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Tokyo Disney conjures unmagical fixes for overcrowded parks

Official app and more affordable passes will aim to put guests at ease

Special shows at Tokyo DisneySea attracted many young people over the summer.

TOKYO -- Aiming to soothe discontent with interminable waits and pricey tickets while remaining the top theme park destination in Japan, Tokyo Disney Resort is moving to make trips cheaper and less frustrating.

The resort's Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea parks together drew 30.1 million visitors for the fiscal year ended March, up 0.3% on the year and the first rise in three years, show figures reported Monday by operator Oriental Land. The growth defied earlier expectations of a decline from fiscal 2016, when Tokyo DisneySea marked its 15th anniversary with crowd-luring special events.

Higher traffic is generally a good thing. But with visitors exasperated over its notoriously long lines, Tokyo Disney Resort cannot simply welcome the gain. Guests pin their hopes on Fastpass tickets, which reduce waits at popular attractions. Yet these are usually gone soon after the parks open, often leaving visitors no choice but to wait hours for an attraction.

"I was sickened to see the long lines," a recent guest lamented, echoing the views of many. So it is hardly surprising that Tokyo Disney Resort ranked 27th in a fiscal 2016 customer satisfaction survey by the nonprofit Japan Productivity Center -- a stunning comedown from the top spot just three years earlier. And with Tokyo Disneyland holding 35th-anniversary events in the new fiscal year, the crowding is sure to get even worse.

Tokyo Disney Resort is seeking solutions to keep guests happy, spending 75 billion yen ($708 million) to expand Tokyo Disneyland and create a new "Beauty and the Beast"-themed area as it weighs enlarging the resort as a whole.

Tokyo Disneyland will be expanded to alleviate congestion.

These steps would not start alleviating congestion until 2020, and construction will continue through fiscal 2019. So Tokyo Disney Resort is finally turning to the information technology it long avoided putting front and center so as not to intrude on its meticulously crafted fantasy world. Ticket machines and facial recognition will speed guests through at the entrance, and a smartphone app will let them buy souvenirs without a stop at the gift shop.

To address complaints of unaffordable admission, the resort will avoid raising fees for a second straight year in 2018, after three years of hikes through 2016. It began sales in March of annual passes with blackout dates and lower prices.

All this comes amid a cutthroat battle for traffic. Biggest and thriving rival Universal Studios Japan apparently achieved roughly 3% growth in visitors to around 15 million for fiscal 2017  -- a fourth straight year of record highs. International visitors continue to flock to the Osaka park, totaling a record 2 million or so.

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