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Friday, Aug. 2, 2002

USJ struggles to save image from 'sophomore jinx'


Staff writer

OSAKA -- The Universal Studios Japan theme park, which drew 11 million people in the first 12 months after it opened in March 2001, is having a bad second year as it struggles to regain public trust following a series of management blunders.

News photo
Visitors to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka mill about outside the aWaterworld attraction after hearing that the showers have been canceled.

Since early July, park officials have issued the following admissions: that 21 restaurants had used outdated food products; that a drinking fountain had been dispensing untreated industrial water; that there were high levels of dangerous bacteria in the man-made lake of the Jurassic Park attraction; and that four other attractions had used a larger amount of explosives than permitted.

"People are really wondering if the park is safe, and we haven't done a very good job convincing them that it is," admitted one official of USJ Co., the park's operator, on condition of anonymity.

USJ Co. President Akira Sakata has apologized for the theme park's recent problems and has promised a full investigation.

City and prefectural officials are currently conducting on-site surveys of park facilities, including all of its water fountains and restaurants.

"We are confident we will be able to restore public trust," Sakata told a news conference earlier this week.

Others, however, are not too sure.

According to local media reports published Thursday afternoon, USJ internal documents show that around 490,000 people visited the park last month, a decline of some 40 percent from the 838,000 in July 2001.

Jim Yeager, senior vice president of the California-based Universal Studios Recreation Group, of which USJ is a part, did not deny the accuracy of these reports.

He said only that USJ does not release attendance figures and that USRG is happy with the park's performance.

Even before July, there were signs that USJ was suffering from a "sophomore jinx."

West Japan Railway Co. reported last month that the average daily number of passengers arriving at Universal City Station, located beside the park, was 28,000 for the April-June period, down 30 percent compared with the same period in 2001.

In June alone, the average number of daily passengers was 22,000, a year-on-year drop of 40 percent.

Officials of USJ and JR West said they were not surprised at the June figures, because the World Cup soccer finals were taking place at the same time.

An association of Osaka city hotels, many of which offer package deals for USJ visitors, reported June occupancy rates of 72 percent, down from 87 percent in the same month last year.

Officials representing the local business community said that the April-June drop-off was not surprising, given the fading of the opening-year hype.

They added, however, that they had no answer to the question of how future business would be affected by the theme park's recent problems.

The repercussions could be worrisome, since the popular theme park is playing a major role in supporting the local economy.

Indeed, the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren) said early this year that USJ probably boosted the gross domestic product of the Kansai region by 0.5 percent in its first year of operation.

"There's no doubt that, in the short-run, business at USJ is going to be negatively affected," remarked Yasutaka Hirao, an economist at the UFJ Institute.

"Whether or not trust is restored will depend on how USJ officials respond to the recent problems. It's still early summer, though, so there is time to convince the public that the problems have been solved."

With the scandals still hitting the headlines, however, some who thought about visiting USJ in August have said that, no matter what officials proclaim, they are changing their plans.

"My family wanted to go to USJ during the Bon holidays, but we're going to go somewhere else instead," said 41-year-old Osaka resident Kiyomi Yamazaki. "I don't trust USJ officials when they say the park is safe."



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