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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002

Who's afraid of the Big Bad mouse?

Staff writer

OSAKA -- If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then for the past two decades Tokyo Disneyland has been the focus of much admiration. The stunning success of the theme park -- average annual visitors for the past 10 years is 17 million -- has spawned countless imitators across Japan. Apparently, envious local governments were looking to create a little Disney magic in their own backyards.

Most of these Disney wannabes, however, proved to be slipshod, ill-conceived efforts. Plans seemed to based not on what the public would want from a theme park but what a theme park might bring public officials, namely a quick buck and extra votes. So uneasy liaisons were entered with shady designers and construction companies, resulting in parks with such boneheaded concepts as Gulliver's Travels or the Canadian Wilderness. And the list of failed, and failing, local theme parks throughout Japan grows longer each day.

For years, Tokyo Disneyland officials could afford to chuckle quietly at these ridiculous attempts to copy their success. But now, for the first time, it has been met with a truly serious competitor -- Universal Studios Japan, which opened in Osaka last April. While USJ officials downplay the competition, saying there is ample room in Japan for both parks, they are no doubt aiming to reach TDL's record figures, even outdo them.

The Hollywood theme park may, in fact, be well on its way to that target. From opening day to the end of 2001, USJ drew over 10 million visitors, and park executives appear confident that total will reach 12 million by the end of the first year on March 31. That's 50 percent more visitors than the initial projection of 8 million.

USJ has two main advantages over the other park ventures that came in TDL's wake. The first is, as the advertising goes, "the power of Hollywood." Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are celebrities in Japan, but no more so than Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger and Steven Spielberg. (Schwarzenegger was in Japan to promote USJ, and Spielberg has been closely associated with USJ in the United States.) The other is the extensive experience of its personnel. A couple of the top USJ executives had worked at Tokyo Disneyland, as well as the highly successful Universal Studios theme parks in California and Florida.

It also helped that USJ decided to go off TDL's beaten track and do things differently. First, alcohol would be served at the restaurants within the park, a major selling point for adult visitors. While promoting TDL's concept of family entertainment, USJ officials recognized that Mum and Dad might want a drink after a full day with hyperactive kids running from one ride to the next.

USJ was also determined to make it easy for visitors to buy those souvenir T-shirts, mugs and Woody Woodpecker-shaped chocolates. While using a credit card at TDL is next to impossible, that's not the case at USJ (though travelers checks are another matter).

Then, there is the uniqueness of the attractions themselves. Forget the standard Ferris wheels, roller coasters and merry-go-rounds. USJ offers Wild West shows, burning buildings, crashing airplanes, dinosaurs and space aliens, all of which are based on Hollywood movies.

Still, there were major obstacles to overcome. When the park was being built in the mid-1990s, USJ officials grumbled that a nationwide advertising campaign was made more difficult because of the media's Tokyo-centric attitude. A large advertising budget (financed, in part, by local taxpayers because of Osaka City's involvement in the project as largest shareholder) proved the solution. When USJ officials made it clear that they were willing to spend big bucks to get noticed, Tokyo witnessed an unprecedentedly strong teaser campaign for an Osaka-based project.

This was essential as USJ officials had only six months from opening to maintain public interest in the new park until Disney Sea -- a water-themed park built adjacent to Tokyo Disneyland -- opened in the fall. Once that happened, they reasoned, potential Tokyo customers might decide to visit Disney Sea instead of making the long haul out to Osaka. It apparently worked. USJ became last summer's must-visit theme park for families from all over the country, drawing people from as far away as Okinawa. Even now, despite Disney Sea's equally massive marketing campaign and excellent business so far, polls have shown that people in Kansai, at least, would rather visit USJ than Disney Sea.

As for which park will fare better in a long-term, nationwide competition, it's wait and watch. With winter ending and lingering concerns over terrorism and the state of the economy keeping many Japanese at home, TDL, Disney Sea and USJ can all expect the crowds to swell. Then it's just a matter of how they keep them coming back.

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