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Saturday, April 13, 2002

Hankyu to pull plug on its parks

Takarazuka Familyland, PortopiaLand fall victim to USJ


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Citing huge losses in customers and revenues due to the opening of Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, Hankyu Corp. will pull out of the theme park business, closing its two affiliated parks over the next year.

Takarazuka Familyland has a history that goes back to the Meiji Era, opening in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1911, while Kobe PortopiaLand opened in the port city in 1981. They will effectively close by next April, Hankyu officials announced earlier this week.

Both parks were estimated to be running an annual deficit of 2 billion yen to 3 billion yen for the past five years, and company officials determined it would be impossible for either facility to ever operate in the black.

While the railway company is blaming the opening of USJ for the closures, the parks had been losing money and customers for many years.

Takarazuka Familyland, which sits beside the famed Takarazuka Review theater, attracted more than 2.5 million visitors a year in the mid-1970s but saw the figure decline steadily after that. In 1985, the park introduced a rare white tiger, the first of its kind in Japan, but that failed to draw more visitors.

By the end of last year, annual attendance was down to about 1.1 million.

Hankyu officials said they plan to redevelop the site, hopefully with the installation of such facilities as a shopping center and gardens.

The closure of the time-honored Takarazuka Familyland took many in the Kansai region by surprise.

"It seems that we've lost a bit of our local history," said Hisako Mori, who lives in Takarazuka and had a part-time job in the park in the first half of the 1980s, when she was a college student.

"Generations of people have visited the park and I am worried about what the park's closure will mean for attendance at both the Takarazuka Review and Takarazuka's hot springs."

On the other hand, few people appear to be mourning the closure of Kobe PortopiaLand, located on Kobe's Port Island.

From 1991 to 1994, annual attendance dropped from 1.6 million to just under 800,000, and fell further to around 250,000 in 1995, the year of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Attendance climbed back to more than 500,000 in 1998 but fell to about 470,000 last year.

"Portopia was kind of an eyesore. And it was hard to get to, as you had to take the monorail from Sannomiya Station," said Kazuhiko Suzuki, who maintains a Web page for comments and reviews of Kansai theme parks.

"Once you got there, you felt like you were in the middle of nowhere. Services like good restaurants were lacking and the rides were boring," he said.

Hankyu's announcement has taken municipal officials in both Takarazuka and Kobe by surprise.

For Kobe, which is trying -- with very little visible success so far -- to attract foreign investment to Port Island, Kobe Portopia's closure means that the city will have to scramble to find other tenants for the land the park occupies.

New homes will also have to be found for the nearly 700 animals at Takarazuka Familyland.

USJ officials say their park, which opened in March 2001 and drew an estimated 10 million visitors in its first year of operation, has been able to attract customers because it is unique and well-marketed.

With today's younger Japanese, the key is to offer fast-paced excitement, something that both Kobe PortopiaLand and Takarazuka Familyland lacked, they added.

"Both parks had an old-fashioned feel to them and were really out of date, the kind of parks with slow rides that your parents or grandparents went to," one USJ executive observed.

"By contrast, there is a buzz to USJ, and it's based on a very clear concept, that of Hollywood, and, in many cases, Hollywood action films," he said.



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The Japan Times

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