When it was announced that a new theme park completely devoted to Ghibli Studio would be built in Aichi, fans of the animated studio jumped in unison, showing excitement about what could possibly become one of the most beautiful and interactive theme parks in the world.
The online reaction was similar to when Universal announced the incorporation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and when Disney announced Galaxy’s Edge, which for long people simply called “Star Wars Land.” This excitement and furor was the result of the wonders of Intellectual Property or IP. Naturally, not all IPs are born equal, which is something Hollywood has been learning the hard way in recent years. Just because people like IPs like Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and DC, it doesn’t mean they are interested in IPs like Terminator, Dr. Doolittle, and Cats.
Therefore, when it comes to theme parks and expansions, focusing on names people actually care about is of the utmost importance. That’s why Universal Studios Japan’s announcement of their Nintendo expansion has been met with great interest and prognostics of great success. Nintendo is a brand that people around the world adore and strongly associate with Japan, so opening this thematic area in Japan was a perfect decision.
Tokyo DisneySeas’s expansion includes attractions inspired by the movies Frozen, Peter Pan, and Tangled, strong names and popular movies in Japan that can make the notoriously adult-loved park into a stronger family magnet. And over at Tokyo Disneyland, the Beauty and the Beast expansion, which included Belle’s Village and Belle’s Castle, is set to be incredibly successful thanks to the movie’s popularity (the 2017 live action ended up grossing an astonishing $110 million dollars in Japan).
Thus, a Studio Ghibli theme park was always meant to spark the strongest of interests. After all, there are few animation studios that are as beloved and admired as Ghibli.
However, despite the almost universal excitement behind the new theme park, there are a few red flags that have raised concerns about its fate, and which could result in the Studio Ghibli theme park disappointing all Ghibli fans.
So, what are these red flags?
The first red flag that could have people worried is the location: Aichi Prefecture.
While Osaka and Tokyo are known for making wonderful attractions, Aichi Prefecture does not hold the same reputation among locals. One of the bigger examples is Legoland in Nagoya.
Nagoya is Japan’s fourth largest city, and it’s the core of Japan’s third largest metropolitan area. As such, Nagoya is one of the country’s most important economic centers, particularly thanks to the city’s automotive industry.
In spite of its undeniable importance, Nagoya is a city many tourists tend to overlook, especially foreign visitors.
But since the Chukyo Metropolitan Area is the third largest one in Japan, building Asia’s first Legoland in Nagoya seemed like a no-brainer. The location was ideal: Ngoya is easily accessible from both Tokyo and Osaka by shinkansen; and if Tokyo has Disneyland (well, actually Chiba), and Osaka has Universal Studios, why couldn’t Nagoya have a theme park under a brand that is loved and recognized worldwide?
After opening to much fanfare, Legoland started to feel like an underwhelming experience. The reason: its very expensive tickets.
When the park opened in 2017, ticket prices (particularly those of children) were similar to those of Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. This was done despite the fact that Legoland was significantly smaller than Japan’s most popular parks.
That initial criticism and bad press forced the park, which is operated by Merlin Entertainments, to decrease ticket prices. As of 2020, Legoland tickets vary in pricing depending on whether one is attending on “peak days” or “off-peak days”, as well as whether people decide to buy a combo ticket that allows entry to both Legoland and an aquarium located inside the Legoland Hotel. Still, a combo “peak day” ticket could be considered pricey since it costs 6,200 yen for adults and 4,200 yen for kids (a Disney ticket for kids costs 4,900 yen).
The opening of the Legoland Hotel and its aquarium was also done to help push the number of annual visitors to 2 million and beyond; but the park’s biggest issue to achieve these goals lies far beyond its price. The biggest problem is that the park was conceived so that it would only appeal to kids. Consequently, the park has zero attractions that teenagers and adults could consider enjoyable. So unless you are taking little kids to the park, visitors are not eagerly going to Legoland, which is a different trend when it comes to Universal Studios or the Tokyo Disney Resort.
With that in mind, Legoland failed to deliver what Japanese masses had wanted and expected.
The price tag behind the project could well be the biggest red flag about this project.
The theme park is going to be located in Aichi Earth Expo Memorial Park, commonly known as Morikoro Park. The park was the location of the 2005 World Expo, which featured Mei’s house from the beloved film My Neighbor Totoro. This attraction reopened in 2006, and has been the most important and popular feature in the park.
The location of the Studio Ghibli theme park within the Morikoro Park is a clever idea because it allows the area to experience much needed visitor boosts (similar to what Okinawa did when they opened Churaumi Aquarium inside Ocean Expo Park).
Morikoro Park is also ideal since many Studio Ghibli’s films have focused on the importance of nature. With that in mind, the construction of the theme park will not involve the cutting down of any trees in Morikoro Park, instead leaving them there to create a bigger value to the immersion experience.
All that sounds fantastic, and as the hype each news concerning the park brought to the masses, the small detail that is the budget disappeared.
Studio Ghibli is projected to cost 34 billion yen. That’s about $318 million dollars, almost $40 million dollars cheaper than what it cost to make Avengers: Endgame, and a little more than $40 million dollars more expensive than what it cost to make Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Of course, comparing the cost of making movies to the cost of building a theme park is not a fair comparison because it’s not apples-to-apples.
To bring things into perspective, that budget needs to be compared to what theme park expansions can cost.
Universal Studios Japan’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had a 45 billion yen price tag, or the equivalent of $444 million dollars. This very much needed expansion made Universal Studios Japan’s visitor numbers rise after opening.
Universal Studios Japan has also invested between 50 to 60 billion yen in the new Super Nintendo World that’s creating a lot of excitment across the world. This land is exceptionally special because Universal Studios Japan will be the only theme park in the world to feature the Super Nintendo World area, increasing USJ’s uniqueness.
Over at Tokyo DisneySea, the new area that will feature attractions based on Frozen, Tangled, and Peter Pan, as well as a new hotel, is expected to cost a jaw-dropping 250 billion yen. That’s about $2.3 billion dollars!
However, it must be noted that the Oriental Land Company, which builds and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort, is notorious for sparing no expenses, which is why many consider the two Tokyo Disney parks to be the most detailed in the world. As a point of comparison, it’s reported that The Walt Disney Company spent $1 billion dollars in the much publicized and well-received Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion in California; and while that shockingly high number made headlines across the U.S., it pales when compared to what the Oriental Land Company is willing to invest.
As you one can attest, spending a lot of money to create lavish attractions that contain a lot of detail is important for visitors, which is why the estimated 34 billion yen behind the Studio Ghibli theme park could be troublesome.
It’s still highly speculative, of course. 34 billion yen IS a lot of money. However, it’s still less than what Universal Studios Japan invested in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Super Mario World, and those are expansions, not a new theme park.
In 1998, the plans to build Universal Studios Japan stipulated that the park would cost $1.3 billion dollars. When DisneySea opened, the park had cost the Oriental Land Company $2.6 billion dollars.
Ergo, the Studio Ghibli theme park is set to be a major theme park while having the price tag of a theme park expansion.
As a minor point of comparison, Metsa, the Moomin Valley theme park in Saitama, reportedly cost just 15 billion yen. However, this Moomin park is famous for having no attractions, as the purpose of the park is just to walk around nature.The Studio Ghibli theme park will echo Metsa to some extent, and thus won’t offer the same experience as Universal Studios Japan, Tokyo Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySea.
Depending on how they invest those 34 billion yen, the park could either be a huge success or a major letdown. It will also depend on what people’s expectations are. If visitors are expecting something resembling Disneyland, then they could end up feeling disappointed.
The last red flag is far trickier, because the concept art is gorgeous and has already garnered much positive attention.
However, the major issue with the concept art is that it focuses on the word “inspired”. The many buildings that the theme park is set to have are simply inspired by many of Studio Ghibli’s movies as opposed to reflect actual buildings from those movies that people would recognize. For example, the entrance features an elevator tower, which is inspired by the movie Howl’s Castle, but it’s not in the movie.
As for the actual moving castle… it’s not the real structure from the film, but rather a smaller piece from the famous castle.
And the Princess Mononoke area is neither Emishi Village nor Irontown.
The theme continues across the park, with indoor areas looking beautiful but not as immersive as they could be.
Because of this, while the concept art is beautiful, there is a risk of visitors not being able to feel that they fully entered the worlds of Ghibli.
The Studio Ghibli theme park is without a doubt one of the most exciting and looked-after developments in Japan. The park has everything in it to succeed. The people developing it just need to avoid making the mistakes that have made Legoland fight to attract more visitors, and need to ensure that the areas they build actually make visitors feel that they are inside the worlds Studio Ghibli has created.
Naturally, I’m rooting for the park’s success and I hope that all those concerns are proven wrong. Like many other Studio Ghibli admires, I could see myself constantly returning to this theme park if the final product delivers.