• Kyodo

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From a television commercial that gives a humorous twist to a theme park’s impending closure to hotels staffed by robots, tactics to capitalize on company outings, and ads featuring Japanese pop idols and actors — theme parks in Japan are squeezing their creative juices to attract more first-time visitors and repeaters through avant-garde ways.

Firms in the sector are hoping to ride the momentum of the expanding domestic theme park market, which marked another record in 2016 in terms of size, thanks partly to an increase in foreign visitors to Japan.

The Space World amusement park in Kitakyushu will close by the end of December. The self-deprecatory take on its demise, as seen in its commercial, has caught public interest.

The commercial (bit.ly/spaceworldCM) goes something like this: While a melancholic piano melody is played in the background, a male executive, who stands at the center of around 100 workers, says aloud, “Nakunaruyo!” which means in Japanese “It will be gone,” in this case in connection with the park’s closure.

The people around him then raise their fists and say with a smile, “Zen-in shugo!” (Everyone gather!) The ad is a parody of a hugely popular live comedy show aired on the Tokyo Broadcasting Station TV network from 1969 till 1985, titled “Hachijidayo! Zen-in Shugo” (“It’s 8 o’clock! Everyone Gather”).

The Space World amusement park will be closing at the end of 2017, its operator said last December.

Even so, the park launched a massive advertisement campaign and organized events to entice more visitors. The efforts eventually paid off, leading to an increase in visitors.

Calling the venue a “place to have fun,” a park official said they wanted to end its history “on a positive note,” given that the park is not closing because it was in the red.

Also in the country’s southwest, the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, is tapping into unconventional ways to attract visitors. One example is the Henn na Hotel, dubbed the “first robot-staffed hotel.”

From around two years ago, the park has sought to present itself as an attractive venue for company outings and training, placing ads in newspapers and websites.

Huis Ten Bosch offers various facilities, including hotels, museums and theaters, and visitors can take advantage of these facilities within the same premises. Group reservations are usually done in advance, and the chances of them canceling are considered slim.

Hirakata Park in Osaka Prefecture, meanwhile, has tapped into celebrity power, as well as innovating on an existing attraction.

Junichi Okada, a member of the all-male Japanese pop group V6 who hails from the city of Hirakata, became a poster child for the park in April 2013. Commercials and posters highlight Okada’s comedic performance as a character created for the park.

Another unique idea was the “Russian Ferris wheel” project launched in the spring of 2016.

In an apparent reference to “Russian roulette,” some of the gondolas of the Ferris wheel were covered with dark film so certain passengers, selected at random, are unable to see anything outside the windows of their carriages.

Thanks to such initiatives, the park has seen a pickup in visitors, with the number exceeding 1.2 million in fiscal 2016 for the first time in 11 years.

According to a report compiled by the Japan Productivity Center, a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization, the domestic market for theme parks and amusement leisure complexes in 2016 totaled ¥777 billion ($6.9 billion).

“The growth of (the domestic leisure) market has made competition tougher,” said Yuji Yamaguchi, a tourism professor with the J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo who is well-versed in theme park management.

This has prompted various amusement parks to come up with ways to differentiate themselves and draw visitors, Yamaguchi said.

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