It’s 3am and I’m dancing on a cracked red vinyl banquette in the “VIP” section of a dingy basement bar in a back alley of Tokyo’s neon-lit Roppongi city centre. I have paid for neither my entry to the club (ordinarily ¥3000), nor any of the drinks that were brought to the table (an entire bottle of Belvedere Vodka, a dozen Red Bulls and a jug of a shot called Blue Sky), not the pizza and fries my friends and I have shared, and I do not want to leave. Later, we will be given ¥5000 towards the cab fare home. Why? Because I’m partying with the young, beautiful, white performers who work in Tokyo Disneyland, and this is a standing arrangement – where they go, the Japanese will follow. Welcome to the weird, weird world of the “face cast” of Tokyo Disney theme parks.
I got to spend a week at the performers’ village with a friend last year, and it was a real window into the odd world of the Disney industry. I met a 30 year old woman who played Wendy from Peter Pan. She’d been working for Disney all around the world since she left college. I heard about the incredibly strict rules surrounding the performers’ identities as character actors – there could be no intimation that they were actors: when in costume, they were those characters. Even in the “backstage” area – anywhere beyond their private dressing room – they were in character. I discovered the hierarchy between the white and Japanese performers – Japanese performers are instructed by management to always make way for the westerners backstage. I heard a rumour that Tokyo – the only Disney theme park not owned directly by Disney itself – might actually be run by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. I learnt that if you’ve worked at Tokyo Disneyland, it’s so well regarded that it’s basically your golden ticket to work for any other Disney park in the world.
The Disney experience in Tokyo is a truly bizarre one. There are locals who spend basically every spare moment in the park. They buy year-long tickets. They have their favourite characters, whose meet-and-greet appearance schedules they learn and whose merchandise they buy religiously. I found out how the cloying smell of popcorn and other sweets is pumped into the air to make people constantly crave snacks (it made me mad because it smelled awful but also made me hungry).
Between the two parks, you can visit the Middle East, an Italian piazza, a life-size ship, the Wild West, and a European-style castle without ever leaving Tokyo. You end up marvelling at how real the fakeness is; it’s a strange paradox. Wonderland is mashed up against Agrabah, Mickey hangs out with the Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story characters appear in the same parades as the Princesses. There is no logic to it other than it’s all DISNEY (though some of it only tenuously so). You can tap into any emotional reservoir you want – romance, adventure, adrenaline. It is extravagant, excitable, and manufactured.
I was (and remain) torn about how to respond to this fairground behemoth. On one hand, it’s a blatantly capitalist money-grab, where people go as a total escape from real life. A docile population kept more docile by a world of huge plush characters, actors who wave to you and over-priced food. But on the other, it genuinely makes them happy. Not pretend-happy, real-happy. Does the fact that it’s making some people extraordinarily wealthy negate the fact that millions go through the park each year and have a wonderful time? I don’t know. I’d never been to a major theme park before and spent the whole time oscillating between the fun of it all – there’s no denying it was a lot of fun – but also the feeling of being very uncomfortable at the thought of it all.