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Travel & Leisure

Tokyo Disney knows fans will return but question is when

Japanese resort not expected to follow Shanghai's reopening lead soon

Tokyo Disney Resort has been shut down since February. New Fantasyland, which took three years and 75 billion yen to build, will have to weather social distancing and other virus-fighting measures if it is to earn back that money.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Takahiro Suzuki, 27, isn't afraid to show his yen for Disney.

In 2019 he took his family to Tokyo Disney Resort nearly 10 times. In late February, he spent 198,000 yen ($1,850) on annual passports to the parks for himself and his wife. Days later, operator Oriental Land announced it would close the resort due to the new coronavirus.

The temporary closure began on Feb. 29 and has been extended four times.

"I wish the resort would open soon," Suzuki said, "but at the same time I would hesitate to go there unless the infection risks are fully diminished."

There's more he wonders about: How will temperature and health checks affect the throngs at the gates? And how will society's new physical spacing standards affect a resort already known for hours-long lines and crowded shows?

"I just can't imagine how the resort will manage with social distancing," Suzuki said.

Perhaps it will soon have a blueprint. Walt Disney on Tuesday announced Shanghai Disneyland will reopen on May 11, becoming the first Disney theme park to do so. The plan calls for keeping the number of daily visitors "far below" the government's desired limit of 30% of capacity, and requiring every park-goer to wear a mask, have their temperature taken, submit to contact tracing and take other measures, according to CEO Bob Chapek.

Shanghai Disneyland had closed on Jan. 25, though some of the resort's Disneytown shopping and dining spots reopened in March.

But the Tokyo resort is not expected to follow Shanghai's lead anytime soon. Oriental Land on Friday announced it will extend its shutdown in accordance with Japan's state of emergency, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this week formally extended through the end of May. A decision on a reopening date, which the operator had previously said it would consider later this month, will be put off until the government and local authorities lift business shutdown requests. 

Oriental Land also said it will put some 5,400 employees on furlough for four days a month beginning May 18. These workers will receive partial salaries for the days they are furloughed, and the system will remain in place until park operations resume.

The coronavirus and Japan's responses to it have stymied many businesses, and this week it delivered some particularly acute agony as the country's annual Golden Week holiday period came and went without a large portion of the country's 126 million residents opening up their wallets to travel and otherwise enjoy some free time.

Instead, most residents hunkered down at home.

Now analysts are telling operators of shuttered businesses that another blow is on the way, and that it will hit as soon as they reopen.

"Oriental Land will need to take cautious initiatives such as restricted daily admissions when resuming their operation," said Tomoaki Kawasaki, senior analyst at IwaiCosmo Securities, adding that the pandemic is not likely to peter out before the end of June.

Oriental Land announced its earnings on April 28, telling reporters that it posted a net loss of 8.7 billion yen for the January-March quarter, after having recorded a 15.9 billion yen net profit a year earlier. The operator has suspended its guidance on earnings for this fiscal year through March.

The company had planned to open New Fantasyland at Tokyo Disneyland on April 15, but a new opening date will be put off until sometime after the park reopens, Oriental Land said. New Fantasyland took three years of construction and nearly 75 billion yen to be built. It will include a "Beauty and the Beast" attraction and an indoor theatre.

Another expansion has been halted. The 250 billion yen project will include "Frozen"-themed attractions at Tokyo DisneySea, right next to Disneyland, but a major construction company has suspended its work at the park due to the pandemic, the company said.

The new area will still open as scheduled in fiscal 2023, and there is no change in major investment plans, Oriental Land said. 

In Osaka, meanwhile, the operator of Universal Studios Japan is growing nervous about the 60 billion yen investment -- its largest ever -- that it made in Super Mario-themed attractions with the idea of having the expected crowd-pleasers ready by July -- before the Tokyo Olympics. Executives have not made any announcement regarding the attractions since the Olympics were postponed back in March.

Universal Studios Japan, which has been closed since the end of February, timed the opening of its Super Mario attractions to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Maho Obata)

The park will remain closed "for the time being," the operator said on Monday as the government announced the extension of the state of emergency.

These bullish expansion projects could be big draws, analysts say. "Disney fans who visit the resort regularly would create a big push at the reopening," Kawasaki from IwaiCosmo said. Something similar happened last fall. In October, in the wake of a powerful typhoon that had shut the resort for a couple of days, waves of visitors descended upon it after it fully reopened.

"But this time is about the virus," Kawasaki said. "The operator will try to remove any risk of contagion, as its brand image would fall significantly if it were to give rise to a cluster of coronavirus cases."

Suzuki, the fan who poorly timed his purchase of Tokyo Disney passes, was asked if he has any regrets. He shook off the question. "I don't have much mental damage from purchasing the annual passports," he said, adding that he sees the expenditure as an "investment in the future of Tokyo Disney Resort."

He just wants the pandemic to subside.

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