Introduction: How to Plan a Tokyo Disney Vacation

This is the story of our totally last-minute yet totally fabulous trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort, Tokyo itself, and Kyoto — told breathlessly, at length, and in excruciating detail, with waaaaaay too many photos. Buckle up!


The Trip

Going to Tokyo Disney Resort (specifically, Tokyo DisneySea) has been at the top of our Dream Trip list for years, but it was always sort of a far-off fantasy. I just assumed when we finally could afford it, I would spend a year or two planning the trip, learning Japanese, and intensively researching Japan.

And then one day Patrick announced that his puppet company had landed a job building puppets and puppeteering on an ad in Tokyo, and we would be leaving in just over two weeks!

Miraculously, we were able to plan an almost-three-week trip in that time, including finding Tokyo hotels during peak cherry blossom season, cobbling together four days in Disney hotels during their “Top Season,” and throwing in a bullet train trip to Kyoto at the last minute. The short time frame was both maddening (I have never paid for so much express shipping in my life!) and liberating as it kept me from over-thinking things the way I usually do.

* Participants: Lurkyloo & Mr. Lurkyloo

* Dates: March 16-April 2, 2010

* Hotels:

  • Akasaka Excel Hotel Tokyu (A Disney Good Neighbor Hotel)
  • Tokyo Disneyland Hotel
  • Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta
  • Disney Ambassador Hotel
  • Yaesu Terminal Hotel
  • Metropolitan Marunouchi Hotel

* To Do List

  • See everything there was to see in Tokyo DisneySea & Tokyo Disneyland
  • Tour Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings sites in Tokyo
  • Check out a “cat café”
  • Ride a bullet train
  • View cherry blossoms
  • Visit Totoro at the Ghibli Museum
  • See as many temples, shrines, castles, palaces, and gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto as humanly possible
  • Purchase innumerable adorable stuffed anime characters
  • Eat a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know what it was


I thought it might be helpful to hit the highlights of the planning process here since I didn’t get a chance to do a pre-trip report (and for that we should all be very grateful – it was mostly a constant stream of freakouts…).

The Most Important Lesson I Learned: The only thing keeping a Disney fan from going to Tokyo Disney should be the money (OK, so that’s a HUGE thing…). But none of the other stuff I was worried about turned out to be a big deal: the language barrier, the long flight, booking hotels, figuring out all the transportation networks, getting foreign currency—none of it was a problem. If you can navigate any big city, you can navigate Tokyo.

That said, I think you can greatly improve the quality of your trip by learning even the most basic Japanese before you go. I can’t believe how many travel guides lead you to believe that most people in Japan speak or can understand English. That was certainly not our experience—even at Disney—nor did we expect it to be. I won’t get up on my soapbox about cultural sensitivity, but I will say that it is a lot easier if you can say and understand certain phrases. The rest is allllll pantomime! Unless you’re asking for earplugs at a Disney first aid station, in which case they will become convinced you are bleeding from the ears…

They say Japanese is very easy to pick up but very difficult to master. I only had those few short weeks, but by listening to one 30-minute Pimsleur Japanese lesson twice a day, I picked up enough to speak and understand handy phrases out in the real world. Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone programs are spendy, but I found some good deals on Amazon and eBay. I liked Pimsleur because it’s based on a memory technique that actually has you speaking and understanding the language at the end of your first lesson. I couldn’t believe it! It’s also good for people who don’t want to use books and worksheets – the course is entirely audio, but you must dedicate those 30 minutes to it. You can’t listen while driving or, like, Facebooking. Personally, I would have liked something to read along with it because I’m a visual learner, but it was still really effective.

The Flight
This was not that big a deal at all. From the West Coast, you get on the plane in the afternoon and get off it in the evening—it just happens to be the evening of the next day. I set my watch ahead when I got on the plane and didn’t make a big deal out of constantly figuring out what time it was back home. When I got there, I stayed up til my regular bedtime and woke up the next morning feeling fine. I was worried that coming home would be awful; you leave in the evening and arrive the morning of the same day. We were pretty spacey when we got off the plane, and we took a 2-hour nap, but then we stayed up til our regular bedtime and felt pretty decent the next day.

The subway map looks like a bowl of spaghetti, but it’s color-coded and has numbers, so it’s not too difficult to figure out. The hardest part is figuring out which exit from the subway to take. They are usually numerous, and sometimes taking the wrong one can put you blocks out of your way (so I disagree with one author’s advice to just exit the station and then figure out where you are). There are maps at the exits (usually with English on them) that list what sights and attractions can be found if you take that exit. This may be a big DUH for some people, but I had to figure out that these maps are not always oriented north to south the way they were in my guidebook. Eventually I learned to hold my guidebook up next to the wall map, find a common point on both, and then rotate my book until it matched the wall map. But then I also still count with my fingers….

PASMO/Suica: These prepaid fare cards can be used on virtually all subways, railways, and buses in Tokyo, public and private, including the Disney Resort Monorail line, and they are also accepted as a form of payment by many merchants in and around train stations. Instead of having to figure out what ticket you need for each journey (and then use the fare adjustment machines at the end of your trip if you didn’t pay enough), you charge the card up like a gift card and then just swipe it over the reader at the turnstiles on your way in and out of the station. The turnstiles also display the amount remaining on the card as you walk by.

There are two brands of these cards—PAMSO and Suica—but they are interchangeable. You can use them anywhere either of them is accepted. The one you buy basically just depends on which brand is sold at the station where you’re buying the card. When you buy the it, you are charged a ¥500 refundable deposit, which you can get back at any PASMO/Suica machine at the end of your trip. You can recharge the card at the same kind of machine, which is found next to the ticket machines at the station. One thing to note: You can only buy and recharge these cards with cash—for some reason, the machines don’t accept credit cards, and you can’t even use credit if you buy them from an agent at the station office. You have a choice of buying an anonymous card or linking your name and info to the card. If you do the latter, you can easily replace the card if it is lost or stolen (for a small fee – but you retain the stored value on the card).

We booked our hotels a couple of different ways, all of them easy. For our longest Tokyo stay, we booked through Expedia just because it was offered there and we had an Expedia coupon code. However, many Tokyo hotels have English websites on which you can book directly, which is what we did for our one “fill-in” night when the ad shoot dates changed. I found Tokyo Top Guide to be a great resource for finding hotels by location and, in some cases, at a lower price. Another site with a good selection of hotels and some discount prices is Where to Stay in Tokyo.You kinda have to shop around though, and definitely figure out what neighborhood you want to stay in first. Tripadvisor is great for seeing photos of actual rooms, although you find wildly positive and negative reviews about nearly every hotel.

For the Disney hotels, I thought that calling would be best, but it turned out that they were basically just reading me all the info found in their extremely easy to use online booking engine. So just book online! If you don’t see the room type you want, book something else and check back every day. No deposit is required, and you can cancel anytime up to 2 weeks ahead. We booked just weeks ahead for travel during Disney’s very busiest time of year. I just kept making reservations, checking back, canceling and replacing them until I got exactly the combo we wanted (well, OK, we weren’t able to get 4 consecutive days at MiraCosta, but it was fun to try out all three hotels!). Availability changes daily; room types that had been previously sold out miraculously appeared the next day.

We are not “tour” kind of people, but we made two exceptions on this trip because we were pressed for research time.

1) The Ghibli Museum: I’ve been wanting to see this place ever since I discovered Totoro! Unfortunately, the exhibits are all in Japanese. Plus, only a limited number of tickets are available each day, and the process for buying them from the US is very complicated. So I found a tour aggregator called Viator that works with Japan’s Sunrise Tours. It’s a little funky how it works – you meet a guide who leads you on the subway and local bus system rather than riding in a motorcoach – but the guide stays with you for an hour at the museum and translates all the exhibits for you. I felt like we got so much more out of the place than if we’d been on our own.

2) Kyoto: When we decided to go to Kyoto and back in one day on the bullet train, we wanted to see as much as possible. So I used Viator again to book back-to-back morning and afternoon tours of 6 sites, total. I’ll describe them in more detail later, but there were SO many tourists and tour buses swarming Kyoto the day we went, I think I would have freaked out if we’d been on our own.

The thing I was most worried about was an inability to access cash or use credit cards. They say that the worst thing to do is exchange money at the airport (and Travelex online – talk about bad exchange rates and high fees!) or before you leave the States. I’ve also heard that it’s getting harder to find places that will cash travelers cheques, and I didn’t want to be hunting down banks all the time.

You’ll get the best exchange rate by using a credit card or withdrawing money at a foreign ATM. But most banks and credit card companies impose fees of up to 3% on each transaction, plus ATM owners may impose an extra fee. On top of that, credit cards are still not accepted by many smaller merchants and restaurants, and most Japanese ATMs do not accept US ATM cards. (Those that do can be found at 7 Eleven, post offices, airports, some department stores and train stations, Citibank branches, and Shinsei Bank and Sumitomo Mitsui Bank branches.)

So this is what we did…

Cash: We exchanged dollars for about ¥200 in pocket money before we left. Our bank didn’t give us too terrible an exchange rate, and there were no fees. However, it took them 3 days to order yen.

Credit Card: Capitol One and Charles Schwab are currently the only US companies that don’t charge any fees on foreign transactions. I signed up for a Capitol One card only to learn, a week before we left, that the credit limit was too low to charge more than 2 of our 6 hotel stays! Then I found out that they have lousy customer service and have been known to freeze your spending abilities even when you’ve notified them you’ll be using the card abroad. So I called Charles Schwab, and within 48 hours I had their Invest First Visa Card with a reasonable spending limit and great customer service.

ATM: While I was signing up for the Schwab credit card, I learned that they offer a bank account that charges no fees for international ATM withdrawals AND refunds any fees imposed by the ATM owner. So I signed up for one of those too!

When we got to our first hotel, there was a 7 Eleven on the first floor, so I took out a bunch of cash. Then for the rest of the trip, we’d ask “Crejito cardo?” at every checkout counter and only use the cash if they didn’t take credit. We found that every place at Disney took credit cards except the popcorn carts in Tokyo Disneyland.

Cell Phones
As of this writing, only 3G phones will work in Japan. If you have a 3G phone that’s not SIM-locked, you can rent a Japanese SIM card to use while you’re there and get cheap calling rates. If you have an iPhone, you can use it but will pay through the nose. If you have any other kind of cell phone, you’ll need to rent a Japanese phone for delivery either to your house before you leave or to your hotel in Japan. You can also rent them at kiosks in the airport. Both of us needed phones so we could be in touch when Patrick was working, but only mine is 3G. Here’s what we did:

iPhone: We decided to bite the bullet and just pay for international calling and a small data package so I could use my phone to call Patrick, send a few Tweets and use GPS in a pinch. For voice service, you have to add the $5.99/month World Traveler Plan and pay $1.69/minute (vs. $2.29/minute without the plan) and $0.50/text message to use it. For data service, you have to buy a Data Global Add-On unless you are completely made of money: Regular rates start at $0.0195/kb, which is $159/MB! Even the add-ons aren’t cheap—they start at $24.99 for just 20MB of data. Check your average monthly usage to determine how much you’ll need, because in an typical month of Tweeting, checking my email, and searching for things with Google Maps, I use about 200 MB! As it turned out, I was so parsimonious with the 50MB package I bought, I actually only used about half of the data I’d paid for—argh!

Rental Phone: Trying to compare all the different phone rental services for Japan was so confusing. Some offer free phones but charge hidden fees or higher per-minute rates. Some charge a fee for the phone with lower rates on calls. Some give you free incoming and/or outgoing calls, but sometimes only to/from Japanese phones. Some can only be delivered in the US and some only in Japan. We finally went with Rentafone Japan because the process was easy and the rates seemed competitive. The whole thing is done online, and the phone is waiting for you when you check into the hotel. When you’re done, you put it in the pre-paid envelope and mail it or give it to the front desk staff. (You can also have it sent to the airport and return it there.) We paid ¥3,900 for a week’s rental of the phone and ended up spending ¥2,308 on calls. One trick was that to get really good rates with the phone, you had to use a dial-around code before entering the phone number. However, it’s programmed into the phone’s memory so you just have to remember to push the button.

One thing I kind of wish we’d done is hang on to the rental phone for our whole trip. There were times at Disney when we split up to accomplish things quicker—like grab FASTPASSes or wait in a line—and then couldn’t find each other because only I had a phone.

Whew! OK, to reward you for reading (or scrolling) this far, here is a picture of the early-morning dress rehearsal of Tokyo DisneySea’s spring-themed lagoon show Fairies Primavera, as seen from our room at Hotel MiraCosta.

Up Next: Breakfast in San Leandro, Dinner in Tokyo!

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27 Responses
  • Sara
    January 11, 2015


    Thanks a lot for ur information …. I will be going during August with my kids
    So im worried about the long lines for the rides how many minutes for each ride?

    Thank you in advance 🙂

    • Carrie
      January 15, 2015

      Hi Sara! I don’t have any experience going in August. Your nest bet is to check out this site devoted to Tokyo Disney:

  • Kimberly H.
    December 28, 2014

    Ok, I’ve read your trip report several times and now I’m in the very beginning stages of planning our trip for May 2017. We are tentatively doing a 9 night Japanese cruise and I’d like to add some time for Disney prior to getting on the ship. Several questions (sorry if it’s a lot!):

    Is there a guidebook you’d recommend? Or a website with message boards?

    Do you think 2 days would be enough to do Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea? I’m thinking we should do 3 nights, but between the travel time getting to Japan from Virginia, cruise time, and travel time back, this trip is going to end up taking a month!

    What Disney hotel would you recommend?

    Were the rides still entertaining if you knew little Japanese? I plan on starting soon with Pimsleur or Rosetta, but I have a feeling my husband will procrastinate and try to be fluent in Japanese the night before our trip…

    Any ideas on how to get from the airport to whichever Disney hotel we choose?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Carrie
      January 3, 2015

      Hi Kim!

      I don’t know of any English-language guidebook that’s up to date, but this website has the most up-to-date and easily digested info I’ve seen. And Mice Chat has great Tokyo Disney message boards.

      I think 2 days will feel very, very rushed. We didn’t even feel like we’d done it all in 4 days! To me, it would be worth it to scrimp in other areas so we could stay at Disney longer.

      My favorite is Mira Costa because you’re actually inside the park. But if you’re just trying to do the cheapest Disney resort, the Ambassador is great, and I don’t think the Disneyland Hotel is so much better that it’s worth the price difference. I guess it’s closer, but… it’s not IN the park.

      Yes! I don’t ever remember feeling confused because I couldn’t understand Japanese on any of the rides. Some of the shows have translation devices you can listen to. But even ones like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that don’t are just cool cuz they’re cool rides!

      You definitely want to take the Limo Bus to TDR. The only catch is the last departure from Narita is around 5pm, which doesn’t always work with flights from the West Coast (if that’s where you’re coming from). As I recall, there are more buses from Haneda, because I remember thinking that next time we should fly into that airport.

      Hope this helps!

  • Oh
    April 2, 2014

    I would like to know if I bring my luggage from the airport to Disney tokyo, what size that I can keep in the storage locker? 28″-32″ is possible or not? Thank you.0

    • Carrie
      April 2, 2014

      Oooh… I do not remember the exact size of the storage lockers at the parks. If it’s like in the US, they may have some bigger lockers mixed in with the small ones. But if your bags don’t fit, I wonder if you could simply check them with Bell Services at one of the Disney hotels while you’re in the park. There might also be lockers at the train station…

  • Kimberly
    February 15, 2014

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your Tokyo Disney Vacation!

    My husband and I have booked a Tokyo Disney vacation for this summer coming up, but became concerned when we started reading about a rule at Tokyo Disney that does not allow people into the park that have visible tattoos. (My husband has a sleeve and a half of Star Wars and Disney tattoos!) Do you have any knowledge on this front? Did you learn anything in your travels to Tokyo that can give us a hint as to how we’ll be treated? Thank you for all the information you have already provided us!

    • Carrie
      February 17, 2014

      This is a really interesting question. Their guidelines say no “inappropriate clothing or tattoos” so I would assume that would mean that only some tattoos are inappropriate, like naked ladies or gruesome blood-dripping skulls or something. What you might do is get him a lightweight long-sleeved shirt (like those SPF ones that supposedly aren’t hot) that he could throw on under his T-shirt if anything was mentioned. On the other hand, it could be that they won’t say anyting to you if you obviously appear to be foreigners and they don’t want to appear rude. I think we probably committed multiple social faux pas in Japan and no one said anything to us due to their extreme politeness. EIther way, I’d love to hear how this turns out for you!

      • Kimberly
        February 17, 2014

        Thank you for the response! We’ve decided to try to change our Japan trip to a cooler time of the year when wearing long sleeves won’t be such and issue for my husband. Instead we booked a Euro trip for this summer, so Disneyland Paris will be our new destination!

        I haven’t seen it yet, but hopefully you have a Disneyland Paris blog, I love reading about all of your experiences abroad. Thank you for all of the information you have provided!

        • Carrie
          February 17, 2014

          Ya know, we just haven’t made Disneyland Paris a priority yet. I hear so many mixed reviews and it sounds so expensive, I’d honestly rather go back to Tokyo Disney than go to Disneyland Paris for the first time. But I know we should see it. Hopefully Patrick will randomly get a job that takes us there! 🙂

  • Sabrina
    January 5, 2014

    About one week ago, I stumbled across your Trip Report to Tokyo, because my family has far-off plans for a grand-Disney tour of Asia, as soon as Shanghai opens! Yet within the last week it came to be that my boyfriend and I booked a really cheap trip for a whole week there! We’re going Feb 24 (arriving 25) till Mar 3, staying at Hilton Tokyo Bay, going. to the parks 4 full days and taking 2 day trips into the city on the weekend! 🙂 I’m so excited!!! Thank you for inspiring me so much with all the cool things you did and taking a ton of photos, and helping making my dream come true so fast! I still cannot believe it! Whatever happened to the Passporter Tokyo Disney? I looked for it but found no such things, I found 3 guides I all read over the last 2 days, but besides Kevin Yees tips, the only really good one is the updated version of the Travelers Series Guide. Hope you can help me out!

    • Carrie
      January 5, 2014

      Wow! What a stroke of luck for you guys! Your trip sounds like it’s going to be fabulous! I’m sorry we don’t have a PassPorter for you, though. After the tsunami, so much changed that we didn’t feel comfortable publishing a guide until the author or I had a chance to visit again and update our info. Since that won’t be for another year or two, there’s nothing in the works at the moment. 🙁

      • Sabrina
        January 6, 2014

        That’s unfortunate, but I’m really happy for you if that means you can go back soon 🙂 I will buy it nevertheless,mand probably visit again as well 😀 Have a great day!

  • Wdwtravelerjennyb
    May 10, 2013

    This is by far the best source of information I have found on the net! It has totally prompted me to start my own pre-trip blog! I go to Japan in August for 16 days (7 of which will be Tokyo Disney). I hope I can get you to take a look at some point – because you sure know how to write a great TR/blog!!!

    • Carrie
      May 13, 2013

      Hey, I’m so glad you like it! I can’t wait to read all about your trip—that’s a nice long chunk of time at Disney. 🙂

      • Jen
        December 9, 2013

        Thanks again for being so detailed on your TR – it sure was a huge help! I had the most amazing 3 weeks in Japan and I finally finished writing about it on my blog. If you ever feel like reading about it here’s the link

        • Carrie
          December 10, 2013

          Hooray! I’m so glad you had a great time! Thanks for sharing the link. 🙂

  • Shelley
    October 15, 2012

    Hi Carrie! I am so happy that I found this trip report – you helped guide me through my WDW Disney Fairytale Wedding and now you’re guiding me through my upcoming 2 week business trip to Tokyo! I extended my business trip and will spend 4 splendid days in Tokyo Disneyland/DisneySea! The best part is I will get to see all of the Christmas parades and shows while I’m there YAY! I am also planning to visit Mitsukoshi and I can’t wait to read all about your trip there. So what will I be doing tonight? Pouring over your trip report and making my own plans 😀

    • Carrie
      October 15, 2012

      Hi Shelley! Wow—sounds like you’re going to have a fabulous time. I’m so glad you’ve found my information helpful, and I can’t wait to hear all about *your* trip! 😉

  • Oscar
    September 26, 2012

    Oh my God, YOU ARE HILARIOUS! I just spent the last couple of days reading all of your Tokyo Disney coverage and you had me rolling. Your information has been hands down the most useful I have found. My friends and I will be heading there this weekend, so I am terrified to experience my first 4 hour line at an amusement park. But we’ll definitely make the most of it. Thanks again for your incredible reporting and perfect sense of humor. I am officially addicted to your blog!

    • Carrie
      September 26, 2012

      Well, gosh, I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the trip report and the blog! You are going to have a TON of fun this weekend, even if there are crowds. So jealous!

  • Marcus
    November 14, 2011

    2 months to go!! Yay!

    • lurkyloo
      November 14, 2011

      Oooh! How exciting!

  • Marcus
    June 17, 2011

    I’ve booked a trip to Tokyo in January and can’t freakn wait. Every single night at work (I work bloody night shift) I come back to this trip report. There’s something wrong with me but I hate my job and these photos are somewhat of an oasis. So thanks 🙂

    • lurkyloo
      June 17, 2011

      So nice to hear you’re enjoying the trip report, and that it’s helping tide you over til January! I should start looking at it more to remind me to save up for another Tokyo trip instead of blowing all our money on trips to Walt Disney World 😀

  • Kelliann
    March 1, 2011

    Hi Carrie-
    I started reading your Tower of Terror Anniversary report on the Dis-then the wedding. I have really enjoyed reading and am looking forward to finishing your Tokyo report. I love the website-so much easier to navigate than over on the dis. I want to say thanks-a-lot for that chocolate peanut butter recipe from your dessert party. I made my second batch yesterday. So yummy although very bad for my diet.

    • lurkyloo
      March 1, 2011

      That is so funny—I love making those things too, and they are also very bad for my diet. So glad to hear you like the site and the reports! 🙂

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