Early Friday, 10,000 people waited at the gates of Tokyo Disneyland, ready for the reopening of the theme park that had shut down five weeks ago in the wake of Japan’s devastating earthquake.
The unprecedented closure of Disneyland, which normally is open 365 days a year and is one of the world’s most successful parks, symbolized the sense of sadness and self-restraint that enveloped Japan following the quake. The 34-day closure cost the theme park dearly: Nomura Securities estimated it would dent the operating profits of Oriental Land Co., Disneyland’s operator in Japan, by a total of ¥20.4 billion ($245 million). Shares of the company have tumbled 17% since March 11.
But at a time when most people in Japan are exhausted from living with daily aftershocks that rattle their homes and offices, worried about radiation levels in the air, and suffering rolling electrical blackouts, the reopening of Tokyo Disneyland served as the perfect escape for some.
“I just want to forget about everything,” said Sayaka Shimura, 25, carrying a Mickey Mouse tote bag, with various Disney charms dangling off her cellphone. “I go to Disneyland two to three times a month and I took the day off work today so I could go. I am so excited.”
It is young women like Ms. Shimura that drive the success of Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983 as the first Disney franchise outside the U.S. In a graying society with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, adults at this theme park are more plentiful than children: 70.8% of its visitors in the year ended March 2010 were adults over the age of 18. In the same year, females made up 71% of the 25.4 million visitors. The vast majority of its visitors are from Tokyo and nearby cities and the park relies on “repeaters,” or visitors who come multiple times a month.
“I love the mood here and I visit three to four times a month,” says 25-year-old Yumiko Sato, waiting in line to have her picture taken with Mickey Mouse. “It hasn’t changed at all. I was worried it might be different after being closed for so long.”
By 10:15 a.m., fans had taken seats around the perimeter of Cinderella’s Palace, waiting for the brand-new attraction to begin: the Easter Wonderland Parade. Clapping their hands in unison, fans squealed in delight as dancers shimmied past in bright Easter egg costumes and Mickey Mouse made an appearance, waving as if he were a presidential candidate.
The operations of Tokyo Disneyland have a huge economic ripple effect on its neighboring towns and hotels in the area. The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel, which sits on the perimeter of Tokyo Disneyland, has been nearly empty since the theme park closed.
“Emotionally and psychologically, the idea of going on a vacation so quickly after an event like this just doesn’t feel like the right decision. We certainly went through that in the U.S. after 9/11,” said Matthew Avril, president of Sheraton Grande operator Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. “That process has to run its course…people do begin to move forward in their life. The country will move forward with the recovery efforts and as part of that, people then begin to incorporate other activities into their life again.”
The theme park will raise ticket prices to ¥6,200 ($75) on April 23, from a ¥5,800 ($70) standard ticket, and analysts are optimistic that visitors will return to the park, the vast majority of whom are Japanese: less than 3% of its visitors in the year ending March 2010 were foreigners, according to the company.
Ayako Kato, 23, said she visits Tokyo Disneyland eight times a month. “I had to come back today,” she said, accompanied by her boyfriend. “Here, I can forget about things.”