Universal Studios Japan, the Rides and the Reality


Universal Studios Japan, the Rides and the Reality

Suzanne Kamata is the author of the YA novels Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Screaming Divas, both of which feature diversity. She was the editor of Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs . Her nonfiction book A Girls’ Guide to the Islands, about traveling in Japan with her daughter who has multiple disabilities, will be published in 2017.


Before we set out for what would most likely be our last family trip to Universal Studios Japan, my husband asked our seventeen-year-old daughter what rides she wanted to go on. She had only one answer: “Harry Potter!”

“Me, too!” I said. Like everyone else in Japan, I had seen the ads on TV.

Both our son and daughter had been to USJ recently on school trips. Our thrill-seeking daughter had enjoyed the rollercoaster Hollywood Dream, the Ride, and the more subdued Flight of the Hippogriff, but our girl hadn’t been able to go on the much-hyped Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, because, she signed, “The wait was too long.”

Well, this time we would get there early. We would make it a priority. We’d been to the theme park several times since it first opened in 2001, and every time was slightly different. When our twins were small, we had to worry about height restrictions. As our daughter, who uses a wheelchair and is deaf, became too heavy to carry, we had to worry more and more about accessibility However, I was sure that the newest, most popular attraction would be open to everyone.

In the week or so leading up to the trip, our daughter watched Harry Potter movies. She was more excited that any of us. When the day finally arrived and we were there at the gate, she flashed her red folder with the card identifying her as a person with disabilities. The ticket taker handed us a map detailing resources for visitors with special needs. Without a glance at the folded guide, we made a beeline for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Pretty much everyone else had the same idea. A line had already formed for the Forbidden Journey. The wait was two hours. My husband approached a park employee and asked for a Guest Support Pass, which would normally allow us to “sign up” our daughter for the ride without having to wait in line. The employee began to go through a lengthy checklist to determine whether or not our daughter was eligible to go on it. (My husband would later deem this a kind of harassment to discourage us from going on the ride.) When she got to the part about the 30 steps, it became clear that our daughter wasn’t going to be able to board. She can transfer from her wheelchair to a ride with a little help, and she can even make it down a flight of stairs while hanging on to a railing, but with a mob waiting impatiently behind her, it didn’t seem feasible. We’d also have to wait in line for the full two hours. There were no exceptions for people with special needs.

“We can’t go on this ride,” we told our daughter.

“But why not? There’s an elevator.”

“Because you can’t walk,” my husband signed.

“You can go in the house and look around,” the employee said.

So we pushed her wheelchair into “Hogwarts” and went along a parallel route to the one for those who were waiting in line. We soaked in the spooky atmosphere and enjoyed the moving images on the walls, but we couldn’t go on the ride. Bummer.

Suddenly we were all in a bad mood. Our daughter didn’t want to go on the less exciting Flight of the Hippogriff again, and the line for butter beer was way too long. We decided to move on out of the Wizarding World, into something more reliable. We went to Jurassic Park, the Ride, which had only a thirty minute wait. The employee there was friendly and helpful, and even offered to bring around a special boat with a lift for wheelchair users. While we bided our time, our daughter reached under her glasses to wipe away her tears.

After the dinosaur ride, I suggested we check out Space Fantasy, the Ride, which we’d gone on before, but it was closed for repairs. Another previously accessible ride, Back to the Future, had been discontinued, and its replacement was under construction. Our daughter’s other favorite attraction, Spider Man, the Ride, was also off-limits due to “safety factors.” Apparently, in the unlikely event of a disaster, she’d need to be able to flee on her own. But why not let us sign a waiver, or something, if they were that worried about liability?

Eventually, we all cheered up some. We had lunch. We watched the parade, and a couple of shows. We went on Jaws for the fifth time. Toward the end of the day, my husband and son went off to try The Flying Dinosaur, the new moebius strip of a roller coaster, which had a three-hour wait. Our daughter and I would check out the kiddie rides in Wonderland. We scored the last churro at a snack kiosk, decided the two-hour wait for the two-minute ride Flying Snoopy wasn’t worth it, then took a spin on the merry-ground. Then we called it a day.

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