Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tokyo Disneyland

Officials at Tokyo Disneyland never doubted that their park would be a success, but this year's opening week was not to be believed. Not only had upwards of 150,000 beaming Japanese braved an April storm to glimpse Mickey, Sneezy, and all the Disney gang, a lot more than 150,000 were leaving.

''We were puzzled, of course,'' says unflappable Jim Cora, Disney's man in Japan, ''but we finally traced it to the turnstiles. Japanese aren't very familiar with them, it turns out, and a lot of youngsters and many older people were passing through uncounted.''

About these ads

It was an amusing glitch in the otherwise flawless opening of a park the skeptics said could never be. Who, after all, would be so bold as to transplant an American fantasyland, conceived by a gadget-loving cartoonist from Marceline, Mo., to reclaimed mud flats in a storm-buffeted Asian bay? Who else but the gadget- and cartoon-loving Japanese.

If the idea of a Tokyo Disneyland seems incongruous, so is its location, a built-up coastal plain that strangely resembles Newark, N.J. A new elevated expressway, linking Tokyo with Narita Airport, tiptoes through a tideland industrial landscape studded with factories and worker housing projects. But off to the west, clearly visible from the highway, there appear the familiar, friendly spires of Cinderella's castle, shimmery in the hazy light, soaring above the bay that Commodore Matthew Perry stormed in 1853 to open modern Japan to trade.

Perry came uninvited, but the Disney organization was wooed here. The wooing began in 1962, seven years after the opening of the first Disney park in Anaheim , Calif. Chiharu Kawasaki, the head of an influential Japanese consortium with plans to develop huge hunks of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, approached the Disney organization through Walt's brother Roy and asked: What are the chances for a duplicate park in Japan?

Mr. Kawasaki was thinking ahead to the mid-'70s, when reclamation would be completed by his enterprise, Oriental Land Company. But at the time of his first approach, the Disney group was involved in opening a second park, in Orlando, Fla., and did not wish to spread design and operating personnel too thin. Disney World was a hit, however, and it changed attitudes at Disney.

''We started thinking that if we can do two parks,'' says Mr. Cora, a Disney vice-president of operations with 25 years' service, ''maybe we can do three or four.''

Finally, in 1979, the deal was struck. Under its terms, Disney put up its name and provided design expertise, while the Japanese consortium provided the money. In addition, Disney receives 10 percent of the gate receipts(an estimated took a $650 million risk, but it has the comforting assurance that its real estate - including 300 additional acres nearby - is worth 30 times what it paid for it.

Building Tokyo Disneyland was not without its risks, particularly on a 25 -month construction schedule. The bay location and the harsher climate - snow in winter, rain in early summer, and typhoons in fall - demanded design modifications to keep the park open year-round: huge earthen berms to buttress bay exposures; more overhangs and indoor restaurants; and a giant glass weather roof, in latticed Victorian design, to canopy the World Bazaar, the new park's version of turn-of-the-century Main Street, USA.

About these ads

Visible as these alterations are, they're easily overshadowed by the park's most striking feature: its faithfulness to the original. Save for the ever-smiling Japanese faces and Japanese public address announcements, you could be in Orlando. Cinderella's castle is a virtual duplicate of its Florida cousin.

At the entrance, hearty American voices are heard in taped welcomes in English. An eager, clean-cut staff of 6,500 - young men decked out as Keystone Kops, young women costumed as equestrians - ply the wide concourses piping, ''Have a nice day.'' All the Disney attractions - Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland - reappear in an opulence of space strictly American in scale. The dominant foods are US-certified - burgers and popcorn are the park's top sellers (no sushi bars here). Everything, or very nearly, hails straight out of '50s America, like Disneyland itself. It's upbeat and spic 'n span, an impression deepened, in a uniquely Japanese way, by the image of a youthful Disney street cleaner whisking up nonexistent concourse litter like a circus clown sweeping a beam of light.

Tokyo Disneyland was a hit even before it opened, nearly 2 million Japanese booking ticket reservations through mid-October 1983. The reservations system, the first at a Disney park, was set up to forestall any chance of overcrowding, violating another Disney theme park operating maxim. Unfortunately, the widely heralded advance sales and a virtual evaporation of press coverage after the park's opening conspired to feed a popular misconception that Tokyo Disneyland was sold out.

''The whole world thinks we're sold out,'' says Mr. Cora, getting out the encouraging word. ''There are tickets available for every operating day.''

Attendance has averaged between 20,000 and 30,000 Monday through Saturday (the Japanese work on Saturdays) and 50,000 to 60,000, the park's working capacity, on Sundays. Given current and projected turnouts, Mr. Cora expects Tokyo Disneyland to do what it set out to do in first-year attendance - namely 10 million, or equal to the annual Anaheim figures. And at $25 a head, the average spent by each guest on admissions, attractions, food, and merchandise, the capital cost of Tokyo Disneyland may be recovered in three short years.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.