Theme parks make a comeback thanks to grandma and grandpa

November 14th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Ho-hum. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recorded another record season. Between April and September, Japan’s favorite theme parks were visited by 13.25 million people, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, which is understandable given that “self-restraint” was the order of business in summer 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami. Still, that’s an impressive increase under any circumstances since it translates as an operating income of ¥39 billion — double last year’s — and a net profit of ¥25.5 billion — triple last year’s.

Yumiko Yamashita! You are the 100 millionth visitor to Universal Studios Japan!

But TDL isn’t the only theme park that did well this summer. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, attendance at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was up 19.5 percent during the same period, Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park saw an 18.7 percent rise, Yomiuri Land in western Tokyo 30 percent, Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture 3 percent, Fujikyu Highland in Shizuoka Prefecture 4 percent, and even the Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, which almost went bankrupt before being bought by travel agent H.I.S., enjoyed an 11 percent year-on-year boost in attendance from Jan. to June.

Could all this healthy leisure spending be explained by a post-disaster recovery bump, as theorized by Sankei Shimbun? A recent segment of the TBS noon-time wide show “Hiruobi” looked into the matter and found that there’s something else involved, namely a confluence of demographics that has resulted in wider-open wallets. The program sent a reporter to Universal Studios to cover the 100 millionth admission and found that a good portion of park attendance was made up of families of three generations, with the youngest layer comprised of very young children and the oldest of grandparents who are recently retired but still relatively young and, more importantly, have a lot of savings they’re only too happy to spend on their grandkids. “My grandma buys me anything I want,” said one little girl without shame.

The parents are of the generation that were in school during the first big theme park boom in the bubble era and still think of them as the epitome of leisure enjoyment. Universal says that in the past year admissions of families with kids in tow has increased by 25 percent.

Everyone knows that Disneyland’s success can be credited to “repeaters” — fans of the park who visit whenever they can — but repeaters tend to be a bit more mature, typically women in their 20s and 30s who come with friends. (The ratio of females to males at TDL is 70:30, reflecting the fact that men never visit with other guys, only with their girlfriends or wives.)

Many of the families that the TBS reporter talked to said they come to Universal all the time because the park has everything they need. In the past, family outings could be both a chore and a big financial burden, since they involved lots of driving from one place to another. But with a theme park you drive to one place, park for the day and pay one admission.

What’s important is that the park be self-contained and offer all they require. For instance, at Universal the smallest children cannot go on many of the rides, but 80 percent of the park area is “free space,” with lots of benches and areas for kids to play, so while the parents are on the rides the grandparents can watch the children. As one very young-looking grandmother told the reporter, “I’m the sponsor, and I watch the bags, too.” This year, Universal sold 70 percent more annual passes to the park than they did last year, and many were bought by older people.

Other parks are quickly adapting to this reality. Toshimaen closes its popular swimming pool when the weather gets cold, but this fall for the first time they converted it temporarily into a fishing pond where grandparents can enjoy themselves with the kids while the kids’ parents scream their heads off on the roller coaster. Since the fishing pond opened it’s being used by 800 people a day.

According to TBS, other leisure concerns that have had a tough time in the recession are taking the hint. Ski resorts, for instance, are now trying to attract the same three-generation demographic by appealing to the grandparents’ nostalgia for the huge ski boom that took place in the 1980s when they were in their 20s or 30s. In a related story, Sankei Shimbun says that since the big TV set sales push surrounding the changeover to all-digital broadcasts more than a year ago, there are no big ticket items to spend money on, so leisure is the only industry that will extract money from these newly retired people, many of whom don’t want to admit they’re that old yet.

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting, during my travels most of the ski resorts I’ve seen were in bad shape or already abandoned. Whith the exception of a few near Sapporo and Fukushima.

  2. Piggy-backing on SUSO, long gone are the days when a ski area anywhere could survive let alone thrive on lift ticket sales alone.

    The whole modern economic model for a ski resort (ski areas are losing ground fast in the U.S.) doesn’t work in Japan as too few people take ski vacations. Real estate sales/rental, food service and retail sales are what pay for resorts today. Japanese don’t take even long weekends for skiing trips primarily because there are no long weekends or extended national holidays in Japan during the winter. Shougatsu doesn’t count as many areas on Honshu aren’t open even by the end of December or are too remote even from Tokyo to benefit if they are.

    Pile on this the wrong demographics for skiing (60+ comprising too much of the population).

    The only reason Niseko and a few other areas on Hokkaido are thriving is because foreign visitors make up something like 30% of the business.

    I give the sport a decade more on Honshu before it disappears altogether.

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