U parks it in Japan

Opening day expected to attract 60,000 visitors

Universal Studios’ theme park presence is a little more universal, thanks to a new park in Osaka.

Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier, lieutenant Pierre Lescure, Universal Studios prexy Ron Meyer and Arnold Schwarzenegger were among company VIPs and others gathered in the coastal Japanese city today for sneak preview tours of Universal Studios Japan, which formally opens its gates to the public Saturday.

“This is the culmination of almost six years of planning,” Meyer said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It’s quite exciting.”

Some 8 million people are projected to visit the park in its first year, even as the Japanese economy remains stuck in low gear. Opening day was expected to attract 60,000 visitors, as corporate-sponsored sneaks over the past several weeks have lured some 40,000 people — about 25% more than a typical crowd at one of U’s domestic parks on a good day.

“If those numbers are any indication of what the future will bring, it obviously will only do good things for our bottom line,” Meyer said.

In fiscal 2000, U had more than $2 billion in theme park revenues. Execs won’t comment, but an industry source said the new park is expected to add hundreds of millions in annual revenue.

Snoopy, Woody coming

Attractions at the Japanese park include Snoopy Studios, which the late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz helped design; Woody Woodpecker’s Animation Celebration; and film-inspired attractions including Jaws, E.T. Adventure, WaterWorld, Backdraft and others. Several attractions and concessions are geared toward Japanese tastes and preferences.

Construction of Universal Studios Japan began in October 1998, seven years after U established a liaison office for the development of business opportunities in Japan. An agreement to build the park was inked in 1996.

For now, the park opening caps a furious push over the past few years to expand U’s worldwide park operations. But studio execs acknowledge that they are continuing to scour the globe for possible new park sites.

U’s existing international entertainment attractions include Universal Experience Beijing, a retail-and-entertainment complex that opened in China in 1998, and Port Aventura, a theme park in Barcelona, Spain, that U has operated since buying into an ownership consortium in ’98.

Domestically, Universal Studios Orlando has been greatly expanded over the past couple of years, and new rides and attractions have been added to its Universal Studios Hollywood.

The studio and its parent will operate Universal Studios Japan as part of a consortium that includes reps from the city of Osaka and local companies. Spanning 140 acres, the park anchors a large waterfront-redevelopment project.

Disney’s Tokyo Disneyland, which operates under a licensing agreement with the Mouse House, has been phenomenally successful. Its operators recently set a grand opening of Sept. 4 for a second theme park — Tokyo DisneySea Park — adjacent the original Tokyo park.

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