On July 15, Universal Studios Japan celebrated the first anniversary of its Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction, which lets visitors “experience” flying with the famous boy wizard using 4K-resolution 3-D imagery. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the theme park’s management expected the new ride to increase attendance by 2 million over the subsequent year, but actually, admissions between July 2014 and June 2015 were up by more than 3 million. The number of visitors to the Osaka park in June was 28 percent higher than it was a year earlier. In the past year, 13.5 million people bought tickets to USJ.
As impressive as this number is, it hardly compares to last year’s attendance for Tokyo Disney Resort, which incorporates the Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea theme parks. TDR logged 31.3 million visitors in 2014, an increase of 0.3 percent over the previous year and the third year in a row it has set a new record for attendance. It’s almost certain that 2015’s numbers will set another record since a new attraction based on last year’s hit Disney animation feature, “Frozen,” opened at Tokyo Disneyland in January for a limited time.
These two establishments together account for more than half the theme-park admissions in Japan, which would seem to reinforce the notion that Japanese people love American culture, even though USJ, which long ago abandoned its reliance on attractions exclusive to Universal Studios, features a ride based on the popular Japanese anime “Yokai Watch.”
The overwhelming popularity of the two parks compared to Japanese equivalents also has something to do with their business models and the way they’ve exploited their appeal to certain demographics. In essence, they don’t really have any competition. The No. 3 theme park in Japan (not counting the Kariya Highway Oasis service area outside Nagoya, which, because it has a ferris wheel, sometimes shows up on these lists), with 5 million admissions last year, was Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture, which is more of a big hot-spring resort with an amusement park attached than a standalone theme park.
Tokyo Disneyland has 39 distinct rides, and Tokyo DisneySea 26. The price of a daily passport for either is ¥6,900 for an adult (less if you enter the park later in the day), and ¥6,000 and ¥4,500 for teens and children, respectively, which is reasonable when you compare it to the price of a passport at one of the Disney-related parks in the U.S. There the one-day ticket price starts at $99 (¥12,300) for anyone over the age of 9.
Taking the whole family to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, or the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, is very expensive, but for Americans, going to Disneyland is more or less a once-in-a-lifetime thing. In Japan, theme park success is built as much on repeaters and couples as it is on families, which is why Tokyo Disney Resort also offers a yearly pass for either of its parks for ¥59,000. A combination pass for both parks is ¥86,000. The use of these passes is limited during certain times of the year.
USJ started out strong when it opened in 2001 but struggled after that for a number of years as it went through a series of safety-related scandals. The key to its success was that it started adding new attractions regularly after Goldman Sachs invested heavily in the park, and USJ kept its prices affordable enough that whole families, including grandpa and grandma, could go more than once a year. Much has been made of the fact that USJ has raised its prices twice in the last year — it’s now ¥7,200 for an adult — but the increases did not stunt admissions at all. USJ also has yearly passes: ¥19,800 for a limited pass, and ¥28,800 for an unlimited VIP pass.
And while USJ’s fortunes were built on local repeaters, it has also seen admissions of people from outside the Kansai area increase steadily over the years, including visitors from overseas, mainly Asia. In the last year, the number of foreign visitors increased by 60 percent. That’s why local management at both theme parks are slightly nervous: Universal Studios will open a new park in Beijing by 2019 and Disney is doing the same in Shanghai.
USJ will compete aggressively by launching more new rides in the near future, as well as opening a new hotel, the Park Front, on Aug. 1, whose theme is “Trip ot the USA,” featuring decor that is meant to remind guests of Las Vegas or New York or some other iconic American city. For its part, Oriental Land, the Japanese company that operates TDR, plans to spend ¥5 billion on improvements aimed at attracting more Asian tourists.
If competing with other outlets of the same brand sounds counterproductive, it’s no skin off the back of Disney Enterprises. The company takes 7 percent of all revenues at TDR as royalties. USJ is not a listed company, so what portion they pay to Universal Studios is not public record, but it’s probably about the same.
In other words, once they license the brand to local endeavors, Disney and Universal practically print money, which is why the U.S. is so keen on pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with its emphasis on licensing and intellectual property rights.
American culture still travels well in this part of the world. It just has to adapt.
Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.
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