Universal Studios opens in Osaka

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — The power of Hollywood arrived in Osaka on Saturday as the Universal Studios Japan theme park opened its doors to the public.

Despite the cold and rain, thousands of people — some of whom had waited all night — were on hand when the park in Konohana Ward officially opened its gates just before 8 a.m.

“We arrived at around 10 p.m. last night to make sure we could get on the rides,” said 19-year-old Shoko Ikejima, who came with three friends from the city of Sakai in the prefecture.

On hand to greet visitors to Universal’s first Hollywood movie theme park outside the United States were an array of movie stars, from Charlie Chaplin and Mae West look-alikes to real-life actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I have been to Osaka many times, including the groundbreaking ceremony in 1998. I said I’d be back. Now I am, and all of you are here with me,” exclaimed Schwarzenegger, who had arrived for a Friday evening preview dressed in his outfit from “The Terminator” movies.

Following the brief opening ceremony, the main gate opened and the crowd poured through, rushing to get in line at their favorite among the park’s 18 attractions, including a 3-D attraction based on “The Terminator.”

Dozens of couples and teenage boys could be seen racing toward the “Jurassic Park” ride, which takes visitors through an exhibit of life-size model dinosaurs. Not more than 20 minutes after the gates opened, there was already a line of nearly 100 people.

Others, including families with young children, headed toward the theme rides based on the Snoopy characters, an attraction built specifically for Universal Studios Japan.

“I’m a big Snoopy fan and so is my son, so we really wanted to come to the Snoopy ride first,” 29-year-old Mina Kawamoto said.

They were among the 30,000 people who obtained tickets for the opening day, which were sold in advance. Despite earlier dire predictions, Osaka roads were relatively free of traffic as many visitors apparently chose to use public transportation to reach the park.

In addition to the rides, shops and souvenir stands within the park abound, selling everything from stuffed toys to chocolate.

For Osaka officials, the opening of USJ is the culmination of a nearly decade-long effort. The idea for a Universal Studios theme park was first made public in 1993, when Osaka-based consumer electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. then owned MCA Corp., the parent company of Universal Studios. Although Matsushita and MCA later parted ways, the city of Osaka stepped in and became the largest investor in USJ, putting up 25 percent of its capital of 40 billion yen.

Officials of the park’s operator, USJ Co., said they hope to attract at least 8 million people, or an average of 22,000 people a day, to the theme park in its initial year. However, some officials have expressed hope that the first year attendance figure will reach nearly 10 million.

A large number of these visitors, perhaps as much as one-third, are expected to come from overseas, mainly Asia.

Officials are hoping attendance figures will eventually rise to a steady 10 million and then grow to 15 million visitors, close to the nearly 18 million visitors that Tokyo Disneyland attracts each year.

Local officials see the park as a catalyst to spark new life into the region’s sluggish economy.

The key will be whether or not Universal Studios Japan can attract repeat visitors, and Osaka officials involved with the project admit they are nervous given the economic downturn’s adverse effects on other third-sector theme parks nationwide.

“Seagaia (in Miyazaki Prefecture) just went bankrupt (in February), as have many other parks. Osaka isn’t a major tourist destination and, with all major media based in Tokyo, constantly promoting Universal Studios Japan will be difficult,” one USJ official said. In order to continue to attract visitors, USJ plans to add new rides and attractions every three years or so.

Local firms elated

Local business operators welcomed with big smiles the grand opening Saturday of Universal Studios Japan, where thousands of people waited in line — some overnight — to be among the first to enter the theme park.

Locals, along with Osaka-based companies, hope USJ will help Japan’s third largest city take some of the attention away from Tokyo, which has Tokyo Disneyland nearby.

“We have reservations for 540,000 entrance tickets, nearly half of the (1.2 million) annual target before the opening,” an official at leading travel agency JTB Corp. said.

Citing interest in USJ not only in Japan but also in other Asian nations, the official said JTB hopes these visitors “will also travel to nearby areas such as Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, which will be good for the tourism industry as a whole.”

Operators of nearby hotels and shopping centers are also delighted.

“We are already fully booked most weekends, especially through the long holidays,” said a spokesman at Hyatt Regency Osaka.