Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Only English Book on Tokyo Disneyland?

Riding The Black Ship: Japan and Tokyo Disneyland (Harvard East Asian Monographs 173), By Aviad E. Raz; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, 236 pp.

Last Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland, the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. I thought it'd be fun in honor of the anniversary to review something about TDL. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; to date, nobody's written a English-language guidebook to Tokyo Disneyland, and there's only one book I'm aware of that is dedicated to the topic. It's been a while since I read it, so I figured it'd be worth another look.

Riding The Black Ship is a monograph covering some of the sociological issues about TDL. The title refers to Commodore Matthew Perry's American warships that forcibly re-opened Japan to the West in 1853; some intellectuals have argued that like Commodre Perry's warships, Tokyo Disneyland is a cultural "black ship", forcing American popular culture onto Japan and the Japanese. After spending some time observing TDL, Disney, and Japanese culture, Aviad Raz argues that the Japanese have done the same thing they've done with many other things they've found in foreign cultures - they've taken something that interests them and adapted it to made it their own. The Japanese are thus not victims of a cultural invasion, but masters of a unique cultral phenomenon - they're riding and steering the "black ship" of TDL.

Aviad Raz was somewhat handicapped by an almost total lack of cooperation from the Oriental Land Company (the company that owns TDL), but still put together an interesting study of Tokyo Disneyland and how it's made its mark on Japanese culture, and vice versa. The book provides some interesting information about how TDL is operated, how the corporate culture of the U.S. Disney theme parks was adapted to suit the OLC and the Japanese, how other companies have adapted some of America's and Disney's organizational and training strategies to their businesses (or rejected them, as the case may be), and the appeal of TDL and Disney to various age groups in Japan.

You get a basic explanation of how OLC created TDL, information about the differences between how hourly employees are trained and do their jobs (which is influenced by the techniques of the U.S. parks) and how managers and higher-level employees are trained and how they work (which mirrors more traditional Japanese business culture). Raz demostrates how TDL modifies the Disney theme park experience to suit the Japanese by comparing three attractions at the park (two of which have sadly closed since the book was written) to their American or Japanese equivalents, and discusses how the Japanese workers react to some elements of the "Disney Way". The book provdes some fascinating insights into Japan's culture in general and Japan's business culture, with (of course) an emphasis on the business of theme parks.

Riding The Black Ship is an interesting book, particularly if you're curious about Japanese culture or have a strong interest in TDL and OLC, but make no mistake - this is an academic text, and it wasn't meant for a general audience; if a reading assignment in your college textbooks left your head swimming for a while afterward, you're not going to have a lot of fun reading this book. The information about TDL and OLC is pretty limited; Raz provides some interesting information about the park and the Oriental Land Company, but a lot more goes uncovered, and most of the reference material cited in the book was published only in Japan and in Japanese, so your options to explore the topic further are limited. Time has also caught up with this book; there's only a very brief mention of Tokyo DisneySea as an upcoming project, and attendance figures and trends have changed in the U.S. and the Japanese leisure industry since this book was published.

A lot of us Disney fanatics would love to see an in-depth discussion of Tokyo Disneyland - either a guide to the parks or a history of its construction and operation. Unfortunately, Riding The Black Ship doesn't quite fit the bill, but for now it's all we've got. This book is definitely for folks who enjoy academic texts or are fascinated enough by TDL or Japan to take what they can get. As for everyone else, well, here's hoping we're not in this same situation in another 25 years.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


To all you wonderful folks who are reading this blog about the frequency of the reviews lately. Unfortunately, I have quite a bit going on in my life right now, and it's been a struggle to get a review up even every two weeks. But I promise I'll keep writing if you'll keep reading. Thanks!

An Orlando Guide About Orlando

Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando (1st Edition), by Jason Cochran; Pauline Frommer, Series Editor. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2007; 330 pp.

Hello. My name's Paul and I'm addicted to theme park guidebooks. (Hi, Paul!)

For some unknown reason, I've read and I own a large collection of guidebooks to the Disney theme parks - official and unofficial. I don't know if there's a good reason for it; I've probably been to Disneyland and Walt Disney World enough times that I don't really need to refer to a guidebook, but I keep reading them and buying them - new and used. Maybe it's because they're the easiest books about the Disney parks to find. Maybe it's because they provide a snapshot of the parks at a particular moment in time. Maybe it's my way of going to the parks without actually visiting them. Whatever the reason, I'm going to review them here, and my first victim... er, subject... will be the Pauline Frommer's Guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando.

For those of you who read the above title and said "Pauline who?", Pauline Frommer is the daughter of travel expert Arthur Frommer (the author of Europe of $5 A Day and the founder of the Frommer's Travel Guides). Pauline's apparently no slouch as far as travel knowledge is concerned, and she's started a series of travel guides under her own name, which are being published by the same company that prints the Frommer's Guides. In the case of the WDW guide, just because Pauline's name is in the title doesn't mean she wrote the thing; she's the editor of the series, which I guess means she's responsible for coming up with and maintaining the overall concept and philosophy of the guides.

In any case, I was really impressed by Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando. Jason Cochran, the author of the book, really seems to know his stuff about central Florida and the Disney theme parks and has done a great job of writing a thorough and opinionated guide to what's out there for the visitor to see. Jason's well-versed in the history and the workings of the Disney theme parks and other places, and he's not one of those people who looks at Disney through Mouse-colored glasses; the end result is a guide that provides unabashed opinions about what Disney management (and other theme park operators and hoteliers) are doing right and doing wrong, and that points you toward the places and things that he feels deserve your time, money and attention.

One of the things that most impressed me about Pauline Frommer's (sorry, but I'm not writing the full title over and over again) is its coverage of what there is to see and do and where there is to stay outside the realms of the Big Three (that's Disney, Universal and Anheuser-Busch, in case you're wondering). Where many guides to WDW and Orlando pretty much only discuss the major theme parks and provide a smattering of information about the major tourist corridors and a quick word or two about stuff in downtown Orlando (and some only talk about stuff on Disney property), Jason touches a variety of topics, such as second-tier attractions, parks and wildlife refuges, museums, areas and places where locals go to have fun or get a good meal or do a little shopping. Jason recognizes that there's more to Orlando than the theme parks and the tourism corridors, and encourages you to really take some time to experience it.

Have I mentioned that Jason is opinionated? Even if I have, it bears repeating. If it's a given to you that the WDW experience - particularly if you're staying on-property - is pure Disney magic, Jason's gonna tick you off. But that doesn't mean he's anti-Disney -- based on the information that he shares about Walt Disney World's history and details, I'd say he's pretty passionate about WDW, but he doesn't cut Disney much slack when he feels that parts of the Disney experience don't live up to the blissful picture painted by the marketing folks at WDW.

If it makes you feel any better, Jason's just as opinionated about the non-Disney stuff he covers in the book; this is probably the first Orlando guidebook I've read that argues that none of Orlando's many accommodations - even the best ones - offer a truly world-class experience, and that folks coming to visit the Mouse should seriously consider staying in a vacation home or even - gasp! - off the WDW property to get the most bang your your tourism buck.

If you're a die-hard Disney fan who sees any negative comment about Disney or the Disney theme park experience as bashing, this probably isn't the guidebook for you. The same is true if your goal in getting a guidebook is to use it to lay out your plan of attack for most efficiently visiting the WDW theme parks; Pauline Frommer's not going to provide you with touring plans. If you've pretty much made up your mind that the only time you'll be off the WDW property will be to drive to and from the airport, a lot of the information that's in this book isn't going to be of any use to you; if you're looking for lots of information about what you'll find at WDW or other parks, you'll probably either want to give this book a complete pass or use it on conjunction with another guidebook (I'd recommend The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World or Passporter Walt Disney World).

If you want to get a feel for what central Florida has to offer and you're not averse to going off-property, consider Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando - it's better than a lot of the guides to Orlando put out by most of the major travel publishers. You'll get a guidebook that provides you information about options you might not have considered (or even known about) as far as accommodations, attractions, and dining, and it's an entertaining and informative read. I'm glad to add this guidebook to my already way too large collection.