Disneyland is phenomenally popular in Japan. The park is an attraction not just for kids and families, but for adults, who routinely venture in groups as a mini-vacation.
According to official statistics, Tokyo Disneyland has a 90% repeat business rate - a stat that any entertainment complex would kill for. The reason for this ridiculous popularity seems to be a dream-team combination of Disney charm and Japanese omotenashi, or customer service. Indeed, the customer service at Japan Disneyland is so famous that multiple management authors have written books on the subject.
(JP) Link: The Six Reasons We Want to Return to Disney
ディズニー また行きたくなる６つの理由 - NAVER まとめ
But Disney was a latecomer to Japanese shores. The company's first presence was a small set of attractions at the original Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo run by OrientalLand, Disney's official corporation in Japan. What we now know as Disneyland Tokyo didn't open until 1983.
This dinky presence wasn't enough for Kabuki artist and entertainment entrepreneur Matsuo Kunizou. Matsuo began drawing up business and design plans for a park that he hoped would become a full-scale Japan Disneyland. In its video below, Defunctland (English video) relates that Kunizou teamed up with Walt Disney, and the two planned to bring the wonders of Disneyland to the city of Nara until the deal fell apart over a licensing dispute:
However, according to Wikipedia, which cites reliable histories on Disney Japan as its sources, the story is a lot more complicated. Disney was never actually on board with the idea of a "Japanese Disneyland":
The American Disney Company didn't really take up the idea, and responded, "We'll help you out when that times comes". But Walt Disney was struck by Matsuo's enthusiasm when he visited again and brought along engineers, and agreed to give his know-how (in reality the know-how associated with managing an amusement park) for free, and dispatched engineers to the construction site. Furthermore, the goal of offering this know-how for free and dispatching engineers wasn't to create a Disneyland in Japan, but to help the Japanese themselves build an amusement park that was unique to Japan.
(JP) Link: Nara Dreamland
奈良ドリームランド - Wikipedia
Matsuo's company later told the press that licensing fees were the reason the "Disneyland" deal was scrapped. The Disney Company refused to make any official comment.
Matsuo's company was now in a tough spot. They had explicitly designed this theme park and modeled it after Disneyland under the delusion that Disney would eventually license naming and character rights to them. Left without a corporate sponsor, Matsuo Entertainment re-branded its park to Nara Dreamland, and proceeded with plans to opens its doors. It's reported that when Kagami Toshio, the head of OrientalLand, saw photos of the park, he hit the roof and exclaimed, "I'll never trust that guy [Matsuo] again!"
Nara Dreamland was built on part of what used to be a former site for the 25th Infantry Division of the US Occupying Forces. It was divided into five areas: Land of the Future (未来の国; mirai no kuni), Land of Illusion (妄想の国; mousou no kuni), Land of Adventure (冒険の国; bouken no kuni), Land of the Past (過去の国; kako no kuni) and Main Street. Attractions consisted of things such as a "park" of fictitious animals, a bobsled slide around a mountain, and an actual submerging submarine ride.
Dreamland was anything but a fleeting dream; it would continue robust operations for the next 20 years. But as other parks began to spring up in other areas, Dreamland found itself increasingly competing for business. After Disney's full-scale arrival in 1983, the knock-off's fortunes plummeted. Attendance shrank to one million people a year, and the harsh economic conditions led to the park falling into disrepair. When Tokyo Disney Sea and Universal Studios Japan opened in 2001, the park's attendance crashed to just 400,000 people per year.
This video from a Japanese YouTuber shows the park in 2000. Attendance seems sparse, and the buildings are obviously aging.
The park finally shuttered its doors on August 31st, 2006. Blogger Mostly a Cat Diary, Sometimes Curry (ほぼ猫日記、時々カレー), a resident of Osaka, recorded his memories of the park in a journal written a day after it shuttered.
拙者はここには小学校の頃に1回行っただけなのですがすごく楽しかった記憶が残っております。 拙者が行った時はまだ大阪万博も開幕しておらず関西でこれほどの規模の遊園地は他になかったのでござるよ。 まさに夢の国に行くようなものでした。
I only went once when I was in elementary school, but the joyous memories still linger. When I went, the Osaka World's Fair had not yet happened, and there was no other park like this in Kansai [the region of Japan that includes Osaka]. It was truly like going to a dream country.
(JP) Link: Nara Dreamland
奈良ドリームランド - ほぼ猫日記、時々カレー♪
When the park was closed, the owners didn't bother to clean anything up; they simply left it as it is. After eight years, the dead park become an attraction in its own right. In 2014, the Japanese news entertainment program Miyaneya (ミヤネ屋) produced a walkthrough of the Dreamland Ghost Town, sparking a largely nostalgic Twitterstorm from citizens. Others, viewing the wreckage of the park, lamented that no one would ever buy such a mess, and that it would probably continue to rot for years to come.
(JP) Link: (Abandoned) Eight Years Later, the Grass-Covered Form of Abandoned Amusement Park Nara Dreamland Becomes a Hot Topic
【廃墟】閉園から8年“奈良ドリームランド”現在の草におおわれた廃墟遊園地の姿が話題に（ミヤネ屋） - NAVER まとめ
Foreigners eventually cottoned onto the eerie Death Park, and began trespassing onto the property in order to get good material for YouTube.
The Land of Lost Dreams began receiving so much attention from local and foreign tourists that residents and police began complaining to the city. After all, it was only a matter of time before some jack-ass fell through the floorboards or toppled off the remnants of a roller coaster and made headlines. But getting rid of Dreamland was no small feat.
Several years back, the city of Nara seized control of the park from its owners as payment for back taxes. It then attempted to put the lot up for auction. The city received zero bids. The driving factors? Costs and regulations.
But the removal costs associated with disposal of the 30 attractions and the disposal of 75 buildings, including a multi-story garage, that were left behind as is will fall on the bidder. But because the area is designated as a regulated development area and a scenic site, the only facilities than can be built there are things such as medical facilities, social welfare facilities, schools, and sports grounds.
While the land could be repurposed as a theme park, current city regulations limit the height of buildings to 10 meters.
(JP) Link: Auction for Nara Dreamland, 30 Attractions, 75 Buildings...Removal Costs in the Hundreds of Millions of Yen; Bidding Company: "We Haven't Decided How to Renovate It"
In November 2015, Nara finally found a bidder: SK Housing, who offered ￥730,000,000 (around USD $7.3 million). The reclamation process began in 2016. However, at the time of the bidding, the company confessed it had no actual plan to clean up the lot, and no idea what it would put it its place.
At least for now, the Ghost of Good Times Past no longer haunts the gorgeous city of Nara's landscape, beckoning hungry YouTubers to their potential doom.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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