What will change at the Tokyo Disney Resort when it reopens?

March 21, 2011, 8:39 PM · The Tokyo Disney Resort, whenever it reopens, will recover, as will the rest of Japan. As James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker this week, advanced economies such as Japan's often end up stronger in the long term after a major natural disaster. The disaster eventually provides an opportunity for renewal, and with hard work and available money, progress returns and even accelerates.

Tokyo DisneySea
The view from the entry at Tokyo DisneySea

So it will be in Japan. But in the meantime, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea face uncertainty. The parks have relied almost exclusively on visitors from Japan - about 96 percent of visitors to the parks have come from within the country, according to the New York Times. Effectively, Tokyo Disney functions more like a regional amusement park than a major international destination.

With so many Japanese looking to rebuild their lives, homes, businesses and communities, it's easy to envision that many of those potential visitors will instead choose to spend their money elsewhere over the coming months and even years, instead of at the Tokyo Disney Resort.

So how will Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea recover?

Perhaps this will be incentive that drives the Oriental Land Company - the owner and operator of the Tokyo Disney Resort - to step up its international marketing. Millions of new visitors to the resort - from Korea, from Singapore, from Australia and New Zealand, and even from the United States - would help offset a decline in domestic attendance, and bring the equivalent of billions of new dollars into the Japanese economy at a time when they'll be much needed.

Tokyo Disney's theme parks will face competition, should they choose to market aggressively outside Japan. Disney itself now has a park in Hong Kong, with another in Shanghai on the way. Universal's theme park in Japan has aggressively courted international visitors in recent years, and has prospered during the recent crisis thanks to its location in relatively safe and unharmed Osaka. A new Universal theme park in Singapore and one in development in Korea provide additional competition, as well.

But none of those competing sites offer an international transportation hub the size of Tokyo's. That gives Tokyo Disney Resort an inherent advantage in attracting international visitors.

Fears about radiation will subside. At least initially, low airfares and low rates at hotels eager to refill rooms with visitors will help draw tourists back to Japan. (For what it's worth, this week I can fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo for about the same as it would cost me to fly from here to Cincinnati.) Tokyo Disney also enjoys a international reputation among Disney fans for offering some of the brand's finest theme parks, as well as its most outstanding service (a reputation bolstered by the Tokyo cast's outstanding reaction to the earthquake and its immediate aftermath.)

Yet Tokyo Disney's no longer keeping pace with the improvements that Disney is making on the other side of the Pacific, at the Disneyland resort in California. Ten years ago, many Disney fans in the United States lamented the off-the-shelf carnival-style rides at the newly opened Disney's California Adventure, while reading longingly about the cutting-edge, immersively-themed attractions at the new Tokyo DisneySea. These days, it's California Adventure that's debuting all the hot new rides and shows - Midway Mania, World of Color and Cars Land - while DisneySea had little under development even before the disaster.

So a strong marketing campaign won't be enough. Oriental Land Company needs to entice Disney's Imagineers to deliver their most impressive best to Tokyo to support the resort's recovery effort. But Oriental Land's written big checks before. I have no doubt that it can do so again.

A great new attraction and a strong international market campaign can help establish the Tokyo Disney Resort as a leader in promoting Japan's recovery around the Pacific Rim, rather than simply as an amusement and diversion for the Japanese people, as it's too often been in the past.

I've only visited Japan briefly, but I can't wait to visit again. Here's hoping that Oriental Land find its way to offering millions of Disney and theme park fans around the world many more reasons to visit Tokyo and Japan in the years to come.

What do you think?

Replies (12)

March 21, 2011 at 10:05 PM · Good morning
I have been following your website for almost a decade now, lurking as I do, from Taiwan but never once have I submitted a comment on this site or any other. I could not lurk any longer or pass an oppurtunity like this with out mentioning something about this article. It is one fantastic piece of writing.
Keep up the great work Mr. Niles
Rob Sharpe
March 21, 2011 at 10:05 PM · Great article, interesting to read up on Tokyo Disney. What I found the most interesting was the astonishing high number of local tourist that visit the parks. 96 percent!! Attendance will most certainly take a severe hit. One day I hope to visit the Tokyo resort but it will be interesting to monitor this park for the next year or so.
March 22, 2011 at 5:29 AM · Isn't there some kind of agreement in the contract that limits how much the Oriental Land Company can advertise outside of Japan?
March 22, 2011 at 8:27 AM · Interesting article. Two thoughts come to mind: I have heard (although have no inside information to say that it's true) that OLC is limited in where they can market their parks, so I'm not sure how easy it would be for them to promote heavily outside Japan.

Second, DisneySea does have Toy Story Midway Mania! and a new in-the-round version of Fantasmic! on the way. Plus an Aladdin spinner, which is off-the-shelf as you can get, but probably welcomed in a park with fewer kid-focused rides than its neighbor. Disneyland just opened Mickey's Philharmagic, and recently opened their Monsters, Inc. ride. While none of these attractions are unique to TDL, they are new to the local population, and are likely to be embraced.

March 22, 2011 at 10:23 AM · Obviously, conditions change over time. When OLC opened TDL, it was the only Disney theme park outside the United States. Plus, Disneyland in California was drawing visitors from throughout the Pacific Rim.

Today, Disney has two parks open or under construction in China, in addition to the two Tokyo parks and two parks in Paris. Disneyland in California has become more of a regional park, drawing fewer fans from outside Southern California than it did 10-20 years ago. Most importantly, the earthquake and tsunami has changed the dynamics of travel in and to Japan.

This is the sort of situation that causes parties to change deals, modify contracts and adopt new strategies. I'm suggesting that an increase in international marketing could be a huge help not just to Oriental Land and Tokyo Disney, but to all of Japan, if the Disney and OLC want to make that happen.

March 22, 2011 at 10:28 AM · Short of a huge nuclear catastrophe still to come, i dont see any problems for local demand. The major damanage is limited to less populated regions north of Tokio. For foreign visitors the exchange rate, Japans general egalitarian prosperity and land scarcity in Tokio make a trip to the Japanese Disney parks very expensive. Especially for close by foreigners. http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=CPL
Oriental land should still be able to increase foreign visits a lot due to the low base and the sheer sice of the markets close by. China is already the biggest market for all kinds of luxury products despite widespread povery simply because the country has such a huge population. Ongoing economic growth in China, South Korea and Taiwan will do the job to increase foreign visits.
March 22, 2011 at 4:39 PM · Great article. I've been wanting to visit Tokyo and DisneySea for years, now, so this article sent me on a flight-searching spree. Unfortunately, since I live in eastern Canada, I would have to transfer at least once. Thus, the savings are negated and the flight would cost about $1500.
March 22, 2011 at 5:55 PM · I'm wondering now what the lead time would be to reopen the resort, once the decision is made. With so many personnel having left the country, I figure it would take at least a week to recall everyone, set up a personnel schedule, do final maintenance checks (things have been shut down for a while now) and restock the resort.

Heck, maybe two weeks, given all that. Anyone else have a guess?

March 22, 2011 at 8:45 PM · I'm going to be at a conference in Honolulu in late June, and even the flights from there to Tokyo are quite expensive ($1200-$1600). Am I looking in the wrong places, Robert?
March 22, 2011 at 8:51 PM · Pooh's Hunny Hunt and JTTCOTE. Worth the flight.
March 23, 2011 at 5:35 AM · That 96 % figure is ridiculous. That's what they call a "resort"? What would happen to Tokyo Disney if the Japanese economy tanked again?

I'm disgusted that Disney put artificial limits on the marketing of TDR outside of Japan. They deliberately handicapped the OLC. That's shameless and cynical market manipulation. We would know little or nothing about TDR if it wasn't for sites like this one, and You Tube.

Clearly, Disney wants North Americans in the east to go to WDW, and those in the west to go to DLR, and that's it. And they don't want to be under pressure to make improvements to the stateside resorts, when more and more people compare them (often unfavorably) to TDR.

Since the plane ticket alone puts Tokyo out of reach for a lot of people, TDR needs affordable on-site hotels and tickets deals and packages similar to the ones that WDW has. Only then can it start to call itself a true resort.

March 23, 2011 at 6:38 PM · Sylvain, while that may be true about the 96% locals...OLC in the past hasn't really needed much tourism from outside Japan because they're still getting very high annual attendance, extremely close to what WDW's top parks Magic Kingdom and Epcot receive.

Yes, it might be time to change some contracts and allow OLC to advertise more outside of Japan if the locals don't come back as often...but I think we might be surprised.

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