Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part III: Tokyo Disney Resort

Okay, folks, Part III of our Japan trip report awaits below! Still a lazy bum and haven’t caught up on Parts I and II? Check ’em out now before venturing on…to the photo dump…err, I mean, “Tokyo Disney Trip Report!”

[Side note: I am in tremendous debt to Carrie from Disney Travel Babble, whose 2010 Tokyo Disney trip report was a huge inspiration (and blueprint!) for our Tokyo Disney…and Japan in general!…trip. Thanks, Carrie!]

Here’s a little bit of Lance+Jeff trivia for you all out there: Tokyo Disney was the first thing we ever decided to do during our initial Tokyo planning discussions waaaaay back last winter.  In fact, we’d actually planned on going to Tokyo Disney long before the opportunity presented itself for us to go to Walt Disney World this past summer.

I’m sure plenty of you are asking (as I have myself, many times): why fly halfway around the world to go to a Disney park? (Because I wanted to, you dumb jerks! Don’t judge me! ::runs away to cry in a corner::)

Actually, there are good answers and there are bad answers to that question, and it really depends on what sort of traveller you are.  I’d like to think that I enjoy experiencing local culture, but I also love Disney.  I guess that’s the bad answer, since Disney isn’t Japanese, so therefore not local culture.

However, I would push back a little bit on the idea that Tokyo Disney is not Japanese.  First of all, for those in the know, Tokyo Disney is not owned or operated by the Disney corporation as we know it.  Instead, while it’s designed by Imagineers, the park is actually owned by the Oriental Land Company, which licenses the rights to Disney likenesses from the Disney corporation.  So, there’s a technical reason why the park is Japanese.

[The Oriental Land Company also spends what seems to be a bajillion dollars in elaborate theming, rides, and shows, so you could argue that the park is also more “Disney” than Disney-owned parks, since they are more likely to match in cash what the Imagineers dream up. They apparently spent $4 billion on Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disneyland’s neighboring park, before opening day.]

The monorail taking us from Bayside Station (where the official resort hotels are) back to Tokyo Disneyland Station!

There’s also an emotional reason why this park is Japanese: I know I’m generalizing, but many, many Japanese people are crazy about Disney.  The photos below don’t accurately capture just how into the experience our fellow park guests were.  Now, I know it was right around Halloween when we visited, but so many people were wearing costumes, Disney hats, Disney sweatshirts, Disney changepurses and backpacks and carrying around Duffys in different costumes…there is a passion for Disney, especially in the teen/twenties set that you just don’t see in the same volume at the American parks.

Lastly, I wanted to visit Tokyo Disney for one specific reason: Tokyo DisneySea. This is the only Disney park that you can’t find some version of in the United States (thanks a lot, Santa Monica!) Ever since I stumbled upon its Wikipedia page years ago, I’ve been drawn to this park, a watery mix of Epcot’s World Showcase with the fantasy of the Magic Kingdom.

I didn’t and still don’t care that we spent, like, 20 percent of our trip at Tokyo Disney.  I loved it.

Well, maybe not all of it…

Due to some sort of Tokyo law where transportation has to charge a fee (so I’ve read), it costs about $3 USD to take the Tokyo Disney monorail one way!

Given our tight schedule on this first day at Tokyo Disney (remember, we’d already gone to the Ghibli Museum and seen the Shiki Theatre production of Beauty and the Beast), we purchased the After 6 PM Passport ticket to Tokyo Disneyland.  We did this for a few reasons:

  1. I read that lines in the morning at the Tokyo parks get really bad, so I changed around our hotels at the last minute so we could stay in an “official” Disney hotel the night before we went to DisneySea instead of taking the subway 30+ minutes from a Tokyo hotel
  2. Well, now that we’re going to be in the resort area that night anyway, why not spend the $40 to spend four hours at Tokyo Disneyland?  I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Disneyland at all, but this afforded us the opportunity to at least see a little bit of that park, too!

Above: me, introducing the escalator from Disneyland Station down to the park.

I’m ridiculously happy that we were able to visit during the Halloween season when everything was decked out for the holiday.  Above: scary coach which looks to have repurposed the horses from Cinderella.

Yay! We’re here! (more…)

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Travel Tip Thursday: Spring Training for U.S. Airways’ Grand Slam

[This one’s for you, Alix!]

I detailed in a post a few weeks ago some beginners’ tips on how to start racking up points/miles for airline and hotels stays.  Now, I’m gonna show you guys how to step it up a notch through one of the best (and most fun!) airline miles promos out there.  All it takes is time and effort (and in some cases, some cold hard cash).

For the past couple of years, US Airways has run a fall promotion called the Grand Slam, a cheap and fast way to score thousands of miles.  It’s essentially a promo to encourage business with their various partners (hotel chains, SkyMall, rental car companies, etc.) via a baseball-themed, escalating bonus miles incentive.  For every 4 partners you did business with, you not only received the normal amount of miles you would get from those transactions, but you would also get a bunch of bonus miles as well.

Last year, it went a lil’ somethin’…like this:

4 “hits” = 3,000 bonus miles

8 “hits” = an additional 7,000 bonus miles (10,000 total)

12 “hits”= an additional 5,000 bonus miles (15,000 total)

16 “hits”= an additional 10,000 bonus miles (25,000 total)

…and so on and so forth, with the maximum amount of “hits” (or individual transactions with those partners) capped at 40, 40 hits getting you a total of 110,000 bonus miles!

The good news? Several of the hits are free, which I’ll go into as we get closer to September (when the Grand Slam has started in the past), so you can gain 10,000 bonus miles with just a little bit of elbow grease. Some hits are cheap or require you to spend money you would’ve spend anyway, which is how I got to 25,000 miles last year. The bad news? Some are expensive or nearly impossible to complete, like last year’s LasikPlus surgery hit (no joke!)

But why am I bringing up a promotion that won’t even start for another 4-5 months? (If it happens again at all!)  Because some of these “hits” require a little bit of advanced planning.

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Travel Tip Thursday: How to Stay Like a Prince But Pay Like a Pauper

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I used to be of the opinion that traveling was all about experiencing the local culture, and the quality of the hotel was inconsequential.

However, after a series of seedy stays in hotels, ranging from the classic flickering-light drug-den in Miami to the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, where an Eastern European lady emerged from her room in a muumuu and curlers to ask me for help in opening her bottle of champagne (apparently she lived there), I decided to re-frame my approach to hotels.

Also, Lance is generally a snob and will sleep fully clothed on top of the covers if the room doesn’t suit him.  Oh, and he’ll involuntarily make this face the entire time:

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My new philosophy is this: traveling is about having a great overall experience, which includes where you stay.  It’s like going to out to eat; the food may be great, but if the restaurant looks like it’s the after-hours meeting place for our impending rat overlords, then that tarnishes your experience.

So when planning for your trip, how do you know if your hotel is up to your lofty standards? And how can you stay somewhere that’s within your budget?  Here are some tips for newbies:

TripAdvisor is your friend. TripAdvisor, for the uninitiated, is like Yelp, but for all things travel, particularly hotels.  Two things are great about TripAdvisor.

  • First, many of the listings include photos taken by travelers themselves, not just the gussied-up professional photos you get from the hotels; this way, you’re getting a taste of what it’s really like to stay in these places, as opposed to the image that the hotels uses to sell itself, which could be vastly different.
  • The second great thing about TripAdvisor is their review system (0-5…circles? Owl eyes?) is a more honest representation of their quality than the B.S. star-system you see on Expedia or Orbitz.  Guess what? That star rating you see on hotel sites is totally bogus and is established by the hotels themselves! I’ve recently come around to semi-pro traveller Paul Carr (highly recommend his book The Upgrade for this and other useful travel tips infused with dry British humour), who sticks to the rule of only staying at places that have earned 4 or more TripAdvisor owl eyes; anything else isn’t worth your time.

Subscribe to yet another e-mail alert! Sign up for the weekly e-mail alerts from Travelzoo and Sherman’s Travel.  These sites have staffs that pull together some great deals on vacations, flights, and hotels from all over the world, and every once and awhile they’ll announce that the hotel you want to stay in is having a great promotion.

A little legwork will pay big dividends on your room rate.  The worst part about wanting to go to a place like New York or San Francisco is that, daaaaayyymn, hotels are ‘spensive. But, there’s a way you can sometimes beat the system and stay somewhere nicer than the Tenderloin.

Almost all of the major chains (Hilton, Starwood (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc.), Hyatt, Best Western) have a price-match guarantee, so if you see the same room on the same night cheaper than what’s listed on their own company website, they claim they’ll match and also give you a bonus, like an American Express gift card (Hilton) or a credit for your next stay (Best Western).  Unfortunately, most of these chains have a trick in their process so that you’ll almost never be able to match: for example, Hilton, Starwood, and Best Western require that you fill out a form online and give their customer service reps (CSRs) 24 hours to get back to you; if the lower rate is still available at the time they check, then they will match.  Keep in mind, though, that most hotel sales through sites like Expedia or Hotels.com only last for 24 hours, so the likelihood of that lower rate you’ve found being available by the time the hotel CSR checks is slim.

I’ve had the most luck with Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee. Unlike the other chains, you can actually call and get a real live person on the phone to check if your price match is valid at that very second. Not only that, but if it is valid, they’ll match, and then give you an additional 20% off on the room rate!  This is how we were able to stay at the Andaz Wall Street last year for $120 a night, a steal in Manhattan and definitely the nicest hotel…shower I’ve ever experienced.

Now, things to consider here: these best rate guarantees are VERY particular about a few things, especially that the room type be listed as exactly the same, word-for-word, on their website and a competitor’s.  You also can’t use sites with “auction” features (i.e., paying for the room before knowing exactly which hotel you’re staying at), like Priceline and Hotwire.  Lastly, they won’t honor any vacation bundles (like, if your flight and hotel price are combined on a site like Travelocity)–it has to be the room all by itself.

When looking for a possible price-match, I with check the following sites to make sure I’m covering all possible options: aggregate sites like Room77 and Kayak, but also American Airlines Vacations, which isn’t usually included in sites like those above and can often surprise with lower rates than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, dealsdealsdeals.  Besides Groupon and LivingSocial, which rarely offer nice hotels in desirable locations at a rate I would consider a steal, there are often deals going on through the hotel chains themselves, or through other vendors, that can be worthwhile.  For example, for the next few weeks, American Express and the U.S. Travel Association are running some solid travel deals through their annual Daily Getaways promotion.  Earlier this week, I bought 32,000 Wyndham Rewards points for $110, which I was able to redeem for a Friday and Saturday night stay at the Wingate Manhattan Midtown. That’s $55 a night for a room that’s currently going for $335 a night on Expedia and Orbitz!

You can usually find out about these deals from sites like The Points Guy or Mommy Points, so I suggest liking them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can keep abreast of the latest deals.

All right, so now that I’ve shared some of my tips with you, share some with me! Particularly, where are some non-sucky places to have dinner in NYC?  No matter how many times we go, Lance and I always seem to get stuck at really terrible over-promise/under-deliver restaurants.  Recommendations in the $ to $$$ range?