Tokyo Disneyland more than squeaking by

Theme park is thriving during economic downturn

URAYASU, Japan -- Sony and Toyota are struggling. Job cuts dominate the headlines. But one brand name is thriving in Japan amid the economic slowdown: Mickey Mouse.

According to the company that runs Tokyo Disneyland, Japan's busiest theme park will be more packed than ever over Christmas and New Year's. Despite the bad economy, it's already been a record year for an escape that's cheaper than the average night out in pricey Tokyo.

"Here, recession seems a world away," visitor Namie Katsunuma said as she munched on a bowl of caramel popcorn. "This is the only place where I can totally forget the economic worries and hardship of my life."

The single mother's salary at an auto dismantling factory was cut in November but, with her $500 yearly pass in hand, she makes the 60-mile trek from her home to Tokyo Disneyland every couple of months.

The park's operator, Oriental Land Co., estimates a record 26.5 million people will visit Tokyo Disneyland and its nearby sister park, Disneysea, during the fiscal year ending in March. The company is forecasting sales of a record $4.2 billion, up almost 10%.

"In a way, the slumping economy works well for Tokyo Disneyland," said Hiroshi Watanabe, an economist at the Tokyo-based Daiwa Research Institute. "Because of the recession, people have stopped buying cars and houses or going to Hawaii, and Tokyo Disneyland offers an affordable and pleasant alternative."

Around the world, Disney's theme parks have been a bright spot for the brand this year as people seem to look for an escape from bad times.

Consumer confidence is the lowest the company had seen in more than three decades, The Walt Disney Co.'s chief executive told analysts last month. Even so, revenue from parks and resorts worldwide was up 8% for the year, to $11.5 billion, according to the company's fourth-quarter earnings report.

Disney's park in Paris is doing a brisk business as well.

"The Christmas season at Disneyland Paris is very popular," Disneyland Paris spokeswoman Stephanie Cocquet said.

But she added, "We don't consider that we are immune from the (economic) crisis."

Because her company is publicly traded in Paris, park projections will not be made public before its next earnings release on Jan. 29, she said.

Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disneyland outside the U.S. when it opened on the outskirts of Tokyo in 1983. It is the world's third most successful theme park after the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California, according to an annual ranking by the U.S.-based Themed Entertainment Association and Economics Research Associates.

Tomonori Tanaka, a 32-year-old computer engineer, and his girlfriend chose Tokyo Disneyland over a weekend at a hot spring resort in northern Japan.

"It's much cheaper to come here," he said. "Even though Tokyo Disneyland is only 15 minutes from Tokyo, we feel like we are making a big trip because the place seems so detached from reality."

His girlfriend, Hatsue Ishizuka, did say she will buy fewer Disney souvenirs.

"I love Mickey. But I need to save money right now," the 30-year-old office worker said as she looked at a giant glittering Christmas tree and Disney characters dressed as Santa Claus.

Including admission, the average visitor spent $105 at Tokyo Disneyland in the April-September period, up 2.9% from the same period last year, according to an Oriental Land financial statement.

The entrance fee is $64 -- cheaper than a night out to most concerts or dinner shows in Tokyo.

"I come to Disneyland almost every day after work," said Tae Morioka, a 24-year-old government worker and annual pass holder from Yokohama, a city just south of Tokyo. "Everyone here is smiling. Can you find a place like this anywhere else in Japan?"

But economist Watanabe warned that if the recession worsens, Tokyo Disneyland may start to feel the pinch.

"The brand value of Disney and its popular characters remains strong, but demand for the theme park could be fragile in the face of a deepening recession," he said.

Tetsuya Kubo, a spokesman for Oriental Land, attributed the brisk business this year to an advertising campaign marking Tokyo Disneyland's 25th anniversary.

"We are gravely aware that a prolonged recession could hit us hard," he said. "It's a big challenge for us, and we will continue to offer new attractions to keep growing."