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Tokyo's Wish Upon a Star Succeeds : 70 Million Japanese Meet Mickey Mouse Since '83 Opening

September 07, 1989|MARGARET SHAPIRO | Washington Post

MAIHAMA, Japan — Mizue Daikoku and her family spent 16 hours driving from their home near Kyoto recently to line up at the gates of Tokyo Disneyland in the middle of the night. After a few hours of sleep in the car, they joined 100,000 compatriots for a day and evening of Dumbo rides, jungle cruises and flights through Never-Never Land. Then they drove back home.

It might not sound like much of a summer vacation, but for the Daikoku family and millions like them, Disneyland and the marbled luxury hotels that surround it have become a runaway success.

But if this area is the heart of Japan's much-touted leisure boom, it strikes many foreigners as a most unlikely site for a holiday. While the name Maihama--which means Dancing Beach and is intended to sound something like Miami--may conjure a seductive image of palm-fringed coasts, the reality is somewhat different.

Just minutes from downtown Tokyo, the resort area sits atop a recently reclaimed section of the murky and very industrial Tokyo Bay, where a swim could be perilous and the view of nearby skyscrapers is often obscured by the city's daily covering of haze, smoke and automobile emissions.

Railroad tracks run nearby, factories puff away, dredging machines churn in the harbor and Tokyo's legendary traffic struggles along nearby elevated highways.

But in a country as crowded and developed as Japan, large swaths of buildable land are rare. In Maihama, the developers and hoteliers have made the best of their opportunity, concealing the less appetizing surroundings behind artfully sculpted bushes and palm trees, and building airy hotel interiors and exotic swimming pools that give the impression of a swank and restful resort.

In addition, it turns out that being near Tokyo--with a greater metropolitan area of 30 million people--provides real advantages as well as the apparent drawbacks. Because many Japanese take summer holidays of just two or three days, proximity is a big plus for any resort.

More than half the visitors to Disneyland and its surrounding hotels come from Tokyo and its suburbs, looking for an escape from typically tiny houses, nonexistent back yards and noise and congestion.

Thus, despite skepticism 15 years ago, when developers began planning a Disneyland for a 200-acre site then mostly submerged beneath Tokyo Bay, today the park is flourishing.

Since the theme park opened in 1983, it has attracted about 70 million visitors, more than half the population of Japan. Just 5.5% come from overseas, mostly from surrounding Asian countries and the United States. On peak August days, almost no ride is accessible without a two-hour wait.

"Before Tokyo Disneyland, Japanese people didn't have much opportunity, as far as having money or spare time to spend," said Yoshiro Fukushima, assistant publicity director for Disneyland.

Now, he said, it is clear that "people seem to want to get away from their daily lives" and have more time and money to do it.

The hotels, which inspired at least as much skepticism as Disneyland itself, have fared equally well. The 742-room, marble-and-glass Tokyo Bay Hilton International, where rooms range from $155 per night for the cheapest double to $1,330 for a two-room suite, has been a hit since it opened 13 months ago.

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