Is Disney responsible for the death of the beloved midcentury Japanese theme park, Nara Dreamland?
When Guests think of a theme park in Japan, their first thought is likely Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo Disneysea, perhaps followed by Universal Studios Japan. Many people would not even be able to recall the small, antiquated amusement park constructed by a hopeful Japanese businessman who wanted to bring the magic of Disney and the American spirit to his country.
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However, that’s exactly what the president of the Matsuo Entertainment Company, Kunizo Matsuo, hoped to do with his Park in Nara, an area with an ancient heritage that was a hotspot for Japanese and international tourists. In fact, Matsuo initially met with Walt Disney himself to discuss licensing Disney characters for what was originally an essential copycat of Anaheim’s newly minted Disneyland Park, decades before Tokyo Disneyland was even a concept in Disney executives’ minds!
Unfortunately, Disney and Matsuo would break off their agreement over discrepancies over the proper fee amount to utilize character images and titles in the Park. As a result, the amusement center would open as “Nara Dreamland,” not Nara Disneyland, in 1961, with no affiliation to the Southern California Park or Company.
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Even so, design work had already begun for the Sleeping Beauty Castle, Mad Tea Party attraction, Jungle Cruise boat expedition, Matterhorn-type coaster, and Main Street, U.S.A. Each element remained, just without the trademarked branding, while Matsuo’s team added new enhancements dissimilar to a Disney Park in line with the appetites of Nara Dreamland’s primarily Japanese audiences.
For 45 years, Nara Dreamland Theme Park remained a staple of the area and a source of fond childhood memories for many people in Japan. Sadly, the magic wouldn’t last long after the “official” Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, severely impacting Dreamland’s attendance rates until it permanently closed in 2006.
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Now, photos of the deserted Park showcase its current, neglected state after a decade of decay. What’s more, the rides sit vacant, waiting, though beyond intrepid interlopers, no one entered Nara Dreamland until its demolition in 2016.
So, ultimately, who was responsible for Nara Dreamland’s demise… 1980s Disney Parks and Resorts, or a much earlier catalyst in Walt Disney himself?