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Sunday, March 16, 2003

MEDIA MIX

'Bogus' theme parks becoming the last resort


On Jan. 23, Tokyo Disneyland held a preview event for the media in anticipation of the park's 20th anniversary, which will be celebrated April 15. About 1,400 celebrity guests showed up trailed by 50 camera crews, all from domestic television stations, which means that most of them were from outside of Tokyo.

What is it about Tokyo Disneyland? It is a much more successful franchise than either of the American Disney parks or the one in France. Twenty-five million people visited Tokyo Disneyland last year, or about a fifth of Japan's total population. The average amount of money spent by each visitor, including admission, was 9,600 yen. Sales of merchandise in the park brought in 300 billion yen.

This success cannot be explained solely by the park's family-oriented atmosphere -- 70 percent of the visitors are over 18 and most are women -- nor by the theory that Japanese will embrace anything that's cute. It can only be explained by the power of the Disney brand and a kind of self-perpetuating momentum.

When asked, the president of Disney Japan has said that the park's fortunes are different from those of its U.S. and European counterparts because of the makeup of the customers. In Anaheim, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and France, the visitors are mostly tourists, while in Japan, 95 percent are "repeaters," and mainly from the Tokyo metropolitan area. In other words, Tokyo Disneyland is for the locals.

But while the park has been a boon for Disney Enterprises and its local management, as a business icon it's been a disaster for the Japanese economy. Ever since Tokyo Disneyland first opened, dozens of other companies and municipalities have tried to mimic its success, spending trillions of yen in the process. They've all failed.

Some have failed spectacularly, like Huis Ten Bosch, the Dutch theme park "for adults" that opened in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, in 1992. Last month, the company that owns it filed for court protection from creditors, reporting 220 billion yen in red ink. It's the second largest resort-related bankruptcy in Japanese history, right after Seagaia, another Kyushu-based project.

It didn't start out a failure. Huis Ten Bosch, which was an expansion of an already existing Dutch theme park in the area (opened in 1983, the same year as Tokyo Disneyland), saw attendance increase every year until 1996, and then it started to decline. After Sept. 11, attendance went up slightly due to the fact people were afraid to fly overseas, but by that time the management had been forced to offer steep discounts and package tours. The banks ended up forgiving 53 billion yen in loans, but it wasn't enough. Attached to the resort were enough condominiums for a small city, but they never sold, even after prices had dropped to half their original value.

Less disastrous, but no less indicative of the Disney curse, is the lackluster showing of Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Two years ago, it opened to huge media fanfare as the "challenger" in Western Japan to Tokyo Disneyland. It has never even been a contender. Though attendance for the first year was quite good, thanks to media overkill, it dropped off precipitously in the second. Some people have attributed the loss of interest to a string of management scandals, but business insiders have told the media that the real reason the park hasn't performed as well as expected is that everyone who wanted to visit USJ has already done so. USJ doesn't attract repeaters, from Osaka or elsewhere.

The media's role in these and other theme park failures is not direct, but it's recognizable. Thanks to countless travel and eating programs in which TV personalities partake of honmono (the real thing), Japanese people have come to realize that "theme" is simply a euphemism for "bogus."

One of the unacknowledged obstacles to Huis Ten Bosch's profitability is the fact that the Netherlands is a real country, and while it's a country where the inhabitants don't speak Japanese and don't always satisfy the service demands that Japanese tourists expect from other Japanese, it's certainly more Dutch than Huis Ten Bosch is. And considering the cost of getting to Nagasaki and holing up in the high-rent hotels around the park, it isn't much more expensive.

People have come to understand that theme parks are to vacations what family restaurants are to eating out: a convenient, seemingly cheap alternative that often as not leaves the consumer unsatisfied. The themes are usually foreign countries, which made sense many years ago because Japanese people had neither the money nor the time to go overseas. But now they do. (Interestingly, one of the pioneers, Joban Hawaiian Center in Fukushima, has enjoyed a renaissance recently thanks to a hula boom among middle-aged women.)

I once read a foreign journalist's comment that Japan is not a place for relaxing; it's a place for work. Japanese people, in fact, have never been very good at vacations, which is why the standard onsen (hot spring) package -- shared rooms, long baths, big meals, souvenirs -- remains their most common leisure experience.

Even the onsen experience has been alchemized into a theme park. On March 1, a consortium of local companies opened the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in the waterfront area of Tokyo. The antithesis of honmono, the idea has been appropriated by two Tokyo amusement parks, Korakuen and Toshimaen, who plan to open similarly-themed hot-spring attractions before the summer. For once, however, the theme may prove successful, since it isn't being promoted in the form of resorts, but rather as "health centers" that cater to the elderly and aging baby boomers. Can Nursing Home Land be far behind?



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