, you could simply order “One pirates of the Caribbean, Disneyland version” and one “Castle, Magic Kingdom version” and end up with all the parts it would take to build a new park. So that’s exactly what they tried to do with TDL. Of course, it didn’t really work that way! I have yet to see two truly identical attractions built anywhere, by Disney, Universal or anyone else.

  • BK31

    Steve, its funny how you say that because its true even beyond just theme park rides. Most big box stores have ‘prototypes’ that never just get dropped in place and there are always at least minor changes to each one, but I’m kind of shocked that Disney would do something like that. While standardization has some monetary benefit, I would think it would lessen the guest experience if the same exact attraction was at every park. If they were all the same I would probably just always go to the closest one to me and if I were traveling abroad just avoid the others because I had all the same experiences at home. To me the draw of all the parks is how they do similar or the same rides differently with the rides unique to that park thrown in.

  • Another Voice

    Like the history of EPCOT Center, the history is Tokyo Disneyland is a great, mostly untold story. Here are just a couple bits:

    First, the land that the resort sits on was a government landfill project that, along with the nearby “new town” became embroiled in a corruption scandal. Without digging through some notes, I think it even toppled a couple central government officials and also lead to some shake-up of some railroad companies (I need to check all the details on this). The landfill finally found itself pawned off onto a government plan to increase the number of recreational facilities in the country (again, a government project rife with corruption). The predecessor to today’s Oriental Land Company, I think, was created to build community swimming pools. In fact, if you look at the aerial view you can see a large community sporting complex adjacent to Tokyo Disneysea.

    It’s not really true that Disney simply wanted to “Xerox” Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom for Tokyo. In fact, it was a major fight to get original attractions in the park at all. The Japanese concept of “authentic” is very strong and very much drove the design of entire project. It’s rather hard to describe, but the OLC wanted something “legitimate” and not a “copy”; a “copy” being somewhat anything that is not only less than the original, but also different. I guess the closet western concept would be the difference between an original and a mimic or in British terms something that’s “proper”.

    So for Tokyo Disneyland, that meant the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ had to be THE ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in its proper setting; otherwise it would be a boat ride through scenes of pirates attacking a Spanish town. The castle had to be a “real” Disney castle which, translated, meant one that was already associated with Disney. I remember once someone describing the issue as “form is the content”.

    One of the fascinating aspects of the resort is the way it has changed over time. In the beginning, it was very much seen as an “American theme park”. These days, it is really seen as a Japanese destination, with many people having grown up Mickey Mouse as part of their childhood culture. While English remains the first language of the parks, there are lots of subtle and interesting cultural nuances that blended into the experience now. It’s much like how Disney has transformed European fairy tales into American cultural institutions.

  • Very nice analysis of the Japanese psyche that drove the decision making process for the original TDL attractions. This was also one of the reasons they moved the “authentic” Mickey Mouse Revue attraction — the only one I can recall that every had an animated Mickey — from Magic Kingdom to TDL.

  • Another Voice

    Thank you. Much like EPCOT Center (“it was a boring failure until we put in exciting princess dinners and Nemo!”), Tokyo Disney has suffered a lot of revisionist history to make current régimes look better. The old “Tokyo was nothing but a copy while Paris is sparkly brand new” has stuck while the “Disneysea was a waste of money because all parks start small and grow” lie was done in by the colossal failure of California Adventure. Still, distortions that bounce around the Internet long enough soon become taken as fact. It’s time to set some “facts” straight before the next Travel Channel special airs.

    Every “true” Disney park fan should try to visit Tokyo Disney at least once provided they understand in advance that it’s a very, very, very, very different experience than WDW. But a lot of the interest comes from just how familiar everything is, yet how different it is at the same time. The care, operation and overall feeling of Tokyo Disney reminds of the “glory” days of the 1960s and 1970s when Disney not only lived up to their own hype, but also routinely exceeded the high standards people set. I spent several years pouring every photo and description of Tokyo Disneysea before I had a chance to see it in person, and I was still blown away by the scope, depth, ambition and passion that park holds.

  • Indeed, Tokyo Disneysea is unquestionably the most beautiful of all Disney parks. Standing in the caldera is like being transported into the computer game Myst.

  • Steve: It makes sense that WED would have been using proprietary systems since I doubt much of what you needed could have been bought off the shelf! I guess I think of those times at WED/MAPO as being some sort of insane renaissance of “old world” craftsmanship where everything was done to order. And that applies to the engineering too. I would *love* to see those CAD/CAM systems and databases. So many of the technologies we now take for granted weren’t even around, so it’s hard to imagine how it was all done.

    AV: The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize how untold the story of TDL has been. I think that’s part of the reason that people just think it’s an oversized clone of the MK. We have no equivalent of “The Nickel Tour” or Beard’s EPCOT book for TDL; I was thinking today and I can’t recall ever seeing much concept art for the park, much less all the abandoned concepts we know of for every other park. The most I can think of is Eddie Sotto’s Sci-Fi City, which I continue to scrounge for info and pictures of.

    I’m so glad you mentioned the rec park across from DisneySea, because I was looking at that on Google Earth and trying to figure out why there were these huge baseball diamonds across the street from the park.

    Of course, the concept of something being “proper” just makes me think of Monty Python and the “not proper keep-left signs”.

    Very interesting comments – thanks!

  • Mark W

    Just wanted to second AV on “The care, operation and overall feeling of Tokyo Disney reminds of the ‘glory’ days of the 1960s and 1970s when Disney not only lived up to their own hype, but also routinely exceeded the high standards people set.”

    For all the people who say things like “People would’ve always hated WDW if we had had the internet back in the ’70s,” or “the expectations of Disney fans are impossibly high,” or “things haven’t really gotten any worse, you’ve just idealized your childhood memories,” I offer the Tokyo Disneyland Resort as my counterargument. TDLR operates as if the Euro Disneyland fiasco and subsequent gutting/rearranging of WDI and Parks and Resorts never happened. A trip to TDLR is a trip back to your memories of Disney from the glory years that you thought could never come back (except that everything is in Japanese). It’s something every Disney fan should try to do at least once. The OLC is out-Disneying Disney in such an incredible way that Disney really should be embarrassed. I don’t want to overhype it, but I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that TDLR is (unfortunately) the last vestige of the quality standards that Walt always wanted his parks to have.

  • Another Voice

    I completely agree the Tokyo is the last spark of Walt’s dream that’s still burning. My interest in Disney had all but dried up before I was finally able to get to TDR – there I found all the things that made me interested in the parks in the first place. The downside is that my interest in places like WDW is now purely “historical”. To me a visit to the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT Center (see, I still use the proper name) is like visiting an ancient castle in Europe that’s been turned in a beer garden. It’s great to see some of the glories of the past, to glimpse some of what remains, but it’s no longer growing or thriving. Whatever artistry was put into the original construction has now become mere décor for a lesser purpose. It’s all too clear that the present caretakers don’t understand what made the original so awe inspiring – and have no interest in figuring it out.

    When Walt said “relive fond memories of the past”, I don’t think he could have dreamed he would be referring to his own creations.

    What makes Tokyo Disney work is that the parks is the focus of the business. The Oriental Land Company is guided to keep the theme park guests happy and coming back. The OLC executives are focused, they are driven.

    At Disney, the parks are an ancillary marketing device. The suits running the Attractions operations are there because they are interested or skilled in the business – they are punching tickets on the ride up the corporate ladder.

    Inside the OLC, they know to grow their business they must reinvest theme park earnings back into the parks. At Disney, they believe the Company can make more money by taking theme park earnings and investing them in comic book and video game companies.

    It’s no surprise which method produces happier, freer spending guests.

  • Another Voice

    yes – “parks is the focus” should be “are the focus”.

    This thing really needs an edit function.

  • philphoggs

    Do I hear guided group fan trip in the future?

  • Another Voice

    I too have found very little background material on the development of Tokyo Disney. There seems to be little published even in Japan. I think that stems from a lot of different issues.

    Tokyo has had a very bad reputation inside the Disney cultural. The place opened shortly before the Eisner régime came into power. The development, along with EPCOT Center, was always used as prime example of how the “Dead Guy’s Guys” were ignorant, stupid, moronic, incompetent, silly, wasteful, stuck-in-the-past, fools. This mostly came from the fact that Disney didn’t have an equity stake in the project and fantasy that Eisner would have done a better job. The suits and toadies quickly came to realize that even the faintest of praise for the project would be a career limiting move.

    Eisner’s fury was further enraged when the Oriental Land Company refused to bend to his ever desire. They built the hotels they wanted, not the stunningly awful monsters designed by Friends of Michael. They refused his demands to cut Eisner in a on a piece of the action. They flat out refused to build Eisner’s cloned Disney/MGM Studios (Eisner’s own pet project). And worse, the OLC had the gall to massive successful when Eisner’s biggest pet created a crater in a French beet field that still hasn’t been filled after two decades and billions and billions of dollars, francs and euros.

    On the “fan” side, I think it’s a matter that most people expect to never see the place.

    To be blunt, most “fans” aren’t fans of Disney. They are fans of their consumption of Disney produced products.

    For people who appreciate the art of creating parks and their associated operation, studying Tokyo Disney is great. But most “fans” don’t really care about that. They like what they like and they like doing it. Read any Internet forum – they are filled with endless debates about where Pop Century 1960’s building has a better swimming pool than the All Star Music, how many turkeys legs can you get on the Disney Dining Plan, competitions to find hidden mickeys, and how they can’t wait to get away on their 8 day WDW stay to escape the collection calls on the credit cards they used to book the trip.

    Without the demand or interest in Tokyo, it’s easy to understand why there is so little written about it.

  • Mark W

    AV, do you have your own blog that somehow I’ve missed? ‘Cause you should.

  • Mark: Believe me, I’ve tried to sign AV up here :)

  • philphoggs

    From the armchair… the more a person reads, observes, and contemplates the skill at Disney through the years, the more respect is found there. The greatest admiration is for the people whose talents are the pinnings of the organization. With gratitude, revealing those accomplishments is what this blog does best. A close second is poking fun at the fandom which we are akin to. ;)

  • Professional Dreamer

    I remember doing all the early flat concept layout boards with vinyl colored overlays with attraction parts from Disneyland and Walt Disney World around 1977. These were for hanging on the walls in the conference room shown above at WED. I was also assigned to the EPCOT Japan Pavilion in 1980, and looked forward to doing all the Japanese themed Rockwork and Architecture. I switched over to Tokyo Disneyland in 1982 and spent a lot of my time at TOHO Studios doing all the sets and props for about 15 of the new attractions to be opened in 1983. Now 30 years later and after doing additional projects, attractions, and finally Tokyo Disney Seas, i sigh a deep breath of satisfaction.

    • That’s fantastic!! I love those attraction layouts; I always find them so intriguing. I’m going to have to interrogate you about Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland… I can only imagine how wild it must have been at WED back then with all these projects in the pipe. I had no idea that work was done at TOHO! That’s amazing.

      • Professional Dreamer

        Yes Toho Studios, home to Godzilla and many other Notable Kaiju like Mothra, Rodan, and Gamera, also helped on many of the new shows after TDL opened in 1983, including Tokyo Disney Seas. During initial construction in 1982, TOHO had a Godzilla revival in the Ginza at their theater. When planning started in 1977 on TDL, Godzilla was seen on Marvel Comics, so I wonder if he will be in Disneys Marvel Plans?

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