Tokyo Disneyland still a happy place despite the economy

Tokyo Disneyland still a happy place despite the economy
The Japanese are mad about the Mouse. Tokyo Disneyland has set revenue and attendance records. (Yuriko Nagano / For The Times)
As the Japanese economy continues its roller-coaster ride, many cash-strapped citizens have decided it's a small world, after all.

They're skipping the expensive overseas vacations and going to Disneyland -- Japanese style.

Gliding down the waterways of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, Reika Monden and Haruka Akiyama, both 22, shrieked when they spotted a mannequin of Johnny Depp wearing a red headband, flanked by two headless women.

"Look, there he is!" Monden said. "He's soooo cute!"

The two recent college graduates were visiting Tokyo Disneyland on a day trip from Fuji City. By 1 p.m., the women had spent about $400 apiece on their four-hour round-trip bullet train tickets, park admission and merchandise.

"Oh, we would have loved to have flown to Hawaii, but this trip was what our parents agreed to," Monden said. "As far as a graduation celebration goes, this is it."

At a time when most Japanese corporations have been bleeding red ink from a strong yen and ever-weakening consumer spending, gleaming news has been coming out of the "Happiest Place on Earth."

Oriental Land Co., the operator of Tokyo Disneyland and sister property DisneySea, announced record-breaking net sales of $3 billion for the last nine months of 2008, up 12.6% from the year-earlier period.

Park attendance for the fiscal year that ended in March was the highest ever: 27.2 million visitors, a 7.1% increase from the previous year.

Most of the visitors flocking to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea -- a short train ride from Tokyo -- are domestic. Company data say 95.8% of park-goers were Japanese.

A day at Japan's Disneyland is different from any at the sister park in Anaheim.

For one, there are more lines for everything here. How about a 30-minute wait for popcorn and a 50-minute one for a smoked turkey leg?

Guests begin queuing at dawn, hours before the park opens, often because many visitors arrive by overnight express bus and are unloaded at the gates in the wee hours, said Keiko Namikoshi, a spokeswoman for Oriental Land.

When the gates open, a flood of guests makes a mad dash for the rides. Many use Fastpass tickets, which assign a time to visit an attraction, allowing purchasers to skip regular lines.

But unlike most days in Anaheim, here even a Fastpass doesn't mean you can escape a line: One recent morning the wait with a pass was 30 minutes long.

Despite the aggravating wait for just about everything, guests still seem to agree it's a good bang for the buck.

Yuri Yoneda, a 42-year-old in a Minnie Mouse hat, said she had just been laid off.

"It's a good change of pace from my daily life," Yoneda said. "This is something I'm treating myself to."

Nagano is a special correspondent.