April 9, 2017 9:00 am JST

The Disneyland experience: Wait here for 150 minutes

Survey indicates long lines are turning off some potential park-goers

WAKAE KAWAMOTO and MAYUMI HIROSAWA, Nikkei staff writers

In a survey, many respondents said they go to Tokyo Disney Resort for "extraordinary" and "uplifting" experiences.

TOKYO -- Tokyo Disney Resort remains Japan's top theme park, but there are signs that its popularity may be on the wane.

In 2016, its attendance fell for a second year in a row. This month, the operator decided not to raise admission fees for the first time in four years.

This stands in contrast to what is happening in Osaka, where last year Universal Studios Japan broke its attendance record and in February hiked its prices.

It now costs more to go to Universal Studios than it does to spend a day at the Disney parks in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, close to Tokyo.

Hikaru Mogawa of Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo, last visited Tokyo Disneyland in July, with her 6-year-old daughter, but the experience did not leave her with delightful memories.

"We had to wait for an hour and a half to see a show," the 37-year-old public servant said, sounding bitter. "It's a land of dreams, all right, but at the end of the day, it's a difficult place for us to go.

"I don't think I'll feel like going again for some time."

In early March, the Nikkei Marketing Journal and Tokyo pollster Intage surveyed 1,219 people -- males and females in their teens all the way up to their 60s -- about the big theme parks. Of the 995 respondents who had visited Tokyo Disney Resort, those who said they visited less frequently in the past year than previously totaled 47.5%, far exceeding the 4.2% who said they went more often.

The remaining 48.3% said they frequented the park with the same consistency. Many people had favorable comments about Tokyo Disney Resort. Naho Kawanishi, a 35-year-old housewife in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, said, "I like the atmosphere there, and I can be satisfied only by strolling" through Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea.

Of the people whose frequency of visits decreased, 24.2% cited "overcrowding inside the park" as the reason. Another 15.1% said that "wait times for attractions or shows are too long."

That some survey takers were turned off by long waits made us think about modern day conveniences. We can place an order on Amazon.co.jp, then be gratified when the delivery comes later that same day.

We sometimes get instant gratification when we post on social media -- then see like or retweet notifications.

Perhaps we've lost some patience along the way.

Among those who have visited Tokyo Disney Resort in the past year, less than 10% said they can wait for over two hours for a ride or show.

"When I was a student, or before I got married, I could wait as long as two hours with no problem," said Chikako Sato, a 33-year-old mom in Tokyo's Suginami Ward. "But these days, it's more like 40 minutes at best."

Going beyond that, she said, runs the risk of her 2-year-old daughter starting to cry. To care for her daughter, Sato might have to get out of the line and give up on the attraction.

When the Marketing Journal visited the resort one weekend in March, many rides had waiting times of more than two hours. This information was displayed on boards at each attraction.

One hour after Tokyo DisneySea opened, the waiting time to get into Toy Story Mania! was a tough 140 minutes. Before noon, the information boards in front of other popular attractions -- like Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull -- showed waiting times of 120 minutes.

Tokyo Disney Resort, however, does try to manage the problem. It uses a system it calls Fastpass, issuing special tickets at the entrances to popular attractions. Instead of waiting in the two-plus hour line, a Fastpass holder can instead cut into an express lane at the time printed on his or her pass.

But this system offers little panacea. Getting to the Fastpass machines is akin to a competitive sport, and a full day's worth of passes can be quickly dispensed.

So bring your running shoes. When the Nikkei Marketing Journal visited, we witnessed one park-goer scurry from the park's entrance to Toy Story Mania! only to be visibly disappointed when greeted by a staffer announcing that all FastPasses for the attraction had been dispensed for the day.

It was about 8:30 in the morning.

A couple from the adjacent prefecture of Ibaraki who took their 6-, 4- and 2-year-olds to DisneySea had better luck. Kind of. They entered the park at about 8:20 a.m. and were able to obtain Toy Story Mania! Fastpasses -- good for 9:40 p.m.

In our survey, 35.3% of the respondents said they like Tokyo Disney Resort "because children can have fun," fewer than the 43.1% who answered "because adults can have fun."

Today's family lifestyles in Japan -- many people with kids prefer to stay home on weekends -- could also be affecting the resort's attendance.

"There is a trend [among couples] to spend more time around the home rather than actively going out to have fun," said Sachiko Nakano, a researcher at the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute.

When Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, Nakano said, the husband was the sole breadwinner in the majority of Japanese families. But in 2016, Japan had 11.3 million households in which both the husband and wife worked. This far exceeded the 6.6 million households in which the wife stayed home.

Where are we going with all of this? Here -- when mom and dad both work, weekends tend to be chore-ridden.

But families remain an important demographic for Tokyo Disney Resort -- they tend to spend a lot. The operator also thinks that children who have fond memories of visiting the theme park are likely to return as adults with their own children.

If Tokyo Disney Resort's popularity is waning, one reason seems to be that it is too popular. The fact is, Disney still has a strong brand in Japan, if our survey is any indication. Its resort scored higher than Universal Studios Japan among respondents who said it provides "extraordinary," "delightful," "uplifting" and "therapeutic" experiences -- exactly what theme park operators are trying to sell their customers.

Respondents who said the Disney resort "is cleaned to a satisfying degree" totaled 41.2%. Also, 32.4% said Disney "staff are polite in language and manner." Both figures are higher than those for Universal Studios Japan.

Shame about the long waits.

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